By Caitlin Graveson '11
Saint Mary's men's basketball has enjoyed two stellar seasons, and a key factor in their strong home record — 15–3 at home this season and 14–2 last season— has been the support of the fans, said Head coach Randy Bennett.
"We have such an incredible home court advantage, and that's because of the energy and excitement created by our students," he said. The credit goes largely to Gael Force — Saint Mary's official student spirit club — which was re-established in 2001 and is now the largest club on campus, growing this year by around 400 to a total membership of 1,615. The club has been so popular, according to senior Gianna Pascale, a member of the Gael Force executive team, "because we are a Cinderella story and people buy into that and want to support it." On game nights, as many as 700 students crowd into the lower-level section across from the bench, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, presenting a united wall of support by sporting the latest Gael Force shirt. Throw in the signs, the face and body paint, and chants like "Defense, Gaels, Defense" and "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" at every possession, and these students are a formidable force. Meanwhile, the close quarters in McKeon pavilion seem to magnify the Force's impact.
"Gael Force brings excitement to the games and intimidates the other teams because they [the fans] are so close to the court," said junior forward Rob Jones, a transfer student who wasn't used to this kind of fan support at the University of San Diego. "At McKeon, fans show up and are loud at every game," he said. "It's exciting to play here." Cross-court cheers between the student and the alumni/community sections have become popular, too. Mike Johnson '87, a loyal fan who lives in Orange County, brings signs to lead the crowd in "Go Gaels" cheers. He came up with the idea after "loss of voice the day after a game," he joked. If it were up to him, the crowd would be even louder.
Gael Force has also contributed to McKeon's reputation as a challenging place to play. "Is this the atmosphere that they have for every game?" asked Davidson's head coach, Bob McKillop. "It just blows my mind that they have this kind of crowd. Saint Mary's deserves credit for having a crowd that's that supportive." For Bennett, the crowd support is a tremendous motivator for the players. "Gael Force has really helped turn McKeon Pavilion into one of the best environments for college basketball in the country. Their passion energizes our players and really helps give us an edge over our opponent every time our guys go on the court."