Even before he could walk, Finn Scanlon spent many of his weekends in Gonzaga’s bleachers watching the high school’s football team.

Scanlon’s father, Michael, graduated from Gonzaga in 1988, and he passed the school’s long-standing traditions to his son. Watching Gonzaga students jump and yell on the bleachers, Scanlon wanted one day to be a leader of the school’s student cheer group.

“It was definitely important that I was part of it,” said Scanlon, now a senior and a standout lacrosse player for the Eagles.

Gonzaga is one of the area’s most accomplished football programs, with four Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships, and its student section may be one reason. At big games, there can be as many as 400 Gonzaga students standing elbow-to-elbow in the bleachers. It would be hard to find a game where fewer than 150 students were in attendance.

In July, Scanlon was selected to lead the student booster club — and therefore lead those chants. In a normal year, he would plan every game’s theme and pep rally and stand in front of the student cheer group, lucky if he didn’t become hoarse. Those chaotic, adrenaline-filled moments are obviously missing this fall.

Being part of the student cheer group at Gonzaga is serious stuff. New students learn what to expect at freshman orientation, when student booster club members storm onto the field in costumes, riling up the rookies.

Many of those freshmen will experience their first football game near the back of the student section. Many student cheer groups have unwritten rules that the older students reserve seats closer to the field.

Other students get an appetizer of what’s to come when they’re considering attending Gonzaga. Malcolm Dread was in eighth grade when he watched the Gonzaga basketball team play in the WCAC championship at American University. Wearing a purple Gonzaga T-shirt, Dread sneaked into the student section.

“I was really overwhelmed because there were so many people in the gym, and it was like everybody was yelling and chanting,” said Dread, a standout basketball player who is committed to Richmond but wasn’t above joining the student booster club this year.

At the beginning of every week, Gonzaga’s student booster club members post the clothing theme for that week’s game on Instagram; word spreads quickly throughout the school. Sometimes the theme is as simple as everyone wearing white or black clothes. One time, when Gonzaga played the DeMatha Stags, students wore camouflage as if they were deer hunting.

There’s no telling what sort of costumes you will see. Student cheer group leaders have worn banana suits, purple onesies, plaid skirts with a bagpipe, and fur coats to go along with shorts in cold weather. In the fourth quarter of close games, Gonzaga students remove their shirts and wave them in the air.

This fall, Scanlon planned to pick out whatever old costumes he could find in his basement, such as a leprechaun outfit or a Mad Hatter hat. Dread considered donning a banana suit, lifeguard outfit, hot dog suit and Captain Underpants costume.

Similar antics occur among some of the area’s other most spirited student sections. At Centreville High, student cheer group leaders carry a back-and-blue spirit stick with a Wildcat head at the base. Regardless of the game’s theme, body paint is a staple. Students place a box on the track that leaders stand on throughout the game, but it needs to be replaced about every two years because of damage.

“It’s really sad, honestly, because this is something we’ve all been looking forward to: our senior year of high school football seeing the boys play,” Centreville senior Clara Looney said. “It’s something that we’re missing out on that people, they can understand, but from our view point, it’s hard.”

At Gonzaga, excitement builds for Friday night football games throughout the school day. There’s a pep rally before every game, with the most extensive one coming the week Gonzaga plays its biggest rival, St. John’s. Students say attendance is mandatory. Many alums return. With the football team sitting in the middle of the field, students scream at the top of their lungs.

For home games, Gonzaga’s student booster club sometimes organizes food trucks to arrive outside the D.C. private school so students don’t have to leave campus to eat before the game. Students rush into the bleachers when the stadium gates open about an hour before kickoff.

Gonzaga students are always on their feet, and many later return home with a sore throat. At the end of games, Gonzaga’s players run to the student cheer group. Everyone raises a fist as they sing the school’s alma mater.

But Gonzaga’s students haven’t always been patient enough to wait for that postgame ritual.

In 2018, Gonzaga trailed DeMatha in the WCAC championship at Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium when quarterback Caleb Williams threw a desperation 53-yard pass to the end zone as time expired. During the play, Gonzaga’s students said the “Hail Mary” prayer together. When they said “Amen,” wide receiver John Marshall caught the ball in the end zone, giving the Eagles the title in one of the country’s most competitive leagues.

The hundreds of students pushed each other in the bleachers trying to dash onto the field to celebrate. The school’s student services couldn’t control them. Within a few moments, the fence separating the bleachers from the field barreled over. The school had to pay for the damages, but that didn’t stop students from jumping, yelling and singing with football players on the field.

Gonzaga safety Kye Holmes said the student cheer group made the team believe it could win. The senior has leaned on its energy since he was a freshman. Before Holmes entered his first varsity game in 2017 at Good Counsel, one of Gonzaga’s students yelled at Holmes to “bring the juice.” That energized Holmes and eliminated his jitters as the Eagles won and moved onto the WCAC championship game.

If there is a WCAC football season this spring, Gonzaga’s student booster club leaders say they have pent-up energy from virtual learning this fall. For them, there is no better place to release it then alongside hundreds of classmates in Gonzaga’s bleachers.

“Whenever we come back,” Holmes said, “I guarantee it’s going to be the best student section you’ve ever seen.”

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