When their school was was known as St. Benedict’s, the Ravens once ruled the NAIA Tournament.
The small college in Atchison, Kan., won the national championship in 1954 and again as the top seed in 1967.
But it’s been 44 years since the school now known as Benedictine College last played in the NAIA, a dry spell that will end at 7 Wednesday night when the 11th-seeded Ravens, 22-8, face Westminster (Utah), 19-12, at Municipal Auditorium.
And the school plans to celebrate in a big way.
Shortly after Benedictine clinched a spot in the national tournament by winning its first Heart of America Athletic Conference regular-season championship, school officials wanted to know what was the largest crowd to attend an NAIA session since the tournament returned to Kansas City in 2002.
The answer: 6,131 for the second-round night session in 2011.
The Ravens are determined to shatter that mark.
The college is promoting the tournament through emails and postcards to alumni throughout Kansas, Nebraska and the Kansas City area. At least five school buses will provide free round-trip transportation to students. A big poster hangs in the student union, proclaiming, “We’re going to Kansas City,” and students who returned from spring break last week are signing it and pledging to attend the tournament.
“This is a piece of history,” said Steve Johnson, director of marketing and communications for the school. “There is a tradition here. … If you talk to the guys from ’67 and ’54 and all the things that happened … dinners with the governor … those teams were celebrities. They were the toast of the town. They were celebrated all throughout Kansas.”
After the Ravens’ last NAIA appearance in 1970, Benedictine’s success went dormant. The following school year, St. Benedict’s, an all-men’s school, merged with Mt. St. Scholastica College, an all-women’s school, and became Benedictine College.
“The college went through some transitions … the whole issue had to do with the cost of running the colleges,” Johnson said of the period following the merger.
Enrollment shrank to 550 students before the college began a comeback in the 1990s with a construction boom that included a new student union, residence halls, academic center and classrooms, accompanied by enrollment growth to 1,740 students. That renaissance on campus carried over to athletics as well.
“We’ve improved athletic facilities,” said Johnson. “There’s a football stadium on campus that wasn’t here 15 years ago … we’ve got all the best soccer facilities and turf fields.”
Consequently, the Ravens have experienced an athletic renaissance. Benedictine won the 2013 Heart of America football championship and both the men’s and women’s soccer titles before winning the men’s first regular-season basketball championship since joining the conference in 1991-92.
Benedictine coach Ryan Moody, who was an all-conference player for the Ravens during 1992-96, sensed that rebirth in athletics when he returned to coach his alma mater three years ago after spending five seasons as associate coach at the University of North Dakota.
“I always thought this was potentially a really, really good basketball job,” said Moody, the conference coach of the year. “The location, and the tradition and all of those things, I thought this could be something special.
“BC is in a really good place right now, and all that stems from our president, Steve Minnis. Athletics are important to small colleges. The success is a direct result of the fact the administration feels it’s important.”
Benedictine is led by all-conference selection Charlie Wallrapp, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who averages 15.2 points per game; point guard John Harris Jr., who averages 11.3 and 3.0 assists; and Heart defensive player of the year Jallen Messersmith, who ranks third in the NAIA with 70 blocked shots.
“One thing we’ve had a lot of success with this year is our depth,” Moody said. “We’ve been able to go 10, 11 deep, which is really important in our level of basketball. This has been a special group because it is a real team effort. We have awesome chemistry, the kids work super hard together.”
A good showing in the NAIA Tournament would be monumental to the basketball program and the college.
“A lot of people in the community of Atchison, in the Benedictine College community who were around and remember and played in and cheered for those teams in the ’60s, and particularly in ’67 when they won a title,” said Moody.
“This has been a long time coming. There are a lot of people who are excited about it because of that tradition. It’s going to mean a whole bunch to our program, moving forward with recruiting and trying to make alums proud. And the school can benefit from the success as well.”