Five minutes before tip-off of the final Sycamore boys basketball home game of the season against DeKalb, Curtis Swartzendruber stands on the gym floor leading the “Syco Ward,” Sycamore’s student section, in warm-ups.
Like athletes, they count to 10 for each stretch, clap twice in unison, then switching to the next stretch.
For the next 90 minutes, the group of almost 200 students – so large it spills over into an adjacent section of seats – claps, chants, yells at opponents, dances wildly to Lady Gaga music and celebrates each Spartans basket.
“There are moments where we turn around and look at all the people dancing or dressed up in their gorilla suits and we just think we’ve created a monster,” Sycamore senior Henry Johnson said. “It’s something we’re really proud of.”
The “Syco Ward” has become a large, boisterous, organized student section that combines a party-like atmosphere with school pride at games home and away. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Johnson and Swartenzdruber said even two years ago, student attendance was low at football and basketball games.
“We’d go and we could get second row as freshmen,” Swartzendruber said. “There wasn’t any participation, really.”
Their group of friends, including Colin Eggleson, Cole Hefler and Jon Cordes, wanted to help create a real student section.
“It’s really fun to have a rambunctious student section,” Johnson said. “We knew that the potential was there to have that every weekend, so we figured, ‘why not?’ We have nothing better to do.”
Around 7:45 a.m. each Tuesday, 30 minutes before school, 40-plus Sycamore students file into the school auditorium for Pep Club.
Swartzendruber, Johnson and Eggleson conceived of the club as sophomores. They wrote a club constitution, found a faculty sponsor in Mike Rice and earned club status at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.
“Even years where the student section was lacking, you had leadership that was there, but they just weren’t getting enough people involved,” Johnson said. “We decided that if we could formalize the effort through a club then it would really help.”
At their meeting Feb. 19, the first orders of business were last-minute ideas and changes for the home basketball game against DeKalb that Friday. They discuss the logistics of the “Remote cheer”, a chant that failed last year in its first attempt, and decide to give it another try, this time with a larger poster.
It’s a mostly laid-back gathering. Some outrageous suggestions are shot down by an adviser, others will be discussed in depth. The serious matters are saved for the end.
“We really need some big attendance this Friday,” Johnson tells the group. “We need everyone to participate. We had pretty big attendance [against Rochelle], but I’d say the participation rate was lackluster. It needs to be higher this time around.”
It’s a surprising assessment considering Sycamore pulled off a decent rendition of the “Harlem Shake” on their first try at the Rochelle game. But everyone’s instructed to ask five friends how they’re getting to the game. The phrasing is key for maximizing peer pressure.
A student shares his concern about underclassmen getting prime seating in front of seniors, but Johnson reminds them the student section is a meritocracy: The loudest and most involved fans, regardless of age, are welcome up front.
“I think one of the best things we’re seeing now is underclassmen are really involved,” Johnson said. “That’s something that’s helped the student section.”
To end the meeting, they break out, putting their hands in the middle. The slogan reinforces Friday’s “Thrift Shop” theme.
“One, two, three, Goodwill hunting!”
THRIFT SHOP VETERANS
Four days before Sycamore’s last regular-season game of the year, Swartzendruber paces the aisles of the Salvation Army thrift store in DeKalb.
By now he’s a veteran of local resale shops and party stores. He knows the Salvation Army offers a 10 percent discount for students, a big deal when shopping on a high-schooler’s budget.
“I have, like, a whole drawer that is filled with stuff that’s from thrift shops,” Swartzendruber said. “It’s kind of weird, but there’s a lot of crazy stuff in my closet too. It’s pretty packed.”
Regular Sycamore sports apparel is not the preferred attire of the student section. Instead, the pep club organized 18 different theme nights, ranging from 1960s hippie gear to superhero costumes and jersey night.
“If you’re in costumes you’re going to be cheering a lot better, you’re going to be having a lot more fun,” Eggleson said. “There’s a lot more push to want to go to the game.”
At first, nothing jumps out at Swartzendruber as he browses racks of clothes. Swartzendruber asks Eggleson where he found the pink pants he mentioned earlier in the day, but soon he stumbles upon a pair of baggy white athletic shorts with pink vertical stripes. He tries them on and they instantly meet his approval.
Ten minutes later, a black-and-gold Hawaiian shirt completes the outfit. Eggleson finds a baby sailor hat. It’s about two sizes too small for his head, but undoubtedly a keeper.
Before heading to the register, someone spots pink-and-white plush horse with polka-dot hooves atop a cabinet. It’s an instant hit.
What will they use it for? They’re not sure. But it’s five bucks. A steal.
“Best find of the day is the horse!” Eggleson shouts as they leave.
Later, they name the horse “Peggy.” She’s bound to be the life of the party.
SIGNS OF CREATIVITY
After driving home from the Salvation Army, Swartzendruber pulls an old sign mounted on a wooden frame from his garage as he, Eggleson, Hefler and Kevin Strohm walk inside the house. The green poster board reads “Dave For MVP” with the head of Sycamore senior guard David Compher in place of the “o”. The sign is torn and water damaged after three months of service. It will be replaced by a new version within the hour.
A list of eight sign ideas is on the table, along with sheets of gold and white posterboard, a large bag of markers and sharpies, black paint and brushes. Arts and crafts time consumes the next hour.
The list immediately reveals their creativity. “427 24/7” plays off Sycamore’s school district number. “Pumpkin Fest > Corn Fest” is their take on the major events hosted by the respective towns.
“Honestly, because we care about the student section so much, we’re thinking about it all the time,” Eggleson said.
Eggleson draws up three different prototypes before settling on a design for a checklist sign, a dig at DeKalb listing Sycamore’s victories in various sports this year. The check marks are in red marker to “make it pop.”
Before the last home basketball game they’ll attend as students, they reminisce about memorable experiences over the past two years. There was the time Sycamore’s volleyball team had a point taken away after the student section received a yellow card. Crowd surfing and pointing at specific players, they’ve learned, are off-limits.
For the “Syco Ward,” it’s all about toeing the line between getting in trouble and getting in opposing players’ heads.
“If I’m going to be there, I might as well try to help the team win,” Swartzendruber said. “I just think it’s fun to see that you can actually make a difference in a game you’re not even playing in.”
HOW IT’S ‘SUPPOSED TO BE’
On Friday morning in the school hallway, the pep club founders go through their weekly routine, yelling for anyone and everyone to go to that night’s game.
Johnson likens the tactic to persistent commercial advertising. Maybe it’s annoying, but it gets results.
Those results are on display at that night’s game. The Thrift Shop theme has been adopted by many. Two of the more notable items: a multicolor umbrella hat and a set of viking horns. “Peggy” is tossed and passed around the student section like an unofficial mascot.
The students go through multiple pre-choreographed chants with the cheerleaders and even pull off a well-executed version of the Remote cheer.
The gym gets so loud early on that Compher walks past his coach during a substitution, shrugs and says, “I can’t hear you.”
Players are taught to ignore all outside distractions, but even they can’t help but notice the antics coming from across the court.
“The ringleaders ... I can always hear them,” Compher said. “They’re calling my name or they’re doing some hilarious chant. Those guys support us just as much as our parents do.”
Johnson credits the administration for helping foster added participation and says it’s been a school-wide effort in making the “Syco Ward” a staple at football, volleyball and basketball games.
As of now, there is no succession plan for the pep club, but the organizers hope a handful of juniors will step up and continue to build upon what they’ve created.
“I want to come back in a few years...and see if the student section is still going and strong,” Swartzendruber said. “I hope people come now, freshmen and sophomores, they will see what we did and they’ll say ‘Oh, this is how a student section is supposed to be.’ “