By Kyle Koso
Talking about running a Division-I athletic program is a million times easier than actually doing it, but universities are still drawn by the appeal of putting their athletic departments in the most elevated setting possible.
The arguments for making the leap are plentiful – if your academic intentions are to rise to the level of other strong competition, why wouldn’t you wish the same for your athletic department? And it’s possible that the change can create more involved alumni, and maybe draw added community involvement and interest.
When the time comes to execute the move to D-I, you can count on some unique strain and pressure on the coaches and players who are the public face of a complicated journey. Three teams playing in the 2016 Preseason WNIT – Abilene Christian, Omaha and UT-Rio Grande Valley – are at varying stages of a D-I change, all confident that the destination is more than worth some difficult stops along the way.
The Wildcats are down to one more season “in between” divisions, but ACU has certainly made the most of their time. After winning the Southland Conference tournament last season, the team earned a spot in the Postseason WNIT and its first D-I postseason moment; that 26-4 finish and a strong senior-led roster has the Wildcats thirsting for similar success this year.
While a shot at the NCAA Tournament must wait until 2017-18, Abilene Christian is already establishing itself as a mid-major with a purpose. Much of that presence is due to four seniors who were there at the start and worked tirelessly, even though they knew coming in they’d never play an NCAA Tournament game – Alexis Mason, Sydney Shelstead and twin sisters Lizzy and Suzzy Dimba.
“I’m so proud of them. I appreciate what they’ve done for the program these first three years and I’m excited what their senior year will look like,” said ACU head coach Julie Goodenough. “Anything less than phenomenal would be a disappointment to them and me, considering their body of work through three years. They came in as freshmen knowing they’d be the only class that wouldn’t have an opportunity to play in the Southland Conference tournament – it didn’t faze them at all.
“The sales pitch was, come in and be part of something special. Come in and be the class that builds the foundation for D-I women’s basketball at ACU. It was, you will forever be in our record books, and they loved that opportunity and have totally embraced that.”
The group of four was actually a group of nine when they started, which meant the Wildcats were a little ragged around the edges for a while. In the end, Mason would earn Player of the Year honors in Southland as a junior, while the other three would be recognized for their contributions – there was nothing inevitable about that progress,
“What looked like a burden our first year in Division I, we had nine freshmen on the team and just two returning starters, so three spots had to be filled with freshmen,” Goodenough said. “As a staff, we really had to get used to freshmen mistakes, turnovers – as long as they played hard, we praised everything even if they were chucking the ball into the stands. And there were many times we had four freshmen on the floor that first year at Division I. It was kind of hard to watch sometimes, but it turned out to really benefit us. This group played way more minutes than most senior classes. They developed a lot faster; they had to figure out how to play through it. They didn’t get pulled out after mistakes … like our freshmen will this year!”
Knowing another huge transition is coming – the graduation of this current senior class – the Wildcats are looking for a group of four freshmen to steady the roster. Point guards Breanna Wright and Pamela Herrera are already being leaned on; 5-foot-11 wing player Dominique Golightly has some natural offensive explosiveness, and 6-4 center Lexi Kirgan will look to ease the burden on the frontcourt.
Notable talent like that is a function of ABU’s steady course on the journey to D-I, and each taste of postseason play will only help the cause.
“(Playing in postseason WNIT) for sure quieted the negative recruiters who said, ‘Don’t go there – you’ll never see postseason play.’ Our players were good about focusing on what we could do; they were determined to be the Southland Conference regular-season champions,” Goodenough added. “It was a mark on the wall for us, to go to the postseason and play in the WNIT. We had a lot of focus and discipline; it was icing on the cake to be in a postseason national tournament. Our players did a great job representing the program, and it was a very good experience for us. It helps set the standard.”
A few steps into the transition to D-I in 2013, Brittany Lange looked to fulfill her coaching role for the Omaha women’s program, just a 26-year-old trying to establish herself. Suddenly, on Oct. 2, head coach Chance Lindley stepped down, and Omaha AD Trev Alberts asked Lange to run the show.
If you want to hazard a guess at the headwinds Lange faced as a head coach in her 20’s, trying to talk to parents twice her age and recruit their daughters, while the program itself couldn’t yet offer the appeal of an NCAA postseason … let’s just say it paid to have a thick skin and a short memory.
“It’s a mix of a lot of emotions. When I came to the job, it was completely unanticipated. I was pleased the staff and team that was here bonded together,” said Lange, who guided the Mavericks to a 15-15 record last season, another positive step in terms of wins and D-I competitiveness. “The first two years were definitely tough. We were limited in talent and culture and system, so for us it’s been gratifying to see the progress we’ve made with our culture and the people in our program. It definitely didn’t happen overnight.
“I was fortunate to come up through great program at Iowa State and be around great mentors, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue about what it was supposed to look like. We’ve turned around the academic side of things, the character and culture of the team, and now we’re starting to see the talent we want to implement our system. There were some bruises along the way and so many things I have an appreciation for what coaches across the country have to do – like manage people every day. You won’t always be the good guy. But it’s starting to be really fun and fulfilling. I will be honest – the first couple of years were a challenge, and I questioned if we were going to make it.”
The Mavericks are positioned to reach their first national postseason tournament moment, and nearly pulled it off last year after upsetting IUPUI in the Summit League tournament. One more win might have done it, but South Dakota State knocked Omaha out of the mix with a 76-60 victory. This season’s roster is anchored by senior forward Mikaela Shaw, who is a first-team preseason all-Summit League selection. Right behind her are Remy Davenport (who started all 30 games last year), Abi Lujan and Amber Vidal.
The Mavs also have three transfers to add some punch – sisters Michaela and Moriah Dapprich (Wichita State) and Courtney Vaccher (Texas Tech). It’s a nice mix of size, athleticism and shooting that should provide that next bump up.
“We were very young last year, with just one player with more than one year of D-I experience,” Lange said. “We were able to make that run at the end of the year and improve; we retain much of that team and have added some transfers – they feel they can compete against anybody. We have the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve ever had, and our players wanted that. They want to achieve the top of the top, and that’s been key in recruiting.
“We’ve been a good defensive team. The team we inherited, we had one or two players who could shoot it from 3-point range. If you can’t spread the floor, you are limited in opportunities, and that leads to turnovers. We’ve got better shooters, and that should open up more things for players like (Shaw) and the transfers who play inside. You need a threat from all five positions, and that’s not something we’ve always had.”
The Vaqueros have long been a D-I program; the curious part of the recent past has been the university’s full-on name change. As of August 2015, UT-Pan American became University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, which meant women’s coach Larry Tidwell had a lot of explaining and clarifying to do, while he kept trying to fortify his roster.
Part of that switch was becoming a member of the Western Athletic Conference; that was another big deal, because the Vaqueros now have a dedicated doorway to national postseason achievement. Getting to the WBI event in 2015 and the postseason WNIT in 2016 are important landmarks for a program that is trying to nail down an identity.
“It was definitely a process. You’re looking at branding, street signs, campus signs, signs out on the highway,” said UTRGV head coach Larry Tidwell, who must hustle for players with 22 other D-I women’s programs in Texas. “They’ve hit a home run with our marketing and branding. We continue to get that new brand out there, and it’s all about the impact it makes on recruiting. I’ve coached 41 years and haven’t scored a point or grabbed a rebound, so it’s pretty clear the players make the difference.”
Tidwell has a lot of intriguing facts to pitch about the Vaqueros (who went 19-14 last year), once he gets past all the name-change conversation. His players put in about 1,200 hours of community service and have helped bump up home attendance totals by more than 80 percent over the past two seasons. He’s not only comfortable recruiting in the Southwest; he’s secured the services of two players from Turkey, one from Iceland (a look at the pronunciation guide is suggested for Hildur Björg Kjartansdóttir) and one from Australia.
“We’ve got a global team, and that comes from years of contacts and networking. I’m a FIBA volunteer, I coached the national team for Bahamas and have been to 38 countries,” Tidwell said. “I like to go there; a lot of coaches can get on the phone and look on the Internet, but I go there. I say, get face-to-face and let them know you will take care of that child. I also like to recruit JUCO kids, who often have a little chip on shoulder and play that way. And when I get a JUCO international kid, man, I hit a home run.”
The Vaqueros were picked to finish second in the preseason WAC poll, with senior Shawnte Goff named preseason player of the year. Tidwell tried to recruit her when he was coaching at Lamar; after coming to UTRGV, he got her signed and they together assembled a plan to fortify her grades, which threatened to hold her out of action.
Being resourceful and exploring ways to grow players on and off the court is one of Tidwell’s trademarks, and it’s worked out for Goff (who needs 50 points to become the program’s all-time leading scorer) in every respect.
“I was at Lamar and recruiting Shawnte; we couldn’t get it right. I came to UTRGV, and people said she couldn’t get in because of grades,” Tidwell said. “We worked hard, got her eligible, and then she stepped on campus and got focused.
“After the first three games, when I hadn’t started her, I looked at my staff and said, ‘What am I doing?’ She started every game since and is a warrior for me. I’ve seen her grow academically, and she’s on time for her degree. When she leaves the gym after practice, she’ll go to the rec gym. She plays against the guys, against her brothers. I knew she could do it on the floor, and I’m so proud she exceeded expectations in the classroom.”