Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
By Darren Hellwege
Correction: Sierra Michaelis is not the leading scorer in Missouri girls’ basketball history. KBIA Sports regrets the error.
It was something beautiful once. Something powerful. Then it all went so wrong. Getting it back is a major challenge, but the signs are there, more and more. Maybe, it could be back to what it once was.
Missouri women’s basketball wasn’t always a punching bag. Between 1984 and 1990, the Tigers won four regular season Big 8 championships, and under coach Joann Rutherford they won the conference postseason tournament five times. Rutherford, the 1980’s Big 8 Coach of the Decade, is now in the MU Athletics Hall of Fame.
When Rutherford hung up her whistle, Cindy Stein took over, and after one losing season, her program also saw a good deal of success. There were six winning seasons in the next eight years, including an upset over national power Georgia and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 2001.
Stein’s Tigers of ‘05-‘06 won 21 games and went to the NCAA tourney. The following season Mizzou lost in its first game of the WNIT.
Then, it all went sour.
The ‘07- ‘08 team was 2-14 in conference play. When the next team won four games in conference play, then only two the following year, Cindy Stein’s time at Mizzou was over.
RaeShara Brown, now a graduate assistant coach for the team, played for Stein from 2007 till the end. Brown said, “I know when I was a freshman and even before, watching on TV, it was a program that had a lot of good talent. We had the post players that had the skills, we had the guards that had the skills, and for one reason or another be it chemistry issues or game plan issues, we just couldn’t put it together.”
It was time for a change.
Coach Robin Pingeton, squatting, during a 2013 game.
Cue Robin Pingeton. As the coach at Illinois State, she had seen this kind of struggling program. Prior to her arrival at Illinois State, the team had averaged six wins a year in the previous four seasons. In her time there, the Redbirds won two Missouri Valley postseason tournaments, and took the Valley regular season crown three times in seven years.
Pingeton knew building a winner at Mizzou would be hard. “I don’t know unless you’re in that locker room and on that court if people really realize where this program was. That’s not to throw anyone under the bus, it just wasn’t in a very good spot. There’s also not a really strong history here, there were some good years but it’s not that storied tradition. So there’s a lot to build and a lot of work to do.”
Pingeton has a plan. Even as the losses pile up, she has not wavered in her confidence. It is going to work. She has the support for a loyal group of assistants (her entire staff came over from Illinois State, a very unusual move and a strong statement of the faith they have in one another) and the Missouri players bought in.
Brown said the players knew right away that Pingeton and her coaching staff of Randy Norton, Willie Cox and Jenny Putnam should be listened to. “They had won championships in the Missouri Valley. You know, winning championships in any conference is not easy.”
“They brought that atmosphere over to Mizzou, teaching players how to embrace the game not just physically but mentally, the amount of time away from the gym,” Brown said. “Getting girls to really buy in, that emotional investment. When you see that, day in and day out, you want to play harder. That’s what sets Coach P apart, she invests everything she has into this team.”
It’s not something that happens overnight. Pingeton’s first two Missouri teams had identical 13-18 records. But you could see changes in attitude, atmosphere. Few may have noticed, but some of us knew—this program’s getting better.
This year — her third —was a tough time to expect much. Playing with six freshmen in a new league isn’t a typical recipe for success on a grand level. The preseason media poll picked the Tigers to finish just a few points out of last place, and they only avoided the basement because of the train wreck Mississippi basketball had become, losing their coach and a top transfer just days before the season started. And even then, some thought they’d be in the cellar. One magazine said that Missouri finishing anywhere but dead last was “a pipedream.”
This year’s Tigers won 17 games, and went a surprising 6-10 in conference play, and the future looks even brighter. Only 32 percent of this team’s scoring came from seniors Sydney Crafton, Liene Priede and Liz Smith. An awful lot of talent returns. The three players named to individual awards by the SEC this week — All-Conference player Bri Kulas, Sixth Woman awardee Morgan Eye and All-Freshman team selection Lianna Doty — all return next year.
Pingeton sets the bar high, but still is proud of what’s been accomplished this year. “I do think we’ve made some giant strides. I don’t want to say we’re ahead of schedule, because my expectations are so high, but some really positive things happened this year. And it’s not like we’re in year three in the Big 12, we’re in the first year in a new league. This was a great year for us.”
This year has been wildly unpredictable. The Tigers lost to some pretty bad teams, like Mississippi State and Memphis, and only beat last place Ole Miss by a point. The same team beat traditional power Florida, and got a solid win over No. 13 South Carolina.
Then, there’s the Lady Vols. Traditional powerhouse Tennessee destroyed the Tigers 84-39 in Knoxville. Then just weeks later, the Tigers shocked the basketball world by taking down the Yankees of women’s basketball by 23 points.
The inconsistency is a sign of dynamic change. There are bigger things coming for Tiger hoops. One sign is recruiting. It’s been a major challenge bringing in top recruits to a program that plays in front of small crowds and had a winning season in years. That Pingeton has signed a class like this year’s is a sign that people are seeing that times are changing.
Sierra Michaelis is the type of player who’s left the state instead of playing at Mizzou. Michaelis isn’t just the top scorer in Missouri high school history; she led her Mercer High School club to three consecutive undefeated regular seasons.
While Texas A&M won a national championship with a roster anchored by Missourians and even Tennessee has a Kansas City area star, the state’s top players are no longer snubbing the Tigers. Rock Bridge sophomore Sophie Cunningham — named female high school athlete of the year by the Columbia Tribune — has already given Pingeton a verbal commitment.
Add in Illinois all-stater Jordan Frericks and Cincinnati’s Kayla McDowell and you have a serious recruiting class, something Missouri’s not had in an awful lot of years. Brown said the recent success has a lot to do with that.
“Especially with girls, they’re less likely to take a step out on a team that hasn’t done much in the past. Men think they’re going to turn a program around single-handedly. I think it’s important for girls to have that trust, and have that re-assurance that they’re stepping into a program and a coaching staff that’s taking a program somewhere, and we’re starting to see the results of that here.”
And the success on the court is only part of it. It’s hard to find better facilities, Missouri is an outstanding academic institution, and young players respond positively to this coaching staff, including the youngest member, RaeShara Brown.
“She is so valuable. She knows how challenging times were for this program, and she sees the growth here.”
All signs points up. Take a roster already full of stars like all-SEC performer Bri Kulas, the nation’s top 3-point sharpshooter in Morgan Eye, and two great point guards in Kyley Simmons and Lianna Doty and add in considerable depth and that strong recruiting class, and there is every reason to believe that there are exciting times ahead for those who follow Missouri women’s basketball.
And as these brighter days come to Mizzou , how do the players from the past, like RaeShara Brown view the change?
“We’re loving seeing this thing. Mizzou will always be a part of us, when they go somewhere in the future, we can say I left some blood, sweat and tears at that school. I can’t wait till we get to that point where Mizzou’s a strong contender. I can’t wait”