One Special Relationship

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One of the most overdue features in all of women's college basketball? Al Lesar takes a look into the rabid Notre Dame hoops fanbase. Lime green t-shirts available at the door.

Hat tip to the fans who braved the (almost) apocalyptic snow storm of January 2011 to watch Notre Dame face Connecticut. Big nod to those who show up two hours before each home game to secure a good parking spot in the Joyce Center lot.

South Bend Tribune - Who are these people? Most have already lived a long life. They appreciate hard work.

Character's important; old-fashioned values.

And their basketball? They like it hard-nosed and fundamentally sound.

Notre Dame women's basketball fans are a unique bunch.

They're grandparents who have adopted 12 young 'uns. They're young kids who look forward to watching a dozen "big sisters" work their magic.

Student support is minimal. The band is nice.

This team, though, belongs to the Michiana community -- 7,500 season-ticket holders strong in an arena that seats 9,149.

Affordable tickets (17 home games for $70), a great product (the second-ranked Irish are 18-1) and some very likeable players make for plenty of reasons to follow the Irish.

They wear their (coach Muffet) "McGraw (lime) green" shirts and swear their girls can do no wrong.

"The UConn game (a couple weeks ago) was great," said Rachael Lynn of Granger. "When Notre Dame was behind, (her 6-year-old son) Aiden said, 'We're losing. We never lose.'"

Such is the mentality of the typical card-carrying, T-shirt wearing Notre Dame women's basketball fan.

Blame Stephanie Menio for the phenomenon. She can get over 8,500 people into Purcell Pavilion on a snowy night in January to watch a 76-point blowout.

Now, that takes some work.

The 29-year-old Menio, in her seventh year of drumming up business for Irish women's basketball, has the process down to a science. No checklist. No scribbled notes. She has a legion of volunteers, mostly those keeping busy in their retirement years, who do the legwork and help things run smoothly.

Entertain the crowd. Give back to the community. Enhance the players' experience.

"The fans know (sophomore) Kayla McBride is a great player," Menio said, giving an example of her mission. "What we want them to know is that she's a great person."

Autograph sessions after every game. Personal appearances in the community. An impromptu surprise team drop-in to a bowling league in which several longtime fans are involved. Anything to show there are some really special young women on the roster.

"We love 'em all," said Betty Bennett of Lakeville.

Her button, with a photo of Devereaux Peters and Whitney Holloway, gives away her allegiance. She sits in the "Dev & Whit" section of the arena, behind the west basket. Those folks are loyal to their ladies, you know.

"I've followed 'Sky' for the last seven years," Donna McCullough of South Bend said of Irish All-American Skylar Diggins. "I came here a Skylar fan, now I'm a Notre Dame fan. I'll be back even after Skylar's done."

"Skylar opened a lot of doors on the West Side of South Bend," Menio said of the Washington High grad. "Those same people have come around and adopted the whole team."

Everybody has their reason for being part of the fun game-day atmosphere. Abby Lynn, 9, of Granger, figures out ways to get on the JumboTron by busting a new move during the "dance cam" segment. Her dad, Hugh, likes the Irish style of play.

"I like to see what kind of abuse Brittany (Mallory) is going to dish out," Hugh said of Notre Dame's rough-and-tumble fifth-year senior.

Frank Smith of South Bend enjoys the purity of the women's game.

"I love the way they play. I'm a big fan," Smith said. "It takes me back to a time in basketball when everybody wasn't 8-feet tall."

McGraw's got a handle on the basketball side of the operation. The win over UConn will go a long way toward a No. 1 seed come tournament time.

Every home game is proof that, given the right set of circumstances and the proper chemistry, the community can come together for a common cause. It's an electric atmosphere. A strange melting pot of personalities and backgrounds - age 70 or 7 - takes ownership in a collection of a dozen quality young women.

That's who those people are.

They all have a stake in the Irish

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