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South Bend takes on vital role of sixth man

Laura Myers | Friday, March 19, 2010

A few weeks ago, a cookie cake at the Mishawaka Meijer caught my eye. It was situated on a shelf with the other generic decorated cakes that said “Happy Birthday,” or just contained a few flowers.  This one, right in the middle of the display, was decorated with an orange-frosting basketball. In blue letters, it read:

“Go Irish women!”

It was a little surprising to see that the bakery had thought of that particular message to sell a gigantic cookie. But it probably went quickly in this town.

A few days ago, two stories in the South Bend Tribune caught my eye. Both were short staff reports containing news about the women’s team. The stories were labeled as “Notre Dame basketball.”

A little searching found a recent story about the men’s team; it was labeled “Notre Dame men’s basketball.”

That one might have just been an oversight, but certainly one indicative of the city-wide relationship with the women’s basketball team.

The Irish are South Bend’s hometown heroes; a team the city has supported all year long, through good times and, well, Connecticut.

It’s only fitting that Notre Dame begins its tournament road at home, as a reward to fans who packed the Purcell Pavilion for every game and sold it out six times.

Prior to this season, the women’s basketball team had six sellouts in its entire history. Now it has 12 and looks to add a 13th Sunday for its first-round game against Cleveland State.

“They’re our sixth man, they’re the fuel to our car to get us going,” said freshman guard Skylar Diggins, a South Bend native responsible in no small part for the city’s love of the team. Many fans have followed her career for years.

Senior guard Melissa Lechlitner, another area native, said the community support has always been strong but was even better this season.

“They are just excited and enthusiastic about everything,” she said. 

It’s fair to say that the Irish football team belongs to alumni, as well as to “subway alumni” and fans all across the country, who are as dedicated as they come.

It’s also fair to say that the men’s basketball team belongs to the students, who proudly wear their Leprechaun Legion t-shirts and pack the arena, chanting cheers specific to each opposing team.

But the women’s basketball team truly belongs to South Bend and the surrounding area. It belongs to grown men and women in neon-green t-shirts who dye their hair, wear funny hats and paint their faces green for game day. They stand up and dance when the band plays the fight song. And after the game, they take their children to Heritage Hall, where they get autographs on anything flat enough for the players to sign.

“Even the last game we played against UConn here [on March 1], we were down what, 15, 20 and they were screaming and cheering like it was a one-point game,” Lechlitner said.
In fact, there was just one moment at that Connecticut game when the crowd was silent: when the announcers were declaring the winner of the “Most Spirited Section” award for the section that had cheered hardest all season long.

The crowd was also quiet for a moment during the Feb. 14 Pink Zone game when the announcer declared that Notre Dame had raised more than $70,000 for breast cancer research and awareness. The community didn’t stop there, though; the Irish have now toppled $100,000.

With the exception of those two times, fans have made sure to keep the Purcell Pavilion loud and provided a great atmosphere, creating a home-court advantage that led to a 14-1 home record.

And if the Irish add two more wins to that total this week, South Bend will certainly celebrate — perhaps with some giant cookies — knowing that it helped its favorite team on the march toward the championships.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Laura Myers at   [email protected]