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Friday, May 6, 2016

Surprise summer trip to White House, meet with Indiana Fever, shocks NCAA champion DePauw Tigers

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Members of the Indiana Fever take a photo with the Division III women's basketball champions from DePauw University during a visit to the White House to recognize the 2012 WNBA Champions on June 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.
(Courtesy Photo/NED DISHMAN/NBAE via Getty Images)
With its players scattered across the country -- from Los Angeles to Boston -- doing various jobs and internships, the DePauw women's basketball program got some big news on Friday, June 7.

Because they won the 2013 NCAA Division III national championship, they were being invited to meet President Barack Obama at the White House on June 14.

"We weren't expecting that at all," DPU athletic director Stevie Baker-Watson said. "It was shocking; very surreal to us."

While it has long been a tradition for the President to invite championship teams to the White House, bringing in Division III women's teams doesn't have a lot of precedent.

The 2007 champs didn't get an invitation, and nobody imagined the 2013 champs would, either.

But DePauw has alumni in high places, and because the WNBA's Indiana Fever won last season's championship, there was a perfect opportunity to utilize those connections.

Among those working at the White House are David Dietz ('11) and Bess Evans ('07).

"The love that our alumni have for this institution and the connections they have (is amazing)," Baker-Watson said.

With less than a week to prepare, Baker-Watson had to work quickly to organize everything and get all the players and coaches on the same page.

The challenge wasn't so much finding them, but getting them to think she wasn't joking.

Baker-Watson found out about the trip from DePauw president Brian Casey, then she contacted women's basketball coach Kris Huffman.

"I got a text from Stevie that said, 'Call me because you won't believe me if I text you,'" Huffman said.

Huffman took a few seconds of convincing, then snapped into coach mode and started reaching out to her players with a vague, cryptic text of her own.

"Coach sent us a text message saying that we had to call her back that night ASAP," junior guard Lauren Abendroth said. "It had a lot of us all riled up and we were nervous something was wrong. When I called her back, she started laughing.

"'Drothie, we've been invited to the White House. Can you come?' I was thrilled."

The players began finding out on that Friday and had to commit by Saturday in order to get all the planning, flight bookings and, most importantly, security clearance, out of the way in advance of the trip.

With the majority of the team working this summer at various highly coveted positions, this created a bit of dilemma.

"I had to ask off time for work, which was a little nerve-wrecking for me," Abendroth said. "I was only three days on the job. But my bosses were super excited for me. They realized it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and even put a posting on our company's website."

Everything had to come together quickly, but the details were sketchy.

"We knew very little at that point in time," Baker-Watson said. "Really we were just given the information that it was going to be sometime on Friday, probably in the afternoon. ... We didn't get final information until we were literally en route."

The team was due to arrive on Thursday afternoon, visit the White House on Friday, then fly back on Saturday.

Baker-Watson got all the flights planned, attempting to group as many athletes on the same flight as she could -- the ones near Michigan came out or Detroit, the ones near Los Angeles came out together, et al.

"Seeing the team was another great perk of the trip," Abendroth said. "It made me realize how much I missed them. It was so fun to be back with the gang, especially the seniors who graduated."

The players got in early Thursday afternoon, checked into rooms near the airport then took the Metro into the capitol to started taking in the sights.

Huffman, who had been vacationing in Colorado, had only a few hours to repack and get to the airport before arriving in Washington D.C. on Thursday night.

The team was told they would get to tour the White House, then sit in on the speech and photo opportunity President Obama had with the Fever, which was in town to play the Mystics on Sunday.

There was to be a brief tour, but no actual meeting with the President.

"We really didn't know what to expect when we were there," Baker-Watson said. "We wanted to temper the expectations of the women, but at the same time try to make them realize how special this was."

Members of the DePauw women's basketball team pose outside the White House during their trip to meet President Obama last week.
(Courtesy photo/DEPAUW UNIVERSITY)
The players got ready, wearing business outfits and comfortable shoes (no flip-flops), not sure where they would be going or how far they'd be walking.

"A bus came and picked us up to drop us out in front of the White House," Abendroth said. "We were met by two DePauw alumni who walked us through the process."

The traveling party of 27 (16 players, three coaches, a trainer and school administrators) spent a half hour getting through security, then was escorted through the library, China room and home theatre into another waiting area where they mingled with other guests, including a high school team and youth from a clinic the Fever were preparing to put on, for about 45 minutes.

Finally, the players were told they could enter the East Room, where the ceremony would be held.

The relatively small room was filled wall-to-wall with cameras, making for an intimidating atmosphere.

"It was very surreal," Abendroth said.

While the team was ostensibly there as part of the entourage for last season's WNBA champion Indiana Fever, the Tigers were there for a chance to be in the same room as the president.

After everyone was seated the Fever were introduced, including star player Tamika Catchings and head coach Lin Dunn.

A few minutes worth of pictures were snapped, then the President came in.

"Bess had told us in advance that there would be remarks about the team but that we shouldn't expect a photo," Baker-Watson said.

President Obama first congratulated the Fever, then immediately turned his focus to DePauw.

"(The Fever) brought Indiana's other championship team with them, the Division III women's basketball champions, the 34-0 DePauw Tigers, who are in the audience," President Obama said.

Then he dropped a bomb on everyone.

"That's pretty cool. Well, we're going to have to get a picture after we do all this, with the Tigers."

The players and coaches from DePauw were shocked, and still not sure if they believed it.

"As soon as he was finishing up, the Secret Service grabbed us," Huffman said.

The party was hustled into the Blue Room, two doors away, then emotionally ambushed by President Obama.

Not surprisingly, the President was calmer than the players. He dribbled a basketball, tossed it to one of his staff members and started shaking hands and asking questions.

"He seemed to know how cool it was that they won the championship, and that they did it in the fashion they did," Baker-Watson said. "He got it and seemed interested. It was natural, not tight; not stuffy."

President Obama shook all their hands and asked brief questions, which the players mostly answered by repeating the same thing back to him.

"I heard some of the girls saying, 'I'm not going to wash my hand,'" Huffman said.

He then asked Huffman about the outgoing seniors and their future, then the future of the team.

"It was very cool and we were all in awe," Abendroth said. "Meeting him in person is a lot different than the thought of meeting him. It was so surreal and I was a little awestruck."

After posing for a picture, the President shuffled out the door opposite where he entered and the Fever players came in to pose for pictures and chat with the Tigers for a few minutes.

"They were really nice to us as well and we were excited that we got to meet them," Abendroth said.

The Fever players were excited to be able to share the experience with others.

"They were pleased that they had another group of women who are passionate about the sport of basketball there with them," Baker-Watson said.

After the White House, the DPU women went to dinner at the house of another alumnus in Washington, had a brief chance to do more sight-seeing on Saturday they headed home.

Huffman said that, up until this surprise trip, the post-championship experience was fairly similar to 2007. This year's became a little more special on Friday.

"The White House just takes this one to a whole nother level," she said.

Because DePauw is such a small college, chances like this don't come around very often, but they can also come as a surprise to the budget.

One of the first questions Baker-Watson asked Casey was if they could afford to take all the players on the trip. There is no emergency White House fund built into the school's budget.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for DePauw and for these women and we're going to make it work,'" Baker-Watson said. "We just thought it was appropriate for us to go and continue the celebration."

For Abendroth, an economics major interested in politics, the trip wasn't just a culmination, but also a motivation.

"I am so motivated to go back next year," she said. "It was one of the coolest things I've ever done and we have to win back-to-back.

"I'm hoping Obama will even follow us next year. I want to impress him to the best of my abilities."

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