Dawn Staley fought for a long time to get South Carolina to its present perch. Those exulting in the signing of the country’s No. 1 recruit on Wednesday might have been around for Staley’s initial 10-win campaign at USC, but probably don’t talk or think about it as much as Staley does.
“It’s never very far from my mind,” Staley said, referring to that harsh first year. “Our kids have worked extremely hard to put us in this position, not only the current ones, but the former ones, the ones who got their head beat in six years ago and then started the building process.”
Staley has enjoyed the ride. She’d be hard-pressed not to. From a team that had nothing but a lot of hope to one that should be preseason Top-5 next season, Staley has constructed a program that should rival the country’s elite for years to come. The magnitude of A’ja Wilson’s decision to pledge to USC cannot be under-stated – she turned down UConn, winner of nine national championships and coming off a 40-0 season, to be a Gamecock. Hard to imagine St. Stephen’s Kalana Greene hearing from USC when she committed to UConn in 2005, since there was no chance the Gamecocks would turn her head.
With success comes great expectations, though, and Staley knows how tough it will be not only to meet those expectations, but to keep meeting them. It’s a vicious cycle – the more she meets them, the more they’ll raise. It could get to the point where she wins the national championship, but there will be somebody who, after the celebrating stops, will ask when the next one’s going to be won.
That’s fine. She never wanted to reach one point and then quit. If she had, there would have been no reason to recruit and sign the country’s No. 2 class for next year, since she had every vital contributor from an SEC champ coming back.
“We feel like we have checked off getting more talent into the fold, with the experienced players that are returning,” Staley said. “We’re not going to make any promises, but everybody wants to play for a national championship, and I don’t see why our goals and dreams can’t be to win a national championship.”
The process has started to keep USC where it is. The games have to be won to accomplish that, but Staley has hoarded so much talent into her program that it’s hard to see how the next team could lose many games.
The talent will almost always be better than the opponent. The players who return like each other, and the recruiting class has inroads with the rest of the team because of past high-school connections. Staley is trying to line up big-name opponents in the non-conference schedule, but again is finding it difficult – like the past two years, not many want to come to Columbia to play a talented team.
“We would love to beef up our schedule,” Staley said. “There are feelers out there. We will, certainly, play anybody anywhere.”
There’s a method to that as well – it’s to prepare USC for the kind of competition it will face in the postseason. A game at UConn is probable, although it seems at this point as if the usual Myrtle Beach date with North Carolina isn’t.
The schedule will take care of itself. The team that’s set up will have to beat it.
They feel plenty confident they will, despite not knowing who will be on it.
“We left it short this year,” forward Aleighsa Welch said after the NCAA tournament. “For me, being a senior, the work starts now. We want to get back to this point and keep going.”
As Staley said, players will have to sacrifice minutes for the dream of playing for a national title – it’s worked thus far, as the Gamecocks have won 79 games in three years despite high-school stars severely scaling back their points.
Wilson was the cherry on top of a phenomenal recruiting class. The Gamecocks could have taken the commitments of McDonald’s All-Americans Jatarie White and Bianca Cuevas and called it quits, but they wanted to send a message. USC was not going to be out-worked for Wilson, especially with her in their backyard.
Wilson’s short declaration of attending USC shot the Gamecocks farther into the national spotlight. They’ve prepared and worked to be here.
Now to stay there.