TOP NOTCH: Gamecock women's teams thrive in South Carolina's winning culture

TOP NOTCH: Gamecock women's teams thrive in South Carolina's winning culture

By Josh Hyber/Photo illustration by Dre Lopez 

When Dawn Staley took the job as South Carolina women’s basketball head coach in May 2008, she listed the reasons that enticed her to become a Gamecock. 

“Some people may ask why South Carolina? And I say why not?” Staley said. “The facilities are here, the commitment’s here and the community and the people who want to be a part of a winning program (are here).” 

But Colonial Life Arena had only just celebrated its sixth birthday, and the women’s basketball office inside Carolina Coliseum was still eight years away from being renovated into the posh facility it is today. Only a month before had the first shovel been put into the ground to clear way for the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center. 

Ray Tanner was still four years from being named South Carolina athletics director. 

A’ja Wilson wins WNBA honor

Fast-forward 10 years and Staley’s program has become a perennial power with a national championship to boot. The team has lavish headquarters and its players receive tutoring and meals in the 40,500 square foot “Dodie.” 

It’s a progression that has been mimicked by other teams on the SC campus, particularly women’s teams: hire a quality coach, build quality facilities, attract top-tier recruits and win at an unprecedented rate.

And it all came to a head this past season. 

The five most successful teams at South Carolina, in terms of winning percentage, were all women’s teams: soccer, basketball, tennis, softball and beach volleyball. Soccer reached the NCAA Final Four, basketball and beach volleyball reached the Elite Eight, softball advanced to the Super Regionals and tennis reached the Sweet 16.

“Our women’s athletics teams have really done well and that is attributed to the coaches, staff and student-athletes that we have here,” South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner said. “I am appreciative of their time and commitment to our athletics success as well as the support we have had from our great fans.”

It’s Tanner who leads the effort.

Staley, soccer coach Shelley Smith, softball coach Beverly Smith, tennis coach Kevin Epley, beach volleyball coach Moritz Moritz and even men’s basketball coach Frank Martin all credit the man in charge for laying the foundation for the SC women’s teams to have success.

Tanner, the coach of Carolina baseball for 16 seasons, gives his coaches freedom to succeed. He puts them in position to recruit quality talent and play against the best regional and national competition. 

“Coach Tanner doesn’t micromanage us. Coach Tanner creates internal expectations for us and he allows us to do our jobs. And he gives us what we need to do our jobs,” Martin said.

“… When you get around, whether it’s Shelley or Bev or Dawn, there’s an unbelievable enthusiasm for what they do. For the school. For the opportunity. For everything that comes with it. I see how they go about their business.” 

“It’s sort of neat this all happening at the same time,” Epley said. “Whether that’s coincidence or something else, but the common denominator, from my perspective, is Ray Tanner.”

The success has trickled down, from Tanner (with his leadership, facility initiatives and fundraising) to coaches (quality for both men’s and women’s teams) to the Gamecock athletes (some of the nation’s best on both the men’s and women’s side). 

Taking a closer look at the trickle-down, it’s apparent why 2017-2018 was so successful.

New football jersey numbers

ATMOSPHERE 

Judy Van Horn holds the title Executive Associate AD/Sport & Risk Management in the SC athletic department, and she wears many hats (she oversees volleyball, beach volleyball and men’s and women’s tennis), including the role of Deputy Title IX Coordinator. 

In her words, she’s the go-to person in the athletic department when it comes to gender equity. 

“The wonderful thing about [SC] is that the commitment to equity is a top-down initiative,” said Van Horn, who was attracted to SC in 2011 by the university’s commitment to all sports. “It’s the culture of the university. It’s the culture of the athletic department.” 

Van Horn routinely monitors Title IX guidelines, which are also currently undergoing a routine review by a top consulting firm.

That culture can be felt on the second floor of the 68,000-plus square foot Rice Athletics Center, which opened in 2012. It’s where tennis, golf, soccer, swimming & diving, track & field and equestrian have offices. It’s where the coaches pass each other in hallways and in conference rooms.

Gamecocks to watch

There’s no dissension between the coaches and, even with conflicting schedules, there’s a bond between them. 

Staley was an all-city softball pitcher in high school, but basketball was her ticket to greatness. Years later, though, she can often be seen at Carolina Stadium at Beckham Field wearing a pinstriped gray jersey with a script ‘Gamecocks’ across the chest cheering on Smith and her team.

Staley even once stood in a batter’s box and faced off against Smith. It took her about 50 pitches to get a hit. “I tired her arm out,” said Staley, who frequently reminds her good friend of her softball accolades. 

“In fact, her softball career seems to keep getting better every year,” Smith quipped. “How UCLA missed her in the recruiting process baffles me.” 

Staley flew to watch the SC softball team play in the NCAA Tournament Super Regional round in Arizona and routinely attends games at Beckham Field. She also once tweeted updates from a women’s tennis match, and, on a day’s notice, arranged for her staff to host Epley’s cousin from Thailand on an unofficial visit.

Shelley Smith once took her team, while on a spring game road trip, to a Gamecock women’s basketball road game. Smith and Staley — who were part of Epley’s hiring process — also bounce marketing and team bonding ideas off each other.

“One of the things I value about our athletic department is the genuine relationships between all the head coaches,” Beverly Smith said. “We all can appreciate the hard work and dedication it takes to lead competitive programs.” 

Said Epley, “I guess we feel sort of a kinship.”

COACHES 

South Carolina’s head coaches aren’t just friendly, they’re quality coaches. Some of the best in their respective sports.

Staley coaches the U.S. senior national team. Boo Major is one of the nation’s most respected equestrian coaches in the country, having won two national championships. Epley was once the personal traveling coach for Lindsay Davenport and was also an assistant for the U.S. Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney games. 

“We hire the best, regardless of if they’re going to coach a men’s sport or women’s sport,” Van Horn said. 

Said Staley, “Shelley, Boo, Beverley, we’ve all tried to mirror each other in being successful.” 

“There’s that innate nature of competitiveness in everything we do, even within the athletic department,” Moritz said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

In Staley’s 10 seasons at the helm, women’s basketball has improved its win total five times. Beach volleyball has improved its win total in all five seasons of its existence. Softball has improved in five of Smith’s eight seasons, and tennis has improved in four of Epley’s six seasons.  

Said Moritz, “It’s almost a pantheon of these super high-achieving, super high-level coaches who constantly compete for championships. In some senses it’s a little daunting as a brand-new head coach. … All of these programs, particularly on the women’s side, are having a ton of success.

“It sets a high standard.” 

FACILITIES

With a high standard of excellence on the field comes an expectation for first-rate facilities.

“The nice thing, the advantage of being at the University of South Carolina, and being in the SEC, is that most of our sports have their own facilities,” Van Horn said. “We can insure that it’s an equitable experience. Most of our sports have mirror-image locker rooms and facilities. 

“While there was room for growth, because of the culture, as the finances became available, we were positioned to be able to build new facilities. There was no question that those facilities would be equitable for both men and women.” 

Carolina Tennis Center was built in 2012, while Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field was built in 2013 and Wheeler Beach, which Moritz calls one of the top three beach volleyball facilities in the country, was built in 2014.

A steady increase in wins and accolades for women’s tennis, softball and beach volleyball has followed suit.

Softball had an 11-win increase the year it moved into Beckham Field and has a 127-49 record at home since. Women’s tennis is 68-12 at Carolina Tennis Center. Beach volleyball is 42-15 at Wheeler Beach.

“You can bring kids in and say, ‘Hey, this is the kind of environment we have,’” said Shelley Smith, whose team plays its home games on a Stone Stadium field that had a state-of-the-art irrigation system and new sod laid during the summer of 2009. 

All-American Savannah McCaskill, who joined Smith’s program in 2015, was one of those athletes. 

“The athletic department does a [great] job making sure everyone, no matter what sport it is, is set up with the best facilities and the best support in the country,” said McCaskill, who led SC to its first women’s soccer Final Four this past season. “Especially once we got the new building, right there on the field, that’s top notch. That’s top class. It’s very hard to find that anywhere in the country.” 

ATHLETES 

Martin mentioned how the enthusiasm and commitment to excellence from Gamecock coaches trickles down to recruiting, and how South Carolina thrives on finding not just the best athletes, but student-athletes.

In the spring 2018 semester, the athletic department marked its highest semester-average GPA in history, at 3.287. The top eight GPAs as a team were all women’s teams.

“There’s an unbelievable commitment here to do things the right way, across the board,” Martin said. “I’m a big believer, call me old-fashioned, that when you do things the right way, winning takes care of itself. No one here puts the score of a game above doing right by people. 

“That’s what they all do. That’s why you see them ladies, whether it’s on the basketball court or soccer field, golf, tennis, softball, there’s an unbelievable enthusiasm to compete and represent this university.”

Said Epley, “There’s something about our school and about our conference that really brings out the competitive spirit in these young girls that sometimes they’re not freed up to be in other places.” 

A’ja Wilson, a three-time All-American and the 2017-18 national player of the year for Staley's Gamecocks, attributed the success to the familial atmosphere of the teams on campus. 

“It’s kind of like we’re all in there together, and I think our fan base really kind of rallies around us,” the SC alum and WNBA rookie said. “And it helps a lot. When you’re able to fill the stands with people who push you night in and night out, no matter what, it gives you that extra confidence. 

“… I think everyone feels included. Any sport that they go see or watch.”

Football day on Lake Murray

For those who watched, this past season was filled with exciting women’s sports moments.

A raucous crowd saw Wilson and the Gamecocks beat rival Missouri in January, and Virginia by 10 in the NCAA Tournament. Or when the team beat Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi State in a three-day stretch in Nashville to capture its fourth-straight SEC Tournament crown.

A big crowd was on hand late into the night at Carolina Stadium when Krystan White saved the Gamecocks season with an emotional walk-off home run, and the next day when pitchers Dixie Raley and Cayla Drotar threw gems to advance the team to Super Regionals.

Or the night Lindsey Lane and Grace Fisk led the women’s soccer team to an Elite Eight victory over rival Florida. 

What were the favorites of Tanner?

Said the AD, “Whether its women’s soccer reaching the College Cup, women’s basketball winning an SEC Tournament title or watching Krystan White hit a walk-off home run in dramatic fashion in the NCAA Regionals, that’s just a few of the great moments from this past year.”

Said Van Horn, “Athletics takes a long view. We build programs that will stand the test of time. We hire coaches who build programs that stand the test of time. So we have amazing coaches who do a phenomenal job. From what we’ve seen, it’s not short term. 

“The best is yet to come.”