McNeese State basketball standouts Ashlyn, left, and Caitlyn Baggett. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
Last Modified: Friday, March 01, 2013 7:19 PM
Today marks the final home game for twins Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett, but their impact on the McNeese State women’s basketball program will continue to be measured well beyond the final horn.
There’s still more season to be played, of course — two regular-season road games and the Southland Conference tournament, not to mention what could come after.
But even when all those games are done, the Baggett legacy won’t be.
It can be found on the sideline with a coach who took over a floundering program with a plan to build it around a twin backcourt.
It can be found in the rafters, with banners hanging for back-to-back conference tournament championships — banners that may still earn more company, not to mention the numbers 10 and 11.
It can be found in the Burton Coliseum stands, where a community has come to support women’s basketball after treating it as less than an afterthought.
It can especially be found in the school record book, where you’ll only find the Baggett name if you look somewhere near the top. Ashlyn is the program’s No. 2 all-time scorer and Caitlyn is third. Ashlyn is the all-time 3-point leader, while Caitlyn has distributed more assists than anyone else to wear the Cowgirls uniform.
These things will live on, even if the journey is coming to a close. And what a journey it has been.
Brooks Donald Williams wasn’t even McNeese State’s head coach when Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett became her top priority.
She was driving from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Lake Charles for a job interview with a clear vision in mind for turning nothing into something.
“One of the first people I called driving down here was Stan Baggett,” Donald Williams said. “I said, ‘If I get this job, I want your girls coming with me. I can’t do this by myself. I want to do it, and I want to do something special with our Louisiana girls and build from there.’ ”
Though Donald Williams knew what she wanted, selling a 4-25 program to a pair of seniors who recently completed a 43-0 high school season at Iota took a whole lot of trust.
“We were very honest,” Donald Williams said. “We told them, ‘It’s in bad shape. We’ve got to work together to build it.’ ”
The Baggetts bought into it.
“Coach made us believe. She got us on board,” Caitlyn said. “We really felt we could come over here and contribute to conference championships and a winning program.”
“What really got us is when we saw other players like us being recruited here,” Ashlyn said. “It made everything she said feel like it was going to come true.”
With the Baggett twins in tow, the expectations and excitement for Donald Williams’ second season far exceeded her first game as coach.
“We had maybe 65 people here, including both teams,” Donald Williams said of her coaching debut.
The twins put up good numbers for first-year players — Ashlyn averaged 10.7 points per game and Caitlyn 8.4 — and McNeese moved toward respectability with a 14-16 record.
But the expectations wore on the sisters. Playing the college game, not to mention for a coach who wasn’t their dad, felt worlds different than basketball as they knew it.
“It’s just so different from high school. It’s more of a job,” Donald Williams said. “They came into a program that was not very strong at the time. We were trying to set the bar, and I think they questioned things as most freshmen do. And there have been very few times where they haven’t been successful. I think that was hard on them and their competitive nature.”
When the season ended, the Baggetts decided they were done. All that promise was going to flame out after one year as they left the program to become plain-old college students.
The twins regret quitting, but recognize that it became a blessing in disguise.
“At the time I regretted it a lot,” Ashlyn said. “But I’m kind of grateful for it because it made me love basketball again and play with a lot of passion. But I regret quitting. I wouldn’t suggest anyone doing that, ever.”
The year without a Baggett was rough. The Cowgirls regressed to 7-22. The program went from steaming ahead to steaming toward the edge of a cliff.
But midway through the 2009-10 season, Ashlyn realized she wanted to be part of the team again. Donald Williams welcomed her, though a health scare kept Ashlyn in warm-up gear as she awaited medical clearance.
Caitlyn was back, too, though only watching her former teammates from the stands and occasionally doing her homework during timeouts.
Never one to be separated from her twin for long, Caitlyn rejoined the team in the offseason.
The table was set for history.
Some players might not accept the return of two teammates who walked away from them a year before. Donald Williams said that wasn’t the case for the Baggetts, who worked hard to regain the respect of their peers.
“They came back so humble and so fired up,” Donald Williams said. “It made them better players. It made them appreciate the game so much more, and it was fun to see them love it again so much. They just had grown up so much and earned every bit of respect they got.”
With chemistry issues nonexistent, the Baggetts came out of their off-year with a vengeance and helped orchestrate the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA history.
McNeese won 19 more games than in 2010, finishing 15-1 in league play and following it with the conference tournament crown to send the Cowgirls to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Last year’s journey was different, with a pair of losses against Central Arkansas keeping the Cowgirls from defending their regular-season crown. But McNeese turned it on again in the postseason, winning the conference tournament for a second consecutive NCAA berth.
This season hasn’t looked anything like the previous two as the Baggetts are surrounded by a younger, mostly inexperienced cast. There have been unexpected and almost inexplicable losses to the likes of Northwestern State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Yet somehow the Cowgirls are back within a game of first place and in two weeks could find themselves in the same position that they’ve been in the past two years.
“It’s kind of great the way the team comes together at the end (of the season),” Caitlyn said. “Each season has been a different experience with different pressure. It’s a different journey to get to the point where we are now, but it’s equally exciting. I’m looking forward to the postseason just seeing what our team has in store.”
Part of this year’s new feel comes from playing with their younger sister, Allison, for the first time ever. It wasn’t even mathematically possible until the twins redshirted a year, and wasn’t going to happen until Allison backed out of a commitment to Louisiana-Lafayette because of a coaching change.
“It’s been so fun to play with them just for one year,” Allison said. “It’s been awesome to learn from them and now to get to play with them. Everything happens for a reason, and obviously this is one of the biggest cases of that.”
Their own freshman trials and tribulations have allowed Ashlyn and Caitlyn to guide Allison and the rest of her classmates on how to handle things.
It’s just one more way the Baggett legacy will live on.
“The advice I would offer to any freshman at any program in any sport is that it’s going to be very tough,” Ashlyn said. “You’re going to want to give up many times. But as soon as you get over that hump everything gets much better, and it’s fun. That’s the hardest part. Once you get over that, it’s smooth sailing.”