The Wichita State women’s basketball program is on the verge of forging a dynasty in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers have the best team, selected in the preseason as the class of the Valley. And the best player, preseason player of the year Alex Harden. WSU could become just the third program in the four-decade history of the conference to win at least three regular-season titles consecutively.
It took WSU seven seasons to approach this territory under coach Jody Adams, and that process isn’t about to end. Adams has rescued WSU from the cellar and turned the program into an annual contender, and with Adams re-upping her contract through the 2018-19 season, an end is not in sight.
“We talk a lot about the little things in the program, and it’s the little things that have gotten us to where we are today,” Adams said. “It hasn’t been one big bang, and ‘poof,’ here we are. It’s been over six years of hard work and building and instituting winning ways and the expectations that I have of this program.”
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When the veterans of this year’s team – seniors Kelsey Jacobs, Alex Harden, and Jamillah Bonner – entered the program, it was on the cusp of ascending to a winning program. They were taught how to build a program, and after mastering that, they graduated to learning how to maintain a program.
Along with being the best players, Jacobs, Harden, and Bonner are the team’s best leaders. Jacobs is easy to talk to and happy-go-lucky off the court. Bonner is fiery and intense, not afraid to yell to get her point across. And everyone respects Harden for the extraordinary things she does on the court, but also for the wisdom in which she speaks.
What this group accomplishes this season is only part of its legacy. They will be judged, long after they are gone, by how well the future seniors lead the program. It is Adams’ job to replenish the talent, but the program is built on senior leadership.
“The coaches are the mentors, not the leaders,” Adams said. “The team’s personality is shaped around their leader’s personality.”
Jacobs, Harden, Bonner, and junior Michaela Dapprich, the team’s steady foundation, are ready for the challenges of this season. Their task is to bring along six freshmen and sophomores to not just contribute this year, but to be leaders of the future.
“We have to make sure the underclassmen understand that they’re next,” Jacobs said. “When we’re gone, they are the program. I remember back when I was a freshman, and those seniors helped me grow up and now I’m trying to do the same thing. It’s a learning process.”
The talent level has increased, and the older players realize that. And they also realize that the way practices are conducted now are entirely different from their first two seasons.
Harden pointed out that before WSU had won two straight titles, all it had was its heart. It grinded until it had out-worked and out-competed every other team in the Valley.
“It’s just a different era now,” Harden said. “We expect excellence every day in practice. We don’t need the ups and downs to work on our effort. That’s something we never talk about anymore. That used to be the only thing we had when I first got here. But now expectations are in place and we practice like it.”
It’s unlikely another talent like Harden, who Adams says has the potential of producing an All-America season as a senior, comes through the program. That’s why there is an urgency to capitalize on her finale.
Wichita State has now been to the NCAA Tournament two seasons in a row. The first year, against Texas A&M, WSU was satisfied with the appearance. Last year, in a 62-56 loss to Penn State, the Shockers competed.
Now WSU has outgrown those expectations. Adams has set every record in program history imaginable in her first six seasons. The next step for the program is obvious.
“You want to go and you want to win,” Adams said. “We don’t want to just make an appearance in the top 64, we want to go there and win.”
When Harden graduates, WSU will lose the greatest player in program history. But Adams has a system in place to ensure the success won’t leave with her.
The expectations in which Adams operates her practices grooms the talent she recruits. Not only does she develop their physical skills, but every four-year player to go through Adams has turned out a better player, a smarter player, and a top-notch leader.
Talent will come and go, but as long as Adams stays a constant, so will the Shockers vying for Missouri Valley championships.
“I think this program is about more than just the Xs and Os,” Adams said. “You need more than just the Xs and Os to succeed. You need to be able to prepare your players to handle all sorts of decisions and choices, not only in basketball, but also in life. This program, to me, is more than just basketball. We’re grooming young ladies to be successful in life.”