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ND Women’s Basketball: Local talent attracts big crowds to Purcell Pavilion

Jared Jedick | Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The local South Bend community has been pouring out in droves this season to get a chance to see the Notre Dame women play hoops, and one major reason why the number of players from the local community, including South Bend and Mishawaka natives freshman guard Skylar Diggins and senior guard Melissa Lechlitner.

Even beyond this local slant to the roster, the team has been making a concerted effort to get their faces out in the community and draw more fans to the newly refurbished Purcell Pavilion.

“This is the kind of team that you can really get behind,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “You can really relate to them and your kids can relate to them.”

The Irish this year have taken on a very local flavor, boasting four players from the state of Indiana, as well as six players from Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. Fellow Indiana natives joining Lechlitner and Diggins on the court are senior guard and captain Ashley Barlow, from Indianapolis, and junior forward Becca Bruszewski, from Valparaiso. A large part of this local slant to roster is a result of a directed recruiting effort from the coaching staff.

“We try to recruit the Midwest,” McGraw said. “I know parents want to see their daughters play, and it is great for us to have the family in the stands.”

McGraw said that the fact that so many players from the state of Indiana are on the roster is indicative of the level of play of local basketball.

“It says a lot about the quality of basketball here in South Bend, and in Indiana in general,” McGraw said. “I think that there is great basketball in this area, it is exciting to watch, there is great fan support and the community is really involved. It is fun for them to continue to follow the players they followed in high school.”

According to Assistant Sports Information Director Chris Masters, this season has already sold out a record number of season tickets, about 7,500, partly attributable to the newly refurbished Purcell Pavilion, but also intimately linked to local high school star Diggins finding her way onto the roster. This culmination of local interest in the team, according to Masters, is just the final step on a chain of events that have intimately connected the team with the local community and spiked attendance since the national championship year in 2001.

The team had an average attendance of 7,825 during 2001, according to Masters, and the Irish are hoping to sell out large portions of their home schedule this year and eclipse that number.

Diggins was a star at local Washington High School and was a McDonald’s All-American as well as a two-time USA Basketball gold medalist with the 2008 U-18 team and 2009 U-19 team. Diggins’ substantial local presence on the team has added to an extensive cast of other local stars.

Helping to start the trend of forming a local roster four years ago was Lechlitner, who attended St. Joseph’s High School.

“I love to being home and in town and having my friends and family being able to come to every game,” Lechlitner said. “Just having the support of South Bend at every game is unheard of. We go to other away games and their support is nowhere close to what it is here.”

The way the Irish are trying to connect with the community and get their faces out there is to get involved in local community service projects. According to Masters, the team logged over 800 hours of community service last year, going out to local grade schools, pep rallies, and pediatric cancer clinics.

“It is really important for us to give back and go out there and do things,” McGraw said. “They love doing it, and I really like having them out there.”

Barlow believes that the teams commitment to working in the community is serving to bring more fans into the stadium and creating one of the more intimidating stadium atmospheres in women’s basketball.

“We are always out in the community and we are always talking to people,” Barlow said. “We talk to little kids, we talk to older people. We are always out in the community and I think that makes it easier for them to support us because they have actually met us and they know us.”

Lechlitner said she believes the team’s concerted effort to have a presence in the local community is paying off in fan support.

“We try and get out there and try and hang out with the kids at their schools, and do community service like that and just try and get more people to come to the games,” Lechlitner said.

The Irish hope that this fan support will make their first season in their renovated stadium one to remember.