This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene.
Jackson State, one of only two HBCUs in the field of 64, lost 3-0 to Minnesota last Friday. The local press afterwards only asked Coach Rose Washington and seniors Alexsis Ford and Keirsten Howard questions about their opponent. The Only One, however, used the remainder of the post-match press conference at the Sports Pavilion asking them about being the first HBCU to play volleyball there.
Founded in 1877, Jackson State University became a public institution in Mississippi in 1940. Among its notable alumni are Walter Payton and his brother Eddie, James Meredith, and current NAACP head Cornell Williams Brooks. Ford and Howard will both soon join that list.
“HBCUs are very prideful,” remarked Howard of the Lady Tigers, who except when they led 5-3 in the third set, played from behind the entire night.
“They were nervous,” admitted Washington. “I could tell they were nervous. It got a little better” as the match went on, “[but] I was running out of subs. Unfortunately, I needed one more skilled girl. I just didn’t have the depth.”
After a 0-18 start this season, the Lady Tigers went 7-1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and finished 15-4 as its league’s tournament champs. Last week’s defeat was JSU’s first since November 16.
“Our chemistry got stronger and stronger,” recalled Ford on the squad’s non-conference struggles. “Too many injuries,” noted the coach.
Washington completed her 14th year at Jackson State. A 1977 graduate, she was a grad assistant (1978-80) while working on her masters in health and physical education. Then she was head coach at Southern University for two seasons (1980-82) before moving out west and running her own business in Los Angeles.
The St. Croix, Virgin Islands native returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach in 1999 and later became head coach in 2002. A three-time SWAC coach of the year, Washington has led the Lady Tigers to three SWAC titles.
“We take pride in the fact [that] we won our conference,” said the coach.
This was JSU’s third NCAA appearance in five seasons. Howard remembers when she and Ford as freshmen played at Stanford. They finished their college careers at Minnesota. “We all are hard workers,” she said proudly.
Because the SWAC doesn’t get automatic bids like a Power Five league like the Big Ten, teams like Jackson State often must qualify for at-large bids by winning their conference tourneys, and that isn’t always a sure thing.
“Winning our conference is premier. My challenge is to each year get better, get [a] better [non-league] start…so that we can get better consideration” by the national tournament selection folk, said Washington. “Getting here is a wonderful thing. There are many who wish they were here.”
Afterwards, the players although not happy with the end result, all knew they tried their best. “I always tell the girls, ‘Never give up, always give your best…not just on the court, but in the classroom as well,” said Howard.
It wasn’t all volleyball, however, while Jackson State was in town: “We just didn’t stay in the hotel,” reported Washington. “We’ve been to the Mall [of America], and of course they enjoyed that.”
Finally, Washington promised to get back to the NCAAs next season. “My job is to go out there and recruit to get us back here. That’s my intent,” she said with determination in her voice.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.