‘Close to an obsession’ — Dayton fans heading west to support Flyers in NCAA tournament

UD plays Nevada in first round on Thursday in Salt Lake City

Fans of the Dayton Flyers hoped the men’s basketball team would play in Indianapolis or Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament — somewhere close to home. Ben Brabender and his dad Tim Brabender didn’t care. They would have traveled anywhere to see the team play in March Madness this year.

When the Brabenders saw Salt Lake City, Utah, would be the destination for the Flyers, they didn’t hesitate to start making travel plans.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ben said Monday.

Father and son will depart Cincinnati on a direct flight to Salt Lake City on Thursday. They should arrive in plenty of time to get to the Delta Center for a game between No. 7 seed Dayton and No. 10 seed Nevada that starts at 2:30 p.m. in Utah and 4:30 p.m. in Ohio. They hope the experience matches the time they had in Memphis, Tenn., where Dayton played in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in 2014.

“For my family, my dad, myself, UD basketball isn’t just a hobby,” Ben said. “It’s a part of our lives. There was no way we were going to miss this opportunity, especially since the COVID year when everything got canceled. It just makes you appreciate being in this moment even more. There was never a doubt that we were going to go and root on the team.”

They’re not alone. The Flyer Faithful will head west in droves for this game. The turnout won’t be as large as it would have been if the Flyers were playing within driving distance, but the UD crowd should compare favorably to the national powers also playing in Salt Lake City: Arizona; Gonzaga; and Kansas.

Matty Toomb, a 1990 UD graduate who has seen more than 700 games involving the Flyers, will travel to Salt Lake City on Wednesday after going to Brooklyn last week.

“My favorite part of going to away games and tournaments is meeting alumni and fans ages 20 to 80 years old,” Toomb said. “Everyone is educated on the current team and favorite teams and players from their past. It’s not life or death, but it’s close to an obsession.

The Flyers will make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017. For the Brabenders and many others, this tournament will help mend the scars created by the cancelled 2020 tournament in which Dayton may have received a No. 1 seed and contended for a national championship.

“As a college basketball fan, the NCAA tournament is everything,” said Tom Hirt, a fan from Beavercreek known for bringing a large Dayton flag to every road game. “Nothing can ever repair the heartbreak of the best Dayton team of our lifetimes getting to prove its worth on the greatest stage, but making the tournament this year gives us a chance at some redemption. San Diego State had a great team in 2020, too, and they were able to take advantage of their opportunity last year. Maybe Dayton can make a run this year and erase some of the pain of 2020. Dayton has had so much rough luck the last 10 years; the basketball gods owe us!”

The fans also realize there are no guarantees they’ll get another chance anytime soon. Brabender knows it’s a more unpredictable game than ever because of the increased player movement from team to team during the era of the transfer portal. Programs have to rebuild rosters on an annual basis. The financial aspect of recruiting during an era when players can profit off the use of their name, image and likeness has become ever more important.

“These are really uncharted waters,” Brabender said. “That’s not to say Dayton is not geared to continue to make the tournament, but I think it just puts a heightened level of importance on it when there are so many changes going through the NCAA. You never know when you’re going to be in this position again. I’ve never wanted to take it for granted. Anytime you make the tournament it’s special, no matter what team you are, no matter if you’re a blue blood or if you’re a mid-major team.”

Kyle Foley, a 2015 UD graduate, has traveled to see Dayton play in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii and to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Flyer fans always help fill arenas at those November tournaments. Foley even traveled to Brooklyn, N.Y., last week for the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. He was prepared to go wherever Dayton ended up in the Big Dance.

“It just a matter of logistics,” said Foley, who grew up in Dayton and now lives in Cincinnati. “Obviously, I would have preferred they play in the Midwest just for ease of getting there, but I’m happy to get on a plane and go and see them play out west.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Danny Greive, a UD senior who’s friends with Dayton guard Brady Uhl, traveled to see the team play in Saint Louis earlier this month. He’s going to Salt Lake City with his family. His dad made hotel reservations in seven of the eight first-round sites. He was willing to take the family anywhere but the farthest destination, Spokane, Wash.

“I think a lot of Dayton fans are going to be doing this just because it’s been so long,” Greive said. “I think the fans are eager to be back in the national spotlight and ready to make some noise like 2014.”

Rose and Chris Ashley would have gone anywhere but Brooklyn, where the A-10 tournament was played last week and where first-round NCAA games will be held this week. She just didn’t want to go to New York City. Traveling to Salt Lake City was an easy choice for a lifelong fan.

“I think part of it is the way I was raised,” Rose said. “My dad took me to Flyer basketball games when I was 7 or 8 at the Fieldhouse. I was at the first game in the arena. I went to the University of Dayton. It’s just part of my life experience.”

Jay Fyda, a 2017 UD graduate, will fly from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Salt Lake City for the game. The Flyers played in the NCAA tournament each year he was a student at UD. He watched those games on campus. He only briefly hesitated before committing to make the trip to Utah.

“I talk about Dayton with my friends here at work all the time,” Fyda said. “People are probably getting sick of hearing me talk about the Dayton Flyers. I think we probably take it more seriously than pretty much any other mid-major fan base, if any fan base period.”

Mark Spaulding, a senior at UD, didn’t have to worry about making travel plans. He was one of 12 members of the UD cheerleading squad selected to travel with the team on a charter flight to Salt Lake City.

“It’s a little bit surreal in the sense that I’ve been a fan ever since I went to my first game with my dad in 2010,” Spaulding said. “It’s just something special.”

Cara Daley, a 2021 UD graduate who’s now working on a master’s degree at UD, had already planned to go to Salt Lake City this week because her boyfriend, Jordan Strife, a 2023 UD grad, works there. She moved the trip up a day so she could get to the game Thursday.

“It’s the opportunity to have the experience that I was really looking forward to and didn’t get in 2020,” Daley said. “It’s almost like I get relive my college years and have that experience that I could have had as a student as an adult. I feel like it’s so much more meaningful to come back to a team that I’ve always felt passionate about.”

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

About the Author