National champion Vikings return home
March 26, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
ANDREW LANG - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
When five-year senior Rory Blanche began his Western Washington University basketball career as a freshman, he was simply trying to make a strong impression on coach Brad Jackson. Little did he know he'd be one of the key components in giving Western its first NCAA Division II basketball national championship in program history.
"I definitely didn't think as a freshman that we would ever get here," Blanche said.
But perhaps even more important to the senior engineering major, as WWU Senior Vice President Eileen Coughlin said in her welcome home address to the men's team and the couple hundred fans who welcomed the team home Sunday afternoon, is the fact he helped "put Western on the map."
"I think that is the biggest accomplishment I could make here, being able to leave Western at a better place than where it was when I got here," Blanche said. "This is a testament to all the hard work. I couldn't imagine ending my career any better. Having that confetti fall made me think we didn't do something special, we did something incredible."
Blanche and the rest of the national champion Vikings were met by roughly 200 spectators who turned out Sunday, March 25, to welcome the basketball team home behind the SMATE building on the campus of WWU.
Fans, family members and school officials dressed in Western blue and white waved flags, held signs and cheered loudly as a police escort led the team bus to the back of the building.
Senior Zach Henifin was the first player of the bus and held the NCAA Division II championship trophy over his head to a rousing applause.
"Coach wanted one of the seniors to get off first with the trophy," Henifin said. "We talked about it on the bus, and Rory got to get off the plane with it, so they said I should get off the bus with (the trophy.) I said all right as long as you film me."
Onlookers began chanting "Dub Dub U, Dub, Dub U" as players one-by-one climbed down the bus' steps and made their way to a podium set up behind the SMATE building, stopping along the way for a picture and an autograph or two.
Coughlin was the first to address the team and the crowd.
"You have put Western on the map, and you have set the bar higher" Coughlin exclaimed to the newly anointed national champions. "You won because you believed in yourself and one another."
Following Coughlin's words, Jackson gave a message to all those in attendance.
"This is not only for these players, but this is for all the players who have played here before," Jackson said to the crowd. "We're on top of the world right now. I'm so excited for our national champions."
Finally, Jackson called his team captain up to the podium to say a word.
"I'm truly honored to be a part of this team," Blanche said. "I told myself at the beginning of the year that I wanted to go out with a win, but I didn't know it would be a national title."
WWU President Bruce Shepard, who was in Kentucky to watch the Vikings win their title Saturday, was also in attendance to welcome the team home. He expressed his pride in the team and Jackson's accomplishment.
"This is absolutely, truly an experience of a lifetime," Shepard said. "You could see steel in these guys' eyes. They got the job done."
Shepard shared an anecdote he heard while in Kentucky.
"One of the cutest stories I was told was that an NCCA official told the guys after the semifinal game that they would be getting a charter flight home. One of the kids asked, 'Is that if we win, or do we get it if we lose, too?"
After beating Montevallo 72-65 in front of a national CBS viewing audience, a private jet home was one of many perks the Vikings had enjoyed in the last 24 hours.
While many school officials and family members exchanged congratulatory handshakes and hugs, fans and WWU students such as 22-year-old Laurie Wolf and 25-year-old Logan Johnson went around congratulating the players they had watched and rooted for all season long.
"I love basketball, and it's my favorite sport," Wolf said. "It's been so fun this year. I've been to almost every game. I was in disbelief yesterday when we won a national championship. This is my proudest moment as a Western student. I was almost in tears when they won."
"It's been a blast cheering them on all season," Johnson said. It's cool to see how they've improved all year. It was crazy seeing them on CBS and hearing Greg Gumbel talk about Western Washington University."
For Henifin, two of three Western seniors who played their final game in blue and white Saturday, the past two weeks have been full of impressive accomplishments.
The day Western won the West Regional and advanced to the Elite Eight, Henifin graduated from WWU with his general studies degree.
"I'm actually done at Western now," said Henifin with a smile. "I have nothing to do."
Although Henifin may be done with his career as a Viking, along with Rory Blanche and Dan Young, as Jackson put it, what Henifin and the rest of WWU accomplished this season will not be forgotten anytime soon.
"There's only been one other national champion in Washington, and that was (University of Puget Sound) in 1976," Jackson said. "We've had some very good seasons here, but I think this year really validates everything."
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