Tuesday, March 16, 1999

We're wild about Wally


National attention on Szczerbiak, Miami

BY KEVIN ALDRIDGE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[szczerbiak]
Wally Szczerbiak waves to the pro wrestling crowd at WCW Monday Night Metro at the Firstar Center.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        OXFORD — Cinderella is alive and well in Oxford.

        Swapping high-top sneakers for glass slippers, the Miami RedHawks head to St. Louis to square off against defending national champion University of Kentucky ay 10:15 p.m. Friday in Round 3 of the men's NCAA Tournament.

        And no one in Oxford wants the Big Dance to end.

        “The campus is buzzing and everyone is really excited. We just want to keep the run going,” said the ringleader of the RedHawks' upstart performance, All-American Walter R. Szczerbiak, who's known around campus — and now the country — as simply Wally.

        Thanks to the team's upsets of Washington Friday and Utah Sunday, “Wally-mania” has gripped this college town.

[szczerbiak]
While at school Monday, Szczerbiak autographed a poster. He got a standing ovation in class.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Conventional wisdom says the Wildcats have the advantage over Miami. The last time Miami made it to the final 16 teams of the NCAA tournament was in 1978 when it lost to Kentucky, 91-69.

        But no one in Oxford is heeding conventional wisdom these days.

        “They're certainly an underdog, but the great thing about the NCAA tournament is that you never know what can happen next,” said David Weihrauch, an Oxford resident and diehard RedHawks fan.

        He braved Monday's morning chill to be the first in line at Millett Hall to get tickets to Friday's showdown with Kentucky. He arrived at 7 a.m. and waited six hours to fork over his $270 for three tickets. The long wait did not temper his optimism.

        “This team has the players to compete with (Kentucky) and Miami's defense is one of the nation's best-kept secrets,” he said.

[miamifans]
Miami fans line up for tickets.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The secret about Miami's team began to dribble out Friday when Mr. Szczerbiak almost single-handedly won the RedHawks' first-round game against Washington. He scored 43 of the team's 59 points.

        The spotlight grew hotter after Mr. Szczerbiak tallied 24 in Sunday's win over the Midwest Regional's No. 2 seed, Utah, which had won 23 straight.

        Almost overnight, Oxford — the little town of about 19,000 in Butler County — became the capital of Wally World.

        Several hundred Miami students greeted the team's bus when it rolled into Oxford early Monday with a police escort after the long drive from New Orleans.

        On Wednesday, the school will send the team off with a pep rally at 3:45 p.m. in Millett Hall. CBS Sports will be on hand for the event.

        As for Mr. Szczerbiak — whose grinning mug graced the front page of USA Today Monday — the attention carried over to the classroom. When he walked into a morning class, he was greeted with a standing ovation from fellow students.

        “It's great,” said the senior from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., said. “This is something that we are not used to at Miami.

        “We just beat the second-best team from a year ago and now we have a chance to beat the best team,” he said.

        It's clear the Szczerbiak-led RedHawks are becoming the story of the NCAA Tournament.

        The New York Times and USA Today are coming to Oxford today to do stories on Mr. Szczerbiak. CBS had a crew on the bus back from the airport Sunday night to do a piece.

        “It's been unbelievable,” sports information director Mike Wolf said. “We must have gotten a hundred calls.”

        And Mr. Szczerbiak's plans for Monday? He headed to Cincinnati for the pro wrestling show at the Firstar Center. Teammate Mike Ensminger and Wally — who said in Miami's media guide his favorite TV show is World Championship Wrestling Monday Nitro — had planned the trip long before they knew Miami would be going to the Sweet 16.

        The national exposure is expected to fuel the March Madness sweeping the Oxford campus, decked out in “Go RedHawks” and “How Sweet it is!” posters and fliers.

        “You hear a little bit more about UK than Miami,” said Hobart Smith, an 85-year-old Oxford resident and RedHawk fan. “But now when people say, "Miami who?' I say, "No, Miami U.'”

        John Fay contributed to this report.

       



Miami Stories
- Miami is having a ball
What's in Wally's name? Uh, some Cs and Zs
Miami's 16 ingredients for sweet season
Tourney run not a financial windfall for Miami
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