There were no long-faced Cal Poly fans in the stands of St. Louis’ Scottrade Center on Friday night, even after the Mustangs’ first attempt at the NCAA Tournament since becoming a Division I team ended with a 64-37 loss to the No. 1-seeded Wichita State Shockers.
As the minutes on the clock ticked down, the few but vocal fans who had made the long trip to the center of the country to watch their team finish an unlikely and surprising season were on their feet, cheering.
They cheered every basket until the buzzer, and they screamed when the players came over to wave and thank them before exiting the court.
Bryan Rodriguez, a member of the team’s pep band, was almost giddy as he left the floor. So the Mustangs didn’t win the game, he said. Big deal. They still win.
“The number of people who are excited we are here is ridiculous,” he said. “Personally, I think this is the start of a great era.”
Cal Poly entered Friday’s game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a 16 seed and a definite underdog. The team, whose losing season ended with a winning streak and a Big West Tournament title, met the Shockers, a 2013 Final Four team that didn’t lose a single game all season.
Fans wearing green and gold filled the first 10 rows of section 115 in the 19,000-seat arena. More than half had traveled from San Luis Obispo and other parts of California to be there. Others were fans and graduates living in the Midwest who showed up to lend their support.
Many of those who had come from California were devoted fans who didn’t want to miss a minute of the Mustangs’ late-season run, meaning they’d been in a constant state of cross- country travel since the Big West Tournament ended last week.
Kyle Vallejo, who just graduated from Cal Poly with an accounting degree, was at the tournament championship game in Anaheim last week, and his face was all over ESPN, cheering in the front of the student section.
That was so much fun, he committed to attending the team’s play-in round in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday and flew there with his mother, Kristen Vallejo. After that win, the duo rented a car and drove to St. Louis.
Kyle Vallejo said he had to work to make the trip happen, even persuading a professor to let him skip a final. But it was worth it, he said.
“I was graduating, and I said, ‘I can’t miss this.’ It’s the trip of a lifetime,” he said. “No one had ever heard of Cal Poly. And now we’re on the map. It’s pretty cool.”
Sophomore forward Brian Bennett’s extended family traveled 41⁄2 hours from Romeoville, Ill., for the game. His parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins took up 14 seats of the Mustangs’ cheering section.
The family expected Bennett to be on a plane headed home for spring break about now. Instead, they were all in St. Louis.
The guys on the team are living a dream, said his mother, Carole Bennett. Win or lose, they’ll never forget March of 2014, she said.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put their names on the map and show people who they are,” she said. “The fact is, they’ve already made history for their college. They’re just pumped about that.”