Opinion: Basketball celebration showcases Starkville’s best

The MSU Women's Basketball Team rode into downtown Starkville on a fire truck for Friday's celebration (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)

I’m still relatively new to Starkville, but it only took a few seconds late last March for me to understand what a women’s college basketball team is capable of.

You have no idea how far I’ve come as a fan since.

For the second spring in a row, I was able to stand in the sun on a Friday afternoon and watch as Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer and his legendary squad were honored by the city and its people.

Cowbells clanged and people stood in the streets cheering for their team. But in a day and age where so many issues divide us, it became clear that this team is much more than a group of talented student athletes.

The team is a unifier.

Throughout their MSU careers, this senior class has exemplified what it means to be ambassadors of Starkville, Mississippi. There’s constantly news of impropriety in college athletics, so the university should count itself lucky to have a civic-minded leader like Schaefer capable of developing a program and players that the community can be proud of.

If Schaefer decided on a career change and ran for Mississippi’s Third Congressional District this fall, he could not campaign and still win with 70 percent of the vote - all because of what he has done as an athletic and civic leader, working tirelessly as a representative of Mississippi to raise the profile of the university and city.

When I first came to Starkville in January 2017, I confess, I didn’t know who Vic Schaefer was and women’s college basketball was not on my radar. But just in my first few months, my perspective changed and I witnessed firsthand what this basketball program meant to the people of the city. And it’s no secret that excitement around the team has been sustained year-over-year.

Despite coming up short for the second-straight year in the NCAA Championship game, the team drew more community support than ever and carried the city’s emotions on its back all the way to Columbus, Ohio.

The support didn’t make ESPN’s Top Ten, but it’s worth mentioning.

So much of what this team has accomplished also seems to parallel the people of Starkville - the same people who nearly halfway filled Humphrey Coliseum to watch the National Championship game on a scoreboard.

This isn’t the biggest city, or perhaps the most cosmopolitan, but there is a dedicated drive in the people here, a determination to make others around the world know how great of a place Starkville can be.

Like the women’s basketball program, Starkville is just now realizing its potential, despite both communities being in a state that is constantly looked down on.

So much of the success boils down to work ethic, but oftentimes, hard work is out-shined by the bright lights and flashing cameras at game time. Life mirrors sports in the sense that the people in the trenches are often the last to get praise.

At the celebration ceremony on Friday, officials with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership buzzed around downtown, working with attendees, local law enforcement and city and university officials to make sure the event went off without a hitch.

Like our newspaper, the GSDP doesn’t have a massive team, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see energetic leaders like Scott Maynard, Jennifer Prather, Paige Watson and Hunter Harrington, rising to the occasion to see the city provide a celebration worthy of the team and its fans.

These folks really help guide the community in a positive direction and deserve credit for a successful week and weekend. After all, their hard work to close out the week came a day after downtown was packed for the Budweiser Clydesdales and on the eve of Super Bulldog Weekend and the Cotton District Arts Festival.

Like with watching basketball, when we enjoy ourselves, it can be easy to take for granted the effort that made it possible. People around the country may only catch postcard glimpses of Starkville on ESPN, but it is the community and its support that make these victories meaningful.

The loss to Notre Dame may still sting in a month or two, but in 20 years, the triumphant memories will surely outweigh the heartbreak.

Two years ago, I could count the number of women’s basketball games I had watched on one hand. Today, I can tell you exactly where I was sitting when Morgan William hit that game-winning shot to beat UConn in the Final Four.

It’s important we cherish these moments while we have them, not for the bragging rights or banners hanging in the coliseum, but the place it occupies in our memories - the people, the feelings, the wins and the losses.

I have no doubt we will have cause to celebrate for something related to MSU athletics in the future, but for the moment, we should reflect on what this team has done for the community in such a short time. It’s so much bigger than college basketball.

Again, I haven’t been here that long, but I feel qualified to say I’ve already seen Starkville at some of its most divided points in recent memory. But on Friday afternoon, what I witnessed was one community - young, old, rich, poor, black, white - celebrating its team … together.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper or its staff.