South Carolina’s Dawn Staley slides naturally into ‘champion’ role, on and off the court

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate their 64-49 victory over the UConn Huskies.
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Dawn Staley swore over and over again during her playing days she would never become a coach. Everyone seemingly could see it in her future, everyone but her.

As an elite point guard during her playing career, she was always coaching.

Reluctantly, Staley eventually accepted her fate, becoming the head coach of the Temple women’s basketball team.

Now, 22 years later, she is the first Black coach to win two NCAA national championships. Other than Staley, there has only been five to ever win one in the history of men’s and women’s Division I basketball: John Thompson, Georgetown, 1984; Nolan Richardson, Arkansas, 1994; Tubby Smith, Kentucky, 1998; Carolyn Peck, Purdue, 1999; Kevin Ollie, UConn, 2014.

Staley’s success also has given her the platform to champion issues off the court and she continues to speak out about gender equity, diversity and opportunities for women.

“I don’t seek it out,” Staley recently told The Associated Press. “If I get asked, I’m going to respond. Why? It’s the right thing to do.”

While Staley isn’t looking for notoriety, basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said she’s an inspiration and everyone listens to what she has to say.

“It’s a voice that is not just about South Carolina,” said Antonelli, who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June.

“Where you’re a young coach, you talk about yourself and your team,” Antonelli continued. “When you’re a veteran coach you become a servant to the game. … She has accepted that.”

Not that it came easily.

Staley repeatedly told late Temple athletic director Dave O’Brien she did not want the coaching job until changing her mind in 2000.

Then, after eight seasons with the Owls, Staley worried her move to South Carolina might be “career suicide” if she couldn’t quickly make inroads against Southeastern Conference powers like Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU and Georgia.

It has turned out to be the best move she could have made.

In the past year, she guided the U.S. national women’s team to Olympic gold last summer, beat UConn 64-49 on Sunday in the NCAA title game and has a collection of coach-of-the-year awards, including The Associated Press, Naismith and SEC. She is heading to Los Angeles with center Aliyah Boston for Friday’s Wooden Award ceremonies.

There is no doubt Staley is at the top of her game; lawmakers in South Carolina honored the Gamecocks on Wednesday, and next Wednesday they’ll be the stars of a parade in downtown Columbia.

It all caps off a hectic a 12-month stretch during which Staley became a champion of the sport, and for it.

On the court, the Gamecocks made good on their yearlong goal of a national crown after falling to Stanford in the 2021 Final Four semis.

Staley barely had time to unpack before her duties as U.S. Olympic team coach kicked in with training camps, play at the AmeriCup to qualify for the FIBA World Cup in Australia this September – all before heading to Japan for the COVID-19 delayed Olympics.

She talked with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in June about their coaching vacancy, saying they treated her like “a real candidate” and not a token interview.

Staley led the U.S. team to the gold medal last August.

“When I got back, it was time to get going with them,” Staley told the AP preparing for her run to the tile in Minneapolis, nodding at her players during a team dinner.

Before tipping off the season, though, Staley received a seven-year contract from South Carolina worth $22.4 million. She made $2.9 million this season, one of the game’s highest salaries.

It wasn’t about the money, Staley said, “but it takes the money for this recognition to be eye-opening.”

Recognition that came with South Carolina starting the season No. 1 and never surrendering that ranking despite a pair of unexpected losses, including a 64-62 setback to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game.

“We knew we had to keep our focus,” Staley said. “The big picture was still out there.”

South Carolina was never seriously challenged in its six NCAA Tournament games. The closest game was a 69-61 win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 as Boston – the AP player of the year – scored all her team’s 13 fourth-quarter points to hold back the Tar Heels.

Staley is often challenged to take on various issues off the court.

But Staley has blended her coaching success with her views on how best to grow the game. She said she had several Zoom calls with other prominent coaches including Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and UConn’s Geno Auriemma during the offseason about how to keep growing the game.

“They were informative,” Staley said. “I mostly listened.”

She also listens to her players, connecting with high schoolers with an easy style. During a Final Four awards ceremony, all the Gamecock players had their heads down looking at their phones. Nearby, Staley was also tapping away at her phone.

“That’s Dawn,” said longtime South Carolina assistant Lisa Boyer.

Added 21-year-old guard Zia Cooke, “She’s like a mother figure at times and a best friend at other times.”

Then there are times when she is an activist.

Rebecca Lobo believes Staley is the strong female voice the sport needs, women such as the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee or Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s recently retired coach.

“She is not afraid to talk about what she feels is right, what she feels is wrong,” said Lobo, a teammate of Staley’s on the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Even if it might be 100-percent her personality, she is sliding into that very naturally.”

As Boyer, the South Carolina assistant says, that’s just Staley’s style.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Destanni Henderson declares for 2022 WNBA Draft after national championship win

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.