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July 15, 2014

As head coach Dawn Staley reflects on the growth of her program, a phrase seems to become a refrain – “a legacy of leadership.” For a coach who prides herself on the close connections she has with her players and the family atmosphere on which her program is built, it is a succinct nod to how the past contributes to the present and to the expectation that the present shows the future the same respect.

South Carolina made headlines when it reached the 2012 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 – the program’s first appearance in a decade. But the foundation of that success was set four years earlier when the core of that 2012 senior class – Courtney Newton, Charenee Stephens and La’Keisha Sutton – met their new head coach. In that season, the seeds of leadership were planted by seniors Demetress Adams and Brionna Dickerson, who first learned and then showed their young teammates their coach’s path to realizing their basketball dreams.

Neither Adams nor Dickerson knew Staley before her arrival in Columbia. Both saw their careers ended too soon by injuries. But, their example, their leadership in difficult times first showed the young Gamecocks how to step outside of themselves for the greater good of the team. Over the next two seasons, lessons did not come easy nor were they heeded at every opportunity. But perhaps the greater value was just in their passing from one senior class to the next, each one making the foundation more permanent and the team stronger.

Sensing the momentum of her team, Staley’s message prior to the 2011-12 season later seemed more prophecy than hope.

“Our upperclassmen really understand what is expected of them, and they can draw on their experiences and lend them to our younger players,” she said ahead of the season’s start. “That’s how you build, by having gone through some good things, some bad and some indifferent, and then you learn from them. We can move a lot quicker once we understand how to be successful.”

As if Staley spoke it into existence, the 2012 Senior Class set the bar that every future class or team captain is now challenged to surpass. With each one that does, another stone goes into the foundation.

A freshman on that 2011-12 team, Aleighsa Welch, one of three captains on the 2013-14 team, aims to blend the strengths of the captains from her first two seasons.

“I learned the most from how they handled people,” Welch said of her predecessors. “La’Keisha [Sutton] was more of a silent leader, talking to you on the sidelines here and there. Ieasia found a way to have a good relationship with everybody, and she got it done. She led by example, so it was never just talk. Those two gave me the balance I needed to be able to find my place in a leadership role.”

Another 2013-14 captain, Khadijah Sessions noted another side of the Gamecocks’ leadership, one that she looks to emulate every time she steps onto the floor.

“One thing I learned from Ieasia [Walker] was to go hard in practice,” Sessions said. “She is a very good practice player, and it really showed when it was game time. She really pushed me – told me to never give up and to keep fighting when I thought I couldn’t do something. When you have someone working that hard for you, it makes you want to work that much harder for yourself and the people around you. Ieasia really taught me how to be a leader.”

Leadership comes in all forms and is both formally bestowed and organically developed in a team. For the 2013-14 Gamecocks, who came together to win the program’s first SEC Championship and capture its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a leader without a title emerged in Tiffany Mitchell, and she is already building her plans for expanding that role.

“I feel like I led the team in ways last year, even not being a captain,” Mitchell said. “People still listened when I talked, but I think I led more by example. Aleighsa, Khadijah and Elem [Ibiam] did a great job handling the vocal part last year, and I think it will help our team if I talk more this year. I know that’s what Coach Staley expects of me after two years.”

Leadership can push the leader as much as those she leads, as in the case of Elem Ibiam. Always considered the nurturer of the group, she was selected by her teammates to serve as one of last season’s three captains despite a playing resume that included just 12.2 minutes per game and a scoring average of 4.3 points. Her ascension to the title dovetailed with the hard work of the previous two seasons yielded 34 starts, 9.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and a school-record shattering 2.4 blocks per game and a spot on the SEC All-Defensive Team.

“Last year, I learned that as a leader sometimes you have to step outside the box and do things you aren’t comfortable with to help the team out,” Ibiam said. “It is about being there for your teammates even if you’re having a bad day. It is being more vocal, which was a big thing for me. I pushed myself on that, and I think it really helped me and helped my teammates out on the floor.”

The value of leadership comes from the leaders and the followers. One both requires and enhances the other.

“Leadership is also about giving the respect that you expect to get from your teammates,” Welch said. “It cannot be a one-way street. You cannot demand respect from your teammates and not give it back.”

Looking ahead to 2014-15, the Gamecock roster is a near equal blend of experience and youth. Expectations for the team are high, and living up to them will start with the leaders that emerge from the group. Realizing this team’s dreams may rely heavily on a graduation wish from one of 2012’s seniors – perhaps the least likely of them to sing the praises of leadership – Charenee Stephens.

“I just hope we rub off. I want the legacy to continue. I want the leadership to always be there.”

As the Gamecocks look to assign the task of leading to a few of their teammates, they can take comfort in the fact that whoever they choose will be able to stand in the footsteps of the those before her, adding her voice to the legacy of leadership that champions require.