Mié. Abr 17th, 2024


FORT WORTH, Texas — Mark Campbell was off to a charmed start. In his first season at TCU — and just third season overall as a head coach — his makeover was an instant hit, taking over a team that finished 1-17 in the Big 12 the year before and leading them to a 14-0 start and the longest winning streak in school history.

Then over the course of a few weeks in January, several of Campbell’s high-profile transfers who led the Frogs to a No. 23 national ranking were injured, and the streaking team found itself seeking merely to survive.

Star center Sedona Prince, an Oregon transfer who was the only player in the country averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game, broke a finger. Guard Madison Conner, who arrived from Arizona and was averaging 22.4 points per game, injured her MCL in practice. Point guard Jaden Owens, who transferred from Baylor and was third nationally in total assists, suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee during a Jan. 13 game, ending her college career.

Freshmen Victoria Flores and Jade Clack, who signed with the previous coaching staff, were two of the scholarship players who were still available, but Flores was coming off a knee injury that forced her to miss her entire senior year of high school. And Clack, meanwhile, has played only double-digit minutes in three games this year, all since the rash of injuries.

«Everyone’s thinking, someone in the universe doesn’t like us, someone’s out to get TCU,» grad transfer guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu said, laughing. «You can either cry, or you can laugh about it.»

TCU had to forfeit two games due to a shortage of players.

So how did we get here? Campbell began the season with 14 scholarship players. He doesn’t discuss injuries, but four players were either injured before the season opener or during nonconference play and another has been unavailable all season, bringing them to 10 available bodies for the beginning of the season. Then the injuries in January culled the completely healthy players down to barely a starting five.

To stay afloat for the final two months of the season, Campbell had to find players from the student body who wanted to rearrange their lives to go all-in on college basketball. And he’d have to do so by mining the second-smallest student body (12,785 students) in the Power 5, behind only Wake Forest. And quickly.

But the logistics weren’t easy. And anyone who committed to help couldn’t expect much in return. Except for a complete, nearly instantaneous change in their every-day lives.

SIX MONTHS EARLIER, Piper Davis arrived at TCU from Boise after leading her high school to a state championship. The daughter of Jarrod Davis, a former All-WAC guard at Gonzaga who averaged 18.2 points per game in his career, she acknowledged bypassing the opportunity to continue her basketball career at a smaller school was hard. But she had her mind set on coming to TCU to major in business and graphic design alongside her brother, who came to Fort Worth at the same time.

When she heard about the team’s situation, she sent an article about it to her dad, who gave her the most fatherly of advice. Just march over to the basketball offices, he said, introduce yourself to the coaching staff and offer to help however you can.

She did just that and was told by an administrative assistant that the coaches were actually in the midst of posting flyers around school about open tryouts. She decided to show up.

So did about 50 other students. TCU announced the tryouts on social media at 2:53 p.m. on Jan. 17, with the events scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. on the following two days. Prospects had to be full-time students and sign up with assistant coach Jesse Craig by email by 4 p.m. on the day of their tryout. They had to come with a pre-participation physical already completed by the TCU health center. And they had to have high school basketball experience. It was a scramble: Campbell said one student even had her old basketball shoes overnighted by her parents.

The tryouts were an undertaking, described by Campbell as an «all hands on deck» operation by the TCU athletic department. Social media and sports information staffers had to get the word out. The health center did all the physicals. The compliance office had to make sure students had NCAA eligibility. Then, finally, the coaching staff had to put them through their paces and do some homework. Anyone they thought was promising still had to go through vetting, with coaches calling players’ high school coaches to make sure they’d be a good fit.

Right off the bat, there was a ringer of sorts. Sophomore Sarah Sylvester, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker on TCU’s volleyball team who holds the school record for the most blocks in a three-set match with 13, expressed interest. She obviously had the size and athletic ability and knew the rigors of college athletics. Still, she had to broach the subject with her coach, Jason Williams, who ended up being so enthusiastic about the opportunity that he attended the tryout to watch her. For Sylvester, who was a two-time All Catholic High School league player in Livonia, Michigan, it was one last chance to play the sport she had to give up to keep playing volleyball.

«I haven’t played in so long so I wasn’t sure what my game would look like or how much I really remember,» she said. «Would it come back naturally, or would I have to really think about things? There were a little bit of nerves or uneasiness going in, but it was fine once I got out there.»

Sylvester was in, becoming the first dual-sport athlete at TCU in the Big 12 era. But Campbell still needed more players, just to be able to practice 5-on-5. The Frogs found three uniquely qualified candidates.

There was Davis, who went to the rec center the day before tryouts for a couple of hours, just to get the feel again. Campbell put her at ease, she said, telling her to treat it like a really good workout.

«At tryouts I was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna really compete, just leave it all out there and then see where it goes,'» she said.

Mekhayia Moore, a sophomore, led Brownsboro High School in East Texas to its first state championship and was named the game’s MVP. But she had other plans. She was salutatorian of her class and didn’t want to pursue college athletics, choosing to focus on her pre-med major after earning a prestigious full-ride Chancellor’s scholarship to TCU. She hadn’t heard about the tryouts until her high school coaches started texting her, imploring her to get back on the court.

Ella Hamlin, another freshman, was a star at Granbury High School about 40 miles from Fort Worth. She had offers to play in college for a handful of small schools but opted to move on and study nursing at TCU.

«I was sad, but I was ready,» she said.

But once the opportunity came, each felt the pull, the chance to wear their school’s uniform, be a part of a team and jump into the fire.

«It’s just refreshing to see how hard they work. … We’re here on scholarship. We are reaping the benefits from this, but they just want to help out.»

Senior starter Agnes Emma-Nnopu on TCU’s walk-ons

The chance doesn’t come without sacrifices. The new players weren’t getting athletic scholarships. And they’d have to give up their free time and overhaul their class schedules, with Moore, the future doctor, having to drop out of all her STEM classes except for one this semester. Still, when she spoke to her academic adviser, she was encouraged to go for it.

«The classes will be there in the future,» Moore’s adviser told her. «This opportunity won’t.»

Now, all of a sudden, these three students who had been watching and attending TCU basketball games found themselves being issued team gear. Moore, the only one of the three walk-ons who was on campus last season, had followed along during the 8-23 finish with just one conference win, and had been excited watching this season.

«I was so happy when they were undefeated,» Moore said. «Then all of a sudden, I’m on the team.»

Being part of a major college athletics program isn’t congruous with everyday college life. Davis’ entire life changed, down to her wardrobe.

«I had classes from 8 a.m. to 12, then I had the rest of the day off,» she said. «Now I have practice from 8 to 12 and class 12 to 6. Even the things I was wearing changed. I’m in a sorority, so I was kind of dressing up. Now I’m wearing sweats and sweatshirts around campus.»

Even a scholarship athlete like Sylvester had to adjust. The constant sprinting required for basketball isn’t a part of volleyball. Adjusting to new, specialized training was a challenge for everybody.

«You can jog all you want,» Moore said. «Basketball is different.»

Campbell knew the walk-ons were making a massive adjustment. He had sympathy and appreciation for the players he was now leaning on to help him.

«These are kids that go get Chicken Express for lunch and Starbucks and do their homework,» Campbell said. «They’re not in major college basketball shape. Even as we’re trying to onboard them, it’s like holy cow, they went and did a lift and they can barely lift their arms the next day because they haven’t lifted in years. So it was this stressful, comical, crazy, wild, midyear thing that just got thrust upon us that you can’t prepare for.»

Five days after learning they’d made the team, all four found themselves sitting on the bench against UCF, a twisted ankle away from being thrown into the fire. Sylvester got into the game, entering to a raucous ovation from the crowd and playing one minute at the end of the third quarter.

«There were a lot of emotions coming all at once,» Sylvester said. «I’m locked into the game and ready to do what my job is going to be at that time. But there’s also a lot of exciting emotions that come from the crowd being so, so loud and excited.»

TCU pulled off a 66-60 win in a memorable experience for all the newcomers. Still, they’re fine if their time to shine never comes.

«We haven’t played basketball in a minute, and this is a D-I program. If somebody’s on the ground for too long, I’m just like, ‘You gotta get up!'» Moore said, laughing.

«It’s very nerve-wracking,» Hamlin added. «Every foul, we get a little nervous. But I think we’re all actually excited.»

Sophomore Sydney Harris, who was one of the players coming off an offseason injury and is now playing a major role, said she can feel the presence of the walk-ons.

«They bring energy,» Harris said. «I mean, they’re like the happiest people ever. Sometimes we’re not the most excited to go do a big heavy lift and they’re the ones who are like, ‘Come on!'»

The entire team has taken the walk-ons under its wing and tried to get them up to speed. Campbell’s style, along with his assistants, has been focused on positivity, teaching and getting back to basics.

«This is the hand we’re dealt and gosh dang it, this group’s making the best of it,» he said.

The spirit of the newcomers has impressed longtime players such as Emma-Nnopu, who’s playing the most minutes of her career. Because of basketball, she left her native Australia to earn a neuroscience degree from Stanford before using a grad transfer year at TCU. She’s amazed at the sacrifices the new players are making.

«It’s just refreshing to see how hard they work,» she said. «They’re not getting anything, per se, from this. They just want to help their school. It gives a lot of insight to the girls. We’re here on scholarship. We are reaping the benefits from this, but they just want to help out.»

CAMPBELL KNEW HE was in for a wholesale makeover when he left Sacramento State for TCU. He spent his entire playing and coaching career west of the Rockies, where he became known as one of the nation’s best recruiters. As an assistant at Oregon, he led the recruitment of stars like Prince, Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard. He took over a 3-22 team at Sacramento State and in his second year went 25-8, won the Big Sky and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

But when Owens and Prince were lost, TCU’s big ambitions had to be paused. After all the other injuries mounted, Campbell made the decision to forfeit two big games against ranked teams and go on the hunt for reinforcements. But after finding help, Campbell had to retool his entire coaching style. With a guard-heavy lineup and no center, he installed a new five-out, perimeter-based small-ball offense he didn’t even know, much less had ever coached.

«Sedona Prince is one of the top-10 centers in college basketball,» Campbell said. «Jaden Owens was top five in the country in assists, and Madison Conner was torching it. And then you go from that to teaching four walk-ons that hadn’t played basketball in a couple of years. This is how you defend a pick-and-roll. This is how you defend the post. So it has been a very challenging time.

«At the same time, it has been really refreshing and fun to get to do that. I started off this whole journey as a junior college coach. It literally brought me back to that level of teaching. Now, it’s not normal that you do it in the middle of the season. I think that’s the part that’s crazy.»

In that first game back against UCF with the new offense and the new additions, TCU scored its most first-half points in a game this season and was able to grind out an unlikely win. Campbell said in his 17 years of coaching, including a run at Oregon that included being the No. 1 team in the country for nearly an entire season, making a Final Four and beating Team USA, it was as big of a win as he’s ever been a part of.

«We celebrated when that buzzer went off,» he said. «We were jumping and hugging, like we had just punched our ticket to March Madness.»

Campbell found himself live on ESPN from his office after the game.

«I didn’t have going on ‘SportsCenter’ on my bingo card this season,» Campbell said. «I still hadn’t even shaved. I’m not sleeping trying to manage all this. And I go on ‘SportsCenter’ but it’s a five-minute special on all the adversity in our journey and how we’ve overcome it. That’s something you can’t script.»

The «underfrogs» were stars.

AFTER A FEW weeks of rigorous practices, the shock might have worn off for Davis, but the awe hasn’t.

«I follow Sedona on TikTok, and now I share a locker room with her,» she said, almost incredulously, of her teammate with 2.7 million followers.

In practice, the walk-ons are sharing a court with not only Prince, but also Hebard, the former Oregon star who was the No. 8 overall pick in the WNBA draft. She’s a part-time assistant for Campbell and serves as one of the best scout-team players in the world.

Campbell said he appreciates the perspective his new players have brought. It makes him realize the things about his job that he takes for granted.

When TCU went to play Texas Tech, the walk-ons were stunned that they rode a bus to the tarmac at a private airport and took a jet to Lubbock.

«The plane was insane,» Hamlin said. «I knew we were flying, but I was not expecting private.»

The walk-ons’ main role is to push the others in practice, giving them a chance to play 5-on-5 for the first time in weeks. They’ve done that well. But that doesn’t mean the real games have been particularly easy.

Since the UCF win, the Frogs have lost five straight. In three of the losses — to Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma — the Frogs were giving opponents all they could handle until the last three or four minutes of the game. Then they ran out of gas. But Campbell knows that’s an unusual limitation the team will have to make peace with this season.

«Max out the talent that this group has,» he said of his goals for the team after the loss to the Jayhawks, where Kansas closed the game on a 13-5 run. «We know we’re gonna get some pieces back along this journey. But we’ve got to be a better team than we were when we lost them. … That’s all we can control.»

Maybe the wins aren’t there, but Campbell feels the experience will serve TCU well when the Big 12 tournament rolls around, with Prince and Conner expected to return by season’s end.

«I still believe that on the back end of this thing as you get the players back from the injury list, we still have a chance to make a magical, special run even after all of this adversity and stuff that’s unfolded,» he said.

For now, season’s end could also wrap up each of the new players’ TCU basketball careers. Sylvester said her focus will remain on volleyball going forward, though she said she’s learned a lot about leadership from some of the megastars on the basketball team that she hopes she can take back with her.

Moore said she’s likely to go back to focusing on her pre-med studies. But Hamlin and Davis are leaving the door open.

«I just want to help in any way I can right now and just see what happens,» Hamlin said.

«I just want to do my best for the girls that are injured that can’t play themselves,» Davis said. «For now, I want to help these girls get some wins under their belt.»

Campbell compared TCU’s current plight to scores of iconic sports movies, featuring tales of scrappy underdogs who overcome long shot odds and believes that’s why it’s captured so much attention. The four played two minutes each together late in games last week against Texas and Oklahoma, with rival fans of the Longhorns and Sooners giving them a hearty cheer when they entered the game.

«We’re here for the long run to build one of the best programs in college basketball,» Campbell said. «When it all unfolded, it felt like the bottom was falling out. But now that you kind of get your head wrapped around all this, it’s amazing. I truly believe it’s made me a better coach. But I hope I don’t have to sign up for this again. I mean, holy smokes.»


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