Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When alma maters matter Fans endure ups and downs in rooting for UWM, Marquette in NCAA tournament

By: Tom Held, Staff; March 16, 2006

The purity of Mike Poll’s joy may have been enough to remedy Mike Pesch’s despair.

Unfortunately, the two Mikes went through their emotional highs and lows Thursday on opposite sides of town, rooting for different teams: Poll celebrating a comfortable win by his beloved Panthers against Oklahoma, and Pesch suffering a gut-wrenching loss by his Golden Eagles to Alabama.

Poll danced. Pesch winced.

“That was the most brutal thing I’ve experienced in my entire life,” the Marquette University alum said after watching his favorite team from his favorite location, the cavernous University Annex.

Just 21, it’s likely that Pesch will encounter tougher moments of anguish.

For Poll, though, every day seems to bring another dose of happiness.

Former University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl recruited the 30-year-old from Whitefish Bay to serve as a team manager about five years ago, and Poll has been thriving in his role as the unofficial “heart of the program” ever since.

As his father, Larry, describes him, the younger Poll “is developmentally challenged and emotionally gifted.”

He traveled with the Panthers to the Sweet 16 last year but couldn’t make the trip to Jacksonville, Fla., for Thursday’s first-round game. His disappointment lasted about 30 seconds, until he realized he could join the UWM women’s team in Chicago for its NCAA tournament appearance this weekend.

And his enthusiasm and joy showed through every moment of the Panthers’ upset victory over Oklahoma. “Mr. Panther” led the cheers for about 600 fans who packed the UWM Union Gasthaus.

“I feel great; I feel unbelievable,” Poll said, putting his own exclamation point on his and the team’s latest triumph.

Across town in the MU Annex, Pesch and his fellow Marquette fans also appeared poised to snatch some “thrill of victory” after watching their team struggle from behind all afternoon.

It hadn’t helped that a bomb scare delayed the game for a couple of hours, and the fans seemed as flat as the team throughout the first half.

It’s likely the crowd also lacked a bit of youthful enthusiasm, given that the students have dispersed for spring break.

In the final minutes, though, the alums and employees hung on every shot; leaping to their feet in unison and whomping their blue and gold inflatable noisemakers with each hoop that pulled MU closer to the lead.

“This is gut-wrenching right now,” said Joe Ghali, class of 1999. “There are more important things in the world to worry about, I know, but this is gut-wrenching.”

Even though Marquette trailed late, the fans seemed to hold a collective confidence, expressed by Sarah Sasman: “We’ll pull it off, of course; (Steve) Novak will hit a three to win.”

Then, with Marquette down three, the 2002 graduate amended her prediction: “We’ll take the tie, and maybe they’ll foul him on the shot.”

Of course, Novak did get the shot Sasman and the entire Marquette nation wanted. It’s just that he missed, prompting Pesch’s declaration of total sorrow. He is indeed a theater major.

The victory on Thursday went to the underdog, and the Panther fans relished it, but none more than Mike Poll.

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