By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you’re not willing to travel in packs, wear red T-shirts and scream and holler for more than an hour straight, there’s no place for you in Raider Nation. If you’re not willing to wear an absurd winter coat with no shirt underneath and a wacky headband wrapped around your scalp, you probably won’t last long among the Coral Crazies. And if you’d rather sit at a basketball game than stand shoulder-to-shoulder and bounce up and down, you don’t have what it takes to be a member of the Richland Rowdies.
There have always been student fan sections at high school sports games, but the fan sections these days aren’t your grandpa’s fan sections. High school students today treat fan sections almost like a social club and constantly are trying to think of ways to out-do their counterparts from other high schools. Being the best student fan section has become almost as competitive as the sports that draw the students away from their televisions and video games.
“I think the interest has always been there. When I was in middle school it was cool seeing all the Raider Nation shirts. It’s crazy that I’ve been a part of that, and I have one more year to be a part of it. It just shows that Ocean City has great sports programs and everyone understands how big sports are in Ocean City. They just want to be a part of it. With the baseball team’s success and the basketball team’s success, I wasn’t playing but I felt like I was a part of it,” said Nicholl Fenton, a field hockey player who will be a senior at Ocean City High School this fall. “It shows that high school is a big deal, and it should be. Everyone should be a part of the student cheering sections. It’s time you’re never going to get back. Depending on what college you go to, it might not be as small as Ocean City and you might not have as big of a role. I just think it’s very important to be involved.”
“It’s what high school sports is all about, and that’s what you want to see — the kids supporting their friends and showing school spirit, and taking it to a fun level where everyone gets involved,” said Holy Spirit baseball coach Steve Normane, who recently was named the school’s new athletic director. “It’s neat to see that. And a lot of the kids you see in the stands are athletes who play other sports, and that’s what you want to see, kids supporting each other.”
Perhaps the two most dominant student fan sections in the Cape-Atlantic League are the Richland Rowdies of St. Augustine Prep and Raider Nation — Ocean City’s devoted fans who show up to sporting events wearing specially designed T-shirts, just like the Rowdies do in Richland.
“I’m not surprised at how big it’s gotten. Students want to get involved and they want to have that high school experience, coming together as a school to support the athletes,” said recently graduated Jeff Hoffner, Raider Nation’s defacto leader this past school year. “It’s become a bigger thing every year. Raider Nation was one of the first to start, back in 2010. Ever since then it has really taken off, and I know it’s really rewarding as an athlete to see other students in the stands cheering you on. I think it’s great for the school.”
Hoffner played football, so during the fall his sidekick, baseball player Joe Clifford, was in command of Raider Nation. The two paired up in the winter to take the student fan section to new heights, and then Hoffner took the reins in the spring as Clifford made his way onto the baseball field.
“I know, especially for the last few games we had, obviously the South Jersey championship was a home game so it was a great turnout, but even before that we had the Mainland game and I think that was the biggest crowd of the whole week. We played great in front of them and put on a great show. It was a great game all around, and having the fans there to support us is a big thing. We really feed off the energy of the crowd,” Clifford said. “And the state semifinal and final both had great turnouts from our side. We had about 150 people at the semifinals and probably about 200 for the final in Toms River. It was great to see a sea of red, and I think that definitely helped us have confidence and settle our jitters down to have that kind of hometown feeling.”
One new wrinkle during the basketball season was the emergence of “Fathead” type photos of basketball players. Students would find a photo of a basketball player’s face, enlarge it and mount it onto cardboard backing before attaching the giant headshot to a stick they could hold above their own heads during basketball games. It became sort of a tribute to the top players on the team. Raider Nation made giant heads of players such as Connor Laverty, Garrett Jones, Grace Sacco and Nicole Piergross, and even boys basketball coach John Bruno. Other schools followed suit, as standout players such as Holy Spirit’s Natalie Niederhofer and Mainland’s Megan Stafford and Melanie Malcolm could look up into the stands and see huge photos of themselves during games.
“That has to be really cool. You’re just a high school kid and you have your own cheering section. That has to pump you up and give you some motivation to go out and win the game,” Normane said.
“That was mostly Jeff’s idea. When football ended, I talked to Jeff because I needed somebody to help me out to get a little more umph into it. He came up with the idea of getting these big heads to print out and put on cardboard. I think the first one was coach (John) Bruno. It was a picture of him from, like, 2000 screaming and I remember coach Bruno looking up sometimes and just laughing,” Clifford said. “Then we had Mr. (Tom) Park, who’s been our announcer for about 30 years and has been a great part of our school community. When he saw his head he started smiling. Then there was a Nicole Piergross one, a Grace Sacco one, a Connor Laverty one. Then for baseball we saw somebody had a Sean Mooney cutout and we thought that was really cool. For the basketball games, we really had a blast. We’d see the basketball players in the hallways the next day and they would say how great the fan section was. It was a cool feeling for us.”
“Everyone models themselves after Raider Nation. Once the Connor Laverty and coach Bruno heads came out, I feel like everybody was like, ‘we have to get some big heads now!’ Ocean City is one of the smaller schools, but we have a great crowd in our student sections,” Fenton said.
Added Hoffner, “No one has more hustle in the Cape-Atlantic League than Garrett Jones. I give him all the credit in the world. He was probably the best defensive player in the league this season. I know how much he loves the support of Raider Nation, so we decided to honor him with the big head.”
Clifford said the antics of the fan sections may seem silly to some, but they mean a lot to the athletes, who face a lot of pressure during rivalry and state playoff games. The Ocean City baseball team had huge crowds come out during its run to a state championship game appearance, and the EHT softball team saw five busloads of students make the trek up to North Jersey when the Eagles advanced to the state championship. The Atlantic City boys basketball team picked up more and more student supporters with each playoff win during the Vikings’ run to an appearance in the Group 4 state championship game.
“It’s great because you’re taught to focus on the game and block everything out, but it’s human nature to look up in the stands every now and then, and it’s cool to be able to play in front of your friends. I know Jeff and I talk about it, and for football it was the same thing. He said it was great to look up into the stands and see all his classmates supporting him. Football gets a little bigger crowd than baseball, but even during baseball we had great crowds all year and it’s great to see so many familiar faces,” Clifford said. “As soon as we got to playoff time it just grew. Everybody wanted a Raider Nation T-shirt and everybody wanted to be in the stands. It was great to see. At the girls basketball South Jersey final, that was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen in that gym.”
“It means so much. It means everything. Having familiar faces in a place you may have never been before really calms your nerves. It makes me play better,” said Fenton, who is used to playing in state playoff games with the Ocean City field hockey team, one of the most successful teams in the state.
“It’s rewarding as an athlete seeing people rooting for you,” Hoffner added. “Some people rip on high school sports, but they don’t know the work ethic it takes to get to the varsity level. With the rise of the student fan sections, I feel like people are getting more involved watching the players and how hard they work.”
School administrators have supported the student cheering sections, so long as they stay within respectable boundaries. And leaders of student sections are mindful of not embarrassing adminstrators or their school. The students who lead the cheering sections try to set a positive example for everyone involved. Sure, some good-natured heckling is fun, but don’t take it overboard. To the students, coming out to sporting events, painting letters and themselves and wearing school colors has become sort of a social event.
“I was always close with the administration at Ocean City. They let us have fun as long as we do the right thing. I always tried to make sure kids were doing the right thing,” Hoffner said. “When you go to a high school game, you don’t need drugs or alcohol to have fun. Come out and have fun. It’s a high school experience. Sometimes kids would get on the other team too much and I would have to calm them down. Those players are working just as hard as ours. The administration always backed us, and I’m grateful for them supporting us. Heckling the other team is fun, but when it comes down to it you have to support your team more than heckling the other team.
“That’s what Raider Nation is all about. It’s about a school atmosphere. It’s almost like a family. A team is a family, and Raider Nation is a family in and of itself. We come out and support everyone,” Hoffner added. “Ocean City High School is probably one of the most closely knit high schools around. It doesn’t matter what grade you are in or where you come from — you’re a part of Ocean City and you’re a part of Raider Nation. You’re a part of the family.”
The competition between student cheering sections got intense this past school year, and social media helps fuel the flames of competition, good-natured, of course. And current and recently graduated students believe the cheering sections will only get bigger, better and more inventive.
“It’s getting to be a good competition now. I helped organize the fan bus to go to the Ocean City vs. Mainland football game in the fall, and Jeff thought that was a great idea so we organized one for the basketball game. We squeezed all of us into that Mainland gym, which is even smaller than ours, and when we won we just went nuts,” Clifford said. “We see a lot of fan sections wearing jerseys and having different themes and supporting their teams. It’s a really cool aspect of the game that is starting to pick up. Now that Jeff and I are gone, we’re hoping somebody can take over.”
Hoffner said other schools may try, but he believes no one can compete with Raider Nation’s dominance as a student fan section.
“I definitely think it will get bigger and better — although (whoever takes over) will have some big shoes to fill trying to replace me and Joe. I think it will get bigger as more schools get involved. It’s kind of become a competition between schools. When we traveled over to Mainland, they tried to pack the gym so we didn’t have spots. But we came, we got rowdy, and we ended up coming out with the win,” Hoffner said. “It’s satisfying (to see schools try to compete). They try to compete, but we know we’re the best student cheering section in the Cape-Atlantic League.”
Sounds like the competition for the 2016-2017 school year has just begun.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN