ASHLAND — They have won a pair of national championships and finished runner-up twice more in the past decade, but the Ashland women are driven in part by the championship that never was.
The Eagles (34-0) are headed for St. Joseph, Missouri this weekend in advance of Monday’s national quarterfinal game against the University of Texas at Tyler. A win would send AU into Wednesday’s semifinals and one step closer to the April 1 championship game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
The world was a different place the last time AU took a perfect record into the postseason. It was March of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic had only recently reached American shores.
The Eagles were 31-0 and already had arrived in Springfield, Missouri for the Midwest Regional. While a regional championship was anything but given — Drury was chosen as the regional host over Ashland — there was no reason to think the Eagles wouldn’t be in contention for regional and national championships.
AU coach Kari Pickens was in her second season as AU’s head coach in 2019-20. The Eagles were to take on Southern Indiana in the regional quarterfinals on March 14, but the game would never be played.
“We had just gotten done with practice and we were on our way back to the hotel,” Pickens said. “I didn’t even get a call from anyone. Someone texted me and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, so I got on Twitter and that’s how I found out the tournament was canceled.
“It was just devastating for those girls. They had poured so much into that season and they wanted to go out as national champions, the seniors especially.”
Crestview graduate Renee (Stimpert) Holt was among a talented group of seniors that included Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-American Jodi Johnson. Both Holt and Johnson helped AU win a national title as freshmen in 2017 and finish as runner-up the following year.
“We drove all the way to Missouri before finding out the season was ending because of the coronavirus,” said Holt, AU’s career assists leader who is the head girls basketball coach at Ashland High School. “It made you realize what’s going on in the world around us is so much bigger than basketball.”
Remarkably, Holt was one of six players averaging in double figures that season. That group included current Eagles Hallie Heidemann and Annie Roshak. Senior Sam Chable is the other holdover from the 2019-20 team.
“Having that taken away from us, it was stunning. We all were like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” said Heidemann, who averaged 11.7 points a game as a freshman in 2019-20 season and 12.4 points a night this season. “It was happening to everybody across the nation. While it was hard for us, it was something much bigger than us.”
The lost 2020 postseason was a valuable lesson, both then and now.
“It’s an example of life. That experience got taken away from us in a very unique way. It was in the form of a pandemic, which nobody would have imagined,” Pickens said. “Things get taken away from us all the time in life. How you respond and your resiliency, that’s what really matters.
“I look at Sam Chable and Annie Roshak and Hallie Heidemann, who were all on that team. They learned from that experience and now they are in a position to finish it.”
Holt and other members of the 2019-20 team have thrown all of their support behind the current Eagles as they chase the national title they were denied in 2020.
“Those girls wanted to be able to leave their mark and had it taken away, which was heart-breaking,” Pickens said. “But three of the four seniors from that year were at the conference championship or the regional championship.
“The bond that team has was so very special and I hope we can finish what they started that year.”