Tiny college's impending closure inspires basketball team to play its heart out
Hari Sreenivasan: The NCAA Basketball Tournament will captivate sports fans in the coming weeks.
But here's the story of a team you won't see playing during March Madness.
Tonight, tiny Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska, is playing in a regional post-season basketball tournament for Christian colleges.
But as Mike Tobias of PBS station NET in Nebraska tells us, this season is about more than wins and losses for the Royals.
Mike Tobias: Coach Brandon Rogers is going easy on his team tonight. They have just played four games in five days, including trips to Arkansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
And the eight-person team is down to seven. One player is sick and injured.
For every big-money, high-profile college sports program you will see during March Madness, there's a tiny low-profile program like Grace University. The Royals compete in a national athletic association of about 100 small Christian colleges, and have won a few championships over the years.
Unlike major conference schools, Grace doesn't have things like showers with heated floors, lockers with built-in iPads, chartered jets to games. The Royals travel in a rented 15-passenger van.
It's a small college that started the season with a new young coach and big dreams.
Brandon Rogers: Our goal is to get to regionals. It's never been done since we have joined the Division I in the NCAA, so we're excited. We're hungry.
Mike Tobias: But a few weeks before games started, Grace announced it was closing after this school year. Low enrollment and financial challenges were the cause.
Marisa Brown: My first reaction was, what?
Loretta Gamboe: Like, wait, what? No, I was supposed to graduate from here. I'm supposed to have my four years of basketball here.
Tschida Johnson: Obviously, that hit us all very out of the blue. None of us expected that by any means.
Some days are hard. And it's, man, like, this really sucks. What am I going to do next year? And helping each other through that. And then some days we joke about it, like, oh, our school is closing. Like, what is going on? And we make light of it.
Loretta Gamboe: Coach will park in two parking spots with our van on trips and be like, oh, it's OK. Our school's closing.
Mike Tobias: The Royals are playing with a sense of responsibility to leave a lasting memory of Grace athletics, because they're the only team left on campus. Closure led to canceling the men's basketball season.
Brandon Rogers: It is something incredible, because everyone's fighting for something right now. You know what I mean? We're fighting for next year, the unknown. We don't know what it is, but we all are doing it together.
If you have a seal, she will at least know a wrap-around pass is there.
Mike Tobias: Rogers and his Royals know more about their next game, next opponent, than they do about next year.
Marisa Brown: There's nothing we can do to change it, so just enjoy the time we have now.
Loretta Gamboe: God is good. I know that he has a plan for it, and he's going to take care of all of us.
Tschida Johnson: It's definitely brought it closer together, and now we really take every game to heart. We were all really looking forward to next season. And now there is no next season.
Man: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the final home game here at Grace University.
Mike Tobias: The Royals are all sophomores and juniors, most from other states. When Grace closes in May, they will head elsewhere to finish their degrees. Some may have a chance to keep playing basketball together in another school.
Alyssa Strickland: It's coming to an end. And it's — it hit reality. I guess reality hit today.
Marisa Brown: Ended on a bang. Super proud about that.
Tschida Johnson: This is it. This is the last time. And it's my last season.
Mike Tobias: There may be more tournament games, a few more chances to make lasting memories, a last chance to make the last chapter of a small college's sports history a good one.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Tobias in Omaha, Nebraska.