March Madness: Pacific Students Soak In NCAA Tournament Experience

Luke Winkler, Conner Gates & Blake Timm On Press Conference DaisFor five days in March, Portland was one of the epicenters of the college basketball universe as a host site for the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.

And as an army of staff and volunteers descended on the Moda Center for the tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds, a number of Pacific students and alumni were among those making sure teams and fans were taken care of.

“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” said Conner Gates ’24. “We’ve done so many jobs here, from running statistics to setting up locker rooms. We’ve pretty much done it all here.” 

Gates, along with Luke Winkler ’25 and Garrett Stewart ’23, were part of a massive volunteer media and event operations group assembled by Sport Oregon and tournament host Oregon State University for the five-day event, which ran from March 28 to April 1.

For students in Pacific’s sport leadership and management program, the tournament provided the opportunity to put classroom learning to practical use.

“There are a lot of moving pieces to something like this,” Winkler said. “People know a little bit about a lot of things, but there is a lot of working together with a lot of different groups. There is so much work behind the scenes just to make the six games this weekend happen.”

Garrett Stewart Hands Out Statistics At The NCAA Womenʻs TournamentBefore and in between games, the trio was involved in nearly every part of the backstage operation, from setting up locker rooms for the competing teams to running microphones during press conferences to copying game notes for media use. During the game, volunteers were employed to run statistics to media members and escort teams from the court to postgame media availabilities.

It was also a chance to watch some of nation’s best basketball players ply their craft from a courtside seat. Gates, Winkler and Stewart were treated to Elite Eight contests that saw North Carolina State defeat Texas and perennial women’s basketball power Connecticut defeat Southern California to earn spots in the Final Four.

For Winkler, a starting guard for the Pacific men’s basketball team who earned First Team All-Northwest Conference honors in 2024, the opportunity to soak in so much basketball experience has been inspiring.

“It’s so much fun,” he said. “I have a job to do, but I can’t help wanting to sit in the press conferences and just listen to the coaches and players that are competing so far into March and at such a high level. I have been smiling basically the whole weekend because it’s been so much fun.”

The Portland regional also saw three Pacific alumni working in prominent roles in event operations or covering the event. Blake Timm ’98, Pacific’s associate director of communications, served as the tournament’s press conference moderator. Jeff Kirkpatrick ’87 was the game clock operator, a role that he also fills for the Portland Trail Blazers and Portland State basketball. Nik Streng ’14 was one of 159 reporters covering the event in his role as the high school sports coordinator for The Oregonian.

Stewart, a sports leadership and management major with ambitions to work in Major League Soccer in web development, was impressed by the ability of the professional staff from Oregon State, Sport Oregon and the Moda Center to efficiently handle all of the details of running the tournament.”

“Watching the managers juggle different responsibilities has been a great learning experience,” he said. “From coordinating logistics to managing the on-the-ground operations, every aspect of the event presented unique challenges that they handled seamlessly, making the experience for us volunteers very smooth.

Conner Gates Conducting An Interview At The NCAA Womenʻs Basketball RegionalFor Gates, a sports leadership and management major who has ambitions to become a general manager for a professional sports team, events like March Madness are an opportunity for key networking opportunities that hold the potential to help him move ahead in a field where who you know is as valuable as what you know.

“This is another stepping stone in helping me get to that professional level,” said Gates, who was also part of the volunteer staff for the 2023 women’s regional in Seattle. “I feel like establishing these connections will help me get to where I want to be in life. It’s been a blessing for me to be in such a big scope of college sports.”

A biology major and sports leadership and management minor, Winkler said that the experience provided a good perspective on the sports world as he looks toward a career in sports medicine. Both he and Gates are grateful for the practical experiences that Pacific provides those in both its sport leadership and management and sports communications programs.

“It gets you out of the classroom and really doing it. I think that is so important,” Winkler said. “You can talk about the things that you are interested in, but when you actually have an experience, you get to re-evaluate and broaden your vision of what is possible or what you’re interested in. This experience has definitely done that.”

Tuesday, April 2, 2024