Vanguard teams Lion-ized

One more time they packed The Pit on Wednesday to recognize a pair of noteworthy Vanguard University basketball teams.

About 300 students, faculty, staff, fans and community members filed into the cozy campus gymnasium to pay tribute to the Vanguard men's team that won the program's first NAIA Division I national championship, as well as the Lions' women's team, which was ranked No. 1 all season.

The men's program's most successful season ever included Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles and an unprecedented 32-6 record.

Coach Rhett Soliday's Lions, the No. 6 seed, won five games in seven days at the season-ending national tournament in Kansas City, Mo., including a 70-65 triumph over Emmanuel of Georgia in the final at Municipal Arena on March 25.

The Vanguard women, though upset in the second round of the NAIA Tournament in Frankfurt, Ky., were unbeaten in 25 regular-season games. They lost in the semifinals of the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament and, as the No. 1 seed in search of another national crown — they won it in 2008 — surprisingly bowed out early in Kentucky to finish 27-2.

But the prevailing message delivered Wednesday had little to do with wins and losses.

Athletic Director Bob Wilson and President Michael Beals conveyed their pride in the character the players had displayed, on and off the court. They said they have received testimonials about how the players and coaches had represented the university well, as well as congratulating the national champions.

"Success, is about achievement and significance is about impact," Wilson said. "Significance is where your primary focus is achieved and your objectives and outcome of success occur with your values intact.

"The culture we have created at Vanguard University touches everything," he continued. "Gold Pride defines who we are. It's about coming together as a group. It's about working together, which is progress. It's about thinking together, which is success. But, more importantly, it's about being together and that leads to significance."

Wilson and Beals said they have heard from many, through email and social media, about how the Vanguard men's team, which received the NAIA national sportsmanship award, made it easy to root for.

Players and coaches from both teams sat on a stage behind the podium, at which Soliday and women's Coach Russ Davis spoke. Both Soliday and Davis collected national coach of the year honors.

Soliday thanked his assistant coaches, particularly Brian "Boomer" Roberts and former assistant Levi Seekins, whom he credited with refining his vision for the program when he arrived four years ago after a stint as an assistant coach at UC Irvine.

Soliday, Davis and Wilson thanked many, most notably the students for their support, specifically their role in regularly packing The Pit for home games, which created an energized atmosphere.

"No place I've been has ever been more special than this place, this year," said Soliday, who has also coached and played at Concordia University in Irvine. "It was incredible walking in here and knowing that if the team warming up at the other end was not ready to go, it was in trouble."

Soliday singled out senior guard Preston Wynne, the GSAC Player of the Year, a first-team All-American, and the NAIA Tournament Most Valuable Player.

He also recognized Chris Gorman, a junior guard who earned second-team All-American honors.

Davis recognized women's NAIA National Player of the Year Nicole Ballestero, a senior guard and a two-time All-American, as well as first-team All-American Taylor Belmont, a senior point guard.

The school gave commemorative T-shirts to students. A highlight video featuring the men's team in action in Kansas City was displayed on screens on both sides of the stage.

"I'm still kind of in shock," said Zach Allmon, a freshman reserve forward who helped the men's surprising postseason run.

Vanguard had made only two previous trips to the NAIA Tournament, in 1990 and 2006, in which it had won just one of its three games. "I had confidence the whole tournament that we were going to do something special this year.

"We're already looking forward to next season," he added. "We're losing some key guys, but we have some good returners and the same coaching staff back. And now we have that [postseason] experience. The future is looking bright for us. Hopefully, we can make another big impact next season."

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