March 28, 2016. I get awoken by a Facebook message at 10:56am.
"Check your email dude!!! Time is running out"
Villanova had sent an email to all students the previous day with information regarding Final Four tickets. There is a lottery system in place during the year that rewards students who win tickets and go to games, and penalizes those who win tickets and do not attend. The 500 students with the highest lottery weight were to be emailed first, with the remaining tickets released to the student body on a first come, first served basis.
I was unsure if I would be in the top 500; I only went to one game over Spring Break and none over Christmas. But that Facebook message (shout-out to Nick Carney) woke me up in time to secure a spot at the Final Four.
To be honest, my initial decision was not to attend the Final Four. I figured tickets prices would be outrageous after the school charged $152 for First Weekend tickets and $250 to attend the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. Unbeknownst to me, the NCAA charges $40 for student tickets right behind the basket. What a deal!
But what about flights? Surely airline companies would jack up the prices of flights to Houston for that weekend. But again shout-out to Nick for finding a flight to Dallas then a Megabus to Houston, all coming under $400 round-trip. Combine that with the opportunity to stay at his friend's house in midtown Houston and the circumstances couldn't have been more perfect.
Unlike me, many students intended on taking the trip right after the final buzzer against Kansas. Some, even years before. "I've said since day 1 when I chose to attend Villanova when they finished 13-19, that if they ever made it to the Final 4 while I was a student, I would go" said senior Matt Skibinski. "No matter if it put me in debt or what, I would go."
Others, such as Re' Kleinbard and Caroline Connolly, decided to make the trek after having such an amazing time in Louisville the week before. Re' reminisces running back to 4th Street Live after the Kansas game screaming "Let's Go Nova" while checking flights with her mom. "There was no hesitation, I was going."
Caroline had also attended the Second Weekend games and had an amazing time. It's what pushed her to get to Houston. "We decided we had to go to Houston and would make it work one way or the other. A lot of us asked for flights/lodging to be our graduation presents from family."
But what about classes? Re' said her professors have a strict attendance policy; could she risk missing another class? Didn't matter. "When we won and I watched Villanova play with as much confidence, heart, and toughness as they did against Kansas, class went out the window."
That same mindset about class was prevalent across the entire student body.
My travel plans were finalized that same Monday night the tickets went out. JJ Brown, Director of the Office of Student Involvement, sent an email the next morning about a round-trip charter flight to Houston. While the email was sent out at the ungodly college student time of 8:30am, flight tickets sold out within an hour.
And of course, some students even road-tripped to Texas. Jeremy Reich and his two friends (a recent alum and another who did not attend Villanova) drove from Atlanta to Texas. "We left at 5am on Friday and drove for about 14 hours." But that wasn't even the worst part of the drive. "We hit severe thunderstorms and rain nearly nonstop the entire time and even went through some spots with tornado warnings."
NOTHING was going to stop `Nova Nation.
There was even an Instagram account @rv_cats that documented a group of students that rented an RV and drove from Philly to Houston and back.
Again, not all responsibilities were on pause for the weekend. I personally had an assignment due the Wednesday after the championship game that I finished Thursday night, knowing I wouldn't have any time to get back Tuesday and work on it. I'm pretty sure 6 days prior to a due date was the earliest I ever finished an assignment, and possibly the earliest I ever started one.
Jeremy and his crew had similar plights. "We stopped periodically, but probably more than we needed to in order to get WiFi in McDonald's to send emails/assignments to our school and do work that was unfinished." Jeremy's friend who recently graduated had an assignment due on Friday evening, while Jeremy is locking up an internship for the summer and had to arranged a lot of communication and paperwork along the way.
"I think we hit 4 McDonald's on the way" he admitted. "Sacrifices were made for the `Cats."
BIG shout-out to the alumni who helped fund various students! A GoFundMe was created to help "subsidize plane tickets and lodging." In just 3 days the donations piled up to over $3000. Some financial help was more informal. Caroline recalled in Louisville "there were a ton of alumni who were very happy to see us and some were literally just handing us money." The stage was bigger, but the student-alumni relations were just as strong.
The unofficial official Villanova Alumni bar in Houston was the Dogwood. That's where I saw Chris Lane on Monday night after the championship (unfortunately we did not get a picture). It was amazing seeing so many familiar faces; it's as if I never left Villanova. And that's because on college basketball's biggest stage, school spirit was at a peak.