The voice rose from the phone, emanating with jubilation from the highway far to the east.
By ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
We are 17 miles from the Indiana-Illinois border! Four hundred miles to go! said Rick Pill, 61, a West Virginia University fan so rabid that he claims he has not missed a home football game in 50 years, since he sold soft drinks to earn money for tickets.
There was no way he was going to miss his teams Big 12 tournament debut in Kansas City as one of two newbie conference members, along with Texas Christian University.
So on Tuesday, Pill and four Morgantown, W.Va., buddies Todd and Kevin and George and another Rick behind the wheel thundered west some 1,022 miles, a 15-hour trip in a Lincoln Navigator with flags flapping the Mountaineers gold and blue, bound for the Sprint Center and a Wednesday evening game against Texas Tech.
To these gentlemen, it meant little that West Virginia, with a 6-12 record in the Big 12, was seeded eighth, as it was also meaningless to diehard TCU fans that, at 2-16, the team from Fort Worth was seeded, well, 10th and last. And lets not even get into why there are only 10 teams in something called the Big 12.
This trip wasnt about sense.
Whether their teams won or lost Wednesday night, this trip to a new town and a new tournament was about support, a chance to check out Kansas City, and pride.
For West Virginia fans, pride in a school that made the Final Four in 2010 and gave rise to the likes of Jerry West, a future Los Angeles Laker who led the Mountaineers to the 1959 NCAA championship game. (They lost, but he was MVP.)
For its part, Texas Christian hasnt been to an NCAA tournament for 15 years, since 1998. TCU has never made the Final Four, but the team did beat KU once this year. Huge upset. Their football team has long been menacing. Plus, in the 2011-2012 academic year, their athletes nabbed five NCAA championships three of which had to do with shooting guns.
And then theres TCUs mascot, a muscular horned frog called Super Frog.
Its intense, said Grant Canning, 19, the sophomore from San Antonio who dons the Super Frog costume. Either little kids love me or they hate me.
Which isnt to say Canning expected to be performing in front of many serious Horned Frog fans in their game against the University of Texas, which they lost.
At TCU, this week is spring break, prompting many of its 10,000 students to either head home or to places like Florida or South Padre Island.
The school didnt charter a student bus for students to Kansas City. The student media group, TCU360, was sending no one. School officials said theyd be surprised if several hundred students showed.
TCU marching band trumpet player Hannah Siegers, 20, said that at a school known for football, the basketball teams lackluster season this year, 11-20 overall, often wasnt inspiring enough to fill half its coliseum for home games.
Were kind of used to not having a lot of people, she said.
In previous years, when TCU played in the Mountain West conference, the tournament was held in Las Vegas, a huge draw to students looking for fun on spring break week.
In fact, even if TCU lost in the Mountain West tournament, Siegers said, most of the 30 musicians in the band would remain in Vegas for days. Lose in Kansas City, she said, and theyd likely be headed home within 24 hours.
Robin Phillips, 29, the coach of TCUs cheerleading and dance teams, said that for TCU being part of the Big 12 has already helped the team.
When big-name schools such as KU and Oklahoma showed up in Fort Worth, she said, crowds were far bigger than usual.
Its been great, she said. Ticket sales and attendance have increased this year.
She expects that as TCUs team becomes better and rivalries develop, crowds from TCU to Kansas City will only increase.
Even if only a few TCU fans show up for now, she said, it doesnt matter.
Not one bit, Phillips said. We cheer for our players.
West Virginia school and alumni officials also said that they expected only a few hundred fans and alumni to make this first showing in the Big 12 tournament. (West Virginia lost its game.)
But Pill, the longtime booster, said he also recalls how only a few hundred fans showed up in New York City in 1995 when West Virginia began playing basketball in the Big East.
But as the years passed and rivalries grew, the numbers of fans willing to drive the 380 miles from Morgantown to Manhattan also increased.
In time, he said, it became impossible to drive to the tournament without seeing a caravan of cars like his own, honking and hooting at each other in their gold and blue.
On his drive to KC? Not quite the same.
We didnt see a single other West Virginia car, he said of the thousand-mile trip, mostly on Interstate 70.
But there were those like Parry Petroplus, 61, and Bob Robinson, 67, who flew. So did West Virginia alumna Angie Taralla, 46, and her husband, Tom, 48.
Several of them said they see themselves as part of a vanguard, a kind of informal reconnaissance team to check out the Big 12 tournament and the Kansas City experience before reporting back to others about the basketball world west of the Mississippi.
They see this as a kind of litmus test, Steve Douglas, the president of the universitys alumni association, said at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown. Really, so far, this has a kind of Final Four feel to it.
John Fahey, 52, the alumni associations board chairman, had just flown in to Kansas City.
There were 12 WVU people from Washington, D.C., on the plane, which surprised the hell out of me, he said. All dressed in blue and gold.
In 17 years of traveling to New York, Pill and his buddies had found favorite hotels and bars. Now, he and his buddies said, they are looking forward to developing the same connections in Kansas City.
Said Douglas: They already have a Blue and Gold Mountaineer bomb shot at Johnnys Tavern. What more can you ask for?
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.