‘It’s just surreal’: Oakland Zoo leaders travel to Greensboro, reflect on Pitt basketball’s tournament run

Members of the Oakland Zoo at Fridays game against Iowa State in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Courtesy of Dustin Bleiweis

Members of the Oakland Zoo at Friday’s game against Iowa State in Greensboro, North Carolina.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

Austin Hogeboom sat high up in the stands at PPG Paints Arena last March. He watched No. 2 Villanova defeat No. 7 Ohio State in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, and he couldn’t help but admire the impressive contingency of fans the Wildcats drew from across the state.

But of course, as any die-hard Pitt basketball fan would, the current Oakland Zoo president fantasized about what might have been. 

“I’d just be sitting up there in the rafters like watching Villanova play and thinking ‘Man, I’d love to see Pitt play in one of these neutral site games before I graduate,’” Hogeboom, a junior political science and communications major, said. 

Sure enough, in a season where Pitt basketball started their season projected to finish almost dead last in the ACC, Hogeboom and so many other fans both new and old saw a dream realized in Greensboro on Friday against No. 6 Iowa State. 

“Literally a year later, almost to the day, I’m watching Pitt play in Greensboro back in the tournament,” Hogeboom said. “I never thought it would happen. It’s just surreal… you sit there [in years past] going man, the program’s not all that good, I hope we can find one good year and make it there. And well, it happened.”

As a whole, Pitt fans traveled well to Greensboro this weekend for the opening weekend of the 2023 NCAA tournament. They also dominated the atmosphere at the University of Dayton Arena, providing a huge boost to the Panthers in their play-in victory over No. 11 Mississippi State. 

Among both of those crowds sat a clearly defined row of students donning the easily recognizable gold Oakland Zoo shirts. In Greensboro, they sat behind one of the baskets, near the top of the Colissieum’s lower bowl.

To visiting fans and those who haven’t seen a game at the Petersen Events Center, the row of Zoo fans might seem like your typical passionate and well-coordinated college basketball fan, always on their feet and starting “Let’s go Pitt!” chants at every opportunity. 

But for the Zoo leaders, it’s about more than just supporting their favorite team. It’s about maintaining tradition and further enhancing a legacy that’s grown to unprecedented heights in 22 years. 

“The Zoo itself is its own brand, its own institution here at Pitt,” Hogeboom said. “To travel to these games and to wear our shirts as students, it’s kind of a privilege… We have a raucous environment at home when this team is playing at its best and as you saw yesterday we brought every bit of that we could with the limited numbers we had.”

While Pitt had more representation than Iowa State on Friday, there were only around 10 students who arranged a trip down to Greensboro. But making the trip was a no-brainer, according to Dustin Bleiweis. Bleiweis, a Zoo leader and lifelong Pitt basketball fan, said the journey still presented a number of logistical challenges. 

“It’s been kind of stressful. I mean, we’re students, we’re not making six figures,” Bleiweis, a junior accounting major, said. “It’s been kind of last-minute for everything… We stayed in a hotel in West Virginia then we went to the game. None of us were really expecting to beat Iowa State like that, so now we’re in a crappy Quality Inn hotel, which is terrible.”

Despite the challenges, Bleiweis assures that it’s all worth it and that the Zoo will continue to make traveling work for as long as Pitt is dancing. 

“It’s been a dream to see this team in March Madness and then we finally get here,” Bleiweis said. “I still play everything by ear at this point, but it’s going to be very tough to get to the Sweet 16, which is obviously a very good problem to have.”

According to both Bleiweis and Hogeboom, the Zoo leaders made traveling to the tournament games a priority not just for tradition — but because the players appreciate and even rely on their presence. 

“The players are always giving everyone high fives and thanking us. They love the Zoo, they really do,” Bleiweis said. “I remember Will Jefferess comes up to me and he’s like ‘I’m depending on you today,’ and it just feels so cool that they love us and we love them back.”

Following Pitt’s win in Dayton, graduate student guards Nike Sibande and Greg Elliott addressed the Zoo members who made the trip, reinforcing their importance to the team. 

Even though the students who made the trip can’t do much in terms of jumping or chirping at the opposing team’s bench, they still do everything they can to create a Pitt-centric atmosphere, and the fans in attendance recognized it. 

“It’s different because at these games we have more of an impact on the fans and not as much on the actual game because we’re sitting so far away,” Bleiweis said. “We definitely feel the love from all the alumni who say ‘Oh, you guys are awesome,’ they come up and take pictures with us.”

For the current Zoo leaders, they realize that there is an obvious correlation between the team’s success and the increased passion of the student section. They can sit in meetings, think of ways to attract more students to the games and do everything they can to make the environment an intimidating one to opposing teams — but if Pitt puts a terrible product on the table, there isn’t much that they can do to bring in fans. 

Last year’s Zoo president and 2022 Pitt grad Kyle Saxon knows all about the struggle of bringing fans in with a bad team on the floor. No matter how much he wanted to preserve the Zoo’s legacy and bring it back to life, he couldn’t. 

“At a certain point you just feel defeated because so much of the role is just keeping traditions alive, like doing my best to keep up the image of the Oakland Zoo,” Saxon said. “And that’s so hard when the team is losing games… it kind of feels like a position of powerlessness.”

Now observing from afar, Saxon is impressed by everything the current leadership regime has done to make the Zoo feel like the thriving student sections of the early 2010s.

“The leadership of the current group is so important,” Saxon said. “The passion is there, the leaders know what the Zoo is supposed to be, what it means to the team and now they’re capitalizing on the team having success.”

Of course, it would be natural for Saxon to feel some remorse about graduating from the Zoo one year too early — but as a lifelong Pitt basketball fan and one of their most outspoken critics on social media, he’s been waiting on this run for so long that he just wants to enjoy it while it lasts. 

“I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t a little jealous that other people get to experience this as students and I don’t,” Saxon said. “But in terms of my personal enjoyment of the season, there’s no sense of it being bittersweet at all. I mean, I’ve been waiting since I was a sophomore in high school for a season like this.”

For everyone that’s been involved in the Oakland Zoo, Pitt basketball’s tournament run is a reward to everyone who stuck around. The players recognize that their miraculous regular season and subsequent tournament run doesn’t happen without the hard work and loyalty from generations of Zoo leaders.

In the next few years, it’s possible that Pitt has a regression from the highs of this season, considering the unpredictability of college basketball. But according to Saxon, no matter how well the team does, this year’s leaders and team gave current students a taste of success, meaning that for now, days of empty Zoos might be in the past. 

“I don’t think I’m ever worried about the tradition of the Oakland Zoo fading,” Saxon said. “I think leadership is always going to have a great sense of what the Zoo is all about, but when so much of the student body has experienced it and taken it in, that adds a whole new level. They’ll be able to maintain that energy that they showed this year just because of so many people having that experience.”

Editor’s Note: Kyle Saxon previously worked as a senior staff writer for The Pitt News.