CSTV.com Article Features USU Women's Hoops Program: Traditional Values
Jan. 25, 2007
By Lara Boyko
In my 11 years of writing about college sports and student-athletes the most common criteria cited for selecting a school/program includes excellent academic programs, winning records, NCAA championships and an environment that offers a healthy social life.
A student-athlete's ability to find the right combination of all these criteria is not that difficult. After all, each school and program is as unique as the student-athlete themselves.
As unique as each school and program is, there are some schools that do not have the luxury of touting winning records and NCAA championships to recruits. When this luxury is not available for a program that is trying to establish an identity, it can make life interesting.
"Luckily we are at a school with really good academic programs and I have a coaching staff that does a really good job in recruiting," said Utah State coach Raegan Pebley, who is the Aggies' first coach since the program was reinstated for the 2003-04 season after a 16-year hiatus. "We leave no stone unturned and sometimes look where other people haven't looked to find players. Also, I think our players do a good job in selling the school. Getting recruits here to listen to us about the program can be challenging."
Challenging may be an understatement for a program that currently has an overall record of 35-80 and is in its second conference in four seasons.
"There are a lot of challenges in starting a new program with changing mind-sets probably being the biggest," said Pebley, who was recruited to play at Stanford when she was coming out of high school. "First it is changing the mind set of the community towards women's basketball. The community of Logan is very much a college town and has really gotten behind the football, men's basketball and gymnastics programs, but for 16 years, women's basketball isn't something that had really been discussed.
"Also, there is the challenge of helping a young program's players develop a mind set of what Division I college basketball is supposed to be about. We don't have those senior players who know have been in Division I basketball program who can make it easier for younger players to transition into this level. We as coaches have had to do this and now we are going to reap the benefits of that where we have great leadership from our seniors. I think it is because when they were freshman they got so much experience and were given so much responsibility to help build that Division I mentality and the tradition of a program."
Not having a tradition to tout might be tough for Pebley and her staff, but it is this lack of tradition that has factored in to the mind-set of some of her recruits.
"I thought it would be neat to help start up a program and be one of the foundational members," said senior forward Brittany Hagen, who will be the only player on the current roster to have played in all 100 games of the program's existence when she steps on the court to face Boise State tonight. "Going to school with a rich tradition, you are just another year and another class. Coming in here, you are the first class and graduating seniors, which I thought would be a neat landmark for me.
"It's kind of exciting as there is nothing really from the past, except for records from the 1970s and 80s, that we are breaking. Now the teams will have our records to shoot for and none of them may be spectacular or outrageous, but it does set the mark for incoming players."
Without a tradition or superstar players, Pebley has been successful in her recruiting as student-athletes recognize that there are many other benefits to being part of a program that is rebuilding.
"By coming here, I knew I had a chance to come in as a freshman and make an impact on a program," said senior guard Camille Brox, who along with Hagen and senior forward Brittany Phillips are the first full generation of student-athletes to be recruited and play all four years at Utah State. "At a storied program, I would have to work my way up the food chain. I just wanted to make an impact as soon as I stepped on the court."
With all of the challenges that are faced by a program like Utah State, there are also challenges for a more storied program like the one at Stanford University.
"We have gotten to this position in the Pac-10 and west where we are consistently being a final four or elite eight team in the last three years," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer of her program that has earned two NCAA Championships, five NCAA Final Four appearances, 14 Pac-10 titles and 18 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament since taking over the program for the 1985-86 season.
"This is how we want it and there is a certain amount of pressure and not being good enough that goes with it. For instance, we win a game, but there are too many turnovers, we didn't shoot enough of a percentage or the defense wasn't good enough. When you are expected to always win, there is a certain expectation of less joy in winning and more pain if you lose. I think as a coach this is one of my challenges, to have players really enjoy each practice and focused on improving. We focus on improving rather than winning."
While the Stanford program has its own set of unique criteria when recruiting players, being part of their tradition is a big attraction for the student-athlete who fits their requirements.
"During the recruiting process you look at so many different schools and to see a place that has established themselves in having a great history, doing well every year and having successful seasons makes a team look great," Stanford senior forward Brooke Smith said. "It makes you want to go there more as is builds trust in the program and what your experience will be because of it."
While the grass may look greener for a program like Stanford's, even they can find themselves in a no-win situation with recruits.
"In my first year at Stanford I had a recruit tell me that we didn't have enough good players on the team," VanDerveer said. "That team ended up winning a national championship and that recruit did not play on a national championship team. Once we got really good, there was another recruit who we really wanted told me that we had too many good players on the team and she felt like she would just be another pony in the stable. I felt like I couldn't win for losing."
While VanDerveer success at Stanford may be envied by coaches at programs that are working to be established, even she experienced some growing pains on the road to the final four that can be beneficial to every program.
"There were times during that first year at Stanford where I woke up in the morning and wished I could have been back at the great job I had at Ohio State," said VanDerveer, who came from an Ohio State program that had won four Big Ten Championships (1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-84, 1984-85), compiled four consecutive 20-win seasons and made three NCAA Tournament appearances (1981-82, 1983-84, 1984-85) under her guidance. "I don't think I would have done things differently, except relaxed a little bit more instead of putting the kind of stress on myself that I did. You just need to have confidence in and be yourself, win or lose."