Sixth Man fans pack Eph pride for road trip to Final Four

Each time men’s basketball faces off against forsworn rival Amherst, Chandler Gym teems with a sea of purple and gold. On these nights, Ben Gilooly, 10; Cole Kuster, 10; Tate Kuster, 8; Theo Sandstrom, 10; and Jacob Zimmerberg, 10 make their presence known in the bleachers. This gang, led by Associate Professor of Psychology Noah Sandstrom, can be seen dressed in full Williams gear at home games and has even cheered for the Ephs on the road at the Div. III NCAA Final Four in Salem, Va., last March.

“We’re really crazy and hard to miss,” Cole Kuster said. “I can’t believe that anybody would miss us.”

As a lifelong basketball fan, Noah Sandstrom took charge of organizing the boys’ trip to Salem. “When [the team] made it to the championship two years ago, we pretty much decided the day they made it that far that we would take a road trip,” Noah Sandstrom said. Noah and Theo Sandstrom made their first trip to the Final Four in 2009, when the Ephs made it to the championship round. Eager to cheer the team on to a national title in 2010, Noah Sandstrom packed nine kids into two cars – which they painted purple and gold to show Eph pride – and made the 10-hour trek to Salem for a second straight year.

When asked how the road trip went, Noah Sandstrom responded with a weary sigh, but it’s clearly a fond memory for the younger fans. “We had two cars, and it was … hectic,” Cole Kuster said. “The car ride was 10 hours, but we stopped halfway.”

“For some snacks,” Tate Kuster suggested helpfully.

“For a hotel, Tate, a hotel,” Cole Kuster corrected.

The boys regaled me with tales of watching the film Megamind “like 24 times” according to Theo Sandstrom and of a fateful stop to a fast food restaurant called Zaxby’s, which the boys hold singularly accountable for jinxing the team, as the men fell 73-71 to Wooster in the 2010 semifinals. “This year, if we make it, we’re only going to KFC and Subway because that’s where we went the first year and they made it to the finals,” Cole Kuster said.

“Those are the lucky places,” Theo Sandstrom added. “Zaxby’s is the worst place ever.”

The boys’ tradition started in Salem two years ago, when Noah Sandstrom surprised the boys with face paint and wigs before the big game. “I had borrowed from a cross-country skier a purple-and-white Lycra body suit,” he said. “The boys were decorating posters in the room next door while I was putting on face makeup, my wig and my bodysuit. I jumped through the connecting doors and said ‘Let’s go!’”

Noah Sandstrom’s get-up initially sparked skepticism among the boys. “I thought ‘Who did we come here with?’” Cole Kuster said. However, the boys were soon convinced to don face paint of their own and have since begun a tradition of painting their chests to support the Ephs.

At the 2010 Final Four, each boy painted a letter on his chest so that together they spelled out “WILLIAMS!” “Alex [Falk] gets the exclamation point,” Zimmerberg said. “He just fits it.”

“Alex can wiggle his stomach,” Theo Sandstrom explained.

Cole Kuster proceeded to give a demonstration of Falk’s “stomach wiggle,” and I began to understand the enthusiasm the boys bring to the sidelines. They have a chorus of favorite cheers: Theo Sandstrom likes to shout “air ball,” Cole Kuster is partial to the taunting “you can’t do that” and Zimmerberg prefers the visual appeal of the rollercoaster cheer. Regardless of his cheer of choice, each fan is confident that he shouts the loudest and wears his painted letter with the most pride.

The boys’ enthusiasm reflects the community’s support for the team. All of them shared how much they admired former basketball star Troy Whittington ’11, fondly remembering several of his gutsy performances. “My favorite memory was seeing Troy dunk with his broken hand,” Gilooly said.

“I liked when Troy slapped his chair so hard in the pregame that it folded up,” Cole Kuster said.

“Troy hurt his head pretty bad in a game last year, but he was back in the game within five minutes,” Zimmerberg recalled.

This season, the boys admire tri-captains James Wang ’12 and Brian Emerson ’12, who have led the team on and off the court.

While Noah Sandstrom enjoys the raucous cheering and lengthy road trips, he sees the men on the team as role models for the boys. “Both years there was a reception after the games, and these guys would have their t-shirts,” Noah Sandstrom said. “And even after they lost the game, the players would come and sign the guys’ shirts. They were really nice and good role models to the kids. They do a lot in the community, and they set a good example. It’s fun to be able to cheer for a team like that.”

The boys will certainly remember the Ephs’ victories – largely because, as Cole Kuster pointed out, winning means you can go on another road trip – but their camaraderie and love of the game will certainly last longer than their face paint.

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