DES MOINES, Iowa — Illini fans were greeted by familiar sights and sounds at Thursday’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament game against Arkansas.
Illinois’ band and cheerleading squads made sure of that, despite smaller numbers and more stringent restrictions that come with performing at the Big Dance.
Both groups had to manage venturing to two tournaments for the first time since 2003 after Illinois’ women’s basketball team qualified for its first postseason berth in two decades.
The band sent 29 members apiece to Des Moines and South Bend, Ind., to join the women’s team.
“It’s a matter of figuring out who’s able to attend,” Illini band director Barry Houser said. “Points, instrumentation, getting that all squared away, it’s been a lot of event planning for sure.”
There are a few more regulations that come into play in the NCAA tournament that wouldn’t affect them during a typical home game at State Farm Center.
For starters, the ensemble is told to stop playing music by the time the second horn sounds during a media timeout, something that it has a bit more leeway with when playing during the regular season.
They also have to contend with competition in a neutral atmosphere — Arkansas’ band played in equal rotation during Thursday’s game — and having a smaller cast than the 80 students that usually play at home games.
None of that matters much to the group’s loyal members.
“Every game I go into, I go into (with the mentality that) my job here is to be the number one fan of the school, number one fan of the team, be their biggest supporter,” sophomore alto saxophone player Mark VandeWiele said. “Going into this, just like any other game, I’m going to do my job, do my part.”
The band featured a collection of 29 performers while the cheer unit was 12 cheerleaders strong.
Though a far cry from its football figures — nine coach buses carried students to the Reliaquest Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2 — Houser and his staff still had to get a little creative to make everything work.
Things weren’t quite as simple as copying-and-pasting the roster than the one that went to Chicago when Illinois played Penn State on March 9.
“A lot of students, they had spring break plans already,” Houser said. “They were going home, not everyone’s from Illinois, so we’ve had a couple personnel changes but it’s all worked out and we’ve had two full bands for each location.”
Outside of having to turn down the noise at a certain point and trading off with its counterpart from Arkansas, the goal remains simple.
Play the hits.
“We’ve got our charts that we like to play a lot of,” senior trombone player Ben Kossack said. “Some fan favorites and everything. We’re just here to have a great time supporting the team and play some songs that hopefully get the crowd into it a little bit.”
The Illini cheerleading team had a similar experience.
Longtime coach Stephanie Record elected to send a heavier concentration of seniors to Iowa after doing the same when the men’s basketball team played in Pittsburgh in the opening two rounds of the tournament last season.
“For the men’s tournament, we typically have more veterans traveling,” Record said. “The group that went with the women’s (team), we had a few seniors in that group as well and then some newer members. We had to have two groups this time, so that was kind of fun.”
Road trips — a 350-mile voyage in the case of Champaign to Des Moines — are some of senior captain Graci Leineberg’s fondest memories of cheering at Illinois.
“Our trip to Pittsburgh was my favorite memory in my four years on the team,” Leineberg said.
“We just had so much fun exploring the city on top of our games, we spent a lot of time there before we even had a game. We just made a ton of really fun memories, even in the hotel room, and the games themselves are just crazy.”
Illinois’ cheerleaders were able to outlast their counterparts from Arkansas during a liberty pose completion during a media timeout of the Illini’s eventual season-ending loss to the Razorbacks.
Perhaps because the squad knows when it’s time to get down to business.
“It’s a lot of making sure everyone is being really mature,” Leineberg said.
“Because we’re not at home, we’re not in Champaign anymore, we can’t be all that silly. We really have to put our game faces on. This is much more serious than we’re used to, which is kind of a fun challenge for us.”
The loss marked the final men’s basketball game for Leineberg — a cheerleader of 18 years — and fellow team captain Armand Morales, who has been cheering for six years.
Their Illini pride was on full display for the announced crowd of 16,745 spectators and the Big Dance — where Morales can recall meeting childhood heroes such as Reggie Miller and Terrell Owens – took on an even greater meaning.
“Cheering every game like it’s your last has been part of my life forever, just a connection, the importance of it,” Morales said.
“Being older I appreciate it a lot more, so being here just puts it all in perspective ... it makes it even more special to be here with everyone.”