This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
LUBBOCK, Texas -- One hundred seven steps above the winter-yellowed grass of Texas Tech's expansive campus, two female students in black golf shirts ring the Victory Bells in the east tower of the Administration Building. The wind, an insufferable, unceasing gale that gathers somewhere on the endless plain and huffs unencumbered through the city, carries the peals over the clay-colored tile roofs and around the sandy walls of the Spanish Renaissance architecture that defines the campus.
There is a need for celebration, or at least ceremony, this bright Saturday afternoon.
Across campus at United Spirit Arena, the Texas Tech women's basketball team has ended a five-game losing streak, against archrival Texas, no less. An advance party from the High Riders spirit organization has been alerted via text message to renew the 76-year-old Texas Tech tradition of ringing the bells for a home victory. Members of the Saddle Tramps spirit group, which supports male athletics on campus, and its sister organization, the High Riders, are the only students allowed in the bell tower. Decades of their plaques and ornate examples of their support for the Red Raiders adorn the place.
Nearing the bell chamber, High Riders president Laura Martin turns back down the increasingly dusty staircase as she passes an old Saddle Tramps banner and says ... something. Presumably that it is about to get loud. More like louder.
The staircase opens into a cramped room that somehow feels open, with 1,839 acres of campus and the sprawling lawns of the main entrance below. The High Riders stand perched on a red-and-black platform, at eye level to a gathered group, rhythmically tugging the pulley mechanism that rings the bells.
After 30 minutes, and not one second longer -- university rules allow for 15 minutes of tolling on weeknights, a half hour on weekends -- the bell goes silent. With one more rousing cheer, the High Riders go singing down the stairs.
So ends a spirited and successful weekend for one of the most distinctive organizations in college sports, one that helped build the Red Raiders into a national-caliber program, former coach Marsha Sharp said. Clubs designed to support male sports teams or an athletic department as a whole are not unusual. A group solely dedicated to supporting women's sports is a rarity. The High Riders, founded in 1976, are present at all Texas Tech women's events, but they share a certain bond with the basketball team because they came into existence in the same time period.
It is with the basketball team that the High Riders' efforts are most visible, whether it's their diligence in crowding the turnstile on game days to assure their spot near the visiting team or the individual banners they craft for each player. Against the backdrop of a modern arena and all its techno trappings, their handiwork is a throwback to the high school gyms in small Texas towns where many of them once cheered. Therein lies the sometimes-hokey-but-always-heartfelt charm. In the westernmost outpost of the Big 12 empire, small-town sensibility is a big deal.
The High Riders' presence has helped create a cognizance of the program, which slowly built excitement and made Texas Tech an attractive place to play and be appreciated. And that matters, Sharp said.
"You can imagine that during those [early] days, not so many lined up to support women's athletics as now," said Sharp, who coached from 1982 to 2006 and built a team that became the most popular on campus. "Crowds were small, but up to 50 at a time, the High Riders were in their section offering really positive support.
"In the early days, when there were no funds to travel west, they would do sack lunches when we did van trips to play. Very unique."
Members of the Red Raiders basketball team have left the locker room for a team meal by 5 p.m. the day before the Texas game, but all 30 High Riders are gathered outside. They will soon to be escorted in by organization sponsors Bill and Diane Todd for the ritual big-game locker room decoration.
"Girls being girls," Bill Todd says as he opens the door to allow the black-shirt-and-jeans-clad High Riders into the lockers.
Once inside, the High Riders break quickly into distinct work groups with practiced efficiency. There are the poster-affixers, charged with placing a personalized placard in each player's stall; the streamer-hangers, most notably one who doesn't seem to mind teetering on a trash can to reach the drop ceiling before the ladders arrive; and the balloon-blowers, the nondescript but essential worker bees of the hive. The whole process is completed in less than an hour, right down to the "Bevo Burger" whiteboard scrawl, all without disturbing anything left by the players. A few feet away, a list of team goals taped to the wall by the coaching staff includes the mandate "Beat Texas Twice," ambitious considering the Longhorns had won the past five in the series.
Satisfied, the High Riders pose for pictures and clean up their mess.
"They decorate our locker room a lot," said senior forward Jordan Barncastle, whose three-point play in the final 23 seconds gave the Red Raiders their final lead in the 75-71 win over Texas. "They make us presents and signs and posters, and we get, like, a gift bag at the end of the year. We do an ice cream social at the beginning, and we get to meet them. We try to get really involved in anything they need us to do. We're pretty open about it. I think they know we're easily approachable too. They support us, and in return, we want to support them in whatever they do."
Current coach Kristy Curry is just as appreciative of their support.
"We have to have the No. 1 student group in a league that leads the country in attendance,'' she said. "The High Riders, they come to our events, they stop by practice. Every Monday night radio show, there's a group of High Riders at the radio show. We buy them appetizers.
"I don't think there's anything I've seen in sport throughout the years that has been more powerful than your peers supporting each other. When students are supporting students, in my mind there's just nothing more powerful. It's been unique to see that and develop those relationships."
Martin said one of the players even asked to join a group of them for lunch on campus recently. Though Martin finds that level of camaraderie surprising, her organization has penetrated the barrier that exists between student-athletes and students at major Division I programs.
"So many things we get to do and experience goes way beyond what the rest of the student body can dream of," she said, recounting a freshman year High Riders junket to Oklahoma State. "We were behind our team's bench. It was a really, really tight game. I think we won by a point or two. Neck and neck the whole time. By the end, we had no voice, were exhausted, but we won. Coach Curry invited us back into the locker room after the game. She almost knocked the bench over. We went back there, and they were so excited and pumped up, and they did a little, like, prayer circle, and they put us in the middle of it. Awesome day."
Martin comes from a small town in southwest Texas called Sonora -- population about 3,000. Her mother, father, grandfather, three cousins and an aunt either graduated from or attended Texas Tech. She applied nowhere else and will graduate in May with a degree in agricultural communications. She came to Lubbock looking for a traditional college experience, but like so many in her organization, she says, struggled with being just another kid in the student section.
"I graduated [high school] with 58 people and in a place where everyone does everything, so I was super busy [in] high school, junior high. I never had a chance to just relax," she said. "So I said, 'When I come to college, I'm not going to do anything. I'm going to know what it's like to hang out with my friends and go to class, have time for my homework and not do anything.' "That was fine until about the middle of September, and I was like, 'I can't do this. I've got to get involved somewhere.'"
Martin is typical of many of her fellow High Riders, she said, as "someone who was either involved in athletics or was in cheer or spirit groups in high school. I think all of us fall under that usually. I cheered my whole life, and it wasn't something I could keep doing when I got to college, so I joined High Riders because it was kind of the same concept -- someone who has that connection to sports and supporting athletics, someone who is excited and loves Texas Tech."
The group, which conducts rush like a sorority, was officially recognized by the university on Feb. 2, 1976, after founders Nancy Neill Hughes, Lyn Morris Travis and Kathy Pate Scott lobbied for a female equivalent to the Saddle Tramps, who had underpinned athletic boosterism and several campus traditions for decades. About 20 prospects rush each fall, less in the spring, and 15 to 17 pledge and join in a school year.
Nearly 42 years after the Saddle Tramps rang the celebratory bell for the first time in 1936, the High Riders feted a Jan. 21, 1978, win over rival Texas A&M.
The women's basketball team has been responsible for much ringing in the ensuing decades as the most successful program on campus, the only one to win an NCAA team championship, in 1993, with local product Sheryl Swoopes, one of the greatest female players ever.
Curry, who followed Carolyn Peck at Purdue and was a former assistant at powerhouses Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M, sees herself as a caretaker to a tradition despite her tenure in Lubbock. There are reminders everywhere of what came before, including the overpass that helps bring her to work each morning.
"The biggest thing I could tell you is you embrace the past, but at the same time, you make sure you are who are and be who you are," Curry said." You don't run from it. It's never been a threat to me. It's been something I try to embrace out of respect for Marsha Sharp and out of respect of Lady Raider Nation. If I was fearful of it, I wouldn't get on the Marsha Sharp Freeway every day."
Nearby the freeway rests Jones Stadium, where roughly 40,000 gathered to greet Sharp and the 1993 national title team when it returned to Lubbock from the Final Four in Atlanta. Earlier, the 84-82 final of the Red Raiders' title-game win over Ohio State had become the first non-football score flashed on the scoreboard.
It was fitting, Sharp said, that the High Riders were there too, poised in front, because in anonymous but important ways, the spirit organization of poster-makers and lunch-packers had helped the program reach what remains its pinnacle. The High Riders, Sharp said, helped build Texas Tech into a national champion.
"I think so," she said. "We had support for women's sports before some of our counterparts at other universities did. It helped women's basketball here be a little ahead of the curve.
"Forty thousand people in a football stadium. Unheard of, a group of that many people that were interested, and right there in the front row, the High Riders were there to celebrate."