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Oakland Zoo has grown to top student section

| Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

It all started about six years ago with a handful of basketball-crazed Pitt students at old Fitzgerald Field House.

From those humble beginnings, the Oakland Zoo has grown into one of the top student sections in college basketball.

"They are phenomenal," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said Saturday afternoon. "It's the synergy of a new building and a winning program and the excitement and enthusiasm."

No. 7 Pitt (15-2, 3-0) played host to Georgetown (11-4, 1-1 Big East) in front of a sold-out Oakland Zoo at Petersen Events Center on Saturday night.

The nationally televised Big East game ended too late for this edition.

The Zoo was founded during the 2000-01 season when a pair of Pitt students was disappointed with the quiet, disjointed student section at Panthers men's basketball games.

Donning their gold "Zoo" T-shirts and an occasional blue wig, the group has bloomed from about 40 students into a raucous, 1,400-member student section. They have become an officially recognized student group by Pitt. Last week they opened a Web site .

Vitale filmed a segment with the Zoo as part of "ESPN GameDay" on Saturday night. He will return Tuesday night for the Connecticut-Pitt game when the Zoo will be featured as part of Spirit Week in ESPN.

"It's awesome," said Drew Margulis, a 20-year-old sophomore from Ohio Township who arrived at the Pete at 8:15 a.m. Saturday. "I used to dream about coming here. Just being in a place like this, you get up for the game."

The group's popularity grew with the opening of the Petersen Events Center for the 2002-03 season. The students are in eight lower sections, primarily across from the team benches.

The Oakland Zoo is one of the reasons the Pete was named the most difficult place to play in the Big East. Pitt is 74-6 at the Petersen Events Center, including 10-0 this season entering the Georgetown game. Even the Pitt basketball media guide devotes two full pages to its student cheering section.

"I think it's terrific," said Chris Ferris, the associate athletic director for marketing and promotions at Pitt. "They have taken a lot of pride in supporting our team. They have a great influence on our team, and they create atmosphere. They are doing it the right way."

The Zoo held their annual Pep Rally on Thursday night. The newest members of the group wolfed down 200 pizzas -- plain and pepperoni -- before watching a men's and women's highlight film in the PantherVision scoreboard. Coaches Jamie Dixon and Agnus Berenato spoke to the Zoo. About 700 Oakland Zoo members attended.

"We've got a couple of things in mind (for Saturday night's game)," said Derek Mason, a 23-year-old graduate student at Pitt and a ranking member of the Zoo.

The Zoo does more than jump and scream. They sent a letter of support to coach Ron Everhart after the September shootings of five Duquesne basketball players and arranged to hand out red ribbons when the teams played Dec. 6 at the Pete. They even refrained from their pregame chants during the introduction of the opposing team's players. They have raised money for cancer research and worked with Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"The kids make it work," Ferris said. "We just point the compass."

Any Pitt student can become a member of the Oakland Zoo -- it's just a matter of getting tickets to the game. Students can bid for one of the 1,400 general admission student tickets by registering online. The tickets are sold on a game-by-game basis.

The $5 tickets are distributed on a loyalty system based on priority points. In other words, the best way to get tickets to Connecticut is to order tickets -- and attend -- Delaware State.

"It's elevated our student attendance at non-conference games dramatically," Ferris said. "The kids get into it, and it's fun to watch. How can you not get pumped up as a general fan watching the students jump up and down?"

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