September 7, 2017 10:20:09 AM
STARKVILLE -- It is less than a month before the official start of practice, but Blair Schaefer already is taking to a bigger leadership role.
At 12:57 p.m., Schaefer and her coach, Vic Schaefer, walked into the media room at Humphrey Coliseum three minutes early for a scheduled gathering.
"Write it down, I'm early," said Vic Schaefer, Mississippi State's women's basketball coach, as he settled into his seat behind the table.
Said Blair, a senior guard who also happens to be his daughter, "It's because I'm with him."
With that, the 2017-18 season started with a light-hearted tone, but the issue of leadership, presence, and chemistry remained a point of conversation for the nearly 40-minute introductory news conference that signaled the unofficial start to a new campaign.
Those topics came up again and again because MSU (34-5), which lost to South Carolina in the national championship game, has to replace three starters and four players who played integral roles in helping it set a program record for victories en route to its first trip to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
MSU made its initial trip a memorable one by defeating four-time reigning national champion Connecticut 66-64 in overtime in the national semifinals. Morgan William's shot just before the buzzer ended the Huskies' record 111-game winning streak and set the stage for an all-Southeastern Conference title game. Unfortunately, South Carolina ended MSU's run with a 67-55 victory en route to its first national title.
Record-setting senior class
The senior class of Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, and Breanna Richardson helped establish MSU as a national program by winning a program-record 111 games. Center Chinwe Okorie, who sat out her freshman year due to NCAA eligibility issues, also was a key member of a group that helped the program go from 22 to 27 to 28 to 34 wins in the last four seasons.
But the time for basking in the glory of those accomplishments has ended, as coach Schaefer reminded his players and members of the media.
"Last year is done," Schaefer said. "You're still going to get to walk around and people are going to pat you on the back, but that is over. Those four seniors aren't here anymore. They are not going to be able to do what they did. Somebody else is going to have to step up, which means it will be a new four player that has to take the place of two fours that won 111 games for us and a three player who started three-and-a-half years of her career and played 37 minutes a game."
To Schaefer's point, the first question Wednesday went to William, who was asked how many times she still gets asked about "the shot," her dagger over Gabby Williams that nearly brought American Airlines Arena down.
William said she gets asked about the shot every day on campus, when she goes out to eat, and just about in every situation imaginable.
"You get used it, and I am grateful for it," William said.
After another question about freshman guard Myah Taylor, of Olive Branch, the state of Mississippi's Gatorade Player of the Year, the conversation turned to leadership and how the Bulldogs were going to move on without four key players who were equal parts heart and soul of the program the last four years.
Blending newcomers in
Blair Schaefer feels the newcomers -- Taylor, Nyah Tate, Jonika Garvin, Bre'Amber Scott, and Chloe Bibby -- have blended well with the returning players. She said she and the veterans are trying to do their part to set the example and to help them grow, and that the chemistry continues to come together.
"I think it is very surreal I am a senior," Schaefer said. "You think about it, but you never think about, 'Wow, I am a senior. It is here right now.' I feel like I need to take every day like it is my last day, grow every day, try to help my team grow every day and try to make this last year the best experience.
"I feel like there are certain aspects to the way I approach practices and my teammates that need to be a little different than last year because we did lose a lot of leadership from four great seniors. I feel like (Victoria, Morgan, and I) need to do a little bit of that and also just bring what we brought to the team last year because that works, so we need to figure out what works and what needs to be added and then just go from there and add positivity."
As point guard, William faces a similar push to be a different leader. For a player who isn't a natural vocal leader, the challenge this season will be to increase her presence in practice and in games so she can be heard by her teammates. While that has been a focus the last three years, it will take on added significance this season as MSU tries to maintain its status as one of the nation's top programs.
"I know coach Schaefer and coach Dionnah (Jackson-Durrett) want to hear my voice. They want to feel my presence, whether it is in practice, stretching, weights, working out," William said. "They picked me as the leader and captain, so I need to set the tone every day. You can't have room for bad days or bad attitude or anything like that because people are watching me, so I have to be a good example every day."
Sharing the load
But coach Schaefer cautioned against putting too much responsibility for leading the team on William. He said Blair Schaefer, Vivians, and redshirt senior Roshunda Johnson, who he said looks like she did when she arrived in Starkville after transferring from Oklahoma State, will have to do their share to help bring along promising players like sophomores Jacaira "Iggy" Allen and Ameshya Williams and first-year players like Bibby, an Australian import.
Schaefer said a few players already have taken to the role, especially junior guard Jazzmun Holmes. He gushed several times in praising Holmes for her development in the offseason, saying her leadership has been "outstanding" or "spectacular."
Still, Schaefer acknowledges William will be an important piece of the puzzle, especially in a deep backcourt that likely will be the strength of the team. He said he wants all of the Bulldogs to be "demanding" of their teammates.
"You want to hear (Morgan's) voice out on the floor running plays and communicating with her team," Schaefer said. "You also want to hear her encouraging her teammates when things are tough, (especially) at this time of the year when we are at 6 a.m. and conditioning and people are gasping for air and falling out. You want to hear her voice.
"Victoria has been really good. Jazz has been really good at the voice piece of leading kids, picking them up, encouraging them.
"I think the kids I mentioned all understand the importance of it."
It remains to be seen how each player will answer the challenge of being a leader. Coach Schaefer praised many of the players, saying Allen is winning just about every conditioning drill in training and that junior center Teaira McCowan looks to be in great shape and is running well. He is confident, though, that the experience his returning players have gained the last three seasons will aid the program as it transitions without Chapel, Dillingham, Okorie, and Richardson.
In a way, MSU won't be completely without Dillingham because she will serve as a graduate assistant this season. The presence of Dillingham should help all of the Bulldogs remember the importance of chemistry and how it helped the program make a memorable journey to the national title game. MSU's challenge this season is to take the lessons learned and to apply them so they can make their former teammates proud.
"I see that our chemistry was there," Schaefer said. "On the court, it was like nothing else mattered. We were going to work hard and we weren't going to lose. I felt that we approached that mind-set every day in practice, every game, and that it was our seniors who that really had that mentality that this is our senior year and no one is going to screw it up. They led and we tried to follow and work just as hard for them.
"For us to be successful again this year, we have to understand how hard we worked to get there and not forget the little things that built us up for those moments. We need to continue to work on our chemistry off the court and it will reflect on the court, but also to keep growing and understand that everyone has weaknesses and we are here to build each other up and work on those weaknesses now so when we get to the season we can really be a strong team and have a strong performance."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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