PROVIDENCE — The phenomenon began in December 2021, at the Dunkin Donuts Center, when three students who love Taylor Swift as much as they love the Providence College Friars requested one of her songs at a game.
The Friars men’s basketball team was playing their arch rivals from the University of Rhode Island when the three self-described “Swifties” — all juniors and roommates at Providence College — sidled up to the DJ in the student section and asked him to play “You Belong With Me.”
Madeleine Walsh, 21, from Long Island, her 20-year-old cousin Daisy Donovan, from Scituate, Mass., and Reilly Sweeney, 20, from Pembroke, Mass., request her songs everywhere they go. “She is just a singer that’s grown up with our generation,” Donovan said. “She became big when we were little, she’s someone you fell in love when you were a little girl, and we see her career grow and progress just as we are progressing.”
“You Belong With Me” was a megahit in 2009, when the three were in elementary school, and even though the lyrics are about longing and love, they resonated as a message about being with those who really understand you. It’s how they feel about PC, a place that, after the pandemic shutdown, gave sweatshirts to all of the returning students that say: “You are never alone in Friartown.”
“I think that being a part of the Friar community is really special,” Sweeney said. “You always, always, always can feel like you belong and there’s a place for you, and I think that’s how Taylor’s music makes you feel.”
Mason Santos, aka DJ Finesse, who had never played a Taylor Swift song in a decade of spinning music for the Friars at the Dunk, didn’t really see it as a game-day song.
“I was like, meh, but you know what, they’re really cool, they were really personable, so that’s what made me play it,” Santos said. “And it hit.”
The three young women immediately started singing along — and so did some of the other students with them in the crowd. And they kept singing, even when Santos cut off the music as the game resumed.
When DePaul University came to play PC at the Dunk on Feb. 12, more students requested “You Belong With Me,” so Santos cued it up late in the tight game.
The audience loved it. Cheerleaders and members of the dance team were singing and dancing on the court, students were chanting in the crowd, nearly drowning out the astonished broadcast announcers.
“It’s just a whole big family,” Donovan said. “The whole experience that goes along with this, and everyone sharing the common love for the school and loving seeing the school do so well.”
Videos of the sing-along went viral on social media. PC Coach Ed Cooley tweeted it out: “The BEST!!” The Dunkin Donuts Center tweeted out a cheeky invite to the singer, who owns a home in Westerly’s Watch Hill: “Your move, @taylorswift13 @taylornation13 -- it’s only 43 miles down the road.”
The Friars won against DePaul in overtime. “I texted my sisters about this, this is the best thing ever, the basketball team is doing great, and Taylor Swift is somehow involved,” Sweeney said. “It can’t get any better than this.”
The number one student song in the country is the 30-year-old classic “Jump Around” by House of Pain. But when Villanova University came to town, on Feb. 15, “You Belong With Me” was part of the action. Students who’d been at the Dunk more than three hours before the game started sang at the top of their lungs, waving PC banners, holding posters of some of the players.
“That is the most electric arena I ever spun for,” said Santos. “I’ve done Nelly in Vegas, and Diddy, but nothing like that. It was the most crazy energy I’ve ever been a part of. I have to assume that’s what it looks like at a Taylor Swift concert — everyone knows the words, everyone, Black and white, all ages – it was like the whole building was singing.”
Even though Friars lost the game, the first time they’ve lost at the Dunk this season, the Swifites were too busy dancing to get knocked off their feet.
“They didn’t win, but the atmosphere — you can’t beat it. It’s like being at the Super Bowl,” Sweeney said. “It’s a really special semester. Everybody lost out from COVID, but this season we’ve gotten everything back.”
“You Belong With Me” has as much to do with basketball as “Sweet Caroline” has to do with baseball in Boston, but the students and the DJ say that’s the beauty of it.
“Everyone loves being there [at the games], and not to get cheesy, everyone feels such a belonging, a community and a love within Providence and being in that atmosphere,” Donovan said. “And on top of that, it’s a fun song.”
Longtime sports journalist Kevin McNamara, the host of the Kevin Mc Sports Hour on WPRO and publisher of the Kevin Mc Sports blog, said the Friars are exceeding expectations this year. The team has never won the regular season of the Big East since it started 43 years ago, though they’ve won the tournament twice (in 1994 and 2014). In the preseason, they were picked to finish seventh, McNamara said. Right now, they’re in first place and could win the championship.
And the fans, packed into the 12,400-seat Dunkin Donuts Center, know it.
“This is the best, most consistent student fan crowd I’ve ever seen,” McNamara said. “People think they just got there, but they were there from the beginning. They are there at both fan zones, and they are full. ... Percentage-wise, they have the largest student turnout in the country.”
He’d noticed the effect of the Swift song on the crowd in December, but notes a key difference between it and the Neil Diamond classic sung at Fenway.
“I think the college vs. pro atmosphere is decidedly different. ‘Sweet Caroline’ is sung at Fenway by 60-year-olds, and teenagers jump around to Taylor Swift,” said McNamara. “It’s not really comparable.”
The three Swifties know haters are going to hate. Some at the large universities have made condescending comments on social media about PC fans singing along to Swift. But, like their idol, they’ll “Shake It Off.”
“I saw some people say, ‘Is this men’s basketball? Can you believe it? They’re singing Taylor Swift? That’s embarrassing,’” Sweeney said. “I love that we’re embracing it. You see the video of all of us singing.”
“It shouldn’t work,” she says, “but it’s actually perfect.”
“You Belong With Me” is now the unofficial Friars anthem. Expect it when Xavier University comes to the Dunk to play PC on Wednesday.