You see them at the top of your screen every Michigan home game on the television, and you hear them for most of the game when you’re sitting inside Crisler Center. Michigan’s student cheering section, The Maize Rage, has been an institution at Crisler for nearly 20 years (est 2000.) For the Class of 2019, Thursday marks the culmination of a lot of determination to turn what was merely a student section, into a communal basketball experience as hundreds of seniors will watch Michigan face Nebraska inside Crisler in their final home game as students.
“Three or four years ago, you could walk up to Crisler 20 minutes before the doors opened and you were first in line,” said Nick Grygiel, a senior who has been on the Maize Rage executive board since the 2016-17 season. “Going from that to this year, when you have to be up at midnight to get a wrist band for the Michigan State game is really cool.”
For the five graduating seniors on the Maize Rage leadership board: Grygiel (Computer Science) Gabby Lefebvre (Space Sciences and Engineering) Jon Markwort (Sports Management) vice president Alex Kettwich (Environmental Engineering) and president Aaron Sygiel (Political Science,) Michigan’s home tilt vs. Nebraska marks the end of an era where the Maize Rage saw unprecedented growth from approximately 1,800 students back up to 3,000 students. That’s a level the student section hasn’t been at since Michigan’s run from 2011-2014 when John Beilein’s team won two Big Ten championships and reached the Elite Eight and a Final Four, including a trip to the National Championship game in 2013.
“I think we had tremendous interest in years four, five and six (2011-2014) and then it’s come back,” Beilein said of fan interest and the home court advantage Crisler provides. “We have had a lot of pro attrition and injuries, and it is hard to keep that stable over time, it is a different day in coaching. But it’s just great to know that we sold out almost every game, that we have tremendous support, we hate to lose!”
On the floor Thursday, Michigan will take time before the game to honor Charles Matthews. The Chicago native is the team’s lone (academic) senior, who still has one year of eligibility remaining should he choose to forego the NBA Draft and return to the Wolverines. At least an hour before the spotlight shines on Matthews, the Maize Rage will file into the bleachers, eager with anticipation as Michigan looks to finish the home schedule on a high note with a win and a 17-1 record on the season at Crisler.
“Nothing beats just walking through that tunnel, the Maize Rage entrance” Sygiel replied when asked about his favorite part of the game day experience. “Walking down into that arena and just seeing this empty arena and knowing that it’s gonna be filled up in a mere hour and a half.”
While the data is somewhat skewed in college basketball, as home teams rarely lose non-conference games against mid-major and low-major opponents, Michigan’s record with its current junior class (plus Matthews) speaks for itself. Since Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, and Jon Teske arrived on campus, Michigan has gone 46-5 at home. Those five losses have come by a combined 22 points including only two the last two years, a one-point loss to Purdue in January 2018 and a seven-point loss to Michigan State this past Sunday. That record puts Michigan along-side basketball bluebloods in the same three-year window: Duke (44-4) Kansas (45-5) Kentucky (48-5) Michigan State (43-5) Purdue (44-3) and UNC (41-5) hold some of the best home-court advantages in the sport, and recently, Michigan has been in the top echelon with those programs.
“That was very different, in the first year or so when I came here, and it was like we had lost a lot of the students, they just weren’t coming, maybe a couple hundred would come,” Beilein said of a lean Maize Rage early in his tenure. “Now we got a couple thousand coming, that is really huge that you have that relationship. They come to see their friends play; they don’t come to see the players play, they have relationships in class, out of class, with other student-athletes to come to these games, it is a tremendous experience I think for everyone.”
For these five Maize Rage seniors, Thursday will be a night of exuberant celebration that they hope will be capped with a Michigan win over the Cornhuskers, but it also comes with the realization that their time in the bleachers is over and only memories will remain.
“Nebraska talks a lot of trash so it is fun to see the guys get fired up for sure and it’s gonna be fun,” said Lefebvre, “but it’s gonna be sad that it will be my last game as a student. I am hoping to be back in the student section with friends over (winter) break games, but it’s, I’m really sad about it, to be honest.”
“I’m just thinking like I want to go in and go all out” commented Markwort. “Lose my voice if I can, as a superfan I kind of want to make it my last impression that I have here.”
Kettwich, who fans may recognize as the Michigan student wearing navy blue onesie pajamas while holding a whiteboard with jokes he scribes on it, exuded the most emotion about Thursday’s game.
“The one thing I want to remember is how Crisler looks from my spot. I’ve been sitting in the same, spot for all four years of college. The scorer’s table to my left, the Michigan bench to my right. Brent and Steve of the event staff right in front of me,” Kettwich described. “Just a clear, unobstructed view of the court that was my little slice of heaven. I want to be able to remember my perspective of all the big games and flashy finishes that went down in Crisler during my four years. Dammit, I’m going to miss it so much. I’ll try to remember Dr. Seuss’ quote: “Don’t cry because it’s over, be happy that it happened.” But I’m still going to cry; I cannot pretend I won’t.”
While there is an underlying sense of melancholy among the outgoing members of the Maize Rage, they are proud of the work they have done, much like the team’s rise to national prominence, the student section has returned to being as strong as it was during Michigan’s last run of excellence as basketball fever has swept campus.
“Honestly the thing that I love the most is just early on, you kinda sit by yourself when you’re starting in Maize Rage and now you look around the room and everyone is talking to each other and it seems like a big community,” Lefebvre said. “I love that people can go to the games and see their friends that maybe they wouldn’t have met otherwise, and they’re all coming together to make the atmosphere just amazing in Crisler that makes me feel really proud.”
That pride and the memories created while cheering on their basketball team will be something that stays with members of the Maize Rage long after graduation in May.
“Everything we went through, traveling to Breslin Center for away trips or going to the Big Ten tournaments,” said Sygiel when asked what he takes from his experiences the past four years. “These bonds that you build over the season because it’s a season, you are not just there for one game, you recognize the people who you are sitting around and you start building these bonds with them that is special, it’s unique and I feel like that is gonna be the thing I am taking with me as I leave Michigan.”
The players have been grateful for the home court advantage all season long, and even Beilein noticed that the Maize Rage, and all those who come to Crisler, have turned out in droves as the Wolverines close Crisler Thursday. Michigan ends the year having sold out fifteen games in a row, the second-longest streak in school history (Michigan sold out 19 straight during the 1985-86 season, and 23 in a row stretching back to the final four games of the 1984-85 season)
“I love our fans, I really do, I love the Maize Rage, all the donors, all the fans,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who has only lost twice in Ann Arbor during his Michigan career. “They like to get up, even come to the early games which can be hard with the Michigan weather. I remember one game this year it was really bad outside and the building was still almost full and I was like ‘wow, Michigan fans are crazy!”
“The last couple of years we came on so late that a lot of people probably didn’t realize and they only had maybe two (home) games to realize we were a pretty good team,” Beilein commented. “This year, we established it early so this year was just a fantastic run for us at Crisler. We’d like to finish with one more win for our home team.”
For that home team Beilein speaks of, the student faction of it will rise early Thursday morning to pick up wristbands outside Cliff Keen Arena at the northern edge of Michigan’s athletic campus. They will begin lining up outside Crisler in the afternoon in late February temperatures, and when the doors open at 5:30, they will file into the bleachers, ready to cheer on their beloved basketball team one final time as students, and as a community that five seniors had a big part in helping build.