Thursday, March 24, 2011
Where to begin?
I will begin with our preseason schedule, the hardest in school history that included nationally ranked Baylor and UCLA. Also on the schedule were other post season tournament teams Little Rock Arkansas (neutral site), BYU, and UC Riverside.
Our preseason schedule included 10 away games compared to our 4 home ones. This wound up being critical for our team finishing third in conference because we were able to win on the road which not a lot of teams have learned how to do. Our strength of preseason schedule paid huge dividends.
I believe from the beginning, our team knew that success must be determined by daily commitment, and individual and team improvement. Enjoyment of the moment and recognition of team improvements are more important than focusing on the win/ loss column. Teams must focus on who they are collectively and individually and demand the very best in what that group is capable of.
For example, facing Baylor who has the most game changing player in 6'8 Brittany Griner was not an evenly matched contest physically. However, my team's strengths came to the table when we stepped on their home floor; strength of character, effort, and most importantly, unselfishness. Celebrating the moment for me was watching 5'11 Semansky score over Griner the first two possessions of the game. It would have been amazing to pull off an upset, but what we took away instead was how much tougher and stronger we need to be from a rebounding perspective. If you saw the way Lyndi Seidensticker was rebounding in March, it was because of games like Baylor, UCLA, and Little Rock.
I should also mention the injury challenge that we were faced with the entire year since this is what all of our readers, fans, and media have been tracking. When our season began, with our first scrimmages and exhbition games, we had a lot of things clicking as a team. I was more excited about this team's ability than any to date.
Right around the end of October/early November I remember having a feeling of "worry" that one of my players was going to get injured. Let me be clear here. I know coaches worry about injuries, foul trouble, shooting well, etc, but this was different. I felt like God was preparing me for something to happen so I would be ready to lead our team through it.
And then it happened. Ashley Albert tore her ACL the Monday before our season began. She was starting at the point and rotating in at forward and was averaging over 13 points and 6 rebounds a game. Some may think I had "jinxed" her with my "worry". However, I believe difficult & unfortunate things just happen, and dealing with adversity is one of the most important lessons you can learn in life.
In December, I had a touch decision to make regarding the direction our team would be heading due to other circumstances that were out of my control. Coaches have to make decisions quickly with as much fact as possible, but I also believe you follow your instincts. My instinct was to start Ausha Cole (a freshman who had played very limited minutes) and move Tish Adams over to a supporting role at the point guard spot so we could improve our defensive intensity and put our other players like Katie Bussey and Sarah Balian in their natural positions and strengths. My staff believed they would rise to the challenge, but none of us knew how well.
We won two in a row that week before heading to Christmas Break. Break is an interesting time for coaches because the commitment is all in the hands of your players during this time. When the team came back, it was like the season had just began with new fire, hope, and determination. We headed over to face BYU and Utah Valley. We completed the week with two more wins in a row and a major upset against BYU who is typically unbeatable on their home floor.
Something was happening to this team. They were taking on a whole new defensive personality thriving off the success of getting stops, forcing opponent into mistakes, not that as a staff we haven't always stressed these values, lol, but in the past we have just been known for putting points on the board.
What better way to begin conference with some momentum, a couple wins to build our confidence. Then we broke 100+ points for the second time this season opening up against Sac State. However, Chelsea Banis was lost for the season with an injury halfway into the game. I sat down in the lockerroom after the game with my team and told them how proud I was of their team play. Then I told them we had another challenge once again to step up with our character, our positivity, and our commitment to one another as Chelsea was done for the season.
Coaching is one of the most rewarding things I have ever been a part of. I am so thankful and blessed I have the opportunity to stay in the game I loved to play, and have the passion to be around it everyday. But I will say the hardest thing as a coach is seeing your players, or should I say daughters, go through pain. Chelsea had 15 points in her first conference game in about 15 minutes on her way to being a great candidate for Freshman of the Year in conference. She had redshirted last season, put so much time into growing, and then this. That's life isn't it?
After the game I remember telling Gidal our local reporter it was the worst I have ever felt after a 100 point victory. Yet, the word that kept popping in my head was "resilient', and in the list of my limited vocabulary (just ask my staff and players) what an amazing word.
The team was just that! We bounced back like we always do mentally. My job, however was to make sure we could still do this physically now that we were down to 8 players. So my incredible staff and I sat down to brainstorm ways to "add" to our roster. We were still on Christmas break. Who could we get in a week before school started, who would help us? We already had some scout guys, but not enough. What if we had another big lead like we did against Sac? We don't have enough bodies to rest our kids who are playing.
In the limited time frame we had, our staff was able to find three full time MSU students that had played basketball in high school. My staff took them through some drills, our compliance began the paperwork, and once they were cleared, our team made the sacrifce. They came in early nearly every day to teach Mary, Carrie, and Mariah the plays, and get them up to speed.
Put yourself in Carrie's shoes. She was going to school full time and working part time. Then she has an opportunity to be a part of a Division I program for a semester and has to make a decision in less than 24 hours. The next thing she knows she is heading on her first road trip AND first Division I game against University of Montana in Dalberg Arena. We won that game too. We all had a blast, but I can't imagine what it felt like for Carrie to be on our bench that day.
We were able to get Mary Anderson's paperwork through by our next home game against Idaho State. She went through her first shoot around, pregame meal, and then with about a minute left in the game was playing her first collegiate minute. Then she caught the ball in transition and SCORED!
At the buzzer our team accomplished what only one other MSU women's basketball team has done and won 10 consecutive games. How many teams can say that? Our team did that in the middle of losing our center, playing in the two most difficult road atmospheres (BYU & U OF M), and having added three players to the team in the meantime.
As all seasons of life attest, the rollercoaster never stops. We would lose again, we'd win again, but our attitudes and focus would stay consistent.
One moment I will never forget was at the end of practice and we were doing a drill called "Free Throw Challenge". If you are the first to make 2 in a row at all four baskets then you are the winner. If you miss the first you go backwards. It gets competitive, the players sprint between baskets, try and cut in front of each other, you name it. Well, Ashley Albert was to the point of her recovery from her injury where she could shoot, but only stationary. I told Ashley she could shoot all of hers at the same basket. Lyndi, being a competitor, and most dominating FT challenge shooter, piped up and said, "That's not fair!" I chuckled and replied, "After what you've seen this season, I thought you already knew life isn't fair." We both laughed.
Our last regular season road trip came down to the wire. We were able to walk away from Cheney, WA with a win which put us in position to host or make the top 2 in the conference. We were focusing on the top 2 as the other outcome was all up to whether or not UNC won or lost. We had perfected focusing on what was in our control.
As a coaching staff we knew that if UNC lost, and we beat PSU we would host the Big Sky Tournament as we had the highest RPI. Our team got behind early in the game but as our character consistently showed throughout the season, we didn't give up. We were able to get ourselves back in the game and tie it with 24 seconds left in the game. PSU responded and the Big Sky MVP drove the length of the floor to the basket. Rather than give up an open lay up, we fouled, sent her to the line, and she made both free throws.
On our final attempt by Katie Bussey at the buzzer and just past half court, the ball bounced off the front rim. We headed down the stairs and heard the announcers announce PSU as the Big Sky Conference Champions. At halftime the entire crowd knew that UNC had lost, but neither us or PSU's team knew or wanted to know because we wanted to focus on this crucial game.
The next four days would be a whirlwind trying to fly back to Bozeman for two days and fly right back to Portland for the Big Sky Tournament. We caught Eastern Washington for the third week in a row, and yes it is hard to beat a team three times in a row. Our Cinderalla Story finished without the golden slipper, but what it did finish with was an unbelievable beginning, middle, and end.
Our season was incredible and the future is bright. I can say that because I was able to hug both of my seniors at the same time and tell them how I will be bragging about them for the next 20 years. I have three injured players that will be suiting up for us next season, an amazing returning class lead by Katie Bussey, and one of our best signing classes to date.
More importantly, when you focus on the things that matter most, the relationships you make, the lives you can change for the better, making a positive impact in our world... our team has that, they are doing that, and my staff has the priveledge of being a part of their lives every day. How many coaches say they want to get better as a coach, be a better person, make a more positive impact because their players challenge them? I hope a lot of us do!
Oh, I forgot to tell you what I also said to my seniors when we hugged. We get to finish the 2011-2012 this May in Costa Rica!