Oh, the places sports can take you.
I have so many memories in this city. I grew up coming here at least once a year, thanks to our basketball tournament every year, and it almost feels like a second home. We know the hotels. We know the streets. We know the places to eat. We know the best places to stop for food and gas on the way. We know how to navigate the metro train system, how many blocks it is from the hotels to the basketball arena, how much money a hot dog costs at the Scottrade Center. And we also know that regardless of how the Panthers play over the course of the weekend, we're going to have fun while we're there. I always get hit with a strong sense of nostalgia as soon as I see that arch come into view through the windshield. Memories from childhood, high school, college, and adulthood - all here - with old friends and new ones. As a proud college student cheering on my friends as they won the conference championship for the first time in school history - and as a proud alum, mom and wife as I watch my oldest son experience a championship for the first time, himself. I love this city.
I didn't plan on heading to St. Louis this year for a number of reasons, but as our basketball team started climbing in the conference rankings throughout February, and as the weekend drew closer, Cody and I devised a secret plan that IF UNI made it to the championship game on Sunday, IF they won their games Friday and Saturday, we would surprise Jaden with a last-minute trip to the 'ship. I really didn't see it happening, as our game on Saturday was going to be a tall task to win. I didn't pack. We didn't have a hotel room. The van did not have a full tank of gas. We did not have game tickets. And then at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, the Panthers did it. They beat the Shockers and were headed to the championship game for a chance to dance in the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. Within five minutes, I was on the phone with my parents - who were already in St. Louis - telling them we were headed down. We packed bags for all three of us within 10 minutes. Aunt Cassi immediately offered to keep Brandon at their house for an impromptu sleepover. We put extra food and water down for Lucy and literally were on the road within 20 minutes of making our decision. Jaden was ecstatic. I think he told us four times during the 5 1/2 hour drive how awesome we were for taking him. My parents immediately booked us a hotel room at the team hotel for Saturday night - with a late check-in. A long-time family friend and huge UNI booster gave my dad three tickets for free, refusing payment from us to get us into the championship game. Everything fell into place effortlessly, and our Jaden was an absolute angel during the long drive through the night to get us to our team.
We pulled into the city around 11:30 Saturday night, stopping just once for some food and gas along the way. And upon arriving to the hotel, Jaden immediately got a good dose of what makes this weekend so fun. Our hotel lobby and bar was flooded with purple, and I just could not make him go upstairs to bed at that point. Mom and Dad stayed up to meet us when we arrived, and our eight-year old hung out and partied with the best of them until 1am. Player parents, big boosters, coaches wives and fans were feeling no pain at this point of the night, and Jaden was in awe of it all. ;)
It's a tradition at our hotels in St. Louis every year. These guys play the guitar for hours after every win. We've been enjoying it for years, and on Jaden's very first night, he was invited to go up and perform with them. He declined at first, but a little pressure from one of the coaches wives and Jeremy Morgan's mom - and he couldn't say no. :)
I was so proud of him for jumping right into the mix. Another St. Louis memory. And I'm pretty excited that he'll be old enough to remember this one. ;)
We woke up Sunday - championship day - after a very short night of sleep. We visited the hotel Starbucks for breakfast, enjoyed more time with friends in the lobby, rode the elevators a couple of times (well, Jaden did at least), and headed out to the front of our hotel for a bit - which was right across the street from the Arch. It was really cold and windy at this hour so we didn't take long for pictures, but at least he got to see it up close.
And then it was time to head to the pre-game pep rally at the Ballpark Village - home of the St. Louis Cardinals. This place was awesome.
The Panther family invaded Ballpark Village, and it was pretty cool to look out and see a sea of purple and gold. At this point we were eager for game time and feeling incredibly lucky to be here.
We got to meet our new athletic director in person, heard Jeremy Morgan's mom sing the most amazing rap song she'd written all by herself about our team and our season, take pictures with TC and sing a few rounds of our favorite Fight Song.
And then we went and won a championship trophy. DSLR cameras aren't allowed inside the basketball arena so this is where the pictures end. I was too excited and the game was too dramatic to take many pictures on my phone, but what a day it was. The Panthers won on a last-second shot, and Jaden got to witness it for the first time in his life. He watched his favorite player Wes Washpun get named tournament MVP, watched his favorite team raise the trophy above their heads and cut down the nets, and DIDN'T watch the last three minutes of the game - keeping his head buried in his hands from being too nervous to see how it would end. We won't forget this weekend or this day. And this is why our team and our sports mean so much to us. It's about the memories and the friendships and the thrill of it all. It was a crazy, dramatic and really good 24 hours.
And we've been wearing our dancing shoes ever since.