Friday, January 30, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART FOUR

The following in as in-depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the last in a four-part series, which originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.


By the time A’Quonesia Franklin, Morenike Atunrase and Patrice Reado had reached their senior seasons, the secret was out about Texas A&M. The Aggies opened the year a school-record 11th in The Associated Press poll, and the league coaches responded by predicting another conference crown for Gary Blair’s bunch.

After an early Big 12 season swoon (four losses in the first five games) threatened to derail their season, the Aggies responded with one of the best closing runs ever put together by an A&M team. Blair issued a challenge to his seniors that their careers would soon be over if they didn’t pick things up in a hurry.

The team quickly pushed their record to 5-4 and then exploded after a road loss at top-10 Oklahoma. In the final six regular season games, no opponent scored more than 59 points against the Aggies suddenly overwhelming defense. A&M piled up an average margin of victory of 14 points in the final six regular season games, and, in case anyone had counted the team out, proved their mettle by wrapping the season with convincing decisions over No. 17 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Baylor and No. 10 Oklahoma.

The swagger was back, and three more wins in the Big 12 Tournament meant the team had made good on the preseason prognostications. A&M players and coaches celebrated the school’s first-ever Big 12 Tournament title in style as streamers and confetti fell in after the Aggies won a classic in the finals against Oklahoma State.

The selection committee took notice, seeding A&M second in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Two more dominating wins by an average of 31.5 points sent the Aggies to the Sweet 16. There, they crunched big-talking Duke to mark the first Elite Eight appearance in school history.

True to form, A&M sucked high-flying Tennessee into a grind-it-out slugfest. Despite holding a five-point advantage with 6:17 to play, the Lady Vols eventually wore down the Aggies. Tennessee picked up a 53-45 win and won their eighth national title one week later.

By the time the dust settled, it almost seemed appropriate the most dominant program in women’s college basketball had eliminated the Aggies. It was coach Pat Summitt and her dozen McDonald’s All-Americans versus Gary Blair and his band of scrappers, who had clawed the A&M program out from basketball purgatory and fought for every bit of credibility it had earned. It certainly wasn’t an official changing of the guard, but it loudly announced that the Aggies wouldn’t back down from any opponent.

After a record 29 wins last year, the team has already set another school record this season, ascending to a No. 3 national ranking and finishing non-conference play with a 13-1 mark. The Aggies currently sit at 16-3 (4-2 Big 12) after smashing top-20 Texas in Austin on Wednesday night.

Blair is now in his sixth season as the team’s coach, and the statistics bear out how far the program has come. From 2001-03, A&M was 35-50 overall and 10-38 in conference. In the last three-and-a-half years, the Aggies are 93-27 overall and 39-15 against the Big 12.

“It’s probably as impressive of a turnaround in as quick a time as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been covering women’s basketball for more than 20 years,” said writer Mechelle Voepel, a 20-year veteran of writing about women’s basketball. “It’s not just because of how well they’re doing now. When you put it in perspective of how much the program was an non-factor just in the Big 12 South—they really had a lot of ladders to climb.”

Recruiting has continued to pick up, and the most recent signing class included four players all ranked in the national top 100, and the coaching staff still has an open scholarship spot to fill. Add that to the recent signings of junior college All-American Tanisha Smith and McDonald’s All-American Tyra White and A&M certainly appears to have some staying power.

“I want kids who want to win championships,” Blair said. “I want kids who want to win the Big 12 regular season, the Big 12 Tournament and then the NCAA championship. I want kids who want to go to the next level, whether it’s the WNBA or working on their MBA. If a kid starts a major that is more difficult, I want them to finish that degree because that means I have a better chance that they will finish for me on the basketball court because they have high expectations.”

Further, Reed Arena has seen an almost 340 percent increase in attendance from 2003 to the current season, which is sure to grow after Big 12 play brings larger crowds. Fans are even showing up in droves at road games to support the team.

“Our first (non-conference) tournament we ever played after we came here was at Boston College, and we didn’t have a single parent or fan go with us,” remembered Blair. “We offered the tour to the Maroon Club and not a single person went. Now, people are lining up to go with us.

“When we go on the road, the Aggie clubs and Aggies everywhere come to see us play. We’re really starting to bring a following of fans who live in the area, and that’s fun.”

The team is slated to see plenty more exposure as Big 12 play progresses this year. Six of their league games are scheduled for television, with the highlight being the ESPN2 Big Monday home game with Oklahoma on Feb. 23.

The Big 12 received high marks through the early portion of the regular season, with seven teams in the top 25 of the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Four of those (Oklahoma, Baylor, A&M and Texas) were in the top 12 as recently as two weeks ago, making the league perhaps the most top-heavy it’s ever been. The big difference these days, though, is that the Aggies are squarely in the mix of deciding who will be the conference’s top team for the foreseeable future.

And as is the case in so many sports, if you can win a Big 12 championship, then you can compete for a NCAA championship.

Which brings the story back to Lubbock (see Part One from Tuesday). The bane of so many A&M sports teams may again play a pivotal role in the women’s basketball team’s resurgence. This year, Texas Tech will be hosting first and second round NCAA Tournament games. Since it’s the closest host site to many Big 12 schools, it seems logical that the league’s best squad will be rewarded with the relatively short trek west.

Only time will tell if it will be the Aggies.

This much is certain, however: It once seemed laughable that A&M could contend for and win a Big 12 title. The Aggies have done that twice, so could the greatest prize in women’s college basketball be in the school’s future? The mere thought of that would have been considered lunacy six years ago, but it doesn’t seem so far-fetched now.

“National titles are hard to come by, and they don’t come easy,” said former assistant media relations director Steve Miller. “Will they win a national title? Yeah, they just might do it. But, if they don’t, I guarantee you they’ll have played for it or been in a Final Four. Everything is in place. The right coaches are here, the right players are here, and the fans are coming out in greater numbers every game. Why not Texas A&M?”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART THREE

The following in as in-depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the third in a four-part series, which will conclude on Friday. The story originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.


While the 2003-04 season was memorable for so many reasons, what happened just days before the year began—prior to Gary Blair coaching a single game—was perhaps even more important. A&M inked its most impressive signing class in a decade when Morenike Atunrase, Patrice Reado and LaToya Gulley signed the Aggies (A’Quonesia Franklin and Katy Pounds signed their letters of intent following the season).

The group of youngsters became immediate contributors.

Atunrase, Franklin, Reado and Pounds all played double-digit minutes in their freshmen seasons. Franklin took over for Toccara Williams at point guard and finished a remarkable third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio despite being the only freshmen point guard in the Big 12. Atunrase more than doubled the freshman school record for blocks in a season and was the consensus Big 12 Freshman of the Year. In all, the freshmen group accounted for more than half of the team’s scoring.

Meanwhile, the Aggies finished the regular season with a 14-13 record, the school’s first plus-.500 finish since 1996, and the team received a bid to the WNIT Tournament. In the WNIT, A&M claimed wins against Tulsa and A&M-Corpus Christi before a quarterfinal loss to eventual champ Southwest Missouri State after A&M missed a game winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Clearly, A&M’s recruiting was paying off.

“The recruits believed in the style,” Blair said. “That style is what I’ve been doing every place I’ve been. It’s fun basketball—defense first, rebounding, intense defense. We looked for versatile players who can play more than one position, players who were well-coached in high school and junior college. We wanted players whose egos weren’t bigger than the team, and it’s worked out pretty well.”

The A&M staff followed its first class with another top 25 group that included Takia Starks, Danielle Gant and La Toya Micheaux. While Gant hailed from Oklahoma City, Starks and Micheaux joined Reado as elite-level prospects from the Houston area who chose to stay close to home and help build the budding program.

The Houston pipeline has certainly stayed open for the A&M coaching staff. Other current players from the hoops hotbed of Houston include Damitria Buchanan, Sydney Colson and Adaora Elonu. A&M has also made inroads in the Metroplex with current players Maryann Baker, Sydney Carter and Skylar Collins.

But regardless of where the recruits grew up, they came to A&M for the same reasons.

“I trusted the coaches when they were recruiting us,” said Starks, now a senior and a potential All-American. “The saying ‘Building Champions’ is everywhere around here, and basically, that’s what they told us when they recruited us. Everything that they have said, like the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight…it’s all coming true. I trusted the coaches when they told us that.”

In the 2005-06 season, the freshman campaign for Starks, Gant and Micheaux, the Aggies soared to a 23-9 (11-5 Big 12) record and made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in a decade.

It was the following year, however, that the Aggies exploded onto the main stage. A&M started the season with previously unfathomable expectations, checking in at No. 14 in both major polls.

The Aggies were still in the top 20 when conference play began. After an opening game loss to Kansas State, the Aggies edged Texas Tech for the program’s first win in Lubbock since 1980. Three days later, No. 9 Baylor became A&M’s first ranked victim after the Aggies scored an 8-point victory. Two wins against No. 6 Oklahoma followed shortly thereafter, and a four game winning streak to close the regular season, including another victory over top-15 Baylor, landed Blair his first conference title since his days at Stephen F. Austin.

A second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth was the reward, and the Aggies wrapped the year with a No. 16 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

To be certain, the Aggies were no longer the hunted, and the team’s crushing defensive pressure had become the talk of the Big 12. Franklin, Gant, Starks and Atunrase had all become known as some of the steadiest players in the league, and the team’s 16-0 record at Reed Arena remains the program’s only undefeated home slate in 33 years of women’s basketball.

At the time, it may have felt like the program had reached its pinnacle. As it turned out, the party was just getting started.

Before Friday’s final installment in the series, the following statistics further illustrate how far the Aggies have come:

- Versus the Big 12 South:
From 2001-03, A&M was 5-27
From 2004-08, A&M was 22-10

- Versus the Big 12 North:
From 2001-03, A&M was 5-14
From 2004-08, A&M was 18-5

- In home games (A&M was 34-38 at Reed Arena the previous five seasons):
2004 -- 7-9
2005 -- 11-5
2006 -- 14-2
2007 -- 16-0
2008 -- 14-2
2009 -- 7-1
Total -- 69-19

- Against traditional league powers Texas Tech and Texas:
From 1976-2005, Tech led the all-time series 51-13. From 2006-present, A&M is 6-1 (and has won six straight).
From 1976-2005, Texas led the all-time series 57-10. From 2006-present, A&M is 6-1 (and has won three of four in Austin).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART TWO

The following in as in-depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the second in a four-part series, which will continue through Friday. The story originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.


In many aspects, Gary Blair may have been the perfect hire for Texas A&M. Blair came to Aggieland after 10 years at the helm of the Arkansas program, where his 1997-98 team entered the NCAA Tournament as an unranked 9-seed but shocked the nation by advancing to the Final Four. Prior to Arkansas, the Dallas-native led Stephen F. Austin to a 210-43 record in eight seasons, winning seven consecutive conference championships along the way.

He also knew the state of Texas inside and out, having coached Dallas South Oak Cliff High School to three Class 4A state titles and a runner-up finish during one four-year stretch.

For Blair, it was all about timing.

“A lot of very, very good people turned down this job over the years,” said Blair. “They came in and looked at it, but they didn’t feel like the commitment was there as far as they could see the commitment was there for football. I look at this job as I have the best job in the country. It’s a job I would have preferred 20 years ago, but it didn’t work out that way.

“But, if I would have had it 20 years ago, they might not have been committed, and I might would have been fired like everybody else. But, when I came in the right administration was in place in Bill Byrne.”

Upon arriving in College Station, one of Blair’s top priorities was assembling a coaching staff. The first to join Blair was assistant coach and recruiting dynamo Kelly Bond. Bond, a Chicago native, had made her name as a stellar recruiter under Blair for the previous three seasons at Arkansas.

Next up was Vic Schaefer, another Texas native who also happened to be an A&M graduate (Class of 1984). More than that, though, Schaefer had worked with Blair for six years at Arkansas after several years in direct competition with him at Sam Houston State, where Schaefer coached from 1990-97.

One of Blair’s best recruiting jobs may have been convincing Schaefer to follow him to A&M. Schaefer interviewed for the head coaching job at New Mexico State after Arkansas officials said they weren’t interested in promoting him. After an interview in Las Cruces, N.M., it became clear that Schaefer was New Mexico State’s No. 1 choice.

“I told (Blair) it was my time to be a head coach,” Schaefer recalled. “That was something we had talked about when I came to Arkansas, so we were open about that from the get-go.”

Still, Blair wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. While Schaefer and New Mexico State tried to hash out an agreement, Blair made one more phone call.

“Coach said, ‘There’s two tickets at the American Airlines counter at the airport in Fayetteville. Just bring (your wife) Holly down. You’re not doing anything else, so just come on down,’” Schaeffer said. “We did, and I can remember getting up in church later that week and telling Holly that I was going to go call the athletic director at New Mexico State. She said, ‘So you’re going to take the job?’ I said, ‘Nope, we’re going to A&M.’”

With Schaefer and Bond in the fold, Blair’s staff turned its attention to recruiting. A&M inked a pair of junior college transfers, but even with the two experienced additions Blair’s first team was dangerously thin. The glaring exception to that was senior point guard Toccara Williams, who would later play in the WNBA after a sparkling final year under the new coaching staff.

As the Aggies prepared for the 2003-04 season, Blair had long since begun his own grassroots effort to drum up fan support. Considering the average crowd that attended a game during Gillom’s final season was a paltry 1,403, he more than had his work cut out for him.

Blair joined the local Rotary Club and became a familiar face in the community, talking to student groups, neighborhood associations, charity groups—basically anyone who would listen. He even went door-to-door in his own neighborhood to introduce himself and give away tickets.

“ (Before Blair arrived) we always joked that at Reed Arena, every game was a maroon out—not because people were there but because all the seats were maroon,” said Steve Miller, the team’s former sports information director, who now works in event management for the athletic department. “He was (and still is) notorious for carrying 25 or 30 tickets with him in his back pocket. He will call up radio stations and say ‘Hey, it’s coach Blair. I’m at the gas station at the corner of Texas and University; I’ve got free tickets for the first five people that stop by.’

“He’s notorious for not using drive-thru windows. He wants to go in because he figures he’ll run into some people he can invite to his games. The worst that can happen is they’ll leave with a free ticket.”

His persistence paid off immediately.

Opening night at Reed Arena his first year set a first-night record when 1,802 fans showed up to see the Aggies upend Arkansas-Little Rock. Attendance numbers the rest of the season remained solid by A&M standards. The Texas game drew 4,336, while the Baylor game crowd of 5,565 set a Reed Arena record.

Those who showed up were treated to some special games, as well. While the team ultimately finished with a 9-19 (2-14 Big 12) record, the only losing season in Blair’s career, the Aggies were dangerously close to shocking the league on a number of occasions. In addition to the aforementioned “put the league on notice” game in Lubbock, there were a stunning amount of near-misses against the premier teams of the conference:

— A 60-57 loss to No. 24 Baylor in a game the Aggies led by 16 at the half

— An overtime loss to No. 15 Oklahoma, despite holding a 13-point second half lead

— A two-point loss to No. 3 Texas

— A 59-58 loss to seventh-ranked Texas Tech after owning a three-point advantage with 20 seconds remaining

— Another 59-58 loss, this time to No. 8 Kansas State who eventually finished conference play with a 14-2 record

Despite being severely undermanned, A&M had been nail-bitingly close to doing the unthinkable at almost every opportunity.

“That team was the most fun I’ve ever had in coaching,” recalled Schaefer. “They absolutely played their guts out. We got blown out in one game, but other than that, we were in every single other basketball game in the Big 12. We gave everybody fits.

“When (former legendary Longhorns coach) Jody Conradt shakes your hand after a ballgame and says ‘I’d rather go to the dentist than play you guys,’ that’s a compliment. I felt like we played that way every night.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART ONE

The following is an in depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women's basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the first in a four-part series, which will continue through this Friday. The story originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.

In a story that almost defies explanation and reason, it’s particularly ironic that the city of Lubbock, Texas, plays a surprisingly large role in the resurgence of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. The mere mention of the windswept town, where Aggie dreams in most sports have gone to die far too often in recent memory, is usually met with cringes of pain in Aggie circles across the state.

But something special happened out in the place that has been the thorn in the side of so many Aggie teams. In a couple of different ways, Lubbock has played an important role in the unprecedented heights the women’s basketball team has now reached.

It almost seems fitting that head coach Gary Blair’s return to Texas Tech, the school from which he graduated in 1972, had such significance.

On Feb. 12, 2003, while Blair was still coaching at Arkansas, a hapless Aggie team wandered into Lubbock to take on the Lady Raiders. Seventh-ranked Tech laid a Texas-sized beating on the dismal Aggies, waltzing to an 83-38 victory. It was the school’s 22nd consecutive home win over A&M and pushed the all-time series record to an embarrassing 47-8 margin.

One-and-a-half months later, athletic director Bill Byrne replaced former coach Peggie Gillom with Blair.

The following spring in 2004, the Aggies again made the trek west for what had become their annual whipping at the hands of Texas Tech. The 12,207 fans inside the United Spirit Arena that night no doubt took their seats expecting another 20-plus point rout for Tech, which again was ranked No. 7 and considered by many to be a Final Four contender.

Only, that didn’t happen.

Instead, the Tech faithful saw a scrappy Aggie team claw and battle possession-for-possession with the supremely talented Red Raiders. A&M trailed by just one point at the half and faced a precarious five-point deficit with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the game.

While the nervous fans inside the arena wondered if it was really happening—surely, their team couldn’t lose to lowly Texas A&M—the undermanned Aggies eventually wore down. They didn’t score in the final three minutes of the game and Tech prevailed with a tougher than expected, 65-56 victory.

While that game barely registered a blip on the national radar, the significance of the nine-point loss was not lost on the A&M staffers.

Steve Miller, who was then the team’s media relations coordinator, vividly remembers the conversation on the team bus leaving the arena.

“That group played so hard and played such great defense that they had a very good Texas Tech team on the ropes,” recalls Miller. “We were riding the bus back to the airport, and the coaches were talking about the game—(associate head coach) Vic Schaefer and I still talk about this—and they said, ‘You know, I think we just put the league on notice tonight. Our kids play hard, we play a different brand of basketball than anyone else, and we didn’t win tonight, but we put a scare into them.’

“It was that night, out there in Lubbock, that the players and coaches looked around and said, ‘You know what, we can compete. We have a chance.’”

It’s been almost five years since that night in Lubbock, and those words ring eerily prophetic.

Indeed, the Aggies have long since put the Big 12 Conference on notice. Now, however, it’s the nation that is wondering just what in the world is going on in College Station.

To truly appreciate the perch on which the Texas A&M women’s basketball team now resides, it’s important to look back and realize how stunningly bad the program had become. In hindsight, it never should have fallen so far. After all, the Aggies won the final Southwest Conference Tournament in 1996, prior to the start of the Big 12. In fact, the Aggies won 20 or more games in the three seasons leading up to the conference’s demise, sandwiching a NWIT Tournament title between two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Lisa Branch, an honorable mention All-American in 1996 and the school’s all-time leading scorer, graduated after A&M won the conference tournament title that season, however, and the Aggies quickly slipped into anonymity.

The team won just 18 games combined in 1997 and 1998. Peggie Gillom took over the following season (1998-99) and promptly finished in last place in the Big 12. In fact, Gillom’s first three years resulted in finishes of 12th, 11th, and 12th in league play, setting the Aggies light years behind powers (at that time) Texas Tech, Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma.

Even Baylor, which was the only team to finish behind A&M in 2000 began righting itself. The Lady Bears vaulted to sixth place the next year and second place in 2002.

The discrepancies between A&M and the rest of the Big 12 South were growing at an alarming rate. During Gillom’s tenure, the Aggies were 8-45 against the other five teams in the division, with the high water marks (if you can call them that) coming with 2-9 finishes against the South in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Even in those years, though, the Aggies never won a game in the Big 12 Tournament, finishing 0-5 under Gillom in the conference’s postseason playoff.
In short, the Aggies were buried.

“They were about as invisible as you could be for a Division I program in a major conference,” said women’s basketball writer Mechelle Voepel. “They came into the (Big 12) conference with at least a little bit of momentum, and they just really weren’t able to keep pace.

“It was a big surprise, not just because it’s such a big and well-known school athletically, but you add in that Texas is such a great girls high school basketball state. It was just one of those things where you sat there and thought there’s no reason in the world this program shouldn’t be good with the right staff in charge.”

Around the time Voepel and others may have been muttering that very thought, change was beginning to percolate through the halls of the A&M athletic department offices. Former university president Robert Gates pegged Bill Byrne to be the school’s new athletics director in late 2002, and one of Byrne’s first changes came in women’s basketball.

On March 12, 2003, the day after yet another first-round shaming in the Big 12 Tournament, Byrne announced Gillom’s contract would not be extended. Twenty days later, Blair was introduced as the school’s seventh women’s basketball coach.
The tide was about to turn.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fans Guide To Indoor Track & Field In Aggieland

With the first-ever indoor track and field meet at Texas A&M set to be contested this Saturday, we sat down with A&M track staffer Shawn Price to see what, exactly, fans should expect when they enter the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium for the first time. Price, in his third year with the Aggies, handles the team’s media relations and is a veteran of the track and field scene. In addition to numerous collegiate meets, he has traveled to the last four Olympics, spending the last three as a researcher for NBC, and also has experience as a media relations representative for the U.S. team at the World Championships.

Q: First things first, Shawn. If I’m coming to my first track meet this weekend, how long should I expect it to last, and does each meet follow the same format as far events always being contested at the same time?
SP: Most weekends, you’ll have the same formula in terms of when events take place. Our first meet is a dual meet, so we have the luxury of it not stretching out all day long. We have it compacted down into a three-hour schedule. It will be only the Texas A&M men and women and the Texas men and Tennessee women, so it will make for smaller fields in each event. The tendency is to have meets like that, so fans can come experience track like they would a football or basketball game where they know it will tie up a set amount of time.

When we get to the Texas A&M Invitational, our third meet, that’s where meets will have more entries, and it will span over two days. It will tend to last a little longer, but we try to work the schedule down so there’s a four or five hour window where people can choose what time they want to be there for certain events, or just spend the whole day there.

Q: There’s another unique event on the schedule with the Big 12 vs. SEC Showdown. How will that be contested?
SP: It’ll be similar to the dual meet rather than the Invitational. It will still stretch over two days, but the first day will just be the multi events for the decathletes. Indoor, they do the pentathlon and heptathlon, so in that perspective there will be a couple hours of action on Friday and then they’ll come back to finish their multi event. Then, later that afternoon is when the bulk of the meet will be, and it will be in a three-hour window there.

The unique thing with the Showdown is there will be three Big 12 schools against three SEC schools, and they’ll score it as a conference between the Big 12 and SEC. We’ll have A&M, Texas and Missouri on the Big 12 side, and the SEC will feature Florida, LSU and Mississippi.

Q: Are there many events like that in the country?
SP: Not really. There’s been more schools coming back to the dual meets, and there have been a couple times where they’ve done the conference thing, but it may have only featured one or two teams. To have three teams on both sides will be a unique set-up.

Q: As far as the fan experience when they enter the building—will there be an announcer and video boards keeping fans informed?
SP: Much like football and basketball have done, you try to incorporate a program into the whole sequence of things where you utilize music, a PA announcer and a video board to keep the flow of things going. Most people think you go to a track meet and there’s either constant action or you’re sitting around waiting for something to happen. Here, we’ve kind of set up the schedule to where while something’s going on at the track, there will still be stuff going on in the field events. When the track races are done, there’s usually a field event wrapping up as well, so the schedule will kind of conclude at the same time.

We want to have music incorporated into the meet, but there will still be quiet times because the audience needs to be quiet at the start of the 60 or 60 hurdles, but then there’s times when noise is wanted and needed by the athletes as well. Our long jumpers are looking forward to creating something similar to what they do during kickoff at football games, where the crowd goes ‘Aaaaaaaaa,’ and then when the jumper hits the takeoff board and have everybody shout out ‘Gig em, Aggies!’ while they try to hit their mark.

When you go to your first meet, you’ll see athletes trying to generate their own noise, so you’ll see a long jumper clapping a rhythmic clap that he wants the crowd to follow to get him into his jump. Other times during a distance race, music will be being played, so that can get the crowd into a clap sequence there, as well.

Q: Are most college track fans fiercely loyal to their school, or are they there to see great performances no matter who it’s from?
SP: There’s a good balance there, because some fans will obviously be loyal to whatever school they follow. There’s also a unique aspect with athletes from the state of Texas, because track fans will have seen a lot of them on the high school level. You do tend to follow some kids too, depending on what part of Texas they are from.

There are a few folks that always go to meets and they keep track of what major marks they’ve seen across the years. It’s always neat to come to a meet and see an athlete you’ve never seen or a mark you’ve never seen. One neat aspect we’ll have here with our meets is that you never know where they one or two points are going to come from that will help you win the thing. You usually know where you’re top end points are going to come from, but it’s always the guy that may not get to travel or go to away meets, but at home has a chance to compete and maybe pick up a point for the team.

Q: If the seats along the finish line are sold out, where should I sit in general admission?
SP: There are two very good possibilities with the general admission seating. When you come into the building and go to the left side, you’d be able to see how quiet and how focused the athletes are at the start of a sprint. That’s always neat to see, and plus you’ll be closer to the video board and pole vaulting area. On the right-hand side of the building closer to Wellborn Road, you’d be sitting right on top of the shot put and weight throw action while having a pretty good angle at the finish line for the sprint and oval races.

Q: Is the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium unique in that it has room for all events under one roof?
SP: It’s one of the few that I’ve seen. I know there are a couple of places that try to fit it in the same area. Most places we go to will have a weight throw at another venue, either for safety concerns or because there’s not enough room. Here, we had it in mind during the design that we wanted the weight throw not only included, but to have enough room for shot put to be able to go on at the same time, also. Here, it’s neat because there is seating alongside the shot put and weight throw area as well as the general admission.

Q: Can you touch on some of the different events that are contested indoor versus outdoor?
SP: The indoor version is not necessarily an abbreviated version of an outdoor meet, but there are a few events that are unique just to the indoor season. The 100-meter outdoor is trimmed down to 60-meters indoor in both the sprint and hurdle races. Outdoors will run 110-meter hurdles for the men and 100-meter hurdles for the women, but both will run 60-meter hurdles indoors. Also, outdoors you will have a 4x100 relay, but indoors the 4x400 is the primary relay event. Distance runners will have a distance medley relay at indoor meets, where you have an 800-meter runner, a 1200-meter runner, a 400-meter runner and then a mile runner who anchors the race.

Indoor also has the weight throw instead of the hammer. The javelin kids would love to throw indoors, but obviously that’s one event that doesn’t carry over to the indoor season. There are also a couple odd events that you’d never see outdoors, like the 600 meters and 1000 meters, which aren’t run at all in the outdoor season.

Q: Do coaches vary their lineups from meet to meet in the relays?
SP: Most places we go to, we have the luxury of running two men’s 4x4 teams or two women’s 4x4, so you can mix your relay up to see who works well together. Even here for the first dual meet, we’ll put some people in multiple events whereas they might only be in one event at a regular meet. Since points are at a premium, you try to double up a little. As a result you might not see as many people get close to their PR (personal records) as they normally would, but that’s because they’re stretching themselves out to try and pick up points across the board.

Q: How do athletes qualify for the NCAA championships?
SP: Coming into the indoor season, you’ll have two marks—a provisional mark and an automatic mark. If you make the automatic mark, which is a pretty elite mark on the college level, you’ll automatically be in the NCAA Championship field. A provisional mark gets you on a list, and that descending order list is what they’ll go off of to round out the field. For instance, if there’s an event where they want 24 athletes in the NCAA Championships but only four or five automatic qualifiers, they will fill out the other 20 spots from that descending order list. Normally, each event has about the same amount of athletes in each event. On occasion, some will get an extra one or two, because with a high jump or pole vault you could have several people with the same mark, and there’s no way to break them up.

Q: Aggie fans will get to see a national title decided here in March, so how many qualifiers does a team need to have a legit shot at claiming the gold?
SP: Indoors, there can be a situation where you have three or four athletes who will likely win their events—that’s between 30-40 points, which will have you in the range to be among the top five to contend for a national championship. Most times, teams will come in with maybe 8-10 people and they’ll have one or two that should be first or second in their event, and the rest will try and pick up those points from fourth place to eighth place.

There’s really no true, hard line about how many people you have to take, but it depends on the quality of the athletes you have and how they stack up against the competition. Usually, a squad that has 8-10 folks who are at least going to make the finals in their event should have you among the top three teams at the meet.

Q: Who are some Aggies that fans should expect to see perform at a high level?
SP: On the women’s side, Porscha Lucas is our top sprinter. She was the NCAA runner up in the 200-meter outdoors last year, and she’s been a key leg on the 4x1 team that has won national titles the last two years. She has shared or traded school records in the 60 and 200 with Simone Facey, but Simone finished her career up last year, so now Porscha can kind of see where she will go with those records. Jessica Beard was a freshman last year and placed third indoors at the NCAA in the 400, so she has a lot of potential. Also is Christina Munoz in distance, and she has been a qualifier at nationals in cross country. In the jumps, we have Yasmine Regis and Ashika Charan, who both have NCAA experience.

On the men’s side, Gerald Phiri and Chris Dykes are the top two sprinters. Chris is a senior, and it will be a special moment for him because we just had a senior class graduate without ever being able to compete at home, so it’s a big deal for this senior class to get to perform in front of their peers and fans. In the jumps, there’s a strong group led by Julian Reid, who was a freshman last year but one two Big 12 titles and made the finals in the NCAA Championships. In the distance races, we have a three-time NCAA champion in Shadrack Songok. He won all three of those competing for A&M-Corpus Christi, but he graduated there and is in grad school here. We’re hoping for big things from him, as he wraps up his career during the indoor season, and hopefully add a fourth NCAA title to his resume.

The one thing that A&M has really developed with Coach Henry and his staff is a team that doesn’t just focus on one or two events. When you come to a meet, you’ll see contenders from the sprints to the jumps to the distance races, and even in the throws.

Q: What will the A&M fan who has never been to a track meet before fall in love with when they come into the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium to watch the sport?
SP: Probably the first thing they will enjoy is having the sprint lanes right up against the stands. You’ll really be able to see how fast they’re moving in the 60 sprint and 60 hurdles as opposed to other tracks where the sprint lanes are in the middle of the oval. When it’s close to the stands and the athletes are really feeding off the roar of the crowd, and that should make for a neat aspect to this facility.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

(Three-Day) Weekend By The Numbers

68,000 – Square feet in the new Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball, dedicated on Saturday morning. Both basketball teams have taken up residence in the new facility, which includes coaches offices, locker rooms, practice courts, players lounges and a state-of-the-art training room.

3 – Oklahoma players who turned in double-doubles against the A&M women’s basketball team Sunday.

2-14 – The women’s basketball team’s record in games played at Norman, Okla.

3-3 – The women’s basketball team’s record in the last six regular season contests against Baylor. The two teams will battle again Wednesday in what has become a very competitive series.

34-19 – In the men’s basketball team’s three conference losses, the Aggies have been outscored 34-19 in the first five minutes of the first half.

60-26 – In the men’s basketball team’s three conference losses, the Aggies have been outscored 60-26 in the first 10 minutes of the first half.

33-23 – In A&M’s two most complete games (LSU, Baylor), the Aggies led by a combined 33-23 margin after 10 minutes, and by a 16-5 margin after five minutes.

3 – Preseason rank for the softball team in the Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll. A&M, which has advanced to the last two Women’s College World Series, was behind Oklahoma and Missouri in the poll. The Aggies open the season on Feb. 6.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

9 – Combined wins for the men’s and women’s indoor track teams at the Arkansas Invitational. The Aggies opened their indoor season with a solid performance, also tallying seven NCAA provisional marks.

1-2-4-5-6 – Finishes posted by the A&M women in the 200 meters. Jessica Beard set a personal best to win in the event in 23.59 seconds, with Gabby Mayo, Dominique Duncan, Sandy Wooten and Elizabeth Adeoti rounding out the Aggie contingent.

22 – Points for senior Danielle Gant in the women’s basketball teams’ 62-56 victory at Missouri. Gant turned in a perfect 10-for-10 performance from the field and also connected on both her free throw attempts.

2 – Takia Starks is now A&M’s second all-time leading scorer, surpassing former player Lisa Langston. Starks’ 14 point effort at Missouri gives 1,626 career points, trailing only Lisa Branch’s 1,939.

19.9 – The Aggie women currently rank No. 1 in the nation in three-point field goal percentage defense, allowing just 19.9 percent. Saturday, Missouri managed 17.6 percent (3-for-17) from beyond the arc.

0 – Points scored by Josh Carter in the Aggies double-digit loss to Oklahoma State. Carter entered the game as the team’s leading scorer.

11 – Victories recorded in 16 events for the women’s swimming and diving team against SMU on Saturday. The Aggies picked up a 163-137 win over No. 18 SMU, and Triin Aljand and Alia Atkinson both picked up a pair of victories.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Aggie Hoops Weekend Capsules

Women @ Missouri, 5 pm

ABOUT MISSOURI, 9-4 in non-conference
A&M’s record vs. Missouri (last three seasons): 4-0

The Tigers struggled out of the gate this year, dropping four of their first five, including a season opening loss to South Dakota State. Since then, the team has rattled off eight consecutive victories, including a road win at Arkansas…Missouri was the lone Big 12 team left out of the postseason in 2007-08, finishing with a 10-21 (2-14 Big 12) record. However, the Tigers stunned 2-seed Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament, 70-64…Returning senior Alyssa Hollins was All-Big 12 Honorable Mention last year. The Mesquite, Texas, product averaged 16.6 points per game, and her 90 3-pointers last year smashed the previous school record of 25…Junior Jessra Johnson and Hollins both averaged 14.0 points in non-conference games, with the 6-foot-1 Johnson also leading the team in rebounding…A&M has won the last four meetings by an average of 17.8 points…Cindy Stein is in her 11th season as Mizzou’s coach.

Men @ Oklahoma State, 8 pm (ESPNU)

ABOUT OKLAHOMA STATE, 11-3 non-conference
A&M’s record vs. Oklahoma State (last three seasons): 4-3

These two teams have played in some tight contests recently, with the last three being decided by a total of nine points…OSU hasn’t lost away from Gallagher-Iba Arena this season, but Saturday’s game will be their first home match-up with a power conference team…The Cowboys have a solid collection of guards who can score. Starters James Anderson (18.4 points per game), Obi Muonelo (15.4), Terrel Harris (14.7) and Byron Eaton (12.9) are also connecting on more than 40 percent of their field goals. Keiton Page, a 5-foot-10 freshman, also averages double figure scoring despite not starting any games…Starting forward Ibrahima Thomas was dismissed from the team in early December for a “lack of commitment” to the team…This is the first year for coach Travis Ford, who compiled a 62-35 record in three years at Massachusetts.