In the previous two seasons, Ashland senior guard McKenzie Miller has made the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Women’s Basketball All-Academic Excellence Team for a cumulative grade-point average of 3.50 or higher.
Her goal when she graduates from Ashland is to one day become an intervention specialist teacher, a job that serves children with disabilities.
“You have to be really gifted, be able to connect and have patience,” said Ashland first-year coach Robyn Fralick. “I think she will be excellent at that. McKenzie has been an excellent student.
“We expect our kids to really be committed in the classroom. She has done that very well throughout her career here.”
It is one part of the process that puts Ashland in position to consistently compete for a national championship.
The Eagles, ranked No. 6 in the coaches poll, concluded the regular season on Thursday with a 27-1 overall record and 21-1 in the GLIAC.
The year before Miller arrived at Ashland, the Eagles finished runner-up in the NCAA Division II national tournament with a 33-2 record. In Miller’s freshman year, Ashland won the national championship with a 37-1 record.
“It is crazy to think it has been that long,” Miller said. “That was a really special year. Not every person gets to be on a national championship team.
“I didn’t get to play that much. I was a role player and that was OK because when you buy into the process and you are part of a team that every single person is proud for each other that makes it more exciting and more fun and more meaningful. It was one of those things I will remember for a lifetime.”
In that national championship season, Miller saw action in 24 games and averaged 1.8 points per game.
Fralick, who is in her eighth season overall at Ashland, was an associate head coach during the national championship season. One of the things she likes about Miller is the way she embraces whatever the role she is put in. This season Miller has started every game and is averaging nine points.
“What I love about McKenzie’s story is her role has evolved every year,” Fralick said. “So often kids think everything happens immediately. With McKenzie, her role has evolved because she committed to the process and committed to the program.”
Fralick feels the same way about the other current senior on Ashland, Jamie Sobczak.
“Jamie transferred to us as a sophomore and both of them have played different roles, coming off the bench, starting,” Fralick said. “They both played the post position, the guard position. I think that speaks volumes because they have all been willing to do anything that the team needed. That is hard to do year to year to be put in different roles and different expectations, and they have bought into that.”
A team-first attitude helped the Eagles win their first 20 games this season before losing 69-58 at Walsh on Feb. 4.
“At that point in the season, we were a little bit on autopilot,” Fralick said. “We were doing things just to do them instead of doing them with a real attention to it.
“The biggest take away from that was our effort needed to improve on both ends of the ball. Every possession needed much more focus and collective effort. Since then, that has very much improved.”
Ashland heads into the GLIAC Tournament on a six-game winning streak, and five of the victories have been by double digits and the other one was a nine-point win.
“We thought we were playing hard and thought we were doing fine,” Miller said. “It was a big wakeup call at a time we could start to refocus. We didn’t want to take a loss. We are glad it happened then and not during a tournament run.
“No matter what night it is, if you are not ready to play then things can go downward really fast. We realize we have to play Ashland basketball every night.”
And Ashland basketball is something that has been around all the years Fralick has been at the school. It is a culture that centers around work ethic, commitment and selflessness.
“Something we talk about all the time is being a great teammate and what that looks like and what that means,” Fralick said. “They make different types of sacrifices. That is the biggest reason why our program has had success over different seasons. Those things are unwavering.”
It was why senior night for Miller was so special.
“You come in and you watch three other classes before you and you get to honor them on their senior night,” Miller said. “Being able to play in front of a huge crowd for us and to play with Jamie and my teammates one last time at home in a regular season game was really special because you could feel the support and the love.
“It wasn’t bittersweet like most senior nights because we know we get to play another home game and that is what made it a lot sweeter because we know we are not done.”
Ashland will face Northern Michigan, 13-15, at 5:30 p.m. ET Tuesday in the GLIAC Tournament. If the Eagles win they will play their semifinal game Saturday at home. The championship game is on Sunday at the highest remaining seed.
It is important for Ashland to do well in the conference tournament. Ashland is currently ranked No. 1 in the Midwest Regional. Lewis is second with a 27-1 record. The top ranked team gets to play host to the regional tournament.
“For us this is a new season,” Fralick said. “There is something magical about March when you are in the basketball world. There is an energy to it. We have to make sure we are engaged in that.”
West Liberty wins battle of top two teams
On Saturday, No. 2 West Liberty avenged an earlier loss and beat No. 1 Wheeling Jesuit 82-74 at the Academic Sports and Recreation Complex (ASRC) in West Liberty, W. Va.
Junior Devin Hoehn had 20 points for West Liberty, leading five players who scored in double figures for the Hilltoppers.
Wheeling Jesuit finished the regular season 27-2 overall and 20-2 in the Mountain East, sharing the conference title with West Liberty, which was 26-2 and 20-2.
For West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, it was the seventh straight year his team has finished first in conference, winning four West Virginia Conference titles and now finishing first the last three years in the Mountain East.
“It's a credit to the young men who have come through our program to have won seven straight league championships,” Crutchfield said on West Liberty’s website. “I don't rank them. They are all special. But I will tell you we've never had to work harder to win one than we did this year and that's not just blowing smoke.
“Fairmont’s No. 5 now and they were No. 2 when we played them. Jesuit beat us when we were No. 1 and came in here having won 22 straight and ranked No. 1 today. We've never had to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country to win a championship before. I can't imagine that's happened very often.”
Finishing the regular season perfect
Limestone College women’s basketball team and Lubbock Christian women’s basketball teams concluded their regular season by staying perfect.
On Friday, Limestone beat King University 70-61 and finished the regular season 27-0 overall and 22-0 in the Conference Carolinas. It is the second straight year Limestone has gone 22-0 in conference play.
On Saturday, Lubbock Christian beat Texas A&M International 74-61 and finished 26-0 overall and 18-0 in the Heartland Conference.