Attendance was a letdown for historic battle

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Games don't get much better than Saturday's Ohio Valley Conference championship showdown at Houck Stadium.

It's just a shame so few fans were on hand to witness the intense, hard-hitting battle between Southeast Missouri State University and visiting Jacksonville State.

A crowd of about 6,650 showed up on an unseasonably warm day to watch arguably one of the biggest football games ever played by a Southeast squad.

On the line was an NCAA Division I-AA playoff berth and a share of the OVC title. Never before in the history of Southeast football -- and the school has fielded a team since 1904 --had the Indians made the playoffs on any level. And their highest OVC finish since they joined the league in 1991 had been third.

So you'd expect a packed Houck Stadium, right? Not even close.

To put the 6,650 attendance total into perspective, three of the Indians' other home contests this year drew more fans, all of them during the first half of the season. A record 11,100 fans showed up for Southern Illinois, 9,800 were on hand for Southwest Missouri and 8,600 came to Houck for Eastern Illinois.

Those attendance figures seem to indicate that there are plenty of Southeast football fans in the area. What it doesn't say is why many of those fans chose to ignore such a big game.

As it turns out, the Indians failed to make history by dropping a 22-17 decision that sent the Gamecocks to the playoffs and ended Southeast's season.

Too bad the Indians fell short Saturday -- but it's really a shame that so many people in the area ignored the contest altogether.

It wasn't always pretty, but Southeast's men's basketball team started the season right Friday night by holding off Wisconsin-Green Bay 63-62.

While far from perfect, the Indians did show their fans that they are much more talented than in any of the past two seasons, and they should only get better once key injured players return to full strength.

That added talent will give coach Gary Garner a delicate dilemma because, if the opener is an indication, some of last year's key players might find it difficult to get much playing time. How those players continue to hang in mentally and help the squad in any way possible will be interesting to follow, because that's not always easy to do.

But if you're Garner, you'd much rather tackle this kind of problem than the alternative --not having enough solid players to turn to and having to formulate a lineup more out of necessity than choice.

A couple observations on two of the Indians' newcomers after the opener:

Junior forward Dainmon Gonner is everything that has been advertised and then some. Gonner won't overly impress with his pure athletic ability -- if he was more of an explosive natural athlete, he sure wouldn't be playing on this level -- but he's a true warrior who is an inside-outside threat and a rugged rebounder. He's already been a treat to watch.

And freshman guard Terrick Willoughby, while sure to have his ups and downs as all college rookies do, could wind up -- barring injury -- being one of the best four-year players in school history.

One more quick thought on Southeast hoops, directed at several FanSpeak comments today:

Do people realize that the Missouri-Rolla game was an exhibition and doesn't count on the Indians' record? Harping on that loss and suggesting it's going to hurt the athletic department is like saying fans will stop going to Rams' games because they lost to a weaker team in the preseason. It simply makes no sense.

The Indians may or may not have a good season, and if they struggle for a third straight year, then that's something the anti-sports fanatics at Southeast can legitimately point out as hurting the athletic department.

Until then, talking about losing an exhibition game shows how clueless some people are.

Major props to the Central High School boys' soccer team on making the final four for the first time. What a tremendous accomplishment. And the Tigers very nearly earned a spot in the Class 3 title game, falling to SLUH 3-2 in overtime in Friday's semifinals -- but they no doubt earned plenty of respect along the way.

Also congratulations to Bell City's volleyball team, which was not even considered the area's best Class 1 squad during the regular season yet recently captured a state championship.

After struggling with injuries and being placed on the Giants' inactive list for the season's first nine games, former Southeast football star Willie Ponder got his first taste of regular-season NFL action last Sunday and caught two passes.

Area fans should be able to see him in action on the tube Monday night when Ponder and the Giants visit Tampa Bay.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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