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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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A portrait of Chancellor Joan Gabel.
Senate Council holds final meeting of semester, recaps recent events
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • May 14, 2024
Column | A thank you to student journalists
By Betul Tuncer, Editor-in-Chief • April 27, 2024

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A portrait of Chancellor Joan Gabel.
Senate Council holds final meeting of semester, recaps recent events
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • May 14, 2024
Column | A thank you to student journalists
By Betul Tuncer, Editor-in-Chief • April 27, 2024

Oakland Zoo leaders reflect on season and upcoming tournaments

The+Oakland+Zoo+attempts+to+distract+Notre+Dame+players+for+a+foul+shot+during+a+game+against+Notre+Dame+at+the+Petersen+Events+Center+on+Feb.+4.
Bronco York | Staff Photographer
The Oakland Zoo attempts to distract Notre Dame players for a foul shot during a game against Notre Dame at the Petersen Events Center on Feb. 4.

Pitt men’s basketball is having one of its most interesting seasons in recent memory. The Panthers’ return to the NCAA Tournament last season brought plenty of hype to students and fans of the program. Nowhere else is that hype more felt than inside the Petersen Events Center and Pitt’s student section — The Oakland Zoo.

In many ways, the recent trajectory of the Oakland Zoo has mirrored that of Pitt men’s basketball. Head coach Jeff Capel’s rebuild of the Panthers back to respectability took a major leap forward with last season’s tournament run. 

Oakland Zoo leader senior Austin Hogeboom also reflected on the progression that the men’s basketball program has taken within the past few seasons. 

“I think we’re very proud of where we are, especially given the last few years,” Hogeboom said. “Programs change. We went through an 0-18 season in ACC play and a pandemic, so we’ve had to recover.”

The buzz in the Oakland Zoo has caught the attention of opposing teams as well. Virginia Tech’s head coach Mike Young commented on the environment during the Panthers’ 79-64 victory over the Hokies.

“I was here in 2010 they were coming off a great year,” Young said following the Hokies’ game against the Panthers. “It was hard [to play], really hard. What a great atmosphere, what a great building for college basketball.”

While the program still has a long way to go before it reaches the same tier as those mid- to late-2000s teams, coaches, players and fans alike have all expressed excitement and hope 

for the direction that the team has taken and what they believe the program can become. 

Still, the recent success of Pitt men’s basketball has seen the Oakland Zoo reach some heights that it has never seen before, even during its heyday. The Jan. 9 contest against Duke saw the Zoo smash its previous record attendance number, with 2,750 students in attendance.

Zoo leaders like senior Dustin Bleiweis have utilized both social media and the Panthers’ dynamic roster to generate hype amongst students, which created some of those record-breaking nights.

“This team is young and flashy, which gets people excited,” Bleiweis said. “We’ve also used our social media and a lot of promotions and giveaways to get people interested.” 

Among their responsibilities outside the Pete, the Zoo leaders are tasked with making sure that games run smoothly in the section and that students are as engaged as they can possibly be. 

“What it comes down to is maintaining our traditions,” Hogeboom said. “The things we try to do is lead by example, like jumping up and down on defense and just being loud.”

Leaders like Hogeboom and Bleiweis have started a new tradition for the Zoo — sending members to road games, and the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The Zoo has made sure that their presence is felt and the Panthers are supported wherever they go. 

Next week, the Panthers will travel to Washington D.C for the ACC Tournament. Hogeboom is certain that the Zoo will support the Panthers as best as it can in the nation’s capital. 

“The mentality we had last year was ‘wheels up,’ and this year we have the same mindset,” Hogeboom said. “We’re gonna be there. We’re gonna be sure that our people are there.” 

The Panthers currently have an outside chance to make the NCAA tournament and would need a lot to go their way if they want to return to the big dance. However, Bleiweis has shared similar sentiments about traveling to Pitt’s tournament destination if the team was to make it. 

“I’ll do everything I can to go to the ACC tournament and March Madness,” Bleiweis said.

Hogeboom and Bleiweis’ careers as Zoo leaders and as Pitt students will end after this semester. But the pair have left a positive impact on the Oakland Zoo for the next set of students who will fill their positions in the coming years. 

“I mean, this is my last week — I can do it,” Bleiweis said. “I’m just trying to pass the torch and saying ‘you can keep this going because we had a bad direction.’ Now, it is going well.” 

Similarly, Hogeboom reminded Pitt fans and students to remain passionate about the Panthers as they continue their rebuild and attempt to regain the power they had in years past. 

“I really encourage future leaders to cheer for the team like they were back in ‘08-’09,” Hogeboom said. “Whatever team comes out on that floor, be relentless.”