March 18, 2017 11:02:03 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The resemblance is striking. In fact, you could pick her out of any crowd and recognize immediately that Blair Schaefer is the coach's kid.
Schaefer's dad is Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer. She is a junior on the Bulldogs' team.
During Friday's 110-69 victory over Troy in the first round of NCAA Women's Tournament, Schaefer was part of a starting lineup shuffle that featured four new starters. Although he was vague in explaining why he sat four starters to open the game -- among them first-team All-SEC guard and leading scorer Victoria Vivians and first-team All-SEC Defensive team member Dominique Dillingham -- it appears the coach was sending two messages with a single action.
The first message said non-starters who "do things the right way" in practice will be rewarded. The second message was that even the team's best players must also meet that standard or suffer the consequences.
The first game of the "win or go home" NCAA Tournament seems like a heck of time to be sending messages, especially for a team that is ranked seventh in the nation, is a No. 2 seed and has already set a record for wins in a season.
It mattered none. The four new starters contributed 47 points and the Bulldogs didn't miss a beat. State led from the tip, thanks in no small part to Schafer, who scored the team's first 11 points en route to a career-high 21 points. It was her second career start and the first that did not come because of an injury to a regular starter.
This is not the role to which Schaefer is accustomed. Over her three years, she averages about 10 minutes per game. Her scoring average is 3.4 points per contest. She is a good outside shooter, but also provides solid defense while doing all the "little things" that aren't so little to the sharp eyes of her coaches.
It is no insult to her to say she is far from the most gifted of players on the talented Mississippi State team. She is a role player and seldom grabs the headlines.
Like most players in that situation, she knows she has to make the most of her opportunities.
Friday, she made good on that chance.
"My shots were falling," she said. "My window is not very big, so I took the window today and it just worked."
It ain't easy
The Schaefers are certainly not the only case where a parent coaches a child. In youth sports, that often translates into favoritism. But at this level, it is more likely to create the opposite dynamic. A coach's kid is a reflection of the coach. Everybody's watching.
Schaefer, the coach, recognizes that.
"I count it as one the real blessings in life to be able to coach my kid," he said. "But I have to give her a lot of credit. There are days that I'm not real fair and she gets a little bit more of a chewing out than somebody else, or I'm a little more demanding of her than somebody else. But she makes it easy."
Blair Schaefer's surprise starting assignment came a day after she was terribly ill. She could barely get through Thursday's practice with cramps that tied her stomach in painful knots and didn't subside until later than evening after her dad got her a prescription for pain pills that relieved the suffering.
"To know what she was going through in practice and last night ... you're proud of any your players to go through what she did, to feel as poorly as she felt, and come out today and look like a million dollars and play really, really well," the coach said.
Off the bench
It is not too much of a stretch to suggest the player's resemblance to the coach goes beyond physical characteristics.
For 15 of his 20 years as a coach Schaefer, who turned 56 earlier this month, was sort of a bench player, too. He spent 15 years as a college assistant coach before landing his first head-coaching job at MSU in 2012. He earned that chance -- his own window of opportunity -- by a commitment to the things he demands from his players -- grit, attention to detail, relentless effort.
"I take a lot of pride in how we play the game, I always have," he said. "I want our kids to honor and respect the game and play the game the way it's supposed to be played. By gosh, I want to do things the right way."
Those are the qualities the coach sees in daughter, too.
"As a player, you're supposed to be out there playing your guts out every minute, every second, you're on the floor," he said. "That kid does that. She does that every day in practice. She doesn't have any bad days."
As much as they can, both coach and player try to compartmentalize the two relationships.
The coach refers to her as he would with any player.
"Hey, the Schaefer kid shot it well today and guarded her tail off," he said. "When I talk to her dad later, I'm sure he's going to tell me how proud he is."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]