October 1, 2017 12:34:49 AM
"Top-25 teams come and go, but top-25 programs are in it every year. They are there all year, and they never leave. For us, we have to be that program, that top-10, top-15 program that every year people know, 'Where is Mississippi State? They are in here somewhere, and I don't have to look much past No. 15 or No. 10.' "
-- Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer, January 2016
Nearly everything has worked out like Vic Schaefer thought it would.
When he was hired to replace Sharon Fanning-Otis as Mississippi State's women's basketball coach in March 2012, Schaefer talked about building a program. He discussed the initial "sense" he and his wife, Holly, had that there was a hunger on campus and in the state to create a title contender in a sport that hadn't attracted much attention or been consistently competitive in the Southeastern Conference.
Schaefer talked about working hard and selling the program. He even referenced the great baseball movie "Field of Dreams" and modified one of its iconic lines to describe the potential he believed MSU possessed when he said, "if you build it, they will come." Schaefer finished his comment by saying, "We're going to win here, and there's no doubt about it."
It's telling to look back on the road Schaefer and his program have traveled in that time as MSU prepares to kick off its 2017-18 season with its first practice at 2 p.m. today at Mize Pavilion.
MSU is one of only 19 Division I programs to win more games in each of the last four seasons. Last season, MSU's 34th victory, a 66-64 overtime win against four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals, easily became the program's signature moment. It marked the 111th victory in the careers of seniors Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, and Breanna Richardson (classmate Chinwe Okorie was ineligible for her freshman season and joined them for the last three years). It also ended UConn's NCAA record 111-game winning streak.
For those close to the program, the victory wasn't surprising. It was merely the culmination of years of building, teaching, and selling. For others who weren't familiar with Schaefer and the Bulldogs, the victory was astonishing. You could tell in the national media coverage, as many treated MSU as an afterthought and were looking ahead to a matchup between UConn and South Carolina for the national title. You also could tell by the way the crowd in American Airlines Arena in Dallas supported MSU like an underdog and created one of the most memorable sporting events in the history of women's college basketball.
Love like that is nothing new in Starkville. Schaefer has used a grass-roots approach to sell his program like few in the sport. The proof is in attendance numbers that are similar to the program's rising win totals. Starkville no longer is an outpost where teams go to chalk up easy victories. It is a place that has become a hotbed for the sport with a brand of basketball that is energizing and full of heart.
That's why Schaefer has been a popular man the past six months. He said earlier this week he has received congratulations from countless people who watched his program's run to the Final Four and its victory against UConn last season. In no way does he feel a majority of people believe MSU's victory against UConn was a fluke. Instead, he feels that victory validated everything he and the members of his coaching staff have done to elevate the program.
"I think now, quite frankly, Mississippi State women's basketball is a household name, and I think people understand where we are and what we're accomplishing yearly. One hundred eleven games in four years? C'mon. That is hard to do."
Now that the program has reached heights usually reserved for the titans of the sport, Schaefer said Thursday the challenge is to stay there. He has echoed that sentiment in previous years when discussing the program's climb to national relevance and prominence. This season, Schaefer knows there will be an even bigger bull's eye on his back and the backs of his players.
"We're trying to maintain it," Schaefer said. "We have gone from 27 to 28 to 34 (wins). We have got to maintain it. You do that through recruiting, you do that through retaining your student-athletes, you do that through developing them, and we have done a good job of that since I have been here."
Schaefer and his staff appear to be building on that success. The program has received verbal commitments from Daphane White, Jessika Carter, and Xaria Wiggins, who are ranked No. 48, No. 49, and No. 54, respectively, in the top 100 of the HoopGurlz Class of 2018. MSU also is one of four schools on the short list of Queen Egbo, a 6-foot-3 forward, who is ranked No. 15 on that list.
Those players will follow in the footsteps of a group of seniors that won 111 games. Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William have a chance to eclipse that mark if they win 23 games this season. Future classes also will have opportunities to set new standards. That is the culture coach Schaefer and his staff have created in Starkville.
The proof is in the season ticket sales. MSU has sold 3,689 season tickets, including all of its reserved season tickets. MSU accomplished the same feat last year, but it added four more sections for the 2017-18 campaign and sold those seats, too.
Maintaining that level might sound like pressure. But Schaefer dismisses that thought and says "pressure" is receiving a call from an emergency room doctor in Crockett, Texas, informing him his son, Logan, is unconscious, unresponsive, and seizing and asking him where he wants him to be transported.
That's why the challenge of keeping MSU at the top of the women's college basketball mountain won't be too much for Schaefer or his staff. After all, there weren't many people who truly believed he could transform a program with limited success into a national power, but that is what has happened. As amazing as it might be to hear Schaefer say it, he is right when he says MSU now is "a notch" on the belt of opponents who already have circled the date for the matchup against the Bulldogs this season.
"Mississippi State is a women's basketball university," Schaefer said. "In my industry, it doesn't get any better than that.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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