DALLAS, Texas — Hundreds of fans in the self-proclaimed “Eagle Nation” traveled hundreds of miles to witness their team compete for Ashland University’s third national championship title in Dallas, TX on April 1. 

For most, reaching Dallas wasn’t even a question. 

“When they won in Missouri I said ‘Dallas, baby,’” said Phyllis Sidel, of Ashland. 

The trip was worth it: The No. 1 ranked Ashland University Eagles beat the University of Minnesota Duluth 78-67 to win the NCAA Division II women’s basketball national championship. The win capped off an undefeated season. 

Sidel was one of around 100 people who gathered outside the hotel porte-cochère after Saturday’s game to bask in the glory of a hard-fought win. Parents, grandparents, siblings and friends had waited around an hour at the hotel for the team.

When the victorious squad arrived, Eagle Nation cheered, clapped, cried, laughed and blared air horns, the jubilant sound reverberating through downtown Dallas.

Sidel is grandmother to Erin Daniels, the team’s graduate assistant coach. When asked how it felt to celebrate with the team, she said it was “wonderful.” 

“It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced this,” she said.

Sidel and five others all piled into one vehicle to make the 16-hour drive from Ashland.

Jack Keefe, of Las Vegas, graduated from AU in 1985 as a tennis standout and is now honored in the school’s Hall of Fame. He follows all his alma mater’s sports, but he started following the women’s basketball team faithfully in 2012.

That year, the team finished national runner-up when it lost to Shaw University in overtime. The championship game was in San Antonio, Texas. Keefe was there. 

The Eagles won it all a year later, the program’s first-ever national title. Keefe watched that game on TV. They won again in 2017; again, Keefe watched the win on TV. 

In 2018, he traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota hoping to witness the glory in person. But when the Eagles lost, he started to wonder if he brought the team bad mojo.

“I said to Al King (AU’s athletic director), ‘If we lose today, you can’t allow me back to watch the finals.’ So the third time was a charm,” Keefe said.

King was also part of the beautiful chaos of celebration on Saturday. He shook hands, accepted congratulations, all while clutching a golden basketball and his own small national championship trophy.

“You see this here and so many people are happy. So that makes me happy. Particularly happy for the coaches and the kids,” King said.

“You know, I didn’t know how this would work, having a week off between coming down here, but the NCAA has done a tremendous job, this has been a lot of fun. It’s a big day for Ashland and big day for the university.”

Dwight McElfresh, a former AU administrator and the current president of the Fastbreak Club, the women’s basketball’s booster organization, has been following the team all season.

On Saturday, it paid off in the biggest way.

“It’s been a long (journey). And you never take these for granted because we’ve had great teams in the past and never made it this far. So this is terrific,” he said. “They had a mission, they served their purpose, and we’re here. This is fantastic.”

Darla Plice, a 1978 graduate of Ashland University, is no stranger to college sports. 

During her time at the school, she was a four-year starter for the basketball and volleyball teams, and she started three years in softball. 

Plice was one of the first Lady Eagles to hit the courts after Title IX became law in 1972, creating a Big Bang of new women’s sports programs nationwide.  She would go on to play professional basketball in the Women’s Professional Basketball League, the first professional women’s league in the U.S.  Her work in the league also made her Ashland County’s first professional female athlete. 

On Saturday, the women’s sports pioneer and Ashland County Sports Hall of Famer witnessed some new history in the making.

“Wow. It was incredible. We went to St. Joe’s also, and just to be able to follow this team, they’re so much more than a basketball team,” Plice said over the blaring of airhorns at the postgame celebration. 

“They’re great basketball players, but just the type of individuals they are, their strong faith is an incredible part of it. So they’re an easy team to watch.” 

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