Friday, November 2, 2007
Villa Drum Squad gives UP home-field advantage
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Considering the University of Portland women's soccer team already has podcasts available for download on iTunes, perhaps it's only a matter of time until the city's next musical prodigies join playlists alongside local favorites like The Shins, The Decemberists, Stars of Track and Field, Rocky Votolato and the late Elliott Smith.
The Portland Pilots enjoy one of the most unique shows of support in the country.
After spending a chilly night hanging out in the stands with the Villa Drum Squad, the unofficial, unconventional and occasionally partially unclothed student pep band at University of Portland games, I can attest that while the orchestration may need work, they at least put on a show worth the price of admission.
"They're crazy; they're unbelievable," Pilots senior All-American Stephanie Lopez said. "You can't help but smile when you hear them coming out."
Sitting at the far edge of campus with only the Willamette River behind it, Villa Maria is an all-male dorm housing a couple of hundred of Portland's 2,967 undergraduates. From the outside, it looks like any other nondescript brick dorm at any number of small Catholic universities from coast to coast. But it doesn't sound like just any dorm.
Unsure exactly where I was headed to meet up with the guides I had spoken with the morning before a recent home game, I let the less-than-melodious cacophony of half a dozen drums beating out half a dozen different rhythms guide me through the early evening darkness to the dorm's front door. There, close to 20 squad members were warming up on the limited yet diverse collection of percussion equipment -- there are no tryouts for the drum squad and only a few members have musical training, let alone their own drums -- and making final adjustments to their kilts, face paint and purple hair.
The otherwise deserted quad is where the drum squad begins, both at the start of each academic year and before each home game. While other dorms on campus welcome freshmen to college with seminars and speeches, newcomers at Villa are greeted by a raucous tunnel of drummers looking for new recruits to carry on a tradition that dates back two decades (some of the original members, now in their 40s and season-ticket holders, still occasionally drop in during games for an impromptu jam). And before each game, the dorm is where the drum squad, both current residents and those who have moved off campus, gathers before marching en masse to nearby Merlo Field.
Chest painted purple and clad in a kilt, wearing giant aviator sunglasses and what looked suspiciously like a velour leisure suit jacket, senior drum generalissimo Teige Weidner explained the drum squad's deep philosophical underpinnings.
"We're all between 18 and 22, and we like being college kids," Weidner said. "We like being aggressive and we like being loud. This is a group of 20-year-old guys who come out to have a good time, and part of the good time is to be annoying and loud."
Perhaps this is the time to mention that not only is Weidner the ringleader of the drum squad, he's one of the resident advisors in Villa.
Properly pumped up after gathering in a circle around Weidner as he delivered a motivational speech that was a cross between Ray Lewis and Jeremy Piven's character in "PCU," the drum squad marched a short way across campus and into the stadium to their customary spot in the student section across the field from the Portland bench.
With the exception of halftime, when a raiding party split off and made its way into the volleyball match next door -- and was quickly ejected from that more staid environment -- the drum squad, and the entire student section, rarely went silent or even descended into unorganized jeering. Some of the more complex lyrics lost steam and came out as more of an uncertain collective mumble, but Weidner and his mates seemed to have a cheer or a beat ready at all times.
The soccer team's success has brought out the best in its fans.
"Half the group has falsetto, I just learned," said former drum squad leader Adam Cyr as the group broke into a rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" that substituted "Toreros Lose" in the middle in honor of the night's opponents from the University of San Diego.
There is little malicious about the cheers that become regular parts of the squad's arsenal, perhaps harping on opponents to replace their divots after taking out some sod on one of the nation's best fields or counting off steps as an opposing player heads to the bench in the late stages of the game.
"You kind of feel bad when they're telling [opposing players] to have a safe drive home and stuff," Lopez laughed. "But I think it's all in good fun, and it's just awesome all the guys are coming out here and that they enjoy women's soccer. I think that's special."
Success is one route to popularity, and at a school that doesn't have a football program, women's soccer is the most recognizable rallying point on campus after two decades as a national power and national championships in 2002 and 2005. A giant banner depicting several current women's players hangs from the exterior wall of the stadium, overlooking a practice field shared by both the men's and women's teams.
Despite having one of the smallest undergraduate populations for a school with a top Division I program in any sport, more than 1,000 students showed up for the season opener against No. 6 Florida State. And when the Pilots played UCLA for the national championship in 2005, more than 1,000 students poured into the Chiles Center, home to the school's basketball and volleyball teams, to watch the game on big screens.
With a successful men's program that has reached the College Cup in past seasons and a women's program that has produced individual talents like Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan and Christine Sinclair in addition to the championships, soccer is king at UP.
And the drum squad is a curious mix of court jesters and men at arms.
"I'm so thankful for them," senior All-American Angie Woznuk said the day after this particular performance -- by both her and the drum squad. "I was thinking yesterday -- it was freezing out and they're like in skirts and everything. I don't know how they do it, especially for our whole game. I'm so thankful for them; they make such a big difference. I know it's so hard to play here at Merlo as another team."
Walking to his seat before the game, an older Portland fan looked at one of the shirtless, purple-haired, kilt-wearing, drum-banging nutcases and joked to an usher, "His mother would be so proud of him." And while neither the kilt nor drum was exactly a degree in biomedical engineering, he might have been unintentionally right.
As Cyr, who went into semi-retirement as a senior after leading the drum squad for two years and will graduate this spring with a degree in biomedical engineering, pointed out, there is something to be said for providing the bass line for a campus coming together. And there is something commendable about the bond formed between members of a volunteer group with no initiation rituals or dehumanizing hazing process.
To paraphrase Dean Wormer, goofy, loud and annoying isn't a bad way to go through four years of college or 90 minutes of soccer, son.
"I don't know if I would be here if not for this dorm," Weidner said. "They became everything. One of the things I talk about is these are the guys who will stand next to you at your wedding and these are going to be the guys who carry your casket at your funeral."
One imagines both events might come complete with both drums and kilts.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.