ROCKFORD – Standing near the front and center of Rockford’s massive sea of black Friday, six students all played significant roles in keeping 500 of their closest classmates organized and focused on their work for that night.
Seniors Joe Belliel, Sam Anderson and Shain Showers, junior Katie Hartnett and sophomores Kory Young and Casey Watters are just some of the leaders of their school’s student cheering section, Ram Nation, one of five finalists for the MHSAA's "Battle of the Fans" competition. But representing three grades and various social groups, they also are the essence of what the section has accomplished since forming last summer.
Despite boasting one of the state’s largest high schools, Rockford has always taken pride in being something of a small-town community.
Still, there are nearly 2,600 students in grades 9-12. It’s just about impossible for everyone to know everybody else. And only a handful can play on the boys basketball team. But a hard-fought victory – like Friday’s one-point win over rival Hudsonville – allows the entire student body to take ownership while making a massive impact for the school’s sports teams.
“Obviously, (the players) could have done it. But we have a big impact keeping them going all the time and really pumping them up,” Rockford junior Katie Hartnett said after that 36-35 win. “I think they really appreciate it. We’re here to be here for them, not just to show off for ourselves.”
Only one trip, to Petoskey on Feb. 17, remains on the MHSAA Student Advisory Council "Battle of the Fans" tour. Videos of all five finalists are being posted on the MHSAA Facebook page for an online vote that will take place Feb. 20-23. After that vote and SAC discussion, the winner will be announced on Feb. 24. Clips from all five MHSAA-produced videos will be shown during the Girls and Boys Basketball Finals in March at the Breslin Center.
Ram Nation began as a suggestion from a parent who noted the inconsistent crowd support from students over the last few years. Take Belliel as an example. Perhaps the most vocal of the group’s hierarchy, he admits he went to “maybe four basketball games” last season.
Now, everything is a must-see event. Anderson, a member of the student council, maintains a giant dry-erase calendar in the cafeteria that lists every school extracurricular event. At a recent hockey game, Ram Nation filled one side of the rink. On Nov. 19, the volleyball team played in the MHSAA Class A final at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Center, while the football team played in a Semifinal only a few blocks away. Ram Nation members ran back and forth to support both.
And students know they better show up early. Belliel got a call Friday from someone who already was in the stands at 4:30 p.m. – although the girls basketball game started at 6 and the boys at 7:45. Rockford High houses only grades 10-12, but freshmen and some middle schoolers also augmented the crowd.
“I didn’t think it would be as good as it is. I just thought we were going to start it and get it better,” Anderson said. “And all of a sudden it just hit, and it was pretty big.”
Indeed, Ram Nation made things happen quickly.
A small group met a few times over the summer. A Facebook page was created. Watters researched online for any cheers he could find. Theme nights were planned, T-shirts made and sold as something of an unofficial “membership” to the section.
“I think we’ve always been somewhat of a close-knit community. But I think maybe instead of a divided student body – the freshmen, juniors, the sophomores – it’s pulled them together,” Rockford athletic director Tim Erickson said. “The more you have, the louder you’re going to be, and the more enthusiastic you’re going to be. (Ram Nation) has created more of an atmosphere like that.”
Another cool touch: Every home basketball game is a fundraiser. Friday’s was for "Hoops for Haiti." A few weeks ago, shirts were made with “I believe that we love Steve” printed on the backs. The spin-off of the popular “I believe that we will win” cheer was in support of former boys hoops coach Steve Majerle, who stepped down after the last season and is battling Parkinson’s Disease.
It’s another example of an unexpected benefit of Ram Nation’s creation.
Teams are definitely getting more support from classmates. But classmates feel they’ve come together for something bigger as well.
“It’s honestly ridiculous. You don’t realize how much of an impact the student section has on a game until you’re in and you’re playing,” said Showers, a football and baseball player. “I can remember there were times in the season when I’m trying to yell across the field at one of my teammates, and no one can hear anything. That was the first time I’d ever experienced that. And the year before, it wasn’t like that at all.
“(But) honestly, Ram Nation’s first goal isn’t to cheer our teams on and get our teams going. It’s about unity. Not just students and teachers, but the whole community, bringing everyone together. I think that’s what we’ve accomplished so far.”
PHOTOS by Rockford junior Aimee Reece (top) and senior Jeremy Hoekstra (middle).