South Dakota State wing Megan Vogel was one of the small-school players who impressed many at the WNBA Pre-Draft Camp.
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CLEVELAND, March 31, 2007 — March is typically a time for mid-major college basketball programs to shine. Names like George Mason, Gonzaga and Marist are what often make a Big Dance so memorable.
But what role do mid-major programs play in the pro game? For every couple of players drafted from powerhouse programs like Tennessee, UConn or Stanford, there's a Becky Hammon (Colorado State), Taj McWilliams-Franklin (St. Edward's) or Katie Feenstra (Liberty).
It's much the same at the Pre-Draft Camp here in Cleveland. Though much of the talk is centered around big-school stars like Tiffany Jackson (Texas), Katie Gearlds (Purdue) and Carla Thomas (Vanderbilt), there are plenty of smaller-town heroes looking to make a name for themselves.
One such player is 5-11 forward Megan Vogel from South Dakota State, which has played as an independent since moving up from Division II in 2004. "It's an honor to even be invited to an event like this," she says. "It's such an unbelievable experience."
And though she occasionally lets the accent from her native Minnesota slip through, there's nothing regional about her on-court game. Several onlookers at the workout were impressed with her speed of play and desire on the floor.
"It's good to see all of those mid-major players out here because they're not on that stage all of the time, so this is their chance to show that they can play with the other schools," says Houston Comets coach/GM Karleen Thompson. "I like trying to find diamonds in the rough. You never know… You may be surprised."
Like Vogel, Western Michigan guard Carrie Moore is happy to be here. "We don't get to play against this caliber of player every day. These girls are a lot bigger and stronger than those we usually play against, and we fit right in with them, so it's fun."
A 6-2 post from Southeast Missouri State, Lachelle Lyles is impressed with the competition, but feels like she has held her own. "It's the real deal. Everybody's big, aggressive, strong and quick to the ball. It was a challenge, but I think I did pretty good."
"We played against some of these players … during the season," Lyles went on to say with a smile, "so it wasn't anything that I haven't seen all year. There are just more of them."
Arkansas State's 5-7 point guard Rudy Sims is also hanging in there with the big guns. "It's a big transition from college to coming here and playing with everybody, especially the size. They're a whole lot bigger than me, so I tried to use my speed."
Did it work? "We went 3-0 today, so I kind of enjoyed it."
Emily Westerberg of Pac-10 power Arizona State is impressed. "They brought the top 45 players here and you can tell that these girls (from smaller schools) are ELITE. You're playing among the best in the nation.
"There's no separation anymore," she continued. "Everyone has talent and what separates people is their hard work and their effort. And everyone here wants it, so there really isn't any separation."
Washington Mystics coach Richie Adubato is onboard with the lesser known players as well.
"As you see teams like George Mason in the Tournament last year," he says, "you can't overlook mid-majors any more. There are going to be players who go unnoticed, who through straight determination are stars at mid-majors for four years, who now are just as good as the players recruited above them.
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"You can't overlook anyone anymore. There are too many people who can play this game."
So what are the chances that a WNBA team takes a relative flier on one of the mid-major players?
"I think there's still room for a diamond in the rough," said Phoenix Mercury GM Ann Meyers-Drysdale. "Becky Hammon showed that. I'm a believer. I always like to believe there's room for somebody."
"I'm just happy for Megan," says proud South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston of his star. "This has been a goal and a dream of hers for a long time. And coming from a place like South Dakota State, you always wonder if that's going to be enough… if what you've done there will compare to what some of the other players (around the country) have done."
"(Vogel's showing) is great for South Dakota State, too. If good things happen for her and that helps South Dakota State, I think she'd be happy for that too."
"It's really hard to describe," says Texas-Arlington coach Donna Capps of her point guard Terra Wallace's trip to Cleveland. "It's really exciting for me, personally, and for her and the program as well. She's our first person ever (to be invited to the Pre-Draft Camp)."
"It's very motivational… dreams can come true. She's a living example of that."
So now that these small-town heroes have been subjected to the champagne and caviar life in the WNBA, will they forget where they came from? Not likely.
"My favorite thing about being here," says Vogel, "is when people ask me where I'm from. I say, 'Yeah, I play for South Dakota State.' As a mid-major school, when you work hard and get here, you're able to help put your school on the map. You're just really proud."