It would be an evening in Humphrey Coliseum celebrating a banner year for the Mississippi State women’s basketball team. That much was certain. Just how much celebration, however, remained to be seen.
With 26 wins already in the bag, the Bulldogs surrounded themselves with hundreds of fans as they hosted an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament selection show watch party at The Hump. While assured of a spot in the field of 64 for the second straight year, the precipice on which they sat was shaky, nonetheless. The top four seeds in each of the women’s tournament’s four regionals host the first two rounds, and going into Selection Monday the Bulldogs were poised to be either a No. 4 or 5 seed.
After nearly an hour of waiting, the answer came from ESPN via The Hump’s videoboard. State was seeded fifth in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, regional, with Michigan State seeded fourth. The Bulldogs cheered reservedly at the news, happy with knowing their place in the tournament and as an obligatory response for the cameras on-hand to capture their reaction. Then they looked at the screen again and broke into more elated, if not confused, celebration.
Above their group of games in the bracket, where the host site should have read “East Lansing, Michigan,” it instead indicated the games would be played at Mississippi State. Head coach Vic Schaefer soon soothed the apprehension that this might have been a typo, informing the players and fans that a scheduling conflict with Michigan State’s gymnasium had reassigned hosting privileges to Starkville.
“It gave us a chance to show the country Mississippi State, the great atmosphere we have here and the support of our fan base,” Schaefer said of the opportunity to host NCAA tournament games. “We showed the country we have something special here.”
MSU certainly made the best of its home court advantage, cruising to a 60-50 first-round win over Chattanooga before pulling off a thrilling 74-72 upset over would-be host Michigan State. More than 7,000 fans attended that contest, but in the post-game press conference, Michigan State women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant said it “felt like 70,000.”
The Bulldogs’ season ended with a Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut in Bridgeport, but the team set a program record with 28 wins.
Mississippi State, which was ranked as high as sixth nationally this season, also notched its first two wins in program history over perennial Southeastern Conference powerhouse Tennessee—once during the regular season at The Hump and again in the SEC Tournament—and drove second-ranked South Carolina to the brink in a 57-51 home loss on Jan. 24 before a sellout crowd of more than 10,000. It was the largest crowd ever to attend a women’s college basketball game in Mississippi.
“That’s a great story in itself,” Schaefer said. “We had to turn fans away because there was no more room to sit. We had about 300 fans watching the game on a big screen in the practice gym.”
Basketball may have been this year’s standard-bearer for success in women’s sports at MSU, but athletic director Scott Stricklin said it carried a growing narrative of Bulldog competitiveness, growth and national prominence that’s become infectious.
Of MSU’s 16 athletic programs, nine are women’s sports. Among those, basketball, softball, track and field, and tennis have in recent years regularly rank in the top 25 nationally, and cross country finished 17th in the fall during the team’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA championships.
Soccer and volleyball showed marked improvement this year under first-year head coaches, and golf is making steady gains.
“We want to be good across the board in everything, men’s or women’s,” Stricklin said. “In our league, you can get run over if you’re not committed. You can be really good and still get run over in the SEC.
“We want to be consistently good and win championships,” he added. “I think we’re in a period where we’re building consistent success.”
Particularly in women’s sports, Stricklin credited coaches that bring excitement, and often “big personalities,” to their programs.
“They exude what we want MSU athletics to be,” Stricklin said. “They are competitors and winners. When I’ve interviewed candidates for those jobs, I’ve always thought if they can get me fired up about their sport, they can probably get a recruit fired up, too.”
Investment also matters, Stricklin said, and the money is reaching every corner of the athletic program. While the athletic director credited continued success of MSU’s football program as the driving force for athletic donations, some boosters are showing love directly to women’s sports.
This year, the softball team—coming off of four straight trips to the NCAA tournament—took the field at Nusz Park, a $6 million facility named for lead donors and alumni Tommy and Terri Nusz of Houston, Texas. The new park increased fan seating from 750 to 1,100, and hosted the SEC softball tournament in May.
Schaefer agreed those types of investments are helping build a winning tradition, especially in women’s sports.
“We have a lot of women’s sports that are competitive on the national level and others that are on the rise,” he said. “That goes to the importance our administration places on women’s sports. We don’t have them just to have them, and it’s obvious.”
Schaefer is the first to admit it took some time for his program to come so far. The former Arkansas and Texas A&M assistant took the helm for the Bulldogs in 2012, leading them to a paltry 13-17 mark in his first season. Each year showed considerable progress, as the 2013-14 squad went 22-14 and reached the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. In year three, his team set its first program record with 27 wins and the Bulldogs rode a No. 5 seed to the NCAA tournament’s second round before losing to host Duke.
The team’s trademarks of raw talent, high emotion and relentless defense have led the program’s rise in the national ranks. And people are noticing. Women’s basketball sold more than 90,000 tickets for games at The Hump in 2015-16, with an average of 6,200 attending home SEC match-ups. Since Schaefer’s arrival, he said, season ticket sales have more than tripled.
“People identify with the way we play,” he said. “We play a blue-collar, hard-nosed style and this team has an excellent work ethic. We have a diverse fan base, too. We’ve turned fans who had never watched a women’s basketball game in their lives into season-ticket holders. If I can get them here for one game, they won’t miss another one.”
Schaefer credited strong administrative and fan support for helping make Mississippi State women’s basketball a household name. To parlay that reputation into championships, he said, will take consistently recruiting top talent and developing players to their maximum potential.
Before MSU’s breakout 2014-15 season, Schaefer landed five-star, 6-foot-1 guard Victoria Vivians from Scott Central Attendance Center in Forest. She was the biggest catch of a top 20 recruiting class that included point guard Morgan William of Birmingham, Alabama; guard Kayla Nevitt of Houston, Texas; forward LaKaris Salter of Tallahassee, Florida, and guard Blair Schaefer of Starkville.
Vivians averaged almost 15 points per game her freshman year and led the team in scoring as a sophomore with more than 17 points per contest.
A future prospect for the Women’s National Basketball Association, Vivians has embraced her role as a leader for a squad she believes is going places, especially since MSU is returning all but one player from the 2015-16 roster.
“My first two years have been great here,” she said. “Earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament two years in a row shows something. This year, we had a young team, so if we can do this now, imagine what we can do in the future. I’m planning on cutting down some nets.”
Whether sitting in the recruits’ living rooms or taking players and their families around MSU’s campus, Schaefer said selling the program is becoming easier. Committed athletic administration, top-tier facilities, a dedicated staff and a team GPA that has ranged from 2.75 to 3.1 during Schaefer’s tenure, do most of the talking.
“Our message is simple,” Schaefer said. “We let parents know their daughter will play in a great college atmosphere for a staff that will take care of her, will help develop her in the classroom and on the court, and that can maybe even develop her to go to the WNBA. Every coach preaches different things during recruiting, but we’ve found once we get recruits on campus, they fall in love.”
The day before Valentine’s Day, a 7-year-old Starkville girl and her father sat among hundreds of MSU softball faithful braving the crisp winter air at Nusz Park. This year’s Bulldog Kickoff served as a five-game christening for the Bulldogs’ new home, and MSU won each contest, much to the delight of the sea of gloved hands and ear-muffed heads that chose the frigid experience over a Saturday afternoon indoors.
With each Mississippi State run—during a doubleheader where the team defeated Tennessee Tech, 11-4, and Alabama A&M, 2-1—two young women working with the athletic department ran into the crowd and tossed T-shirts to lucky fans. Between innings, those same women chose fans from the stands to play 30-60-second mini-games, such as cornhole on top of the dugouts, and bestowed participants more Bulldog swag for their trouble.
With each T-shirt toss, the 7-year-old fan brimmed with the anticipation she might catch one. Each time Bully passed by, she hollered and waved at the MSU mascot. Then, after the second inning of the Alabama A&M contest, the woman the young fan had dubbed “the T-shirt lady” walked up to the girl’s seat.
“Can you run fast?” she asked.
“Oh yeah,” the girl answered exuberantly.
“Well, that’s good, because if you want to, and your Dad doesn’t mind, I’ve got a running game you can play on the field.”
Moments later, the girl stood on third base glaring eagerly at a softball sitting about 20 yards away in left field. She had 30 seconds to run to the ball, pick it up, and run back. When time started, the girl, wearing furry boots not particularly suited for running, charged at the softball. She picked it up quickly and turned on the jets heading back to third base, beating the clock by about five seconds.
She earned a poster signed by each member of the MSU softball team, and as she ran back to her father, she proclaimed, “This is going on my wall.”
As the pair returned to their seats, the little girl fired off one more parting shot that encapsulated, at least from MSU’s standpoint, the aim for the entire exercise:
“Daddy, can we come back here tomorrow?”
Leah Beasley, assistant athletic director for marketing, loves to hear stories like those, and she admits she hears them often.
“We want to recruit fans when they’re young and keep them,” she said. “We want to build the Bulldog family. The more invested you are in a team or a program, the more you want to see it succeed. I haven’t seen a lot of fans like Mississippi State fans.”
A former Louisiana Tech softball standout, Beasley understands her department’s dual mission—to create positive experiences for both the student athletes and the fans. Women’s sports, in particular, create many more opportunities for direct interaction between fans and players because the action is closer and the fan engagement more intense. Plus, free admission for most women’s sports—all but women’s basketball—make them easy targets for family outings. Their smaller venues, like Nusz Park or the Newell-Grissom volleyball facility, also offer young fans a higher probability to score a photo with Bully than an event at Davis Wade Stadium, The Hump or Polk-Dement Stadium.
The coaches and players for all of MSU’s sports, men’s and women’s, help feed the mission of better connecting the fans with the players, Beasley said, and it extends beyond the playing surfaces. Bulldog teams make ample public appearances throughout the year, visiting local schools and civic clubs to speak and sign autographs.
Amid their historic season, the women’s basketball team members found time to work the morning carpool lines at Starkville’s public elementary schools, greeting the star-struck children as they arrived on campus.
“The coaches and players never turn us down when we ask them to do things in the community,” Beasley said.
That connection, Beasley added, begets mutual passion—a fan base excited about its teams and athletes whose performances feed off energy from the fans.
“You can’t help but love a team that is everywhere you are,” she said. “It’s positive, too, because the girls are always smiling. What happens on the fan side is now they aren’t just yelling because they love MSU or a particular sport. They are yelling because they know the players. They are encouraging them by name. They’re yelling because they have their backs.”
As athletic director, Stricklin said he is proud to see all MSU’s programs, especially the women’s sports, taking advantage of opportunities to connect with the fans.
“Every decision we make involves creating great experiences, whether it’s a student connecting with the university, an alumnus reconnecting or a 10-year-old who enjoys our sporting events so much that he or she one day becomes a Bulldog,” Stricklin said. “Otherwise, there is no reason for athletics to exist on this campus.”
Finishing games had been a challenge all season for MSU’s volleyball team under first-year Head coach David McFatrich. But if ever there was a day to break through that wall, the team’s season finale against Ole Miss was it.
In front of a boisterous crowd at Newell-Grissom, the Bulldogs jumped ahead of their in-state rivals two games to none, needing to win a third to take the match. They lost game three, and a familiar sense of foreboding started to creep into the building. They had blown 2-0 leads throughout the year, including heartbreakers at home against Auburn and Tennessee, as well as in a road loss to Alabama.
McFatrich pleaded with his team to break the cycle, to send Bulldog volleyball fans home happy and send notice to the daunting SEC volleyball gauntlet that MSU had arrived. They delivered in game four with a 25-23 victory.
“The last game of the year was our best,” McFatrich recalled. “We made amazing plays. It was one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had as a coach.”
The victory capped a three-match winning streak that secured a 17-15 season, the program’s first winning record in nine seasons. It came on the backs of players who adopted a new, fast-paced playing style and a high-energy coach who said he worked the hardest he ever had.
“The very first day of practice, I told the girls, ‘It’s OK to mess up. But I want you to do it at 100 mph with your hair on fire,’” he said. “We didn’t do everything right, but I encouraged them to be aggressive and learn from their mistakes. Our girls were competitive, they battled and they brought energy to the court. The results showed in our record.”
As he tried to draw the most out of his talent, he ran into some roadblocks born from nine straight losing seasons, which created missed opportunities.
“We left some games on the table,” he said. “Honestly, sometimes your comfort level with how it used to be is so strong that it supersedes winning. Building this program will take time, and I have to accept that as a coach.”
McFatrich said his team already exhibits strong chemistry and character, so generating more wins will come from continuing to raise his team’s volleyball IQ and increase the team’s height through recruiting.
In the meantime, he wants to put an exciting, competitive product on the floor to build on an already fiercely loyal fan base.
“I still can’t believe how loud it was in Newell-Grissom this year,” he said. “Our fans are incredible, but we want more. When you go to a volleyball game, there is excitement every single play. I think if people will come see us play once, they’ll come back. If they’ll come watch us, they’ll start to get it.”
McFatrich is no stranger to volleyball’s biggest stages. In 2012 and 2013, he led the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears to consecutive Southland Conference titles and NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament appearances. When he interviewed for the MSU job, he was impressed by how evident the athletic department and its boosters made it that they want a top-flight volleyball program. Since taking the helm, he said they have delivered on that message, dedicating resources to renovate Newell-Grissom into what he hopes will be one of the nation’s finest college volleyball facilities.
“They made it clear that volleyball was just as important as any other sport and not just something on the periphery,” McFatrich said. “I’ve only been here 15 months, and this university has already shown us such incredible support. I can honestly say I’m the luckiest volleyball coach in the country.”
When the end came for the Bulldogs’ dream basketball season, it came with a sobering reminder that the program’s journey to the top had some real estate in front of it.
Mississippi State fell 98-38 to a UConn team that went on to win its fourth straight national title. Huskies went on to take the top three spots in the 2016 WNBA Draft.
Stricklin said he didn’t define MSU’s season by that game, in the least. Rather, he lauded the team’s effort to earn the right to play it.
“The more success you have, the more opportunities you have for something special,” he said. “There’s no question you learn from all these experiences. We knew UConn’s talent and history going in, but the fact is, you never really know what’s going to happen until you play the game. Just get yourself to the postseason, because if you’re sitting at home, nothing good can happen.”
The season-ending loss aside, Schaefer now looks to an upcoming season with all of his starters returning to his battle-tested team, fully encouraged that his plan to build an elite program is working.
“We’ve won 75 games in the last three years during a major rebuild,” Schaefer said. “What we’ve done here in that period of time is unheard of. We have to continue to grow. We have the makings of a very good basketball team, not just next year but in the years to come.”