At Starkville City Hall on Tuesday night, Mayor Parker Wiseman stood up in front of the board of aldermen, gathered media and concerned citizens to make a proclamation: March 18-20 of the year 2016 is now, officially, Mississippi State Women’s Basketball Weekend in Starkville.
Where MSU head coach Vic Schaefer and a group of players watched, a standing ovation grew around them. The No. 15 team in the country, State is hosting the NCAA Tournament for the very first time this weekend, and the city of Starkville has played a great role in helping to make that happen.
“It’s very humbling and a tremendous honor,” Schaefer said Thursday. “I think it’s so appropriate. This community has embraced us in the four years that I’ve been here. Their support of our team, my girls, has just been outstanding.”
It even led Schaefer to reveal at the official NCAA press conference on Thursday what his nickname for his group is: The People’s Team. Well, it was a reveal to those who hadn’t been paying close enough attention, anyway.
“Y’all haven’t been listening to me,” Schaefer responded with a laugh after getting his second question about the supposedly new moniker. “I’ve said that before, now.”
Whether new or old, the nickname fits. As a team, the Bulldogs have been built off tough defense, aggressive play and a disciplined approach. But as a program, they’ve been built off their relationship with their fans and the example they provide to those of any age cheering them on. And it’s not a chicken-or-the-egg situation. The fans started coming before the NCAA Tournaments and top-10 rankings did. But as the achievements have grown, so too have the crowds.
MSU set a record this season for overall attendance, breaking the state record for the largest crowd to see a women’s college basketball game in Mississippi history, over 10,600 filling Humphrey Coliseum on a Sunday afternoon. State averaged over 5,000 fans per game over the course of the season, including a mean of 6,200 in SEC play.
Schaefer said the reason for the support has been his players, both in how they perform on the court as the games progress and in how they act off the court when the games are over, taking to the stands every single night to meet and talk with the fans.
“We hug mamas and kiss babies,” he said, “and vice versa … It’s the respect that [players] give our fans and the time that they spend with them, their ability to communicate and their willingness to do so. In today’s world, there’s lots of kids that want to run straight to the locker room, grab their phone, get out as quick as they can. Our kids aren’t like that. They understand the importance of having that relationship with our fans.”
As much as Starkville and the fans from around the state have helped showcase Schaefer’s program, he’s determined that this weekend also be an opportunity to show anyone watching how special his community is.
“This is our moment to shine,” he said. “I want to show the country what we have here that’s so unique and special … There’s so many good places that we have to offer here. I’m hopeful that all the fans will have a chance to experience those, because this is a great town, a great community. We have tremendous people and, obviously, we have a beautiful, beautiful university.”
The focus for Schaefer and his team is, of course, on the upcoming game, Friday’s contest with Chattanooga at 1:30 p.m. And if that goes well, the focus will shift to the next opponent, so on and so forth until the season has finished or all foes have been vanquished.
However, each part of every coach and player that wants to win for their own pride is matched by an equally passionate desire to win on behalf of the community that has supported them so fervently.
“The mayor,” junior guard Dominique Dillingham recalled, “he said it’s Mississippi State women’s basketball weekend. We want to make sure it’s a weekend. We don’t want to just make it a day. We want to win the weekend.”