At Cleveland State games, media availability is often an exercise in graciousness.
What do I mean by that? Well, to put it bluntly, I’ve frequently been the only media member present on the CSU side of things (photographers excepted), and in those instances, the standard postgame show is entirely for an audience of one. At the Wolstein Center there’s a small media room near the Vikings’ locker room, while on the road I’d coordinate a location with Associate Sports Information Director Renee Adam before the game, which might be some corridor in the bowels of an arena, a volleyball office, the team bus, or simply courtside.
I suppose that they’re technically “press conferences,” in roughly the same sense that an intramural squad is technically a “college basketball team.”
That began to change in increments during the 2022-23 campaign, as the best season in program history unfolded. Sixteen-game winning streak? WEWS dropped by practice for a midweek segment. Conference-altering home games against Youngstown State and Green Bay? The News-Herald and Cleveland.com emerged like whac-a-moles from the box of Nick Chubb trade rumors and “are the Cavaliers good enough” columns. It was halting movement to be sure, and most of those outlets would go back into hiding by the next Vikings game, but they certainly had to monitor things to be aware of those big moments.
CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier, however, would argue that the seeds for the uptick were actually sown much earlier, with his recruitment of star player Destiny Leo.
“She’s a local, hometown kid that wanted to play at Cleveland State and said ‘being a Viking is where I want to be,’” he said. “And that’s special, because we all have that one place that’s hometown, but sometimes that’s not enough for hometown kids, and it was for Destiny Leo.”
“So what she’s brought our program starts off the court. She’s made us really relevant in Northeast Ohio, and we’ve really cracked the media blitz in that area and made Destiny Leo and women’s basketball and women’s athletics something really, really big to talk about.”
By the Horizon League tournament, WKYC’s Nick Camino traveled to Indianapolis to do on-court hits following the Vikings’ championship, and I could only work one or two questions into the postgame sessions. Selection Sunday brought at least five news cameras trained on the rows of chairs containing Cleveland State’s players and staff waiting for an explosive response to the school’s name appearing on a screen, and a bevy of subsequent interviews.
Within only a few days since that event, just about every local outlet has cycled back through for another piece, mostly highlighting Kielsmeier and Leo. Kielsmeier did a segment on CSU’s Tuesday evening coaches show after talking to something called Hoops HD, Maryland-based outlet Herb FM spoke with local product Amele Ngwafang, while undoubtedly several other media outlets produced work that missed my radar.
We’re a long, long way from “the concourse, just behind the beer ad over there” at Central Michigan’s McGuirk Arena.
“It’s more [interviews] than I’ve ever done before,” Leo admitted. “But this is definitely a really cool experience.”
The crush of attention can be a double-edged sword, particularly given how the most important games of the season are compressed. Just three weeks before Leo, Kielsmeier and Brittni Moore spoke with the media from their NCAA Tournament placement in Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion – at actual, for-real press conferences – they were trying to shake off the hangover of dropping the Horizon League regular season championship at Green Bay in time to play Milwaukee the next day.
In the interim, the Vikings played the entirety of the conference tournament, including a road trip to Indy and a revenge title game victory over the Phoenix, hosted a watch party to learn their March Madness fate, then packed up and shipped off to Philadelphia in the midst of hurriedly preparing for a nationally-elite Villanova team that they didn’t know they would face until less than a week before tipoff. And, oh yeah, they’re college students too. That would be quite the gauntlet on its own, before adding in the fire hose of media requests presenting the constant risk of distraction.
CSU, however, plans to use their newfound popularity for good.
“Taking that step, the vision was ‘how do we sustain national attention, as opposed to just a year or two,’” said Villanova coach Denise Dillon, who coached at Drexel for 17 years before returning to her alma mater and certainly knows a couple things about securing attention for a mid-major program in a crowded market.
“You’re only as good as your players, so making sure you bring in players and develop the ones you have to continue to raise the level. Luckily for me, my time at Drexel, I had a tremendous staff, and growing our program itself, I’d say our greatest strength was the player development.”
In Leo, Moore and others who have received the media training crash course while earning the third NCAA Tournament bid in Cleveland State history, Kielsmeier certainly has players who have developed both on the court and in the glare of the spotlight. The next step, he would argue, is doubling down on the program’s commitment to turning around his city’s historically apathetic treatment of Vikings athletics while continuing to build a national brand.
“You can’t put a price tag on it,” he said. “Cleveland State is hot right now, and back in Northeast Ohio, we’ve got fans for women’s basketball that we probably didn’t have a month or two ago. I’ve been such a strong proponent for the game for a long time – don’t dislike women’s basketball when you’ve never gone to a game. Come to a game and leave and tell me you don’t like it. Then you can complain, and you don’t have to come back. But if you come, you’re going to like it, and I think we’ve made that impact on a lot of people. So I think our program is really going to be able to reach new heights moving forward from this.”
“We’re on a national stage right now, and this is where we want Cleveland State women’s basketball to be, and I couldn’t be more proud of our players, our staff, and our administration.”