The other cars in the train can have an impact.
Women’s sports don’t raise much money or make visible impacts on TV markets. Yet they shouldn’t be ignored as vital pieces of an athletics department – especially at South Carolina, where tremendous success this year helped overcome sour seasons from two of the most visible programs.
“They carried the flag for us, especially in the spring,” athletics director Ray Tanner said. “We have 21 sports. A lot of times, you talk about football, but we have 20 other ones, and they’re very important to us.”
The Gamecocks’ equestrian team won its third national championship. Women’s basketball reached its first NCAA Final Four and was ranked No. 1 for the first time, which women’s golf also was able to say. Women’s soccer advanced to its first Elite Eight.
Football’s the engine that drives the train, but when the team had a merely OK year and baseball fell well short of expectations, women’s sports gave the Gamecocks something to crow about.
“No way did we get the attention back in 2007 that we’re getting right now,” equestrian coach Boo Major said. “I think a lot of that is due to the fact that women’s sports have gotten better and better. It just has become a lot more of a family than it has been in the past. Everybody’s rooting for everybody.”
Women’s soccer coach Shelley Smith remembered how football coach Steve Spurrier and his wife, Jerri, used to host preseason parties for all of the coaches and their staffs before the grind of the season started. There aren’t many of those anymore, but it’s a good thing – seasons are lasting longer because of postseason success, and recruiting and camps to keep those programs at their levels take up much of the free time.
“But we all support each other and we’re all behind each other.”
Smith’s soccer team was playing a spring game in North Carolina when Dawn Staley’s basketball team was participating in the NCAA Greensboro Regional. Smith’s squad was able to attend the games, cheering on their fellow Gamecocks as they advanced to the Final Four.
That kind of camaraderie lasts from season to season. Staley is a constant at softball games and helped root Beverly Smith’s squad to a third consecutive NCAA tournament this year. The cycle always spins.
“I’m cheering for Dawn and she’s cheering for Bev and Bev’s cheering for Kalen (Anderson) and Kalen’s cheering for me,” Major said.
Support reaches through the past three athletics directors. Mike McGee started several initiatives and Eric Hyman progressed the programs through sweeping reforms. Tanner knows the value of sustaining success through recruiting and has told each program to ask for whatever they think they need.
“At the start, there were no scholarships, I’m embarrassed to tell you what my salary was. We didn’t have any horses, we didn’t have a facility,” Major said. “Mike McGee added the sport, and when Eric came in, he recognized some shortcomings within the sports programs. When Ray came in, we needed a locker room, and that was the first thing he said, ‘Build it.’ Now, we don’t know what we did before that.”
Seven of the 12 women’s sports qualified for their postseason tournaments. Sand volleyball, not yet able to have an NCAA tournament (it could happen next year, when the sport swells to 60 schools), finished 17th of 46 teams in the country. Court volleyball was fifth in the country in attendance.
Two women’s coaches were named SEC Coach of the Year, with Major winning National Coach of the Year. USC had three SEC Scholar-Athletes of the Year, eight first-team All-Americans and seven first-team All-SEC selections. High jumper Jeannelle Scheper won an individual national championship.
“It’s tremendous. I think that the people who created Title IX are basking in our glow here at the University of South Carolina,” Staley said. “When women are able to create some buzz and some publicity for playing so well at an established university like ours, I think it only helps from a recruiting standpoint for all the sports.”
Of course football will dominate the conversations, because of the profile and money it brings to the university. But a Top 25 athletics department means just as much to Tanner as does a Top 25 football team, and he couldn’t obtain that without women’s sports.
“When you work in athletics and you’re in a university setting like we are, there’s days where you want happiness and you want morale to be great,” he said. “A lot of times, that comes from your athletic department, whether it’s women’s basketball or football or what our women’s golf team is doing. It’s exciting and energizes the entire community.”
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Some of the top individuals on USC women’s teams from 2014-15:
First-team All-American in basketball and SEC Player of the Year
First-team soccer All-American and All-SEC goalkeeper
First-team All-American softball outfielder and first-team All-SEC
First-team All-American and SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in golf
NCAA champion high jumper and SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in track
USC WOMEN’S SUPERLATIVES
Best team and individual performances from 2014-15:
▪ 21st consecutive NCAA tournament appearance
▪ Elixane Lechemia advanced to NCAA championships
▪ No. 1 for the first time, held for six weeks
▪ Sixth straight NCAA championship appearance
▪ SEC Coach of the Year Kalen Anderson
▪ First-team All-American Justine Dreher (first-team all-SEC, SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year)
▪ No. 1 for the first time in program history, held for 12 weeks
▪ Highest finish in school history (third in each poll)
▪ Best average attendance in the country (12,293)
▪ First NCAA Final Four
▪ First SEC tournament championship
▪ SEC regular-season champions
▪ SEC Co-Coach of the Year Dawn Staley
▪ SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell (first-team All-American)
▪ First-team all-SEC Aleighsa Welch (SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year)
▪ SEC Freshman of the Year A’ja Wilson (first-team all-SEC)
▪ Top GPA in Division I (3.79)
▪ NCAA Southeast Regional
▪ National champions
▪ First-team All-Americans Katherine Schmidt, Amber Henter, Sam Chiodo, Layla Choate
▪ National Coach of the Year Boo Major
▪ Finished 17th in the country out of 46 teams
▪ First Elite Eight
▪ First-team All-American and All-SEC Sabrina D’Angelo
▪ First-team all-SEC Taylor Leach
▪ SEC Freshman of the Year Savannah McCaskill
▪ Third straight NCAA tournament
▪ First-team All-American and All-SEC Alaynie Page
▪ Meredith Vay advanced to NCAA championships
▪ Patricia Kranz and Julia Vincent advanced to NCAA championships
WOMEN’S TRACK AND FIELD
▪ National champion high-jumper Jeannelle Scheper (SEC gold medalist, SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year)
▪ Attendance was fifth in country