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Ashland has championship visions in Division II

By ELTON ALEXANDER • Feb 9, 2019 at 6:30 AM

ASHLAND — In the small town of Ashland, where the wind chill bites hardest and the snow drifts pile highest, they take their basketball seriously. It’s a basketball program that is not pretentious, but is comfortable in its own skin, even as it continues to grow and evolve.

The national anthem is sung before each game of a doubleheader at 2,000-seat Kates Gymnasium. The player introductions are lively and loud, but without trying to mimic a NBA game, when they are clearly not one and the same. The fans are not at arm’s length from the team, they are connected.

“I have had the same fans wait for me, give a hug and talk after every game since I’ve been here,’ said senior guard Ben Haraway (13.6 points a game), a 2014 Norwalk graduate. “They are like family.’’

This was a week ago, when the now 18-3 Eagles were No. 7 in the nation in the NCAA Division II poll. Since then Ashland has dropped two straight, both at home, falling to No. 15 in the polls. For a program finding its way, this could be a defining mark in the season. But for Ashland, the Eagles expect to quickly regroup and forge on.

Ashland coaching legends range from Bill Musselman to Roger Lyons, Joe Gottfried to Keith Dambrot to now John Ellenwood (166-106) in his 10th season at Ashland, with the most wins in school history. He operates from one simple baseline.

“We don’t have any jerks in this program,’’ said Ellenwood, who has had just two losing seasons at Ashland. It’s safe to say he’s hitting his stride, going 25-6, 19-10 and 20-10 his last three seasons. The 25-6 team advanced to the NCAA D-II championships for the first time in 25 years. That is where Ellenwood envisions the program heading once again.

For the Eagles to be at this high water mark is a testament to consistently building, and rebuilding a basketball program. Understand, the same challenges that face so many Div. I teams around Ohio and around the country also impact at the Div. II level, in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC).

“After last season we lost a lot of seniors and a couple other players transferred out,’’ leading scorer Drew Noble (16.9 ppg), a 6-8, 250-pound sophomore said. “We didn’t know what our roster this year was going to look like.”

Not much different from the changes that have happened at Div. I Cleveland State, Akron and Kent State in recent seasons.

So coach Ellenwood did just as others have. He recruited hard, primarily small, rural Ohio high schools for hidden gems like Noble, then looked around for transfers looking for a more tranquil basketball environment.

“I think everybody who comes here wants to play for something larger than a scholarship,’’ Ellenwood said. “They want to play on a great team, with great teammates. Guys who transfer from Division I, a lot of times the social aspect of the team is not what they expected it to be. Not necessarily bad guys. But it’s not all Disney World.”

In 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore Derek Koch, and 5-10 junior Rodrick Caldwell, Ellenwood not only found a pair of Division I transfers, but D-1 starters from Bowling Green State University.

Koch, from nearby West Salem, Ohio, said he left BG to be close to home and on a smaller campus. “I grew up 10 minutes from here,’’ he said. Caldwell, from Dayton, said Ashland was simply just the right fit.

The two Div. I transfers not only became starters for Ashland, but helped give the team at least adequate depth, going a solid seven players deep, with an impressive starting unit that goes 6-9, 6-8, 6-3, 6-1 and 5-10. The sales pitch was simple to both.

“I told them they would be playing against the same caliber of competition in our league that they were used to before,’’ Ellenwood said.

One might roll their eyes at that one, but it did not take long to see merit to his words. In Ashland’s first loss last week to Davenport (Mich.), 92-72, the Eagles built an early 10-point lead, but wilted over 40 minutes. Davenport had four Div. I transfers on its roster from the Mid-American Conference, where Bowling Green currently leads the league, and the Summit League.

One game later Ashland lost to Grand Valley State, 60-53, as two games in two nights at the end of a sub-zero, snow-packed week took its toll not to mention the fact GVSU had another roster with four Div. I transfers from the MAC and Horizon League. Ashland is now tied for first with Davenport

“Our league is like the Big Ten of Division II,’’ Ellenwood said. “You win our conference, you are a favorite to win a national championship.’’

Last season, GLIAC champion Ferris State did win the Div. II national championship.

Haraway is the only senior in the starting lineup, and one of just three on the team. So this is not a one-year window of opportunity for Ashland basketball to have national title dreams.

“Before I came here, coach Ellenwood said, ‘This team can be good for the next few years, not just win a couple games, but national championship good,’’ Caldwell said. “You hear national championship, that’s every kid’s dream, no matter what level.’’

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