Austin Peay's NCAA berth touches Ellis' heart

Dodgers catcher hopes alma mater lifts spirits of coach's ill granddaughter

Austin Peay's NCAA berth touches Ellis' heart

SCOTTSDALE -- Drawing a No. 1 seed opponent doesn't faze Austin Peay University, which has already overcome astronomical odds just to reach the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament and a Thursday date in Des Moines against Kansas.

Three weeks ago the Governors were 12-17, but as an eighth seed, stunningly won the Ohio Valley Conference with a string of upsets for their first NCAA tourney berth since 2008.

And as Austin Peay alum A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers noted, the basketball accomplishments have lifted the spirits of a collegiate family emotionally torn over the backstory of head coach Dave Loos, whose granddaughter battles a rare cancer, neuroblastoma.

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Rhyan, the 5-year-old daughter of Loos' son, Brad, an assistant coach at the University of Missouri, underwent surgery last week in New York after five rounds of chemotherapy. The hashtag #RallyforRhyan has helped bring attention to her illness.

Ellis' concern is more than just that of an alum. His wife, Cindy, was a roommate at the school of Brad Loos' sister, Nikki.

"This has been really hard," said Ellis. "For that team to do what it's done, it's been a really special run for them and the family, which we know really well. You hear how Rhyan came out of the surgery and she's still struggling, but there is reason for some optimism, for their family and the entire Austin Peay family. This is more than just about basketball, a lot more."

Ellis played high school basketball, but focused on baseball when he got to Austin Peay.

"The baseball team would sneak into the gym on Saturday morning and get our conditioning in playing games until the basketball team showed up and ran us out of there," he recalled. "The basketball was really good when I was there. From 1999-2004 they were best in the conference and it was a lot of fun going to the games.

"It's really a big deal for them to have won the Ohio Valley Conference the way they did as an eighth seed, because that's the only way they could get into the tournament. To win four games in four days, with what's been going on, it's been amazing."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.