July 31, 2014 10:50:59 AM
STARKVILLE -- "The summer is over."
Those words came from Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer shortly after he and associate head coach Johnnie Harris received a round of hugs from their players upon their return to Starkville on Tuesday night from a recruiting trip.
Even though there is more than a month to go before summer officially ends, Schaefer's point wasn't lost on the Bulldogs: It was time to get to work. With that, the players scattered inside the Mize Pavilion at Humphrey Coliseum to begin their first workout of the 2014-15 season. The workout was the first of six Schaefer has planned to help prepare his team for a trip to France and Belgium next week. MSU will leave Monday night from Memphis, Tennessee, and will play four games against European teams. The team will return the morning of Aug. 15, which gives the freshmen only a few hours to rest up for
orientation at 8 a.m. that day. Classes at MSU start Aug. 18.
Between Tuesday and the start of classes, Schaefer hopes the practices his team will have in Starkville and the games and the time the players spend together overseas will help bring the team closer together.
"It is a really unique opportunity," Schaefer said. "I have visited with a lot of coaches this summer about a lot of things, but every time this subject came up every one of them said, 'Wow, what a great opportunity for your kids. What a great experience they are going to have. It certainly is going to give you a chance to really develop and make your team that much better.' "
Schaefer will rely on his experiences at Arkansas, when the Razorbacks went to Australia in 1999, and at Texas A&M, when the Aggies took the same trip the Bulldogs will take in August 2006. He said the 2006-07 Texas A&M team, which went on to earn a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, benefited greatly from the trip because the players developed strong bonds and great chemistry. That squad wasn't able to take its freshman. MSU will bring freshmen Victoria Vivians, Kayla Nevitt, LaKaris Salter, Morgan William, and Blair Schaefer.
"We are excited not only because we can reward these seniors, but these five freshmen need this," Schaefer said. "They are going to get some competition they normally wouldn't get until November."
MSU returns five starters from last season when it finished 22-14 and advanced to the fourth round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. MSU recorded the fourth-most wins in program history and the fifth 20-win campaign. The Bulldogs also won three postseason games for the first time and set records for points (2,551), rebounds (1,410), and made free throws (705).
The addition of another talented freshman class and the return of All-Southeastern Conference performer Martha Alwal adds to the optimism that surrounds the program entering Schaefer's third season as head coach at the schools.
"I believe this couldn't have come at a better time," senior point guard Jerica James said. "I am just so happy I get to experience the great group that is coming in and to be a part of it. It seems everyone is more excited than us, and that is really raising our spirits."
James said traveling to France to see sights like the Eiffel Tower isn't at the top of her bucket list, but she said it's easy to be excited about the benefits the team could gain from an overseas trip. She believes the Bulldogs already have started to build on the momentum from last season. The added practices and the games in France and Belgium will add to the energy and enthusiasm, she said.
"It feels like we never left," James said. "Things kicked off pretty soon after the WNIT season, and I don't know if it has taken a toll on the girls, but it is like we have never left. That is the mind-set of wanting to get better. That is what is helping us get through the practices we are starting this week. Not being at the gym never was an option for us.
"The time we spent together getting to know each other started on (the recruiting visits by the freshmen). We all have been creating the chemistry since then. It wasn't like we waited until the last minute and said, 'OK, we have to get together, so let's pick it up.' Like Martha said, we have been playing pickup every day over the summer. It has been pretty awesome being with them and getting to know their personalities on and off the court.
"I think the chemistry is there already. If we have to build anymore chemistry than what it is now, we will be one heck of a team."
Alwal said the Bulldogs have tried to play pickup games every day to get used to the new players, who she said "play hard" and are "great players." In addition to being excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower, Alwal said she is anxious to play with the newcomers as soon as possible.
"I think it is going to help our chemistry," Alwal said. "We already get along really well together. I think spending all of those days in Europe is going to be even better."
MSU won't kick off its season until November, but Schaefer knows the next three months will help determine if the team returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season. He said he and his coaches will be careful not to push the players too hard, especially since the team went from Aug. 19 to March 30 last season. But he also said he and his staff were hired to transform MSU into a perennial top-20 program, so he hopes last season is just the start of what is to come.
"This is really going to be a great experience," Schaefer said. "It is an educational opportunity and a chance to go to places you only have read about in geography and history books. It also is an opportunity to build camaraderie with teammates and to build on and work on that chemistry, which is so important with any championship team. There are many aspects of this trip that are going to make it unique."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.