CARY, N.C. -- Bill Underwood was excited as he surveyed the scene in suburban Raleigh, N.C.
The Mercer president looked over a crowd of about 500 Mercer faithful who showed up for a pep rally with the team Thursday night before the Bears’ first NCAA Tournament game in 29 years. The 14th-seeded Bears will play No. 3 seed Duke at 12:15 p.m. Friday in the round of 64.
“It’s very gratifying to see the success that the team’s had and how the student body and the community has embraced them,” Underwood said. “It’s tremendous.”
The players and head coach Bob Hoffman were greeted by over 300 students, the pep band, cheerleaders, dance team, alumni and other Mercer fans at a rally around 10 p.m. outside of a restaurant near where the large contingency of students were staying.
After rallying words from athletics director Jim Cole, Hoffman spoke to the crowd and provided energy to a group that spent much of Thursday in a caravan of charter buses.
The crowd included his mother, Linda, and in-laws who drove from Oklahoma.
“I’ve tried to keep on a low keel, because I figure it’s gonna get high (Friday),” Linda said. “(Bob) has done an awesome job, not only on the court, but off.”
Milton Cruz may have traveled the longest of any fans, making the trip from Puerto Rico.
The Mercer graduate and his wife have attended football and basketball games throughout the year and were eager to join the celebration.
“We couldn’t say no, so we’re here,” Cruz said. “I’m certain that we’re going to win. No matter what happens, who scores more, we are going to win.”
After over eight hours on six cramped charter buses, the 335 Mercer students who’d officially traveled with the university arrived in Raleigh in time for the pep rally.
Students paid $25 for a bus ride, ticket to the game and hotel room, joining a large group of Mercer fans who’d descended upon Raleigh to root on the Bears.
“This is a great thing for Mercer to travel all these people, and to see all the fans come out,” said Kevin Canevari, one of seven seniors on the team. “It’s awesome as a player to see everyone and see the support group.”
After the band played a few more times and the event wound down, Mercer students began their own chants and excitedly discussed the game.
Hoffman didn’t expect it to be the last celebration for Bears fans.
“I think it’s just the beginning,” he said. “It is a big time moment...but I think there’s more to be done. We can go to even higher places than we’re at right now.”