Edna Evans in the embrace of Illinois' James Augustine

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The Camelot in Collinsville

Amidst the din of crackling bowling pins, a warm embrace beneath James Augustine’s armpit was a moment 95-year-old kegler Edna Evans will never forget.

That was the night the Fighting Illini basketball team, on its way to destiny in St. Louis, exited off southbound I-55 and headed for Camelot—a Collinsville bowling alley. It was there also that the diminutive five-foot tall avid bowler and Illinois fan was treated royally by the giant players and their coach.

“Coach Weber gave me a Final Four tee shirt to put on,” Evans said. “I’ve worn it ever since.”

Traveling by bus, the team stopped at the out-of-the way neighborhood bowling alley late last Wednesday night for a few games of nine-pin.

Camelot manager Dianne Hartman of Collinsville said she was tipped off a few days in advance but was sworn to secrecy for security reasons.

Using “goofy” substitute names, house shoes sized 16 and 17, the team occupied lanes 21-32, about a third of the alley’s total and bowled till midnight.

“They were all really, really nice,” said Hartman. “They went into the crowd to sign their shirts and caps.”

Even though Hartmann couldn’t even tell her employees in advance, knowing how huge of an Illinois fan Edna was, “I figured somebody just had to tell her,” Hartman said.

During the two hour visit to Camelot, Evans was treated famously by the Illini. Seated at the head of a standing crowd, Weber asked her to pose with the team. She also had several pictures taken with individual players.

“It really tickled me,” said the retired school teacher. “There was a big crowd behind me and every time someone wanted to get a picture of one of the players they had to get me in it too.”

Evans, who bowls on two teams in Camelot’s Senior League, is an unflappable Illinois fan. She holds football season tickets and goes to as many basketball games as she can.

She traveled to Indianapolis to see Illinois defeat Fairley Dickinson and Nevada in the first rounds of play. And as good fans do, Evans hung in till the end in Illinois’ triumph over Arizona.

“That was hard on the heart,” she said. “I am getting too old for that.”

Evans' spirit, as bright as her well-chosen colors, wore the tee shirt Coach Weber gave her beneath an orange and white sweater and orange vest to the NCAA championship showdown between Illinois and North Carolina in St. Louis. Her daughter and son-in-law, who attended with her, paid handsomely for tickets unloaded by fans of Final Four losing teams.

She will turn 96 in about a week.

“I told the guys to win the championship because it was my birthday on April 15,” said Evans.

And even though they couldn't pull off the win, Evans said it was a thrill to be at the game.

"They had a good year," she said.

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