Middle Township student fans cheer during the JV game on Tuesday ,December 18 , against St. Augustine.

Ben Fogletto

Andrew Hoy needed to be at the center of the Middle Township High School student section when its boys basketball team played St. Augustine Prep on Dec. 18.

So, naturally, the 18-year-old senior from Stone Harbor didn’t wear a shirt. His body was painted the school colors of black and orange with a giant black “G” on his chest. Hoy and a host of other Middle students stood courtside and used their bodies to spell out “Let’s Go Middle.”

He and his and fellow rooters met at a nearby house at 4:30 p.m. to prepare for the 7 p.m. game.

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“I’m the leader,” Hoy said. “I have to be in the middle. I start all the chants. We love to see our team do well.”

Did he have any problems being shirtless in the gym with a G on his chest?

“Not if it helps our team win,” he said.

Rabid student sections are becoming a bigger part of the local high school sports scene. Students root their classmates on in all sports, but nowhere is their presence more felt as they try to rattle the opposition than in gyms where they stand or sit close to the basketball court.

School administrators keep a watchful eye. A banner in the Middle Township gym on sportsmanship warns people to be fans and not fanatics.

“We want them to have fun,” Middle Township Vice Principal Frank Riggitano said. “But at the same time, we want them to respect each other and not cross the line with the things they say. Once they’re having fun and yelling and screaming, that’s what it’s about.”

Sometimes the chants cross the line of good taste. A losing fan section in South Jersey once serenaded a winning team with chants of “That’s OK, that’s OK, you’ll be working for us one day.”

The occasional mother joke sometimes gets shouted across gyms.

“We encourage students to be creative, witty and unique,” said St. Augustine Prep Athletic Director Dennis Foreman. “In the mind of a 15- or 16-year-old, that does not always translate to appropriateness. Sometimes you pick on the other team. We do not encourage that or endorse that. We stop it.”

High school athletes aren’t the only ones influenced by their professional and college counterparts. High school fan sections began to spring up in the 1990s and 2000s when national television began to spotlight crazed college fan sections with painted faces and dyed hair, such as the “Cameron Crazies” who support the Duke University men’s basketball team.

Locally, fan sections began to peak in the mid-2000s, when the self-dubbed Richland Rowdies formed. The section consists of St. Augustine Prep students and is named after the school’s location in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township.

The group is among the most inventive in South Jersey.

“We want to be the example for other schools,” said Craig Smith, a 17-year-old St. Augustine Prep senior from Dennis Township. “We pride ourselves on the Richland Rowdies. It pumps the players up.”

St. Augustine always had a strong student section, but Foreman gave the group more focus and organization when he began working there in 2006. The school trademarked the nickname. The Rowdies are a unifying force at a school where students often travel a minimum of 30 minutes to attend.

“It’s a testament to the mission of our school, which is brotherhood and supporting each other,” Foreman said. “The Rowdies for basketball games are football players. The Rowdies for football games are basketball players. They speak exactly to what we stand for — that celebration of scholar-athletes.”

The Rowdies talk often in school. They try to come up with themes for big games. For this season’s opener, they all wore white.

For the Middle Township game, they came dressed in costumes. Smith was dressed as a sheriff from the “Reno 911” television comedy series.

Whether it was the influence of the Rowdies or a trickle-down from college games on television, student sections have begun to spring up more often at local high school games.

School administrators say they want students to attend games.

“If they’re here, they’re having a good time, supporting their classmates and staying out of trouble,” Riggitano said.

The fans liven up gyms. They jab back and forth at each other. Opponents that shoot shots that miss the rim are greeted with chants of “Air ball! Air ball!” Prominent players who commit a turnover hear chants of “Overrated! Overrated!”

The players do their best to block out the barbs.

“I’m in my own zone, and I just play,” said Sacred Heart sophomore Michael Holloway, one of the Cape-Atlantic League’s best young players. “It’s hard sometimes. They are really loud.”

On Dec. 18, the Middle boys beat St. Augustine Prep by 20 points.

Middle senior guard Darrell Shelton sank 3-point shots and drove through the St. Augustine defense for layups. He finished with 23 points as the Middle students chanted, “You can’t stop him!” every time he scored.

“It helps that we have that huge student section cheering us on,” Shelton said.

The St. Augustine fans slowly left the gym as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

The Middle fans chanted, “Drive home safely!” and “Exit’s that way!”

The winning crowd always gets the last word.

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