Cleveland State has an unprecedented opportunity – if the school wants it

Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

Back in April, 2021 – less than two weeks after I started writing for HoriZone Roundtable – I was scrolling Twitter late at night and saw something that momentarily winded me: Mariah White had entered the transfer portal and would play out her remaining eligibility away from Cleveland State.

White, of course, was CSU’s established superstar, a two-time Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year who also scored 1,320 points as a Viking and won numerous off-court service and academic accolades like the Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year Award. During her senior year, she was the centerpiece player on the 2021 Women’s Basketball Invitational championship team, the program’s first postseason title.

Conversation about the Vikings that summer was dominated by her departure, and the team’s diminished prospects without her. That sort of thinking only intensified when one of the 2020-21 team’s returning starters, Taylah Levy, as well as Aminata Ly, a key post reserve who had a significant hand in some of the team’s biggest wins, were lost for 2021-22 with preseason injuries.

It didn’t matter. Destiny Leo truly became elite in her sophomore season, and with the help of a transfer portal class of Brittni Moore, Amele Ngwafang, Deja Williams and Gabriella Smith, the Vikings were objectively a better team, winning 23 games and falling just short in the HL championship game to a fated IUPUI squad.

The summer of 2022 was a bit friendlier, but still saw the losses of a pair of starters, all-conference selection Nadia Dumas (graduation) and Isabelle Gradwell (a graduate transfer season at Minnesota). The Vikings reloaded with Sara Guerreiro and Carmen Villalobos out of the portal, as well as highly-regarded freshman Jordana Reisma, players that were essentially direct replacements for Dumas and Gradwell. The result was 30 wins and CSU’s third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Then came arguably the toughest stretch of all.

Moore and Ngwafang, who developed into all-league picks during the final years of their careers, graduated, as did do-everything wing Barbara Zieniewska. Meanwhile Smith and Williams, the HL’s Sixth Player of the Year, transferred out. A couple months later, assistant coaches Desma Thomas Bateast and Bob Dunn left for ACC jobs. Finally, three weeks into the season Leo, the reigning conference player of the year and someone only a few stops from the terminal on the “best player in school history” track, tore her ACL.

Since November 25th, Cleveland State has been a team with exactly zero returning starters and a significantly re-tooled coaching staff. In a lot of ways, they’re the defending league tournament champions in name only – in fact, only three players on the currently-available roster (Villalobos, Reisma, and Faith Burch) played in last season’s HL title game or in March Madness at Villanova.

It still didn’t matter. Colbi Maples and Mickayla Perdue arrived over the summer and unexpectedly ended up as the identity of this year’s team. Reisma has developed into a top-end post player, while Guerreiro and Villalobos are underappreciated workhorses. Shadiya Thomas has become a capable floor leader in essentially taking over Williams’ role. Newcomers like Brooklynn Fort-Davis and Grace Ellis have also settled into productive niches.

The Vikings are presently 18-4 overall and universally considered one of the top two teams in the conference.

It should go without saying, but that sort of success while overhauling significant chunks of the roster every season is not really what’s supposed to happen at the mid-major level, and especially not at Cleveland State.

Some might consider what I’m about to say off-putting, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose to pretend otherwise: CSU’s history sucks. It’s a joke. The Vikings, for the first 45 years of the program’s existence, threw teams on the court that ranged from putrid to mediocre. They were briefly relevant for a couple years when Kailey Klein was around to elevate things, then went back to having anvils dropped on them by Green Bay and Wright State as soon as she left. To be clear, there have certainly been some exemplary human beings associated with the program over the decades, along with quality players and coaches who deserved a better outcome, but Cleveland State has almost always failed at sport’s most fundamental reality.

In men’s basketball, the facts are a bit more forgiving, but not much. There was 1986, as everyone knows, and a fair amount of promise until Kevin Mackey’s arrest, followed by a lot of nothing until Gary Waters and Norris Cole, followed by a little more nothing until Dennis Gates. The program, under Gates and now Daniyal Robinson, has a chance at a fourth straight winning season, but that being noteworthy is more an indictment of the program’s tradition than anything else.

A lot of people have devoted a lot of thought to Cleveland State’s struggles for relevance in the city’s sports scene, but it probably isn’t that complicated. Every team with a healthy following, whether it’s Green Bay women’s basketball or the Dallas Cowboys, can trace its popularity back to winning. CSU simply hasn’t accomplished enough over the decades to build much of a “my parents took me when I was a kid, and now I take my kids” following. That’s the hard reality of the situation, and no amount of social media creativity or booster handshaking can fully correct a losing record.

But the thing is, while CSU’s past sucks, its present does not. And a lot of that needs to be credited to one of the few constants with the women’s program over the last several years, Chris Kielsmeier. It would seem logical that the university do everything it can to sustain and promote this unexpected change of fortune, but I think they’re falling short of the mark, particularly given the opportunity the recent success represents.

Another great coach, Ole Miss’ Yolett McPhee-McCuin, went viral for her comments following the Rebels’ win over Florida last Thursday. They’re worth quoting, in part.

“If you’ve been paying attention to the landscape of women’s sports, there is no doubt that women’s sports is on the uptick,” she said. “From viewership, from the level of talent, from the investments, from the NIL space, to programs, administrations investing…our time is now. No matter what narratives people try to go out there and create, women’s basketball is a legitimate entity in the sports world.”

“The Oxford community needs to catch up to that, and that’s the truth,” she continued. “We should’ve had Club Red (Ole Miss’ student section) up in here. It should have been packed in here. How does a team that goes to the Sweet 16, that only has two losses, not have an average of 5,000 people in the stands? How? You know what it is? It’s the lack of value, and it needs to change. And I don’t care who’s upset about me saying this, because I’m going to speak the truth.”

While the scale of some things (crowd size, obviously) differs greatly in the Horizon League versus the SEC, Coach Yo’s logic can certainly be applied to Cleveland State’s situation.

Women’s basketball is indeed hot right now, as Kielsmeier also likes to point out, and there’s plenty of evidence everywhere you look, from the ticket prices for an LSU-South Carolina game to Iowa’s television viewership. There may very well be upwards of 10 million people watching each of the three Final Four games in Cleveland a couple months from now.

But just as importantly, it’s a differentiator. With the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers forgotten to anyone under 30 and a current NWSL expansion bid facing long odds, the Vikings are the only women’s sports entity in Cleveland with any sort of chance at mainstream popularity or at becoming that proverbial front door to their university. The men’s basketball team, which plays just down the street from the Cleveland Cavaliers and shares the Wolstein Center with the Cavs’ G-League affiliate, will unfortunately be crowded in the market for the foreseeable future. The women’s team stands alone in a very clear sense.

So why is it that any given episode of Cleveland State’s weekly radio show is more likely to include three men’s assistant coaches than a single women’s player or coach, while other schools around the Horizon League typically split their coaches shows down the middle? Why was CSU, rather embarrassingly, the only conference school that didn’t ticket women’s basketball until finally experimenting with it this year? Why is nearly every single ancillary athletic department event framed around men’s basketball?

The local community has failed as well. I don’t need to look any further to support that statement than the media room at the Wolstein Center, where I’m surrounded by empty chairs unless Terry Pluto or the local TV stations helicopter in for their annual visits. It’s tragic that some guy named Kyle from HoriZone with a day job in marketing roofing products is the only person who works the CSU women’s beat on a game-to-game basis.

Make no mistake though, any turnaround has to start with the university, and their communicating that the team is of value, not something to be tacked on to the end of a men’s basketball e-blast as an “oh, by the way.”

Women’s basketball is Cleveland State’s best chance at finding a status that’s always proven elusive for the school. The program has built high-end success with a staggering amount of durability, and it exists in a broader space on a trajectory rivaling anything at Cedar Point. Yet, for whatever reason, CSU trails even its conference peers in promoting the program, when it should be a national leader. The university should be willing to try something different than what it’s always done, because what it’s always done can’t even outdraw the Chicago rat hole as the school faces ever-declining student engagement, which certainly doesn’t help enrollment either.

To be fair, CSU has recognized the value of Kielsmeier and the program in some ways, including through a pair of contract extensions. But while money and security are important to everyone, Kielsmeier has always very clearly been about more than that. Above all, he wants to build an entire women’s basketball ecosystem in the city, the sort of self-sustaining environment historically only found at places like UConn and Tennessee, though Baylor, South Carolina and others have joined the list more recently. Cleveland, with its size and a massive gap in women’s sports representation, is one of the best places to attempt such an endeavor.

But as soon as Kielsmeier feels like he doesn’t have a chance to accomplish his goals at Cleveland State, he’ll probably go somewhere else. And if that happens, the university will have blown an opportunity like it’s never had before.  

Leave a Reply