Spirited parents pull all-nighters to support swimmers at WPIALs
Yawns sometimes outnumber cheers at WPIAL swimming championships.
Almost like Black Friday, swim parents camp overnight at Fitzgerald Field House across from the University of Pittsburgh's Trees Pool, in the name of supporting their kids and securing the best seats.
“Sometimes they're cheering, but when they're up there yawning, it's kind of funny to see,” said North Allegheny High School senior Zach Buerger.
North Allegheny's parents represent the largest contingent, numbering close to 70 at Trees and 30 who spent the night inside Fitzgerald Field House.
Parents arrive earlier and earlier, some as early as 10 p.m. Wednesday for the event on Thursday and Friday.
Most bring chairs and coffee. Few sleep.
The WPIAL's bellwether program in high school swimming, the all-nighter is viewed by North Allegheny's parents as a bonding experience and a way to show support.
Others, such as Lisa Marcucci of Collier, think the practice is archaic and advocates a specific number of tickets allotted to schools or an online ticket-buying system.
“People were getting here at 10:30 p.m., 2:30 a.m., 4:30 a.m. … This is the day and age where you shouldn't be doing that for a high school-level thing,” Marcucci said. “We're not meeting the pope, for heaven's sake.”
Parents line the track around Pitt's old basketball floor, usher Jerry Horgan said. The extras file into seats.
Tickets sell for $10, and parents receive one of eight wristbands — names such as Pink Balloon, Paw Print and Peach/Coral are outlined on a spreadsheet for ushers — that correspond with times they're escorted across Allequippa Street and into Trees.
“It's ridiculous,” Marcucci said. “You have to wait for your number to be called and they schlep you across the street like a herd of cattle.”
One wrinkle is at 5 a.m., when parents who parked in the OC Lot across Allequippa must wake up, walk across the street and pay for parking.
Miss an alarm? Your car gets ticketed or towed.
David Buerger is unofficial ringleader of the North Allegheny group, which dons black-and-gold Hawaiian shirts and sits near the starting blocks.
Buerger left his Wexford home about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday and stopped at Dunkin' Donuts to buy treats for himself, other parents and ushers such as Horgan.
One time, Buerger said, someone brought a propane grill to cook eggs in the morning.
“The parents do it together,” Buerger said. “That's kind of our way of showing our team spirit to the kids. We want to all get seats together so we can cheer them on.”
Longtime Bethel Park coach Bill Kennedy remembers parents grilling outside Trees and others trekking to Ritter's Diner on Baum Boulevard for breakfast when the Black Hawks swam the second of two daily sessions.
“We like to make a day out of it,” Bethel Park parent Eric Brinkhoff said. “The goal is to make it to Friday night — do the 24-hour thing.”
Although North Allegheny was the largest contingent, Hempfield's parents arrived first and donned blue sequined hats. Bethel Park's group followed shortly after.
Tammy Blackwood, who coaches Elizabeth Forward and chairs the WPIAL swimming committee, likes things the way they are.
Trees might be cramped, Blackwood acknowledged, but it's fast. And there's pretty much no other place.
“This is the best facility in the state of Pennsylvania,” Blackwood said. “Even when we go to Bucknell (for states), this is a faster facility.”
Janet Bacco of Penn-Trafford turned it into a bonding experience with her daughter Alexis, 15. They arrived about 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
Bacco said she hadn't slept since 6 a.m. Wednesday and was yawning while the pair shopped for T-shirts.
“I can't wait to go to bed tonight,” said Janet Bacco, whose seat was a few rows back in the stands at Trees, adjacent to the eight lanes used for championship heats.
Tom Doyle of Bethel Park looked over at his friend, Dave Russell, and laughed; this was Russell's first year pulling the all-nighter. “Rookie,” Doyle snorted.
Doyle enjoys the experience, though it strikes him as a little insane.
“It's crazy,” Doyle said. “It used to be 2 o'clock, then 1 o'clock … people were there at 10 and 10:30 (Wednesday) night. We got there at 11:30, and we were 15th or 16th in line.”
Ingomar resident Chris Rutan, another North Allegheny parent, slept only a few hours, but wasn't about to complain.
“The kids like it when they can look up and see our shirts from a mile away and we're all together,” Rutan said. “We can be loud, too.
“Hey, it's a way for us to gather all the parents, sit together as a group and show some school spirit.”