When fall practice began last October, Kim Mulkey-Robertson challenged her Baylor Lady Bear basketball team to be the shining light of the athletic department -- and the university.
They exceeded her expectations in the sweetest way possible.
The Lady Bears finished the season with a 26-9 record, never losing two games in a row. They fought their way to a fourth-place finish in the tough Big 12 Conference, followed by a fourth-seed berth in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional and, best of all, the program's first appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Although a controversial call ended the Lady Bears' season against tradition-rich Tennessee, the outlook remains bright for a Baylor team that lost only two seniors to graduation. Returning are All-Big 12 forwards and team MVPs Steffanie Blackmon and Sophia Young, three-point specialist Emily Niemann and at least seven other letter-winners. For good measure, throw in a talented crop of signees, including a junior college All-American and three highly touted freshman guards.
Success brings high expectations. The April 19 edition of Sports Illustrated was first out of the gate, ranking the Lady Bears eighth in the magazine's preseason Top 10 for the 2004-05 season.
Mulkey-Robertson's team is ready to turn it up a notch or two, but the Lady Bears' fiery coach also is calling on Baylor fans to help elevate the team to the elite level. Top teams such as Tennessee, Connecticut and Texas Tech routinely play in front of more than 10,000 fans, while Baylor home games averaged 4,666 fans last season, still good enough for 19th in the nation. Mulkey-Robertson said the NCAA takes notice when a team's average home attendance is more than 8,000 fans.
"You think we can do it now? You bet," Baylor's coach told a boisterous record crowd at the Lady Bears Appreciation Banquet in April.
And fans will have plenty of reasons to pack the Ferrell Center next season, with home games against Penn State and Indiana from the Big 10, Rice from the WAC, Florida from the SEC and then, of course, the familiar opponents of the Big 12.
Better get your tickets now.