STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Aqua Franklin and former volleyball standout Aimee York-Strickland stood among some of the top names in the SEC last weekend as part of the league’s 2014 legends class that was honored during the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Duluth, Ga.
Franklin was selected for the honor following a stellar playing career at Texas A&M and the WNBA. York-Strickland (1989-92) earned All-SEC, GTE Academic All-America and SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors while setting the school’s season and single-game kills records. She finished her career in the Bulldogs’ top five in career attempts, digs, block solos and block assists.
“It’s an honor hands down. I was joking with some because I was probably one of the youngest ones out there. It’s an honor to be out there with the legends from the other schools because they paved the way for me to be able to play the game,” Franklin said. “It’s truly an honor Coach (Gary) Blair and Coach (Kelly) Bond-White thought of me enough to make me their legend.”
Franklin started at point guard as a freshman and led the team to its first winning season in eight years and a 93-32 four-year record.
“Aqua is a legend to me and I am very proud of her,” head coach Vic Schaefer said. “She was a tremendous player for us at Texas A&M and is very deserving to receive this honor.”
Franklin, who rated third in school history with 627 assists, was a two-time All-American and two-time All-Big 12 selection after guiding the Aggies to the postseason all four years, including the program’s first Elite Eight run.
“I came in with a great class that wasn’t highly ranked but was highly motivated. We thought we were all under the radar players. It really taught me how to start building a program and the type of players you need. It also showed me toughness,” Franklin said. “We went to the WNIT my first year, and we got better each year after that, making the NCAA Tournament every season. It’s very similar to our program here at Mississippi State. Coach Schaefer always talks about having the blueprint, and it’s great to be able to get both sides of it then as a player and now as a coach.”
In addition to knowing what it takes to build a championship college program, she also has first-hand experience of what it takes for a player to realize their dreams and play in the sport’s highest level, the WNBA.
Franklin was drafted 38th by the Sacramento Monarchs, and in her rookie season, helped the Monarchs to the opening round of the playoffs while developing her knowledge of the game alongside some of the world’s best players.
“I played behind Ticha Penicheiro, one of the greatest point guards to play the game, and Kara Lawson, who moved to the two and played some point. Being around them and seeing their will to win and the work ethic they had was unbelievable. I learned so much about how to think about the game on the floor,” Franklin said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way to learn the game and it helped mold my career along with working with the coaches at Texas A&M.”
The opportunity to be a graduate assistant at her alma mater prepared her for coaching stints at Stephen F. Austin and Kansas. Then the opportunity came for her to be reunited with Schaefer and associate head coach Johnnie Harris in Starkville.
“Johnnie has been a mentor to me, teaching me all I needed to know about coaching and recruiting,” she said. “Coach Schaefer had a hand in recruiting me and has watched me grow. He had a hand in me getting my first job and every one until now. I looked up to him as a father figure and the one I went to when I needed a straightforward answer. He’s the one I always called on whether it was playing in the WNBA, overseas or now in coaching.”
Working alongside her mentors, Franklin has helped the Bulldogs to their most successful season since the 2009-10 campaign. Earlier this season she took on the role of recruiting coordinator and helped the Bulldogs sign the nation’s 18th-ranked class.
“What we’re doing here at Mississippi Sate compares a lot to what we did at Texas A&M. What Aqua brought from a leadership role is really an intangible and something we’re looking for from our first recruiting class here,” Schaefer said. “It probably wasn’t easy for her early in her career, but as she developed she became a tremendous floor general.
“She will be a great head coach one day. She has been a tremendous assistant coach for several coaches in her young career,” he added. “She’s already had many experiences in her career and had a lot of success. We’re blessed to have her here at Mississippi State and really proud of her.”
Her impact has also been seen with the growth of point guards Katia May and Jerica James. A year after combining for 157 assists and 197 turnovers last season, the duo has 246 assists against 148 turnovers this season while compiling personal-best offensive campaigns.
“They’ve grown tremendously, and they want to be better,” Franklin said. “They are passionate about winning and wanting to get better. Their stat lines speak for their improvement. They are willing to sacrifice everything for their team, and that’s what you ask out of your point guards. They’ve taken on that ownership of the position, and they continue to work to get better day in and day out.”
Franklin knows the blueprint Schaefer has in place at Mississippi State can work because nearly a decade after stepping onto the college court for the first time she was back on the court as an SEC Legend.
“We continue to get better year in and year out. That’s how you know your program is growing and you’re doing the right thing. Every year you have to get better and take a step up,” she said. “The kids here now and our five signees in the 2014 class believe that. That’s what you have to have, and that helps you with the next set of recruiting classes. You have to recruit kids that fit your system and go put the blueprint in action. It’s how you build a Top 10 program. With the start we’ve had, people are recognizing what we’re doing here and the passion and heart Coach Schaefer has.”