Ashland University boasts a women's basketball team with the sixth-longest winning streak in the history of NCAA hoops, and a men's basketball team which has made the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament four years in a row, averaging 20.5 wins per season in that time.
But on Feb. 8 at Kates Gymnasium, the loudest cheers may have been for the members of the Ashland County Special Olympics Dragons basketball teams which played at halftime of the women's contest.
"I can't say enough about the athletic department," said Ashland County Special Olympics director JoAnne Weber. "It's been great how much support we've gotten from AU."
Earlier this school year, the Dragons were on the Kates Gym floor for a pair of clinics put on by the Eagle men's basketball team, on Oct. 15 and Nov. 6. During those clinics, Ashland players and coaches instructed the Special Olympians on various skill drills, such as ball-handling, passing, shooting and defense, among other fundamentals of the game.
Both clinics ended with a competitive full-court 5-on-5 game.
"It's great for our guys to understand how much fun they have, and how much it means to them," said Ashland men's basketball head coach John Ellenwood. "They see that the game is more than just basketball. It's a way to reach out to people, and connect with them. I think they can see how much the Special Olympians can touch them, as well.
"We've done a lot of clinics with them. It's very rewarding for both parties. It's a win-win when you get with the Dragons. Working with them is just a special day in the gym. They play hard and they work hard and they love what they do."
On Nov. 2, Ashland's men's and women's swimming and diving teams hosted a Special Olympics regional swim meet at Messerly Natatorium. Weber said there were 68 athletes who competed in the meet.
"It was a tradition well before I was here," said Ashland head swimming and diving coach Ron Allen. "I want to get more involved with them, and starting doing what (former head coach) Paul Graham had been doing, every other Saturday or something like that, have a half-hour of swim lessons.
"We were doing timing, escorting of them, getting them to the blocks, we were helping with the actual scoring of the meet, the handing of the ribbons. Pretty much the running of everything. We want to grow that relationship and make it even more."
The Eagle cheerleaders and Special Olympics had a "home-and-home" series of sorts earlier this school year. On Nov. 15, there was a cheer clinic at Dale-t-Roy School. On Feb. 10, the Special Olympians attended the Little Eagles Cheer and Dance Clinic, then the home Eagle basketball twinbill, on the AU campus.
The most recent Ashland University-Special Olympics collaboration came in the form of a late Valentine's Day dance.
On Thursday (Feb. 22) night, Ashland University's volleyball team volunteered at the DR Services Sweetheart Dance at the Ashland Salvation Army Kroc Center. It was not a Special Olympics-only event, but Special Olympics athletes attended the dance. In all, the majority of the volleyball team was on hand, and 60 people had signed up for the dance.
"It was one of the most fun experiences that the team and I have had," said Ashland head volleyball coach Cass Dixon. "We helped serve them, and then let loose dancing and having fun with them. It was a very humbling experience."
An Eagle volleyball player, sophomore middle blocker Paige Leitz, works at Dale-Roy School as a second-semester intern. She helps with the athletes, and is involved in Unified Sports, an initiative in which Special Olympics athletes compete with AU students.
"It's really fun, and I'm glad that I've been involved with it," Leitz said. "I just like to see how much these kids and athletes enjoy athletics and sports and games as much as we do. They are very high-spirited. I love the kids, the adults, all of them.
"It's a great program."
Krista Chauvin, Assistant Director for Recreation Services at AU, is pleased with how the Unified Sports season has gone, and the goal is to have one in both the fall and spring in the 2018-19 academic year.
"I think it's going really well," Chauvin said. "We had some students who were interested after the fact, and we weren't going to say no to them. We've had a blast. It's been a packed house, all the Fridays we've had it so far.
"We had a tryout process, where we could evaluate. One of the Special Olympics athletes, he was timid and shy to get out on the court. In the short time we've been doing this, he was just so eager to get on the court. He was making baskets and was extremely excited. Everyone was just talking about that after the game, how nice it was to see. There are teams that have specific team cheers and high-fives, and they are taking selfies with each other."
The final Unified Sports action for this season will take place on March 16. Basketball games have been 5-on-5 with a 20-minute running clock in both halves.
Weber has seen growth in her athletes as the ties between the Ashland athletic department and the Special Olympians continue to grow.
"It's just been the best thing in the world," she said. "For the kids who don't get to play a lot, it's given them a lot of confidence. Just them sitting around and talking to the AU athletes, I've seen a lot of them blossom through that.
"One of my autistic girls has just blossomed. One of the Unified athletes came to the house and did her hair and makeup, which is a huge thing. I can't tell you how many steps forward that is."