The beginning of a Cinderella story
In September 2007, I formed SPICE and began College Chess coaching at TTU. There were no titled players. I had no office on campus. The Provost Office provided me a small space in an office building across the street from campus. There was literally no team other than a few amateur students in the University Chess Club.
It was not easy to recruit strong titled players because of the mentality of "How can any woman coach strong players?" I had to start building a College Chess program from scratch. I made this my mission to prove that a woman can coach as well, if not better, than any male counterpart, if she is willing to work hard enough. I wanted to knock down this ridiculous sexist theory that women were somehow inferior when it came to coaching.
The first "so-called" guinea pig titled player was IM Gergely Antal from Hungary. He was the first titled player who agreed to come to SPICE in August 2008. My first PanAm Intercollegiate Championship team in December 2008 consisted of 4 players: IM Gergely Antal 2479, Chase Watters 2029, Josh Osbourn 1767, and Stephanie Ballom 1802. This was a Division II team.
2009 was the year which defined SPICE and our principles. I landed a very strong world-class Grandmaster. He agreed to come to lead the SPICE team. He applied to the university and was accepted. After we agreed on all conditions, shortly before the start of the school year, he felt that he had leverage since he would be our only “Super Star” student player. He wanted to “renegotiate” his scholarship agreement.
I told him that I believe in keeping my words and no renegotiation is possible, especially since every dollar in my very limited scholarship budget has been accounted for. He insisted on getting more for his “Super Star” status, even if I have to take the money from other members of the team to give him. I do not want students without honor and integrity. Therefore, I rescinded the scholarship offer. I refused to compromise on my integrity and principle.
Even though we "upgraded" our team in 2009 with another Hungarian IM, Gabor Papp 2585, and Croatian IM Davorin Kuljasevic 2571, in addition to our first IM Gergely Antal, who improved from 2479 to 2555 after one year at SPICE, we were still short of one strong player. Our next highest rated player, Chase Watters 2049, got the nod for the final spot in our team. Even though this team was not very strong, it was our first official Division I team.
They trained very hard, and at the 2009 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship in South Padre Island, Kuljasevic scored 5.5/6 for the top overall score, Antal scored 5/6, Papp scored 4.5/6, and Watters scored 4/6. Miracles happened! The SPICE program made the Final Four with our first ever Division I team.
In the 2010 Final Four, even though we were out-rated by 100-150 points in average ratings, our team finished 3rd, behind UMBC, UTB, and ahead of UTD. Shortly after that, all three of our IMs, Kuljasevic, Papp, and Antal became Grandmasters. We also made the Final Four every year after that. In May 2010, Antal graduated. Papp went back to Hungary.
Kuljasevic, now a GM, became the Captain of the 2011 Final Four team. Along with newly recruited GM Anatoly Bykhovsky of Israel, GM Andre Diamant of Brazil, and IM Istvan Sipos of Hungary, they (still the lowest rated team in the Final Four) pulled off an incredible upset and captured the 1st of 7 consecutive Final Four Championships (the previous record was 4 in a row by UMBC). We have never lost a single Final Four match since our first year, and we also scored 15-0 in our last 15 Final Four matches.
Work hard and stick to your principles and miracles can happen!