A few years back, the NCAA had a bright idea to kick off the Final Four by having student athletes (one from each of the four schools competing) sing the national anthem as a quartet.
Four amateur musicians from rival schools who have never performed together and have little time to practice would sing a notoriously difficult song on national TV. What could go wrong?
So far, nothing.
Starting in Indianapolis in 2015, the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as belted out by the student athletes — ranging from football players to equestrian team members — have been heartfelt, crowd-pleasing performances.
For many of the tuneful scholar jocks (often in less-celebrated sports like fencing or volleyball), it turned out to be a Cinderella story, their one shining moment before the tipoff.
“It was an out-of-body experience,” said Karlie Crispin, who was on her way to practice with the women’s basketball team at Villanova University when she learned she was their pick to sing at the 2016 Final Four in Houston.
“I’m getting chills just talking about it,” said Crispin, who now works in the athletic department at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was probably the best weekend of my life.”
Vitto Brown felt the same. Not only did he play on the University of Wisconsin team that made it to the Final Four in 2015, he was Wisconsin’s choice to sing.
“It’s an experience nobody else has ever had,” said Brown, who now plays for the Maine Red Claws, a minor league team in the NBA G League.
Of course, a winning performance doesn’t happen without a good coach. That’s where Joey Clark comes in.
The NCAA tapped Clark (a Twin Cities performer, director and teacher at the MacPhail Center for Music and the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists) to get this year’s students — from Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn — ready to perform before Saturday’s games at U.S. Bank Stadium.
This year, the NCAA allowed the schools in contention to nominate instrumentalists as well as singers.
So before the Sweet 16 games, Clark was looking at a spreadsheet of potential performers that included a violin-playing swimmer from Virginia Tech and a singing golfer from Gonzaga.
His Final Four quartet includes Michigan State soccer goalie Zach Kovan, who knew last weekend that his school had nominated him to sing. He wasn’t nervous. He didn’t think the Spartans would upset top-seeded Duke.
Now he’s going to be singing for a live audience of about 72,000.
“This will be by far the most people I’ve ever played to,” said Dorian Williams Jr., a guitarist and hurdler from Texas Tech. “It’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ll have ever done.”
Milla Ciprian, a volleyball player and soprano from Virginia, said when she told her parents on Monday she would be singing the national anthem at the Final Four, they thought it was an April Fool’s joke.
Clark, who has two rehearsals with the students, let them know he was aiming for a “pop/folksy/laid back” version of the anthem.
“I would like to do something different and creative if I can,” he said.
For inspiration, he sent a link to a YouTube video of Jose Feliciano strumming and singing in the 1968 World Series.
While Clark isn’t a big basketball fan, he’s touched by the idea of people from opposing schools coming together to sing.
“It’s just very meaningful,” he said.