IU women embrace role models to grow the program

BLOOMINGTON — Mackenzie Holmes has as gentle a left turn to the basket as any player in women’s college basketball, but she signs autographs with her right hand.

She could have almost as much opportunity to live ambidextrous if she wanted to, because after every home game, Indiana University players meet with the public to make friends and influence people in the best Dale Carnegie style.

After the Hoosiers’ recent home win over Bowling Green, Holmes, a 6-foot-3 All-Star senior Maine forward, 6-5 backup junior center Arielle Wisne and 5-10 senior guard Sara Scalia, sat a transfer from Minnesota at a table in the lobby of the meeting hall and scribbled their signatures on 8½ x 11 card stock team photos or anything else they were given for their permanent markers.

There were maybe 100 people in line, families, couples, lots of teenage girls and young ladies in their early teens looking up to the college players literally and figuratively. Some were dressed in souvenir versions of the famous IU warm-up routine with candy strips.

“We were all little once,” Holmes said. Some of the little ones dressed up as IU basketball players, almost like Halloween. “Those are my favourites.”

These meet-the-fans sessions are part of Teri Moren’s overall strategy. The nine-year-old coach from Seymour has managed the best Indiana women’s teams in history, including the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen, who finished at the NCAA tournament in the past two years.

Moren’s long-term goal, however, is to build a high-performing program of enduring impact. While on-pitch results are important, like the 5-0 start for this team of 2022-23, adding a follower to the fan base at a time is essential to that bigger picture.

Moren said part of their recruitment process involves finding quality student athletes who are also happy to represent the school off the court.

“There is no question that there is a responsibility to be a role model,” Moren said.

To them, it’s no different than the officer and gentleman phrase.

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The trio smiled when told they were celebrities.

Scalia came to IU from the University of Minnesota, already a touted Big Ten 3-point shooter. She said the Gophers didn’t sign autographs, but because she’s from Stillwater, 25 miles from Minneapolis, everyone knew her. Sometimes, as she walked around, she would be asked to write her name down. But this was different.

“Oh, that’s fun,” Scalia said as IU fans filed past the single row of tables. One older fan expressed his delight that Scalia is now a Hoosier by noting, “You killed us in Minnesota.”

This was Holmes Scalia Wisne autograph day. A few days later, Grace Berger and Alyssa Geary were on the schedule. On the other hand it was a different group. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire team stayed on the pitch after the game to meet fans, but when distancing protocols went into effect, that approach was shelved and replaced with this plan.

Megan Kramper, IU’s deputy director of communications, said “the same people” can be regulars at the tables because youngsters want to collect autographs from everyone.

Sisters Carmen Van Rooy, 11, and Kendall Van Rooy, 9, from Bloomington are among those devotees, regular visitors, Kendall wearing the Indiana-style red and white pants. What would you do with the autographs?

“Hang her up,” Carmen said.

Same plan for Abby Howell and Izzy Howell, both 13, also regulars with their parents, all decked out in Indiana red. The Howells show signatures on a wall at home.

Some young fans already know players from attending IU women’s basketball camps in hopes of daydreaming that they will one day compete for the Hoosiers.

That’s what went through Wisne’s mind when she was younger in Colorado, only that she followed Notre Dame because her father played soccer and mother swam for the Irish.

“Oh sure, I like seeing the youngsters,” Wisne said.

Not everyone who asked for autographs was a youth. Irene Tsakopoulos, a student from Munster, had never attended a women’s basketball game in Indiana, only men’s games. She had a friend who was planning on watching a movie at home but decided on the Bowling Green game at the last minute.

She was amazed by what she saw on the pitch and admitted she never realized how good the women are.

“They are good,” Tsakopoulos said emphatically. “I will come back here for many more games.”

Harry McCammon, 78, of Bloomington asked the players to sign the back of his red IU women’s basketball jersey, also on his way to rally them all.

McCammon was half embarrassed to voice his legacy as a Purdue graduate cheering for the Boilermaker men. Still, he was seduced by Berger’s play into IU women’s root and recently graduated from Ali Patberg.

“Ali and Grace made me fall in love with IU women’s basketball,” McCammon said. “These women have conquered my heart.”

Winning hearts and minds is part of the Moren plan.

recruit role models

The players understand the purpose of the performances. They are the granddaughters of Title IX. The legislation that brought more equality for high school girls and college women to the sports world in the United States turned 50 in 2022.

Many are aware that their own older relatives did not have the same opportunities to play sports, travel first class or train in first class facilities.

Kramper said new rules that allow collegiate athletes to benefit financially from their name, image and likeness could complicate the future of these events. NCAA rules now allow players to charge for autographs. Although Indiana recently announced that an anonymous donor gave $1 million to the school to fund athlete NIL, Kramper said no basketball player has raised the issue.

“We want to do that,” Wisne said.

Moren wants women on her team who want to get involved in image enhancement with the people who want to applaud them and yes, be role models for the community.

IU recruits not only talent but also character, Moren said, even paying attention to how young women interact with their parents on campus visits.

“Character is at the top of the list,” Moren said. “It is possible to find good players with character. I feel like they want these kids to look up to them and I want them to be (worthy) of being looked up to.”

Penmanship counts

Alongside Berger, Holmes is the most well-known player on the team. Popular in this environment, she’s not rock star enough to walk around campus between classes, although she’s sometimes recognized in public.

At school or at a local restaurant, this ranges from “Hi, how are you?”. said Holmes.

Despite being left-handed on the pitch, Holmes said she was right-handed. The other big thing Holmes does with a left hold is eat.

However, Holmes does not sign autographs with his left hand.

“It’s not a skill that I developed,” she said, saying that she can really do most things with her left hand. OK, she probably could.

To advance the line, Holmes could then start writing with both hands, doubling the fan experience.