by Ryan Schulz
While Commodore fans looking to cheer on Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament would much rather have seen the Commodores sent to a location that is closer to Nashville such as Jacksonville or New Orleans, two members of Vanderbilt’s team couldn’t be happier with heading west.
For Vanderbilt junior Darshawn McClellan and sophomore Festus Ezeli, the team’s trip to San Jose is a homecoming. McClellan is a Fresno, Calif., native, while Ezeli lived in Yuba City, Calif., after moving to the U.S. in 2004 from Nigeria. Both cities are approximately 150 miles from San Jose, the site of Vanderbilt’s first and second round NCAA Tournament games.
When Vanderbilt takes on 13th-seeded Murray State at 1:30 p.m. CT on Thursday, it will mark the second time this season Vanderbilt has played in California after playing at St. Mary’s in November. If the Commodores have it their way, they will be playing two and not one more game in Golden State.
“It is real special,” McClellan said. “I rarely get to see my family but once or twice a year. For me this going to be a special time, especially being in the NCAA Tournament playing in front of so many friends and family.”
Just how many of McClellan’s friends and family will make the 2½-hour trek from Fresno? A better question might be, who won’t be making the trip?
“The number keeps growing by the hour,” McClellan said.
Ezeli returns to Calif., a much different player than he was before coming to Vanderbilt. After first picking up the game in 2004, Ezeli has developed leaps and bounds from where he was when he first arrived on Vanderbilt’s campus in 2007.
“People from high school who knew me when I didn’t make the (high school) team talk about how (much I’ve grown) from there to here and wonder what happened,” Ezeli said. It’s been a crazy transformation and I’m still growing. I guess I still have more to surprise them with.”
Like McClellan, the number of fans Ezeli will have in the stands is continually growing, which for the Commodores could be beneficial in more ways than just crowd support.
“I think when my family is there (watchng), I play better because I’m more comfortable,” Ezeli said.
Although both players will have large contingents to cheer them on in San Jose, the trip to California is more than just a trip home for Ezeli and McClellan.
“I’m going to try to get up early to make sure I get to see my family,” McClellan said. “I hope that I will get to spend some time with them, but we are there for business and they understand that.”
(photo by John Russell)