By DIANE GASPER-O’BRIEN
FHSU University Relations and Marketing
It’s a bit of de ja vu for Paige Lunsford this week.
Lunsford, then a junior, was a starter on the Fort Hays State University women’s basketball team in 2015 when the Tigers earned the right to host the NCAA Division II Central Regional Championships for the first time in program history.
Now a graduate assistant coach for the Tiger women, Lunsford plans to tell the players to savor every single moment.
FHSU again was selected to host a regional this year. The Tigers will take a 30-1 record into Friday’s 5 p.m. quarterfinal game vs. No. 8-seeded Pittsburg State University. A complete schedule and other tournament information can be found at fhsuathletics.com.
Playing in front of a large, vocal crowd back in 2015, the Tigers made it all the way to the regional championship game. Injuries to two major backcourt players late in the season hit FHSU hard, but the Tigers still played second-seeded Emporia State University a tough game before falling by five points in the finals.
Lunsford credits part of the Tigers’ success at home – both during her playing days and now – to the huge crowd support. Fort Hays State has ranked second in the nation in attendance among NCAA Division II teams four years running.
“It’s so unique what we get to experience here,” said Lunsford, a Hays native and four-year starter for Hays High School. “The support we get from the community and surrounding communities is incredible.”
Starting with 2012-13, the Tigers have never lost more than one game in a season at Gross Memorial Coliseum. During that time, they have amassed a staggering home record of 107-5.
In fact, FHSU’s only home loss Lunsford’s junior year was that regional championship game. Her senior season, the Tigers won all 15 of their home games, and that mark was surpassed this year (16-0).
Having the home court advantage is not lost on the players and coaches, Lunsford said.
“The atmosphere here is hardly like this anywhere else we play,” she said. “Some places, there are more Fort Hays fans than, or at least as many as, there are for the home team.”
Lunsford doesn’t expect that to be any different this weekend, and she is looking forward to watching her players experience it.
“I didn’t realize at the time back then how special it was to get to host the regional,” she said. “When you’re in the moment, you’re busy taking care of business at hand.”
Looking back, Lunsford definitely sees the significance of that experience now and is thoroughly enjoying this year’s run.
FHSU was seeded second to Southwestern Oklahoma State University in the regional rankings heading into last week’s MIAA tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
The Tigers went 3-0 to win their first-ever MIAA tourney crown, but they still were unsure of what their final ranking would be. SWOSU also won its conference tournament. Both the Tigers and Bulldogs are 30-1, and SWOSU had entered conference tournament week with the slightest of edges over the Tigers in the regional rankings.
The national selection show was scheduled for 9 p.m. Sunday, but the top-seeded teams were to be notified by Twitter about 8.
The Tigers were on their way home from Kansas City about that time, and the team bus made a stop in Topeka for dinner. The coaches told the players to shut off their phones so they all could learn of their fate together.
“We had just gotten back on the bus about 8:10,” Lunsford said. “We coaches looked at Twitter and saw it, and told the girls. They were so excited.”
The team arrived in Hays after 11:15 p.m., and the next day, it was down to business – after a day of rest, that is.
“After five days in Kansas City, they were tired,” Lunsford said. “With this week being spring break, it gives them a chance to get some rest.”
The Tigers practiced Tuesday and will do so every day leading up to Friday, “trying to keep everything as normal as possible,” Lunsford said.
She thinks playing in the tough MIAA will help those five conference teams that were given regional berths. Playing at home also should help the Tigers, although Lunsford admitted that taking the court for that first regional game is a thrill like no other.
“I remember walking out on the court that first game (at the 2015 regionals) and seeing the amount of people in the stands and getting chills,” Lunsford said. “I was so in awe that all these people would come to watch us play. I think, growing up, every kid has a dream of playing in front of that kind of crowd someday. It was amazing.”
She thinks it will hit home for this year’s players on Friday, somewhere about 4:45 p.m.
“I think it will hit them during the starting lineup, at that moment when you have a second to look around at the crowd,” Lunsford said. “I get chills now, just thinking about it. I can hardly wait.”