October 10, 2012 9:07:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University women's basketball team is learning what it means to be accountable for coach Vic Schaefer.
After one week of practice, the Lady Bulldogs have discovered there will be immediate consequences when they make mistakes. They also have been introduced to "Mount Schaefer," Humphrey Coliseum's built-in training peak, have been told anything average won't be acceptable, and have been encouraged to play defense with the mind-set you're going to make life uncomfortable for the opposition anywhere on the floor.
As point guards on the 2012-13 squad, Jerica James and Katia May will be held to an even higher standard. Turnovers? Unacceptable. Communication? Imperative. Leadership? Essential.
"We're held accountable for everything," May said. "We have to know every position and put everybody in the right places. Our coaches want us to talk more. It is not hard, but it is something we're not used to."
James, a sophomore, and May, a junior, will have to get used to those expectations if Schaefer's first season is going to be a success. The loss of guards Diamber Johnson and Porsha Porter, the team's leading scorers last season, to graduation means James, May, and senior Darriel Gaynor will have to shoulder larger roles on a young team that returns just two starters from a squad that finished 14-16 last season.
"The thing that stands out more this year is our girls are willing to work," James said. "(The coaches) actually push so much out of us that some days we feel like we can't give up."
James said the presence of assistant coach Aqua Franklin, a former point guard who played for Schaefer at Texas A&M, gives the point guards an example to play against in practice. She said Franklin and all of the coaches do everything hard in practice, which shows the players they need to work at the same level. She said that level of intensity in practice will carry over to the games so the coaches will be able to trust them to be coaches on the floor.
May said the adjustments the Lady Bulldogs have had to make have been tough, but she sees improvement in her game and the play of her teammates. As a point guard, she understands Schaefer and the other coaches are trying to make her and James leaders of the team, or the "generals in charge." Even though that last part sounded like coach speak, May admitted those were her words. Somewhere, Schaefer, whose nickname is the "Secretary of Defense," had to be smiling because it appears to have taken only one week for his mind-set to have taken hold.
Schaefer, a longtime assistant and associate coach who also was a head coach at Sam Houston State, warned his players in March when he was introduced as MSU's new coach he was going to expect a lot from them. He talked about building relationships with players and showing them he and the members of his coaching staff cared about them so they "play their guts out defensively." That attitude was an essential ingredient in the Texas A&M University women's basketball team's run to the 2011 national championship.
"It's an attitude," Schaefer said in March. "When people talk about your basketball team and they describe it as a tough, physical, aggressive basketball team, which is what we have been described as over the years, they're probably not talking about how you're running your offense or how many screens you're setting, they're probably talking about what you do defensively. We have taken great pride in making people miserable over the years. Our kids embrace that attitude. They embrace that and they feel that in a ballgame. It is like sharks in bloody water."
James and May said it didn't take long for them to discover that's the way Schaefer, associate head coach Johnnie Harris, Franklin, and assistant coach Brittany Hudson expect them to play all of the time. They also have learned Schaefer doesn't deal well with players who don't play hard.
"We were held accountable for our actions quickly," May said, "He told us once (how to do something) and the second time (if we didn't do it right), you go up Mount Schaefer.
"He just says, 'Go.' We have gotten to the point where if we mess up we just go."
The Humphrey Coliseum steps have become a built-in punishment that also serves as a conditioning tool. May said it has sunk in quickly that it is much better -- and less tiring -- for the Lady Bulldogs to try to do things the right way so they don't have to run. As a result, they will be fresher for the end of practices when they will have to make free throws so they don't have to run even more.
As point guards, James and May hope to be the ones who can set the tone. With the exhibition opener against Shorter (Nov. 2) and the regular-season opener against the University of Houston (Nov. 9) less than a month away, both players feel the team can build on the significant strides it has made in just a week.
James took a small step in the initial practice. As the team struggled to complete conditioning drills in the final hour of a long practice, James spoke up and encouraged her teammates to push through the fatigue. She said everyone is working on coming to practice every day with the right attitude so everyone supports each other and everyone is positive and knows the importance of going hard every second.
"I am comfortable with that role (of being a vocal leader) because that is my role," James said. "If I am not comfortable with it, who else is going to pick the team up. I know that is something I have to take over. When the girls hear me trying to lift them up, they begin to follow and they try to encourage themselves. Toward the end of the practice that is hard, you need someone to give you a smile or to pick you up to get through it because if you are dull, that reflects on what you on the court."
As point guards, it will be the responsibility of James and May to make sure they do everything they can to ensure the Lady Bulldogs continue to move forward.
"I think we're going to progress well," May said. "Everybody is focused. Coach Schaefer has our mentality to the point where we don't want to be mediocre. If you re tired, you're going to find a way to push through. If we're hurt, we have to find a way to push through it.
"Over the course of the season, I think we're going to progress a whole lot. I think we're going to surprise a lot of teams if we keep the same focus that we have now."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.