If Their Teams Win Titles, This Brother And Sister From St. Joseph Will Make NCAA Basketball History
Diego and Daejah Bernard of St. Joseph, Missouri, have a shot to do something never accomplished in college basketball at any NCAA level: A brother and sister duo winning national championships at two different schools in the same season.
Each of the Bernard siblings is a starting guard for their respective teams at the NCAA Division II level.
Diego plays for defending men's national champion Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, Missouri. Daejah stars for Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Both Bernards' teams are ranked No. 1 in this week’s D-II men’s and women’s basketball polls.
“Nobody thinks that they’re going to be No. 1 in the nation let alone you and your sibling being No. 1,” said Daejah Bernard during the Panthers’ recent two-game road swing through the Kansas City area. “It’s pretty cool.”
They almost pulled off the feat of winning two national titles in Division II men’s and women’s basketball a year ago. Diego’s Bearcats won the men’s title with a 38-0 record. Daejah’s Panthers were 35-0 before losing to Lubbock Christian, 69-60, in the national semifinals.
Their parents, Rella Embray and Chris Bernard, attended Daejah's season-ending loss in Columbus, Ohio.
“That was a very, very, very tough time,” said Embray. “Just to see how heartbroken she was, as a parent that breaks your heart ten times more.”
That loss took place in Columbus, Ohio, about a five-hour drive from Evansville, Indiana, where Diego and Northwest Missouri State were scheduled to play their national title game the next day. After consoling their daughter, Rella and Chris gathered up their things and drove to Evansville to see Diego's Bearcats win the men's championship.
Rella and Chris agreed beforehand that they would stick together to see both kids play in their respective title games, win or lose.
“If one would have happened to lose, which Daejah did, we both wanted to be there to console her and not just have one parent there,” said Embray. “We both wanted to give her our love.”
The other challenge for the parents is balancing their own work schedules with the travel. Rella Embray works in data processing for an insurance company and has built up some days off for this time of the year. Chris Bernard works with companies as a construction contractor.
“They keep me busy and they understand my ins and outs of scheduling,” he said.
Neither Chris nor Rella had a blueprint, before both kids entered college, on how to plan around the years their kids’ collegiate basketball careers would coincide. (Daejah is currently a senior at Drury, while Diego is a sophomore at Northwest.)
“We were just blindly going here, there and everywhere,” said Embray. “We had to make a schedule for ourselves to get both of the schedules, then determine which direction that we were going to go.”
This week, Diego and Daejah play in their respective conference tournaments.
Diego’s top-seeded Bearcats are in downtown Kansas City for the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association tournament at Municipal Auditorium. Their first game is at 6 p.m., Thursday.
Daejah’s Panthers, the No. 1 seed in the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament, play in Edwardsville, Illinois, at 2:30 p.m., Thursday, against Maryville University out of St. Louis.
Because Daejah is a senior, Chris Bernard and Rella Embray are going to Illinois. But when the NCAA Division II men’s and women’s tournaments are underway later in March? Their bags will be packed again.
If there’s history to be made with two national championships, Diego and Daejah’s parents want to relish that moment, too.
“We’re wanting to be that first family to do that,” said Embray with a laugh.
Greg Echlin reports on sports for KCUR.