IU women embrace being role models to help grow program

BLOOMINGTON — Mackenzie Holmes possesses as smooth a lefty spin to the basket as any player in women’s college basketball, but she signs autographs righty.

She could have almost as much opportunity to practice ambidextrous living if she wanted to because following each home game, Indiana Univeristy’s players meet and greet the public to make friends and influence people in best Dale Carnegie style.

After the Hoosiers’ recent home victory over Bowling Green, Holmes, a 6-foot-3 all-star senior forward from Maine, 6-5 backup junior center Arielle Wisne and 5-10 senior guard Sara Scalia, a transfer from Minnesota, sat at a table in Assembly Hall’s lobby and scrawled their signatures on 8 ½-by-11 cardboard team photos or anything else presented for their sharpies.

The held line perhaps 100 people standing patiently, families, couples, many youthful girls and early teen young ladies who literally and figuratively look up to the college players. Some were attired in souvenir versions of the famed IU candy-striped warmup.

“We were all little once,” Holmes said. Some of the littlest ones dressed almost as if for Halloween as IU women’s basketball players. “They’re my favorites.”

These meet-the-fans sessions are part of an overall Teri Moren strategy. The nine-year coach from Seymour has presided over the best Indiana women’s teams in history, including Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen finishes in the NCAA tournament the last two years.

However, taking the long view, Moren’s goal is to build a powerhouse program of lasting stature. While results on the court are important, such as the 5-0 start for this 2022-23 team, widening the fan base one follower at a time is essential to that big picture.

Moren said part of her recruiting process includes seeking quality student-athletes who also revel in representing the school off the court, too.

“There’s no question there is a responsibility to be a role model,” Moren said.

For her, it is not unlike the officer and a gentleman phrase.

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The trio smiled when told they were celebrities.

Scalia came to IU from the University of Minnesota, already a touted Big Ten 3-point shooter. She said the Gophers did not conduct autograph-signing events, but because she is from Stillwater, 25 miles from Minneapolis, everyone knew her. Sometimes, walking around, she got asked to pen her name. But that was different.

“Oh, this is fun,” Scalia said as IU fans passed the table single file. An older fan expressed pleasure at Scalia now being a Hoosier by noting, “You killed us at Minnesota.”

This was the Holmes-Scalia-Wisne day for autographs. A few days later, Grace Berger and Alyssa Geary were scheduled. On another, it was a different group. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole team stayed on the court post-game to meet fans, but when distancing protocols took effect, that approach was shelved and replaced with this plan.

Megan Kramper, an IU assistant director of communications, said “the same people” can be regulars at the tables because youngsters want to collect everyone’s autograph.

Sisters Carmen Van Rooy, 11, and Kendall Van Rooy, 9, of Bloomington are among those devotees, regular attendees, Kendall wearing the red-and-white Indiana-style pants. What would they do with the autographs?

“Hang ‘em up,” Carmen said.

Same plan for Abby Howell and Izzy Howell, both 13, also game regulars with their parents, all decorated in Indiana red. The Howells display signatures on a wall at home.

Some young fans already know players because they attended IU women basketball camps, hoping, dreaming someday they will suit up for the Hoosiers.

That type of thing ran through Wisne’s mind when she was younger in Colorado, only she followed Notre Dame because her dad played football and mom swam for the Irish.

“Oh, for sure, I like seeing the youngsters,” Wisne said.

Not everyone requesting autographs was a youngster. Irene Tsakopoulos, a student from Munster, had never previously attended an Indiana women’s basketball game, only men’s games. She had a friend planned to watch a stay-at-home movie but opted for the Bowling Green game at the last minute.

She was ecstatic about what she saw on the court, admitting she never realized how good the women are.

“They’re good,” Tsakopoulos said with emphasis. “I’m going to be back here for plenty more games.”

Harry McCammon, 78, of Bloomington asked players to sign the back of his red IU women’s basketball shirt, also on his way to gathering them all.

McCammon was half-embarrassed to enunciate his heritage as a Purdue graduate who cheers for the Boilermaker men. Yet he was seduced into IU women’s rooting by the play of Berger and recently graduated Ali Patberg.

“Ali and Grace made me fall in love with IU women’s basketball,” McCammon said. “Those women won my heart.”

Winning hearts and minds are all part of the Moren plan.

Recruiting role models

The players understand the purpose of the appearances. They are the granddaughters of Title IX. The legislation that brought more equality to the sports world across the United States for high school girls and college women turned 50 years old in 2022.

Many are aware how their own older relatives did not have the same opportunities to compete in sports, travel in a first-class manner or work out in top-notch facilities.

Kramper said new rules allowing for college athletes to capitalize financially on their name, image and likeness could complicate the future of these events. It is now permissible under NCAA rules for players to charge for autographs. Although Indiana recently announced an anonymous donor has contributed $1 million to the school for funding student-athlete NIL, Kramper said no women’s basketball player has raised the issue.

“We want to do this,” Wisne said.

Moren wants women on her team who want to participate in image enhancement with the people who applaud them, and yes, be role models to the community.

IU recruits not only talent but character, Moren said, even paying attention during on-campus visits to how young women interact with their parents.

“Character is right at the top of the list,” Moren said. “It is possible to find good players with character. I do feel they want these kids look up to them, and I want them to be (worthy) of being looked up to.”

Penmanship counts

Holmes, along with Berger, is the most recognizable player on the team. Popular in this setting, she isn’t quite enough of a rock star to be mobbed walking across campus between classes, though she is sometimes recognized in public.

At school or at a local restaurant, that extends to the level of, “Hi, how are you?” Holmes said.

Despite her left-handed showcasing on the court, Holmes said she is a righty. The one other big thing Holmes does with a lefty grip is eat.

Holmes does not sign autographs using the left, though.

“It’s not a skill I’ve developed,” she said, saying she really can do most things left-handed OK, she likely could.

Then to usher the line along, Holmes could begin writing with both hands, doubling the fan experience.