Western Washington's magical journey from Bellingham, Wash., to Highland Heights, Ky., where the Vikings won the NCAA Division II men's basketball national championship last Saturday, required a true team effort.

Western Washington's magical journey from Bellingham, Wash., to Highland Heights, Ky., where the Vikings won the NCAA Division II men's basketball national championship last Saturday, required a true team effort.

But when it came time to hoist up the trophy in front of their hometown fans at Bellingham International Airport the following day, one player's contributions stood out enough to earn the right: former Ashland High all-star Rory Blanche.

Blanche, one of five seniors on the team, finished the season as WWU's leading scorer and rebounder, and hit a crucial shot down the stretch to help the Vikings fend off a furious comeback attempt by Montevallo (Ala.) in the national championship game.

About 200 fans showed up to congratulate the Vikings when their chartered plane landed, and the crowd erupted as Blanche exited the plane, trophy in hand.

"I was just proud and happy and really grateful," Blanche said of introducing the trophy to the Vikings' faithful.

Following the welcome party at the airport, the Vikings jumped on a bus and, behind a police escort, made the 15-minute drive to the SMATE building on the WWU campus. There, they exited the bus and filed onto a podium. Senior Vice President Eileen Coughlin addressed the fans first, followed by head coach Brad Jackson, who delivered his own speech before introducing Blanche, the team captain.

"I'm truly honored to be a part of this team," Blanche told the crowd, according to the Bellingham Herald. "I told myself at the beginning of the year that I wanted to go out with a win, but I didn't know it would be a national title."

Over the next several days Blanche and company received the star treatment, signing autographs and fielding interviews from television stations and reporters from all over the northwest. And the victory tour isn't over. Several celebratory events remain, including another campus gathering slated for Thursday, a meeting with the WWU Board of Trustees on April 13, a dinner with school president Bruce Shepard and his wife on April 16 and a trip to Olympia to receive congratulations from Governor Christine Gregoire on May 4.

Also, Jackson will throw the ceremonial first pitch at a Seattle Mariners baseball game, April 14 at Safeco Field.

"It was pretty special to see how much support there was," said Blanche, who graduated from Ashland High in 2007. "It's really started to sink in how much it meant to this community."

Western Washington's run to its first-ever national title began with a convincing win over Dominican on Nov. 4 and continued with a 15-point rout of Montana State Billings in the Vikings' regular season finale Feb. 25, a game that saw Blanche record his seventh double-double of the season.

Playing as the top seed, Western Washington lost its postseason opener, a Great Northwest Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal tilt. It would be the Vikings' final slip up. They bounced back with wins over Grand Canyon, Chico State and Seattle Pacific in the NCAA Division II West Regional to earn a spot in the Division II Elite Eight. There, they edged Midwestern State 64-63 in the quarterfinals, Stonehill 71-66 in the semis and Montevallo 72-65 in the championship.

Blanche was a key contributor throughout the playoffs. Against Midwestern State, he scored 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half to help the Vikings overcome a 14-point first-half deficit. Against Montevallo, he drained a jump shot to complete a key 12-1 run that gave Western Washington a 63-51 lead with 5:38 left on the clock, then came up with a steal that led to another back-breaking bucket with three minutes to go.

The final buzzer had not even sounded when the weight of the Vikings' accomplishment began to sink in.

"I think it really hit me when there was about one or two minutes left, and one of our best free throw shooters (John Allen) was on the line," Blanche recalls. "When he's on the line that's a good sign for us. I started to tear up because I knew it was a dream come true. And when that confetti fell down, that was probably one of the most incredible experiences — life really can't get much better at that point."

Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 and jzavala@dailytidings.com