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Caitlyn Baggett shoots as sisters Ashlyn, left, and Allison look on. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)<br>

Caitlyn Baggett shoots as sisters Ashlyn, left, and Allison look on. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Gazzolo: All pieces in place for Cowgirls to take next step

Last Modified: Wednesday, November 07, 2012 6:10 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

It’s one thing to raise the bar, it’s another to clear it.

For the Cowgirls, the time is now to clear the bar.

After two of the most successful seasons in the program’s history, all the pieces are in place for another banner year.

It’s a fairly new tradition when it comes to hanging banners for women’s basketball at McNeese State, but the Cowgirls have grown to like it.

They will hang their second straight Southland Conference championship and NCAA tournament participation banners in Burton Coliseum later in the season.

Nice window dressing, earned from two winters worth of hard work and winning.

But that is the past. Now it is time for this program to take the next step.

“No, it’s not enough just to get there,” said senior Ashlyn Baggett. “We want to win.”

Her twin sister agrees.

“We want to do more,” said Catilyn Baggett. “We want to win the conference, make the tournament and we want to win a game. That is our goal.”

Lofty but suddenly within reach.

Five years ago this was all unthinkable. Not anymore.

Now, expectations are higher and not winning seems no longer to be an option.

“We want those expectations on us,” said head coach Brooks Donald Williams. “We want people looking at us like we are a good team, expecting us to win. I feel we have earned that.”

But more pressure does come with the wins.

“That’s fine,” said Ashlyn. “We want to be looked on as one of the good teams.”

Two years ago, the Cowgirls looked awe-struck when they were given the No. 15 seed and forced to play eventual national champion Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tourney. They were outclassed that night in Shreveport, as McNeese put up little fight and none in the opening minutes. It was a tough learning experience.

“We were not really ready then,” said Catilyn. “Last year we looked like we belonged.”

Given the No. 15 seed again last year, the Cowgirls lost to Kentucky only by six.

“We really felt like we could have won that game,” said Ashlyn.

No longer happy just to be invited to the party, McNeese State seems ready to try and wreck it.

“We welcome the hype, the expectations,” said Donald Williams. “The kids embrace the talk. It sure is better than five years ago.”

Back then nobody was talking McNeese women’s basketball.

Still, they have more people to convince.

Last year, the Cowgirls did what the NCAA asks all teams to do, play a tough nonconference schedule. They took on A&M, UCLA, LSU and even to-be crowned champ Baylor and All-America center Britney Grinder. While those outcomes were predictable, they were also more competitive than expected.

So how did the NCAA reward McNeese for doing what they asked and playing tough foes on the road, they gave the Cowgirls another 15 seed when they earned the SLC’s automatic berth once again.

“I think we deserved a better seed,” said Ashlyn.

Fair or unfair, this shows the amount of respect the Southland champ gets from the nation’s elite and the committee which runs the big show.

Instead of crying about the unjust seed, the Cowgirls went out and challenged SEC champ Kentucky, scaring the second-seeded Wildcats until the final few minutes.

Once again they are taking on the best around, opening Saturday at Vanderbilt.

Now, it is time for the Cowgirls to take the next big step and earn a higher seed. That way they can think about pulling off the upset and winning a postseason game.

It won’t be easy. Every loss will be treated rudely, every win expected by the seeding committee, which seems to pencil in the Southland champ in at No. 15 or 16 almost without considering the season it had or the talent it holds.

Little schools get even less love when it comes to the women’s game.

Upsets are even more rare.

Yet the Cowgirls have the toughness needed to ride over such troubles.

•••

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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