A group shot of the 2022-23 women's basketball team with their individual trophies after the championship win.

National champions. Undefeated. Media darlings. 

The Transylvania Pioneers women’s basketball team generated a lot of titles – and a lot of words – this spring. Beginning with a feature on Coach Juli Fulks in January, the Lexington Herald-Leader published more than a dozen articles on the team and its historic path to Dallas. 

Herald-Leader sports writer Caroline Makauskas interviewed Fulks and members of the national championship team as the season progressed, sharing the students’ insight on a very special season. 

With permission from the writer and the Lexington Herald-Leader, this issue of Third and Broadway includes excerpts from some of the feature stories.

From the “Dream Door” to reality: Juli Fulks finds joy in the journey

The back of Fulks’ office door is covered in note cards listing the handwritten dreams and goals of each of her players. The “Dream Door,” as it’s known, serves as a reminder of what the players said they wanted to work toward at the start of the year.

Coach Juli Fulks gives feedback to her team in the midst of the game.

The note cards are bulleted with points like ‘keep good grades,’ ‘get an internship,’ ‘find a charity I’m passionate about,’ and ‘pass accounting.’

But the most common dream on the door? ‘Win a national championship.’

“It’s kind of the first year I’ve actually really let people put ‘national championship’ up there,” Fulks said. “Having that be a real dream and goal has to really align with ‘have you done the things to have that be real?’ We can all dream about it, but there’s a reality. We can’t just all dream collectively really hard about being national champions. And, not always be in the gym all the time and that still be (up there).

There’s a skill and athletic piece. But they have it. And they know it.”

After six more regular-season games, the Pioneers begin their postseason journey with the HCAC Tournament followed, assuredly, by the Division III NCAA Tournament. Transylvania went 27-0 before falling one game short of the national semifinals last season and has not been defeated since then.

Amid all the winning, though, success has never been defined only by basketball at Transylvania.

From that dream door, what we actually talk about every day is having joy in the journey.

Juli Fulks

What matters is the patience and work to overcome what’s hard.

“From that dream door, what we actually talk about every day is having joy in the journey,” Fulks said. “Because, if that one goal is what they judge this entire six-month process on, I have not done my job. That’s a big goal, but we’re together way too often to have that be the only thing that decides whether this has been good or bad.”

Read ‘Joy in the journey.’ The science behind Kentucky’s only unbeaten college basketball team on Kentucky.com.

Madison Kellione’s Transylvania career short but “super-special”

Fulks calls Kellione the most disciplined athlete she’s ever coached.

“And she’s the most coachable and the easiest to coach,” Fulks said. “And is the perfect teammate and does everything you ask her to do. And when your biggest challenge is helping her balance taking an overloaded science curriculum with big goals and basketball, that’s as hard as it’s gotten.”

Maddie Kellione takes the ball down the court in the championship game.

Kellione credits her time at Transy with finding her voice as a leader. In high school, she said, she was expected to step into that leadership role; but she wasn’t yet comfortable with it.

“I was still very much introverted,” Kellione said. “And didn’t want to tell people, not what to do, per se, but to just be that leader and to help others. And I think here, especially with the help of our senior class, that it’s not like it’s all on one person. I think that’s allowed me to step individually into my role and like play to my strengths and help teammates in that way.”

When Kellione was benched with her torn ACL as a freshman, the Pioneers were eliminated in the round of 64 by Randolph-Macon. The tournament was later canceled after the first two rounds due to the pandemic. When she was a sophomore during the 2020-21 season, the Pioneers were crowned conference champions, but the 2021 NCAA Tournament was also canceled due to the pandemic.

During her junior season, Transy went 27-1 before falling to, believe it or not, Trine in the Elite Eight. The Pioneers haven’t lost since, taking a 2022-23 record of 31-0 into this weekend’s Final Four.

I’ve never had so much fun playing basketball as I have with this team. And I think it’s because of our bond outside of the court.

Madison Kellione

Nothing panned out how it was supposed to, but Kellione isn’t disappointed.

“If I had to do all that again to get just these two years I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Kellione said. “Because I told my mom last year, I was like, ‘I’ve never had so much fun playing basketball as I have with this team.’ And I think it’s because of our bond outside of the court. They ignite the love for the game so much more when you’re playing with people you love and you’re winning. And, I mean, I’d give all those hard years again, even in high school when I wasn’t that successful, just to experience what I am now. It’s super special.”

Read ‘Two more weeks of basketball.’ Kellione’s Transylvania career short but ‘super special.’ on Kentucky.com.

Transylvania's Kennedi Stacy takes the ball down the court against Christopher Newport in the championship game.

‘Crowd favorite’ Kennedi Stacy ‘goes 100% every second’

Stacy, who is studying health and exercise science with aspirations of becoming a surgical physician assistant, entered college with not much of an interest in the humanities.

She was a certified nursing assistant in high school thanks to the nursing classes offered at Magoffin County. As part of the program, she began shadowing at the local nursing home in the final months of her senior year of high school. Even after she began college, Stacy worked there during the COVID pandemic, living in Lexington and traveling back to Salyersville three to four times a week.

In taking classes not necessarily connected to her major, Stacy was able to engage with different professors and develop relationships that, she says, have genuinely changed her life.

As a junior, she took a class with Gary Deaton, an instructor in writing, rhetoric and communication as well as Transy’s director of forensics, in which she needed to give a presentation.

Ironically, one of the easiest-to-spot players on the court because of her fierceness strongly dislikes that type of thing.

“I hate more than anything to have to stand in front of people and talk,” Stacy said.

Despite her nerves, and, as she recalled, “I’m sweating in front of 20 people and I couldn’t get my words out of my mouth. I’m about to pass out,” Stacy delivered a speech about Coach Fulks and the statistics behind why the team operates as it does.

“Kennedi is the kind of student who reminds me of the reasons I love teaching,” Deaton said. “Especially at a liberal arts institution. She embraces learning itself as the purpose of her education. She recognizes that continuing to grow as a person and as a thinker is a lifelong endeavor. Most importantly, she applies what she is learning to her life outside the classroom, especially as it can benefit those around her. Kennedi makes everything of which she is a part, each group, each team, each community, better because of her presence. To me, that is the ultimate goal of education, and Kennedi lives that purpose to its fullest realization.”

It really just set a fire in me to want to learn more and want to do more and really know how to do things and study.

Kennedi Stacy

Stacy said that, in taking these sorts of classes and pushing herself, she found a new love for learning.

“It really just set a fire in me to want to learn more,” Stacy said. “And want to do more and really know how to do things and study.”

“Kennedi, every game, is the crowd favorite,” Fulks said. “And I think, from my perception, people love watching somebody who plays fiercely and boldly and goes 100% every second of every play. And that, as a crowd, is fun to watch because that mentality is so rare in life. And that’s what Kennedy brings to our program and has brought since the first day on. She doesn’t know how to do anything at 80%. It’s not in her mentality, it’s not in her DNA.”

Read Transylvania basketball’s Kennedi Stacy ‘goes 100% every second’ on Kentucky.com.

‘I want to be the president’: Dasia Thorton is a game-changer

For many student-athletes, the thought of what follows the end of an athletic career can be daunting. But not for Thornton. She has a clear vision of what she wants, and of the type of change she wants to effect.

“When I graduate,” Thornton said. “It’s like, ‘What am I going to do next?’ And that’s something that I think a lot of student-athletes have to wrestle with, especially whether if they’re ending in high school or ending in college, but I do have other hobbies outside of basketball like languages, traveling, modeling, photography now, so I can use that as well.”

Dasia Thornton goes around her defender in the national championship game.

There are quite a few things on Thornton’s to-do list. First up is to win a national championship this weekend when the Pioneers (32-0) compete against Christopher Newport (31-0) in Transylvania’s first appearance in the NCAA Division III title game.

Thornton also has to shoot a short film for her video class, which she took simply because it sounded interesting. She plans to join the Peace Corps when she graduates from Transylvania. And, of course, eventually be elected the president of the United States.

Thornton, from Cincinnati, studies international relations with minors in Spanish, Chinese “and maybe religion.”

“I like to help people, and I like traveling,” Thornton explained. “I like meeting new people, talking to different people. This combines everything. … I knew from the jump this is what I have to do, and then it was perfect for Peace Corps prep.”

Transylvania has a formal partnership with the Peace Corps to prepare students to serve in the organization. The program was a factor in Thornton’s choosing the school. It didn’t hurt that she could also keep playing basketball. 

“Dasia’s uniqueness is a huge bonus because she is our true extrovert,” Fulks said. “And so there are many parts of the game, and in practice, where you need that. She complements the rest of the group and their strengths differently. And that is true as who she is as a person, as who she is on the court. And all of those things matter.”

Yes, the conference games were good, winning was good. But all the memories that we’ve made as a team, just hanging out in the hotel room, not even the actual basketball, like all of that stuff. That’s the stuff that I’ll remember

Dasia Thorton

This season, Thornton has averaged 12.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. In four years at Transylvania, she and her teammates have amassed an overall record of 98-10. But, for Thornton, the best parts of her collegiate playing career have come in the moments between games. That’s what she’ll remember the most.

“I think definitely the trips and the travel,” Thornton said. “Like, yes, the conference games were good, winning was good. But all the memories that we’ve made as a team, just hanging out in the hotel room, not even the actual basketball, like all of that stuff. That’s the stuff that I’ll remember. And we spend a lot of time together, so we know each other really well. And even when we’re not in basketball, we’re still hanging out outside of basketball. And it’s like, wow, all of these people, I’m going to know for the rest of my life. We’re still going to be close, we’ll talk about all the things we did. And I think 15 years down the line, we’ll be talking about this national championship that we won, as well.”

Read Transy basketball’s Dasia Thornton game-changer on, off court on Kentucky.com.

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