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True team

2:38 PM  Jun 17th, 2014
by Michelle Tedford '94

Call it an outbreak of the Red Scare.

Splotches of red appeared and spread. From the floor to the rafters, UD fans packed tournament sites for the 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. They sold out ticket allotments, bought from online resellers and haggled on street corners. Any seat would do, because nearly every seat was adjacent to a Flyer fan.

At least that’s how it felt, even to coach Archie Miller down on the floor.

“I always say I don’t know how we’re going to play, but I know [the fans will] be there, and they’ll be loud,” he said after the March 27 Sweet 16 victory. “I just didn’t know how many.”

So numerous that every section was freckled with Flyer gear. So thunderous that this writer’s decibel meter overloaded in the Memphis roar. So deafening that the rosary prayers of a young girl in the highest seats were likely heard by only holy ears. So fervent that as the final moments wound down on the Flyers’ Elite Eight loss to Florida, above the gator-chomping, a unified chant rang clear:

“Thank you, (clap clap) UD. (clap clap)”
“Thank you, (clap clap) UD. (clap clap)”

This season was defined by the “True Team” dedication the players declared on their warm-up shirts, when starting pride took a backseat to an all-in enthusiasm and unwavering faith in one another. But there was another set of T-shirts that could have been printed and worn by thousands: “True Fan.” They’d waited 30 years for a stage this big to show their Flyer colors and community pride.

And what a show it was.

IT WAS A TOUGH WINTER many would rather forget: the polar vortex; snowstorms with names like Greek gods and Transformers; and a 1-5 losing slump that sent Flyer fans reeling.

After they racked up early wins against the likes of Georgia Tech and Gonzaga to roll to a 12-3 record in non-conference play, to have the Flyers falter against the A-10 seemed improbable. Call-in shows and Twitter chatter devolved toward extremes, with fans speculating about the longevity of the coach just halfway through his third season. “I imagine Archie must be wearing a fake beard and dark glasses when he runs out for milk and bread,” one fan wrote.

Little did fans know that, in the cold of winter, UD was signing a contract extension for Miller through 2019.

That slump, it turned out, would be golden. It gave the team permission to regroup and focus on what was important, said senior and team co-captain Devin Oliver.

“[Coach Miller] started preaching play-to-win. And guys were kinda like, ‘ehhhh,’” Oliver said, vocalizing the team’s uncertainty, “and he was like, ‘Just play. Just play basketball.’

“And once we started winning and had a little more organization, we knew what we were trying to accomplish.”

Their goal: UD’s first NCAA Division I men’s tournament bid since 2009, when the Flyers advanced to the second round after beating West Virginia, 68-60, in Minneapolis.

One key to season success was cohesion. Players, in the past, were known to follow their own agendas.

“We didn’t have enough pride to listen to one another last year,” said senior and team co-captain Vee Sanford. “This year, as a team, every day was just helping each other and trying to teach. We can all learn from one another.”

They also drew energy from the coaching team and Miller’s palatable drive to win, said senior Matt Kavanaugh.

“His confidence, passion and enthusiasm just rubs off on all the players because, if you’re not bringing it at the same level as him, you’re not going to play, you’re not going to be successful,” he said. “I think he brings it every day in practice, and that gives us a sense of toughness, and that just transfers over into the games.”

It worked. They busted the slump with a 9-1 winning streak that propelled the Flyers into the NCAA tournament and to Buffalo, N.Y., to face Ohio State.

SELECTION SUNDAY was a time for rejoicing for many and of soul-wrenching agony for others who found their loyalties tested by the 11th-seeded Flyers’ match-up against sixth-seeded Ohio State. Sophomore Ryan Phillips, the next president of Red Scare, UD’s student fan club, is from one such house divided. Literally, he has Ohio State to credit for his existence.

“My parents met at OSU. It’s in my blood, my family,” he said. “If I had gone there, I would have been a fourth generation.”

Instead, he is a Flyer. So he chose — in good fun — to leave a voicemail for his father: “I’m 100 percent behind the Flyers. If you don’t want to talk to me Thursday, it’s fine.”

On March 20, Phillips — wearing a red Dayton Flyers pullover and black basketball shorts — joined hundreds of students who gathered throughout campus to watch the game. He chose the basement of Kennedy Union where the Hangar’s bowling alley sat silent as students piled in front of the big screen.

It was a nerve-wracking game with 15 lead changes that had Phillips doing calisthenics. With 3.8 seconds left on the clock, Sanford drove to the basket and kissed the game-winning shot off the glass to give the Flyers a 60-59 victory. It was a shot that launched Phillips into his friend’s arms.

“I almost went out and kissed the Chaminade statue,” he said. “It was probably the most exciting game I have ever seen. I don’t think I’ve hugged so many random people in my life.”

It was a bracket-busting way to start off March Madness. Dayton’s win left just 17 percent of the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar brackets intact after the first game of the second round, reported Yahoo.

The upset win was just one of many good storylines for the media to report throughout the tournament. Others included junior Jordan Sibert, who transferred from Ohio State and scored nine points in the win over his former school; Miya Oliver, the sister of Devin Oliver and the darling of CBS Sports, which highlighted her as the Flyers’ greatest fan; and the Miller brothers — Archie of Dayton and Sean of Arizona — who would become the first brothers to coach Elite Eight teams in the same tournament.

There was another storyline that grabbed the heartstrings during the third-round Dayton-Syracuse game: the birth of Maeve Maloney.

Chelsie Berry Maloney ’07 and her husband, Adam, watched the first half of the March 22 game from the delivery room at Kettering Medical Center near Dayton. Chelsie delivered Maeve at halftime and watched the second half while holding her new bundle of joy.

“UD has always been a part of our family,” said proud grandma Eileen Murphy Maloney ’80. “[Chelsie and Adam] had their first date at a basketball game at the arena, and their wedding reception was at the Flight Deck [at UD Arena]. Maeve is certainly destined to be a Flyer.”

While the Maloneys had a good reason to stay in Dayton, many fans refused to let a six-hour drive and occasional blinding snow keep them from the First Niagara Center in Buffalo. Fans sold out Dayton’s 550-ticket allotment and scavenged for more.

Longtime season ticket holder Jeff Lecklider traveled with 14-year-old grandson Jack Welsh, who always wears to games the same good-luck red socks. Welsh said the cheers of Flyers fans were incredible. “We were overtaking Syracuse,” he said.

On TV, it looked like a Syracuse home game, with the university only 150 miles away. The Flyers on the court, though, could hear the Dayton pride.

“When we played Syracuse, you could look up and see nothing but orange,” said Sibert. “But to be able to see our crowd and be able to hear them just as loud as the Syracuse fans, it means the world to us and it gives an edge to us in every game.”

Said senior Brian Vonderhaar of the Flyer Faithful, “They’ve always traveled well. Just because it was on a bigger stage, it was even more.”

The fans in the stands make a difference on the court, said the team. They can hear the roar during timeouts or free throws, but even when the players are completely focused, the energy can bleed onto the court and help the team gain momentum.

“Especially if we go on a run,” Sanford said. “That’s when it’s pretty big, the fans yelling ‘Go UD.’ It kind of gets everybody amped up to keep going.”

That energy overtook the team that night, with freshman Scoochie Smith and Sibert making late baskets to give the Flyers the lead, and sophomore Dyshawn Pierre sinking free throws to finish off the Orange, 55-53.

Then it was on to Memphis, Tenn., for the Sweet 16, where the Flyers would find themselves the belle of the ball.

SURE, IT’S NICE TO BE AMERICA’S CINDERELLA at first — you get dressed up for the big dance, everyone pays attention to you, wants to be your fan. But in the fairytale, Cinderella just happened to fit the shoe. The Dayton Flyers knew it took skill and sweat and the support of a cast of thousands spanning generations to get back to the place the men’s team last inhabited in 1984.

“The whole Cinderella thing is kind of out the door,” said Sanford in Memphis. “I just feel like a lot of people don’t know about the Dayton program, but it’s a really great program with a lot of tradition. … Nothing about the University of Dayton is Cinderella or small. We have the best facilities. We are on top of our game academically.”

It was, though, a bit like magic for fans. They rolled into Memphis by the thousands and were treated to a royal ball. In the historic Cadre building with its crystal chandeliers and towering columns with hand-painted gold-leaf molding, Fiore Talarico ’74 and the UD alumni relations staff threw a party for the first 1,300 Flyer fans to arrive. Kevin Davidson ’06, known for his animated halftime dance to “Sandstorm” while a member of Red Scare, stood in the ballroom wearing his trademark sunglasses and red stocking cap. Bill Uhl Jr. ’89, who played for the Flyers from 1986-90, hugged fans and posed for pictures. Everywhere there was free food and drink, with an R&B band and the Flyer pep band keeping the house rocking.

“It’s such an adrenalin rush,” said Curtis Schultz ’01. He had watched the Flyers win in Buffalo, then drove home to Cincinnati to pack up the family for Memphis. He stood in the Cadre building in the quietest corner he could find with wife Erin Wietmarschen Schultz ’01, brother Nick Schultz, and children Will, 8, and Annmarie, 6, who peeked out from behind a giant foam finger.

Former football coach Mike Kelly took the mic and told the jubilant crowd that UD fans had purchased more tickets in Memphis than any other school. “Let’s make this place tonight just like the UD Arena, baby,” he shouted.

And they did. The announcers from Flyer Radio promised listeners at home that they were not turning up the volume; the FedExForum was really that loud. Small children covered their ears with both hands, pointed elbows jutting into raucous space.

Flyer fans sold out their 950-ticket allotment and nabbed available seats anywhere. At one point, there were three Flyer will-call ticket lines compared to one for each of the other three Sweet 16 teams.

In section 208, row Q, near the roof, a family of five could barely contain themselves during the Stanford game. Mom, Dad and kids came packing prayers in case the team needed backup. A few times, the littlest girl started saying the “Hail Mary.” “Not yet! It’s too soon,” Dad coached, not wanting his team to peak too early.

That night, 10 Dayton players would score as the Flyers beat 10th-seeded Stanford, 82-72. Said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, “They were relentless. They came in waves, and they had two players at every position. … Not only do they keep putting bodies out there, but they’re all good.”

Just as the team was becoming known for its high-energy mass attack, the Flyer fans were gaining notoriety for their size and loyalty. Shots of historic Beale Street showed a sea of Flyer red while security guards at Graceland wondered if there was anyone left in Dayton.

On the day between games, Oliver ventured out on Beale Street to meet his family for lunch.

“I figured someone would come up to me, a fan,” he said. “But it was pandemonium. I started walking and people started crowding me and taking pictures. Old ladies were giving me hugs. I took about 40 pictures. That’s when I met Roosevelt Chapman (from the 1984 Flyer Elite Eight team). We shook hands and people started cheering.”

Such a reception was likely not contained to Dayton players, but there was one moment Saturday, March 29, that clearly contrasted the anecdotal differences among schools. At the restaurant Alfred’s on Beale, the University of Florida alumni association hung a banner for its alumni reception on the patio deck with a capacity of 200. Across the street in Handy Park, the UD alumni association threw an epic pre-game. An estimated 2,000 fans flowed in under an archway of red and blue balloons. Alumni in jeans and Flyer T-shirts emblazoned with “Fly to the Occasion,” “Our House” and “Archie’s Army” bumped into dear friends usually removed by 500 miles or 15 years or more.

“UD always preaches community and togetherness, and that was the mindset of our team,” said Oliver of his explanation for the outpouring from the fans. “People were getting together. It’s an overall commitment to the mindset of the University.”

THAT NIGHT AT THE ELITE EIGHT GAME in Memphis, FedExForum again rocked like UD Arena. Just as the crowd energized the players, the players stoked the fire. With 8:08 left in the first half, Oliver let fly a long three off a Pierre assist to bring the Flyers within three points of first-seeded Florida. Oliver threw both arms into the air, amping up the sound a few more decibels. He then turned and pointed to section 112 where his family and those of his teammates stood cheering. He threw up another fist as if to say, “That’s for you.”

Pandemonium.

The night would be a fight for the Flyers, who would take the lead but once as Florida pulled away to a 62-52 win that ended Dayton’s best season since 1984.

Later that night, after the players shook hands and posed for dozens more photos with fans back at the hotel, Oliver posted a tweet to his 5,000 followers.

“Flyer Nation, we made HISTORY. I’m so proud to call myself a Dayton Flyer. Thank you to everyone who has been alongside us for this run!”

That sweet, elite run will stay monumental in the eyes of those who witnessed it near and far.

They don’t call them Flyer Faithful for nothing.

Michelle Tedford ’94 sat courtside on press row for the Elite Eight game. Sometimes, this job is simply amazing.

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