STARKVILLE — Commitment means something to Bob and Carol Schwanebeck.
When you have been married 40 years, you find a special way to celebrate your anniversary.
Little did Bob Schwanebeck realize that he and his wife would spend their special day with the Mississippi State women’s basketball team in Columbia, Missouri.
“For the past several years, we spent our anniversary wherever the girls were playing basketball,” Bob Schwanebeck said. “If it was in Starkville, that is where we went. We have been to Nashville (Tennessee) to watch the team, too.”
The trip to Missouri is just one the Schwanebecks, who live in Meridian, have made with the No. 14 team in the nation. Last month, the Schwanebecks traveled with MSU to Louisiana to watch the team play Louisiana Lafayette, and then to Las Vegas to watch the team in the Holiday Hoops Classic.
The fact that the Schwanebecks were willing to go on the road with the Bulldogs is another sign of the team’s growing fan support. Attendance for MSU’s games at Humphrey Coliseum is up more than 600 to an average of 2,958 per game — that’s sixth in the Southeastern Conference. Support at the team’s luncheon’s at Mize Pavilion also has increased to the point that the team likely will have to move the event downstairs to the gym floor to make room for the number of fans who want to be part of a team that is off to a program-best 17-0 start (2-0 in the SEC).
The team looks to make it 18 in a row tonight when it hosts Arkansas (10-4, 0-2) at Humphrey Coliseum. Tip-off is 8 p.m. Fox Sports Net South will broadcast the game. A win would help MSU open SEC play at 3-0 for the first time in program history.
Bob and Carol Schwanebeck will be there in Section 116 if history happens. Season ticket holders and members of the booster club, they have supported the program for more than a decade.
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Carol Schwanebeck said she and her husband started to follow the team under then coach Sharon Fanning-Otis because they liked what she stood for and her values. She said the couple has been to the SEC tournament every year for the past 10 years and that it attends as many home games at MSU as it can.
“They’re just a lot of fun to be with,” said Carol Schwanebeck, who works as a family nurse practitioner at the Meridian Naval Air Station. “They really play with a lot of determination and zeal and have a great attitude. It has been a blessing to be able to be with them as we made this trip that we ordinarily would make.”
This year, the Schwanebeck’s anniversary on Jan. 4 coincided with MSU’s trip to Missouri. Bob Schwanebeck said the thought crossed his mind that he and his wife could continue their tradition, even if it meant a longer trip, so he contacted MSU Director of Operations Maryann Baker and asked if he and his wife could accompany the team. MSU was able to accommodate the Schwanebecks, who were on hand to watch the team rally from a nine-point deficit in the second half for a 53-47 victory.
“I wouldn’t say we consider ourselves part of the family, but I do think there is a bond as an outsider looking in,” Bob Schwanebeck, a pastor at Northpointe Presbyterian Church in Meridian, said. “I don’t want it portrayed that we are on the inside of this thing. We’re just fans, and we try to support the team and this opportunity came up. I don’t want it portrayed that we think we are in the loop, so to speak. They are a family. I don’t consider myself a part of that family, but I do consider myself to be someone who is interested in the family and concerned about the family and who will do whatever I can to help them achieve their goals.”
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The Schwanebecks’ sons, Jason and David, graduated from MSU in 2005 and 2008. While Jason is the biggest MSU football fan in the family, Bob Schwanebeck said he and his wife are content to watch the football team’s games on TV. He said they also enjoy attending MSU softball games.
When asked to describe himself as a fan, Bob Schwanebeck said he is a “loyal and committed” fan, not one who is “rabid.” He praised the work of Baker for helping make the trip enjoyable for he and his wife. He said the couple didn’t spent a lot of time “buddying up” to the players. Instead, he said they took pleasure in sitting back and watching the players interact with each other. Seeing the players up close and work through travel delays, he said it is even more evident why so many more people are supporting the women’s basketball team.
“The trip exceeded our expectations,” Bob Schwanebeck said. “They made us feel like they wanted us to be there and they enjoyed us being there. They never made us feel like we were a burden or a problem.
“We had the opportunity to be invited into the locker room after the game Sunday, which gave us an opportunity to thank the girls for their kindness. They wished us happy anniversary and we told them you have something special going on here, not just the record, but the camaraderie they share and they pull for each other. The egos don’t tend to get in the way.”
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MSU coach Vic Schaefer said he wants his players to be accessible to the fans at the luncheons, which are in their second year, and after games. He said building relationships with fans is part of establishing a program that can be successful in the SEC and at the national level.
“It is very special,” Schaefer said. “Our team values our relationship with them, and to have them be with us on their 40th anniversary, what a compliment. It makes me proud of my team and my girls that somebody thinks enough of us, enough of them, to want to spend time away from family.
Seniors Kendra Grant and Jerica James also have noticed the increased support of the program. Both players were underclassmen when the program often drew crowds of less than 1,500 at home games. Now that the number has nearly doubled and fans like the Schwanebecks are traveling with them — and celebrating anniversaries with them — they are excited to attract even more fans.
“We enjoy seeing all of the faces, not only at the luncheons, but at the games also,” James said. “When we come in and see that many people, it is overwhelming sometimes to realize that we have such a great support system, or family, as we call it, behind you as we go through this long journey of games.”
Said Grant, “Coach talks about the way we play and how hard we play and we are in peoples’ hearts. Over the course of the last three years, that is what we have been able to do. As a result of that, we see more and more people at the games and more and more people at the luncheons. I guess that is just a result of how we play.”
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After getting a season-high crowd of 4,114 for its victory against Georgia last week, Schaefer hopes MSU can hit 5,000 tonight. He knows if more fans like the Schwanebecks come out and see the Bulldogs’ level of commitment they will come back and push those attendance figures higher.
“The 4,114 we had Friday and the 5,000 and how ever many we’re going to have on Thursday, they’re coming because they like how we play,” Schaefer said. “They have a respect for these kids, and I think that speaks volumes for what we’re doing and what they’re doing as a team…I have great pride in these young ladies and the respect they are gaining from our fan base.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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