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A tall climb to the top for Lady Eagles
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When you talk Southern Conference women’s basketball, there’s Chattanooga, and there’s everyone else.
The Lady Mocs have won eight of the last 10 SoCon titles, and when they get there, they finish — they’re 12-0 all-time in SoCon championship games.
As for the rest of the league, Georgia Southern has done its part, remaining in the mix at the top of the conference since joining with a splash in the form of back-to-back SoCon tournament titles in 1993 and 1994, and has remained consistent under head coach Rusty Cram, who was with the Lady Eagles six years prior as an assistant before taking over the reigns in 1996.
“The people that are still here from when I arrived (in 1996) are (facilities manager) Roger Inman, (athletic ticket manager) Kay Shuman and
Rusty Cram, and they all like to remind everybody of that,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker. “Rusty’s done a good job, and I think our program year-in and year-out is right there in the mix in the Southern Conference.”
The Lady Eagles never go down without a fight. They’re 21-16 in SoCon tournament play, and since Cram took over they’ve been eliminated in the first round only five times and made it to three title games.
The SoCon is considered a mid-major Division I conference. Not only does that status make it harder to get to the NCAA tournament — the league has never gotten a team in with an at-large bid — but it also makes it tough to go after the nation’s top recruits.
“That’s always been the case in the 20 years I’ve been here now,” Cram said, “and it’s just not going to change in the near future. That’s frustrating, because you go out and try to sell these kids, and they’re going to want to go somewhere where they’ve got a chance to go to the NCAA tournament — not one out of 11 or 12 chances — they want to go where they’ve got a one in four or five chances to go. Everybody wants to go to the Big Dance. As a coach, I do too. But that certainly makes it tough. You can go to the NIT, but it still doesn’t hold the same luster the NCAA tournament does.”
Another hindrance on recruiting is the home of the Eagles, GSU’s Hanner Fieldhouse, which was built as a $1.381 million renovation to the former Hanner Gym in 1969 and underwent a $500,000 renovation in 1996.
“To be honest, most of the kids play in better facilities,” said Cram. “Their dressing rooms are nicer than what we have here. That is a struggle when it comes to recruiting — I don’t make any bones about that — but (Baker) has made some super adjustments. He’s renovated just about all you can renovate when it comes to Hanner.”
And even with the facility’s drawbacks, the players learn the up-side once they take the floor.
“As a coach, I absolutely love coaching in Hanner,” Cram said about the 4,358-seat home court. “You can put 1,000 people in there and it sounds like 5,000. It makes for a great environment. But you can’t sell the kids, they’ve got to be able to go through that before they understand what you’re talking about as a coach.”
Besides, a new facility won’t be on the table any time soon.
“I think some day Hanner is going to have to be renovated, or a new one built for Georgia Southern. But the focus at the university — rightfully so — has been on the academic facilities,” Baker said.
“You get in line at the state. We needed to enlarge the library, we needed the new school of business, we needed the new school of education, we needed the new nursing facility.
“In our reclassification study we did with Rosser International, I believe the renovation of Hanner, to make it 6,500 seats, was going to be about $45 million. A new arena was going to be about $70 million I think it was, or maybe even $80 million. That’s a lot of money, and it takes a lot of debt service to pay that off, but certainly Georgia Southern is going to need that type of facility.”
Ultimately, when the recruits come to Statesboro, it’s the current Eagles that help make the sale.
“I think it’s up to the kids. That’s the bottom line,” said Cram. “We’ve got to sell (recruits) on other venues — the school itself, academics, the small community, the support we have, our winning tradition, where we finish in the league year-in and year-out — and the young ladies themselves. We’ve got to get them on campus. … If we can get them around our young ladies, that sells them about as much as anything that we have.”
Cram’s goals, like those of any coach, are conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances. But he’s got a more specific way of measuring the success of his program.
Cram explained that first and foremost, the focus is on academics. His players earn diplomas, and the team’s four-year Academic Progress Rate is 967 (984 in 2008-09), which is well above the NCAA requirement of 925.
He also wants to make sure his players have a four- or five-year experience college worth remembering, and that they compete to the best of their ability.
Cram’s Eagles have taken on Duke, Auburn, Colorado and Notre Dame in the last two seasons alone, with Alabama and Georgia among others on the 2010-11 slate, with the hope that games with high majors will help his team as it enters SoCon play.
“We’re going to give up four or five games a year to the majors because I’ll play anybody,” he said. “I just think that helps us down the stretch.”
Finally, Cram’s last measuring stick for success is health and physical fitness.
“Major Division I can get by with one or two injuries and still compete at their level,” he said. “At the mid-Division I level, one or two key injuries and your year’s gone. You’re just hanging on.”