Better Than Champions

On Sunday evening the Mississippi State University Women’s Basketball team played in the National Championship game. They lost on a heartbreaking shot in the last three seconds. I won’t comment on the officiating, though I want to. As a Bulldog fan, I have loved watching our team play. They work hard and watching them on the court is a beautiful thing.

Off the court, they’re still amazing. Our starting five included the Homecoming Queen, one of the tallest players in college basketball, one of the shortest, the coach’s daughter, and a single mother. They’ve each faced hardships beyond trying to balance getting a college education while busting it to make every practice, every game, every moment count on the court. Together, they are a national story because of their teamwork. Off the court, they’re just as awe-inspiring.

Victoria Vivians is the MSU Homecoming Queen from a tiny interstate town. She wrote an article last year for The Players’ Tribune in which she admitted to being incredibly shy. Being recruited for college athletics, playing on the national stage, and this year being crowned student body royalty hasn’t been easy. Yet, she has handled it with strength, beauty, and grace.

Teaira McCowan is 6’7”. She is a beautiful and talented lady, but she has been open in interviews about not always being comfortable in her own skin. She was 6’4” in middle school. When her brothers would go play basketball outside, she would stay indoors and watch because she didn’t want to be ostracized for her size by other kids. She also talks about being bullied because other kids wouldn’t believe she was their age, believing instead that she had been held back several grades because of her height. McCowan could be a poster child for not letting the bullies get you down. Her teammates jokingly call her a diva, laughing along with her when she gets caught making faces or striking a pose behind them or her coaches during on-court interviews. Now, she’s not just comfortable in her own skin, she’s the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

Morgan William, whose official height is listed at 5’5”, isn’t tall. When she told her father she wanted to play basketball, he didn’t sugar coat it for her about how hard it would be. But she didn’t give up, and neither did he. William’s father would start her day with extra practices at dawn. Drills, sprints, grueling work. It paid off when she was recruited to play for MSU, but it was a payoff that her father would never see. William unexpectedly lost her father during her senior year of high school. She had to take the court in college knowing her father would never be in the crowd, but she carried him with her anyway. Now, she has played in the national title game twice. And has dedicated a legendary Final Four buzzer beater shot to her dad’s memory.

Blair Schaefer is the daughter of head coach Vic Schaefer. Her father has been voted Coach of the Year by the WBCA. That’s a lot to live up to. And it hasn’t always been easy. As an underclassman, she thought seriously about transferring. She wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted, despite her numbers. Coach Schaefer told her she needed to come to his office just like any other player. He separated his role as her coach from his role as her father. No special treatment. Which is what Blair had to remember as she sat in his office and listened to her coach, her father, tell her that she had work to do. He cited her turnover rate, among other things, as reasons she wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted. It lit a fire under Blair. She took a break after the season was over and came back ready to play. Since that moment, Blair has busted her tail and worked her way into the starting five. Off the court, she scored an internship with Entertainment Tonight last summer. Her teammates have witnessed her work ethic first hand and have no doubt about her chances of success. The team says they can’t wait to see her on camera in the future. Her dad might be her coach, but Blair is a stand-out all on her own.

Roshunda Johnson is more than a college athlete. She’s a mom. Her son, Malaki, turned two last week. It’s a struggle and Johnson has said it isn’t always easy, but she has the support of her family and her son’s father. Stil, there are times, especially when she is traveling for games that she only gets to talk to her son on the phone while he stays with his grandmother. An article from earlier this month in the Clarion-Ledger, the leading newspaper in Mississippi, quoted both Johnson and her son’s father when talking about how difficult it has been to come back to basketball. She’s dealt with pain, both physical and emotional, but that hasn’t kept her from success both in the classroom and on the court.

Each of these women has dealt with their own share of obstacles and struggles. They lost the national championship, but every one of them is a winner. More than that, each one of them is a role model for what determination and hard work can do.

So when or if you see Mississippi State fans, like me, wishing our seniors well and giving the team our support and respect even after coming in second, you know why. Trophy or not, these women are champions. We’ll see them as nothing less. The cry of my alma mater is Hail State. It’s a simple phrase, but it can serve as a greeting, a salutation, a cheer, or that thing to say among ourselves when nothing else seems quite right. Our five starters–four seniors and a junior–have bright futures ahead, but they let us be a part of their journey and it has been awesome. To each of them, I say thank you and Hail State.

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