There’s a very well kept secret in college basketball, whose only confidants are situated along Ohio’s Route I-75. It involves Catholicism, a streak (or even a curse?), sellout crowds, and immense amounts of school pride. The Dayton-Xavier men’s basketball rivalry dates back to 1921, and other than St. Patrick’s Day, it is the biggest day of the year here at the University of Dayton. Alumni flock to campus and UD arena as if it were graduation, and for a team that was 14-9 (and 3-7 in A-10 play) going into last Saturday’s matchup versus the Musketeers, it feels as if they are a perennial AP Top 25 team. Indeed, the rivalry is quite unknown, but I can assure you it is something special. For one day, and one day only, my University becomes a full-blown college basketball school.
“What time would you like me to meet you?” I asked the manager of WUDR, Dayton’s student-ran radio station. It was Friday night, January 15th, the night before Dayton’s big showdown with their southern rivals.
“Get here no later than 8:30,” he responded, “but if you want, we’re all going out to eat breakfast at 6 am. It’s kind of a tradition.” I was flabbergasted, I knew that broadcasting the UD-Xavier game was a big deal, but this big? After declining the early breakfast, I set my alarm for 7:30 the next morning and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
When I was a freshman at the University of Dayton, I thought I wanted to become a sports broadcaster. I was always good at talking, that’s for sure, and the only thing I loved more than talking was sports. I figured sports casting was an easy match for those two “skill sets” (if you can call them that), and in September of 2009 I went to my first WUDR radio station meeting. They told us that day that if we were interested in sports broadcasting, we should put down a list of games we would like to do, but “not to expect any big games, especially the Xavier game, because you have to earn that one”. Over the next three years I decided to pursue other career opportunities (which I will not bore you with), but continued to broadcast games, more or less as a hobby. I suppose the allure of broadcasting when I was young had given way to the dull and monotonous process of research and memorization that the profession entails, but one aspect of being a Dayton Flyer sports broadcaster still rang bright in my mind. Someday, I hoped to get a chance to broadcast the Dayton-Xavier game, and the time had finally come. In the grand scheme of things, not going out on a Friday and waking up at 7 a.m. wouldn’t be a bad deal at all.
As I left my house on that cold Saturday morning fighting off the gusts of wind and flurries of snow, I remembered my first Dayton-Xavier experience. I was a short, awkward 18-year old (unfortunately for me, I am still two of those things) who had been to every Dayton men’s game that year. Dayton had started the season ranked #22, coming off a stunning (this term when regarding UD sports is always relative) defeat of West Virginia in last year’s tournament. Once February rolled around however, Dayton was hovering in the middle of the A-10 pack and tournament hopes looked bleak.
Enter the Xavier Musketeers, a nationally ranked team with one of the best college players in the A-10 in Jordan Crawford. Xavier was surely the better team, but I had a good feeling about the game. In my previous home games attended, I had liked the aura of UD arena, a compact 13.5 thousand-person venue that is home to the “first four.” The crowds seemed dedicated and clearly had a value on tradition, but until this point I hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary with their fans. However, when I walked into the area on this day, 10 minutes late for the game (god damn you university shuttles), the scene I saw was unmatched to anything I had previously witnessed.
Blinded by flashes of towels everywhere I looked and tens of thousands of ecstatic fans wearing white, I walked down to my seats that I would never end up sitting in. This was because Dayton went on to crush Xavier that day, 90-65, and the crowd remained on its feet throughout the entire contest.
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in Boston, a great sports city, and have seen many amazing games played there. I have traveled to Buffalo for a playoff hockey game (anyone from Buffalo can attest that they have some of the best fans in the NHL), and I have seen Syracuse play in the Carrier Dome a few times, including once against Georgetown. I can say the following sentence with complete conviction: nothing was close to as loud as UD arena that afternoon. For the first time in my life, I truly understood the meaning of home court advantage. We as a crowd took the Dayton Flyers to another level that day, and we were the reason why they destroyed Xavier.
I’m not crazy, I swear. If you’ve ever been at a game like this before, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Walking up the Frericks Center in February of 2013, the building on campus where we would be conducting our “pre-game” show, a smile ran across my face thinking of this very fond memory. Just as before, I had a good feeling about today’s game, even if Dayton had been heartbroken two weeks prior at the hands of the very same team they would face a few hours later. January 10th, 1981: this was the last time the Flyers had been victorious against Xavier on their home court in Cincinnati, Ohio. They had come frustratingly close the year before to getting a ‘W’, and this season had been even closer, if possible. Why was this year perhaps more painful than any other? I’ll explain.
Maybe it was because Xavier’s offensive rebounds (14) fell only two short of Dayton’s rebounding total that night at 16. Or it could have been when under a minute to go, down by one point, the Flyers failed not once, but twice, to claim a defensive board after two different Xavier players missed free throws. And finally, when Matt Derenbecker’s three to tie the game went in-and-out with under 10 seconds to play, my frustration level boiled up to the point that hadn’t been reached since October of 2003. By this, I am referencing the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox and their perceived curse against beating the New York Yankees and winning a World Series. Not having won a game on your rival’s court since 1981 is definitely in the curse zone, and it truly makes me wonder if I will ever see the day when the Flyers head back from Cincy victorious. Curse or no curse, being a Dayton fan has hardly been easy over the past 30 years, due in large part to this streak.
Streaks aside though, today was surely going to be different. In the three years I had attended UD, the Flyers had crushed their rival two out of three times at home. Although the atmosphere at UD arena isn’t the same as it used to be in the early 2000’s (when the Flyers were consistently making the tournament), the crowd always got up for this game. Alumni were gathered around the Frericks center as early as 9 a.m., painting their faces and bodies while enjoying the university’s most famous tradition of getting very intoxicated. All week, teachers had been asking me and my fellow classmates if we would be attending the game, which I found noteworthy because I am unsure that 45% of the University is aware that we have a basketball team at this point. When I arrived at the arena at 10:30 a.m. to set up the broadcast booth, every seat was covered with a white towel. T-shirts were distributed free to any student who wanted one. The stadium was filled 30 minutes prior to the game, and the crowd was roaring. Quite frankly, this was, and is, Dayton’s Super Bowl.
As the game progressed, the Flyers remained in the lead early in the second half when Xavier began to make a run. The Musketeers made the score as close as a 3-point game, and the fans began to get nervous. Now, I really don’t want to waste any of your or my time by explaining the who’s, when’s and how’s of why Dayton isn’t a good basketball team this year, but just know that I am positive that in any other game the Flyers would have blown this lead and eventually lost. I however, was not worried at all.
I knew that the Flyers would rally and seize the momentum, because the fans simply would not let them do otherwise. Sometimes, when you have a good crowd, it’s all about the little things. For example, after a Xavier made basket, the fans would stand up and cheer while point guard Kevin Dillard brought up the ball, urging the Flyers to play with energy throughout the upcoming possession. These small acts of encouragement are what kept the Flyers going in my mind, and once they had extended their lead back to double digits with 10 minutes to go in regulation, I knew the game had been won.
The final score: Dayton 70, Xavier 59.
Nothing special, and nothing particularly flashy about the win at all. It was just a classic Dayton home win against Xavier, where the crowd didn’t allow them to lose focus for a single minute.
In conclusion, I suppose the reason I feel compelled to write about such a thing is because I always dreamed of growing up and attending a big college basketball school. As I got older and became realistic, I began scratching off big-sized schools off my list because they didn’t feel right for me, and crossed off the Duke’s and Carolina’s of the world because I simply didn’t have the GPA to cut it. Here at UD, we learn to count our blessings. The weather isn’t very nice, the city is desolate and dangerous, and the basketball team has underachieved for three straight years now. At Dayton, there are two days we look forward to as a student body: St. Patrick’s Day and the Dayton-Xavier home game. It’s a day for us to forget about how good or bad the team is, and to instead celebrate the long tradition that is this rivalry. It’s a day to welcome in old friends and family, and to scream until your lungs are sore. 40 years from now, I most likely won’t be able to remember any of the names of the players who played here while I was a student, but I’ll remember every UD-Xavier game I attended like it was yesterday. With today’s top-heavy recruiting structure, Dayton may never become a talented basketball school for many, many years. We do however, have one day a year to forget about it all, and pretend like we are the team to beat in college basketball; and as we know, one can sometimes be better than none.