Strong support for SJN

Having 50 students classifies as a big graduating class at St. John Neumann.

Neumann is the epitome of a small school. Its baseball and softball teams usually struggle to simply fill all nine positions since there are so few students.

Watch a boys basketball game, however, and one gets the feeling Neumann is a giant. Fans arrive early, leave well after the game ends and make a lot of noise in between. Even at Hazleton’s cavernous gym that seats 3,000 last Friday, Neumann fans swarmed the stands and made it feel like a home game.

Neumann is a small school that draws huge crowds. They are getting bigger each game too as the Knights have reached the state’s Class A Final 4 for the first time since 1972.

The Knights play Math, Civics and Sciences tonight at East Pennsboro High School for the Eastern Region championship. MCS (14-14) is the state’s No. 2-ranked team and is the last team to beat undefeated Neumann (30-0). The Knights might be an underdog but their fans will be doing all they can to guide them to victory.

“Our fans are great,” freshman guard Kevin Anderson said. “They help a lot.”

Neumann has really created a remarkable fan frenzy considering how small the school is. Neumann is a Williamsport school but is not directly tied to a specific city. Yet, its community is huge. The whole area it seems is buzzing. St. Patrick’s Day was Monday but the predominant colors around town are maroon and yellow.

If one looks at the fan size proportionate to the school size, the case can be made Neumann has District 4’s biggest and most passionate fan base with only Sullivan County rivaling it. Sullivan is the only school whose team attracted as many fans to a playoff game as Neumann’ during its eight-game postseason run.

The larger state playoff venues have really been a necessity because Neumann fans, many clad in the same white school t-shirts, arrive in force usually an hour or so before tip-off. Twice in a row this postseason, Neumann fans have helped sell out games. The first at Montoursville when the Knights beat rival Loyalsock in a classic Heartland Conference championship game and the next four nights later when a home game against Muncy sold out well before tip-off.

Many fans arrived more than three hours before tip-off last month for that HAC championship. It was cold and the doors did not open for another hour or so. They did not care. They were willing to make that sacrifice.

The players have noticed too. And they feed off it.

The Knights have faced tough challenges in their last two games, twice trailing by five or more points in the second half. Both times, they were still behind in the fourth quarter and both time they won. As the fans have roared, Neumann has excelled down the stretch both times and doubled up District 3 champion New Hope Academy in the state quarterfinal game’s last 5:23 while pulling away for a 78-68 win.

“Everyone from the city has been coming out since we’re the last team in the area and it’s nice that they do that,” forward Alize Johnson said. “Our fans that we already have from the beginning come out every year and follow us and cheer us on the whole way and they really helped us out (Friday).”

The fan base has grown throughout the state tournament too. Neumann is no longer just carrying the banner for its school, but also for the entire district. Neumann is the district’s last team standing and is trying to become its first state boys finalist since Williamsport in 1999. It also is the first team to reach the state’s Final 4 since Hughesville in 2009.

It felt like the entire Hughesville town was at those playoff games and it feels like the entire Neumann community is attending these. As back in 2009, the fans cannot put the ball in the basket, rebound or play defense. But they can make an impact. They can lift the players up and help them elevate their performance. Neumann has proved that throughout the postseason. They also add to the players’ experiences as they help create moments they will remember forever.

This is not a one-year phenomenon either. Neumann fans have attended games in droves the last two years as the Knights have steadily climbed from district finalists, to district champions and now to state semifinalists. To borrow a line from “Field of Dreams,” no matter the distance, people will come.

Those headed to Enola might have a Hoosiers moment. In the movie, the team bus is surrounded by cars following it on the way to the state playoff games. I witnessed that happen to Hughesville in 2009 and Neumann cars likely will be following the team bus all the way down tonight. This is their team and they will follow them anywhere.

Expect Neumann fans to again arrive in masses tonight. Expect them to be loud and expect them to do all they can to motivate their team. The fans, as well as anyone, know how rare it is to reach this point. Neumann has done it just once before and that was before the school was affiliated with the PIAA and playing in a state tournament that included every school.

Neumann has taken those fans on quite a journey all season. Now those passionate fans will try and push them toward the ultimate finish line.

“The fans are so great,” forward Nasza Short said. “That’s what motivates us. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where we would be.”