Let me start off by acknowledging I may have had the teensiest bit of bias when writing this.
I was a member of the Riot Squad for my entire time at Rutgers, and proudly served as the group's marketing director during my senior year. I came to Rutgers with a love for all athletics - not just football - and was thrilled to find a group that felt the same way.
Does Rutgers have the same huge student following that other universities have? Maybe not. At least not yet. But to think Rutgers has no students with passion and dedication to athletics would simply be inaccurate.
In my brief time on the banks, I got to experience a lot of incredible Rutgers athletics moments, (which, conveniently, you can read about right here), and most of them were with the Riot Squad. Making those memories with passionate Rutgers fans was easily the highlight of my college years.
But to me, it was more than just attending the games, and supporting our athletes. What I loved so much was being able to work alongside individuals in the athletic department who shared our vision - to spread the passion for Rutgers athletics to students all over campus. As someone who grew up in a small town, it felt great to be involved with something big.
Perhaps Riot Squad president Alyx Cucinotta said it best when she told me, "As a part of the Riot Squad you feel like more than just a fan, you feel like part of the Rutgers Family. We get to see a lot of the behind the scenes action and it makes it a more personal experience."
I have found the best sporting event memories are made with friends. I can't imagine witnessing our men's basketball team beat Wisconsin last winter by myself. Besides the fact my heart probably couldn't have handled the nerves alone, it was an amazing experience to stuff The RAC share the court storm with others. And I'm thankful many of the folks I met through the Riot Squad have become some of my great friends.
"These are not simply people that you only see at games, but all over campus and eventually they end up becoming your closest friends," marketing director James Surico said. This organization provides the quickest way to make friends at Rutgers and we pride ourselves on that."
"After getting into the Big Ten, there has been such an increase in pride around campus and the excitement to be a Scarlet Knight," said vice president Sean Stevenson. "Being able to bring these people together who really love their school and allow them interact and have fun has been an amazing time for our group."
Building and growing the Riot Squad hasn't been without its challenges, though. There's no sugarcoating it - Rutgers students as a whole have come under fire for some less-than-stellar showings lately.
The one that stands out the most to me was last year's Homecoming loss to Wisconsin. It was cold, raining, and Rutgers ended up losing 37-0. Even worse, a photo went viral of a mostly empty student section, occupied only by a group of students towards the front.
But I can proudly say that group was in fact almost exclusively Riot Squad members. A few dozen of us braved the crummy weather and watched Rutgers take it on the chin until the clock hit 0:00 before departing. We stayed until the bitter end.
"Every team goes through their ups and downs," Surico said. "But the best part about it is that there is always the next game and a chance for every student to come together and unite as one student body behind their school."
While arriving early and staying until the end is great, any Riot Squad member will tell you there's more to it than just that. The Riot Squad reminds its members they represent Rutgers, and to demonstrate sportsmanship as well as passion.
"We promote a positive fan experience and encourage sportsmanship and spirit at all athletic events," Cucinotta said.
I recently wrote about how the student section chanting "F--- Penn State" is counterproductive, and the Riot Squad has been at the frontline of eliminating the chants and replacing them with a pro-Rutgers chants ever since last year. Like I said, the Riot Squad and student section as a whole represent Rutgers, and it's important to do so not just in presence, but in action as well.
While the Riot Squad might be most heavily associated with football and basketball, the group has worked hard in recent years to expand its presence to other sports. One mission I had a part in spearheading last year was getting more students to Rutgers soccer games. I'm proud to say the current members have really helped that endeavor take a step forward for the 2015 season.
"We are really focusing on soccer this year, men and women's," Cucinotta said. "[Men's Soccer Head] Coach Donigan and [Women's Soccer Associate Head] Coach Meg Ryan really support the Riot Squad and help us with whatever we need to get people out to soccer games.
"Coach Donigan got special Riot Squad-only bleachers for the games, which helps us enhance our own fan experience. We also hold soccer tailgates, catered by local New Brunswick restaurants and donors, to get people excited for big games."
The soccer tailgates have been a huge hit. I managed to stop by the tailgate before Men's Soccer's Big Ten opener, and the turnout was overwhelming. The enthusiasm and unity displayed by the Riot Squad during the game was also electrifying.
"[The tailgates] get students out early to games while being able to enjoy the fellowship of their friends and eat free food," Surico added. "We have noticed a sharp increase in participation outside of football and basketball for this reason."
Personally, I've seen the group grow leaps and bounds since I first set foot on campus. Is the Riot Squad as expansive as they'd like? Perhaps not. But this is definitely a case of "quality over quantity", and the passion and dedication of the current members more than makes up for the still-growing numbers.
I've told others a number of times that joining the Riot Squad was the best decision I made in my collegiate career. Great times. Great people. And (a lot of the time) great wins. What else can you ask for?
So my message to current students, incoming students, or anyone considering attending Rutgers: If you love Rutgers athletics, consider the Riot Squad. I know they'd love to welcome you aboard.
And if you're a diehard Rutgers alum and/or fan who is at every game trying to will your team to a victory, the Riot Squad is right there with you.
I rued the day I graduated and had to (at least officially) part ways with the Riot Squad, but it's clear the group is in great hands. And I know they're ready to do big things.
"Without a doubt," Cucinotta said. "We are a F.A.M.I.L.Y."