Team hopes to win back fans, fame

J. Michael Moore

One year ago, Lady Topper basketball was filled with smiles. The promised land was on the horizon again. The history of a decade ago, would be the toast of the present.

Then the season started.

Dreams crashed in a tirade of arguments and finger pointing – the cornerstones of a disappointing 16-14 record.

The one-year coaching era of Shawn Campbell ended with empty promises and disgruntled fans, leaving Mary Taylor Cowles some work when she was introduced as head coach in March.

Cowles, a former Lady Topper and fixture on former coach Steve Small’s staff, admits there’s work to be done. But the rebirth of success on the Hill has all ready taken root.

The players are responding and the disappointments from last year are fading into the back pages of Western legend.

“Lady Topper basketball is bigger than one individual,” Cowles said. “Whether it’s one coach or one player, this program will go on. Too much pride, too much sweat, too many tears, too much time and too much work has been put in this program.”

“The past is in the past.”

Cowles resigned as Campbell’s director of basketball operations midway though the 2001-02 season.

She expected never to return to the Hill.

She watched from afar as the season festered. But now, given a chance to right the ship, she doesn’t think about yesterday.

“I don’t think about what happened in the past,” she said. “I can’t think about the past, because it’s just that. It’s in the past. We’re focusing on the future.”

Her players say they don’t dwell on last year either, but feel a definite change in the atmosphere around the program.

“I think all of us girls are more at ease this year,” junior guard Leslie Logsdon said. “We know we’re not going to get cussed out every single day. It’s a more relaxing environment to be in.”

Under Cowles, tradition and pride are stressed above the individual, positives more than mistakes.

“When the coaches were here 10 years ago, Western was a powerhouse,” senior forward Shala Reese said. “Over the years, it has gone down, and last year I think it was rock bottom.”

Campbell, now an assistant women’s basketball coach at Kent State, refused to comment at length about last season. His concise statement was emblematic of the team’s approach – moving on.

“I just want to wish the girls and the university the best,” Campbell said.

X’s, O’s, and $’s

Kristina Covington laughed when asked about differences between the two coaching philosophies.

“We’re more hungry for the victories,” said Covington, a senior guard. “The thing that’s making us different from last year is our coaches are eager and excited. That makes us eager and excited for the season. I think Mary’s ready and wants the fans back. That makes us ready and want the fans back.”

Cowles knows she and the team needs them.

It was not uncommon last year for longtime season ticket holders to leave games, mostly due to Campbell’s aggressive sideline coaching antics – his foul language was often questioned.

Cowles said those fans need to be won back.

“They love their Lady Toppers,” Cowles said. “Our fans are so committed to our women’s basketball team.

“That’s the type of support that I grew up with at Western Kentucky and that’s what I want to see coming back to Diddle Arena.”

Her quest to win over supporters began as soon as she got the job, mostly with her mere presence.

She hopes longtime fans who watched her as a player will come back to support her as a coach.

And with the program apparently back on the right heading, other fans could make a quick return after last season’s exodus.

“Win or lose, some of the fans will always be there,” Cowles said. “Sure, some people have left the program over the last however many years … I hope my enthusiasm, as well as the rest of the staff and players, can ignite some additional enthusiasm from the community.”

Western has committed to aiding that enthusiasm. Soon after Cowles was hired, the Lady Topper Basketball Enhancement Fund was created, aiming to raise $500,000 for women’s basketball in five years. Its purpose was to give a monetary vote of confidence to the program.

Cowles got her vote. Two weeks ago, Mike and Belle Hunt donated $175,000 to the fund, pushing it well over the halfway point in less than a year.

And Cowles has hit the road on several speaking engagements rallying further support for the team. Her players are taking notice. Covington said she can feel a life force coming back to the program.

“I think the fans are questioning (the new season),” she said. “But they’re excited.”

Return to prominence

Cowles was on the road for 17 of the 21 days allowed by the NCAA to recruit in September – with some success. She said about 10 athletes have expressed “serious interest” in Western. The team will have eight scholarships to give next season.

According to Cowles, recruiting is where the real steps can be made in returning the program to prominence.

“People are going to have to understand that it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “Nothing happens overnight when you’re trying to build something that you’re hoping is going to last for a long time.”

Even with all the contemplation, work and talk, the coach strives every day to keep her squad’s eye on the ball.

The Lady Toppers have been picked to finish second in the East Division of the Sun Belt. Covington, Logsdon and Reese have all been selected as preseason all-conference.

Statistically, the team is no slouch.

Immediate success may be more viable than some think.

And if the Lady Toppers make it to the conference championship, it will be in a familiar setting, with the conference tournament being played in Diddle Arena.

The goal is to win the tournament outright and know where the team stands on NCAA Selection Sunday.

The Sun Belt created a theme for the tournament: “11 will come, one will survive.”

Survival may become particularly key if only one team gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And that’s the goal for these new-look Lady Toppers.

But win or lose, Western has a couple things that no one thought could be present after last season – confidence and unity.

“The girls know when push comes to shove, and the odds are against us, we better be holding hands,” Cowles said.