Feb. 15, 2010
-Gene Steinmeyer, Northwest Head Women's Basketball Coach
I would like to brag in this blog what a great student I was in high school. I could proclaim I was just one step short of a Rhodes Scholar. However, I think my high school guidance counselor is still alive and he could definitely dispute that claim. In senior English class, we had to write a paper telling a story about an inanimate object that suddenly came to life. To tell you the truth, I had no idea how to define an inanimate object. After checking with the Webster Dictionary, the meaning of an inanimate object is "not endowed with life or spirit." I had a pretty active imagination in high school and wrote a story about a cemetery. Surely, a cemetery could be classified as not having life or spirit. It was one of the few assignments in senior English that I attacked with enthusiasm. After all the stories had been graded and turned in, the instructor went through all the titles and let the class pick a couple that the authors would read. When she said I had written a story about a cemetery that suddenly came to life, the whole class thought it would be a great read. The teacher quickly passed it over saying, "It isn't that good." She was charitable enough to give me a C.
Basketball is full of terms that qualify as "inanimate objects." Three of those terms are chemistry, jelling and peaking. They can't be measured like the air temperature. You can't talk to any of those three terms to see when they are arriving on the team. However, it's great to brag that your team has CHEMISTRY, everyone is really JELLING and the team is PEAKING for the stretch run. I want to give you my experiences with these inanimate objects.
I imagine that when a team has great chemistry, it means they really like each other. They all get along and tend to socialize with each other beyond the basketball court. Good chemistry almost certainly leads to great performance, right? Since I know more about baseball from my childhood than any other sport, let me give you an example where that wasn't true. Remember Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. Reggie was just hitting the big leagues when the Kansas City A's pulled up stakes and moved to Oakland. His Oakland A's teams won a lot of games and three straight World Series titles from 1972-1974. However, there was always controversy in the club house of those teams. Reggie was usually in the middle of a fight or had his mouth shooting off to the media. I don't think chemistry was mentioned with those teams.
The 2008 women's team at Northwest was one of the most unusual I have ever coached. I am pretty sure that team members don't communicate with each other very much. There were no fist fights, but I suspect it got tense at times. In 2004, Brook Hogue, Sarah Vollertsen, Jane Chalmers and their teammates won a MIAA Conference Tournament and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They loved each other. There never was a moment of problem in the locker room. It wasn't the same in 2008, but that team won an MIAA Tournament title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Does team chemistry have life or spirit? I love it when a fan comes up and says, "Your team is really jelling." Exactly what is jell? I always thought it was a hair product. Isn't that what the Fonzie wore in his slicked back hair in the television show Happy Days? There's nothing greater than when your team jells, but it's really hard to get a handle on any of that jell if your team just doesn't play well together. To me, a team jelling is measured if it wins or loses. I have never had a fan tell me, "Your team is really jelling," after a loss. However, if the scoreboard favors the Bearcats, it's almost always because the team is jelling. I disagree. For example, earlier this year we played Truman State at home. It was like a trip to the dentist until Shelly Martin hit a three-point field goal at the buzzer to pull out a win. If that was a team jelling, we should all be bald. Ten days ago we lost to Pitt in double overtime. I felt awful about the loss, but I thought our offense was "jelling." Not a single fan mentioned that word to me. Team jell is not endowed with life or spirit, I guess.
My favorite basketball term that refers to an inanimate object is "peaking." When I was a college student at Kearney State College (University of Nebraska-Kearney now), I took basketball theory. I was always amazed at how certain coaches could get their teams to peak at post season time. Ed Johnson coached Lincoln Northeast High School in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. No matter what their regular season record, they were always a threat to win a state championship. There had to be a secret that only Coach Johnson knew on how he got his team to peak. I wrote him a letter, asking him to share his secret. To my shock, he wrote a three page reply. To my horror, he didn't reveal his secret. His answer was fundamentals, fundamentals and fundamentals. Well, if it worked at Lincoln Northeast, who was I to argue?
My first team after college was the junior varsity team at Humboldt High School. We weren't very good, but we won every once in a while. As the season neared its conclusion, my practices mirrored what Coach Johnson advised. After several intense practices with only fundamental drills, the team was so tired of basketball, we lost our last five games in a row. That's not what I had in mind for a team to peak. After three years as the head girls' coach at Wilber-Clatonia High School, I finally saw first hand one of my teams peaking. However, not before I almost screwed up a perfect season. I had a great high school team, with four starters six feet tall or taller. Two of them would become Super Staters in Nebraska. We charged through 23 straight wins with only two close games with conference rival Centennial High School. As fate would have it, we faced Centennial in a game to earn a spot in the state tournament.
All year long, my pregame speech amounted to giving the team the scouting report and let the players handle all the motivation. They were a real lay-back team in the locker room and very intense once the game began. I almost felt like I wasn't earning my paycheck. Shouldn't I motivate these players to new heights? So, with this great bit of wisdom, I prepared a fire and brimstone pregame speech before the final Centennial game. The motivational speech was a beauty. I paced. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I called the Centennial Broncos every name that wouldn't get me fired. I even threw the chalk and eraser, barely missing the team manager. The team tore through the locker room door ready for battle. The results were almost disastrous. My players were so tense and fired-up, we scored two points in the first six minutes of the game. Not only that, but my two Super Staters were saddled with two fouls. The dream of an undefeated season and a state championship was in serious jeopardy. Thank goodness my players bailed me out. They fought back to lead at halftime and finished off a 10-point win with a string of clinching free throws.
This wasn't my idea of peaking. For the next three games, I kept my mouth shut. I let the players do all the motivating. The three state tournament games were wins by 14, 3, and 22 points. I really kept my mouth shut in that state championship win of 22 points. I was so ashamed of my lack of coaching knowledge, that I didn't tell my administrators that the girls peaked on their own. Who knows what makes a team peak at the right time. Remember, peaking is an inanimate object that is not endowed with life or spirit. How can you get any answers in how to create peaking? I have to go back only two years to my 2008 team to show the strangest way for a team to peak just before post season.
Back to the dysfunctional 2008 team, where we won quite a few conference games early in the schedule. Now remember, I was pretty sure we had a lack of team chemistry. Huge problems arose when Lynn Plett's first Western team came to Bearcat Arena in mid-February and beat us. We led most of the game, but had no answers late. The team certainly wasn't jelling. Later, we traveled to Central Missouri. From the opening tip, things went very badly. We trailed by 25 at half. We lost the game by over 40 points. I have to admit, I seriously thought about taking a nap under the bus tires and hoping the driver didn't notice me. However, it was my job to make this team better for the MIAA Tournament, so we plunged forward. We righted the ship long enough to have an unimpressive win over Truman State. It was to be the last time John Sloup would bring a team to Maryville. He was fired at the end of the year. Then we traveled to Fort Hays. The Tigers totally dominated the Bearcats and won by 15 points. I must have been bad luck for coaches. Annette Wiles, the Ft. Hays coach, was fired a few days later. Her team didn't qualify for the MIAA Tournament, but we had. We were limping to Kansas City. It sure looked like a one and done appearance in this great event that the MIAA puts on the first week of March.
My coaches, Lori Hopkins and Addae Houston, and I huddled up to decide what to do to right the sinking ship. We decided that too much water had leaked in and we were headed to the same depths of the Titanic. We made one very important decision. We didn't show tape of the past disasters. Practices were short and we tried to smile and be positive. I was sure they were as tired of the coaches and we were of them. It had been a long five months of practices and games. It soon would end with a whimper.
Amazingly, it didn't turn out that way. After trailing Missouri Southern by nine late in the game, we rallied to win in overtime. At least we now had something positive to talk about. Washburn was the next opponent and they were ranked in the top 10. The game was surprisingly close. The Bearcats led at half. Kelli Nelson hit a free throw with five seconds left and we won by three. Even though Mandi Schumaker didn't have a great game in the championship game against Southwest Baptist, Andrea Dill certainly did. The MIAA post season championship was ours, coming from the fifth seed. Mandi was named the tournament MVP.
That's a nice story of a team peaking at the right time, but it doesn't end there. As the bottom seed in the first phase of the NCAA Tournament, we faced West Texas A&M on its home court in Canyon, Texas. They hadn't lost at home in three years. We trailed by 13 at half and no amount of "chemistry, jelling and peaking" was going to save us this time. Then suddenly we caught the Aggies. It went into overtime, where West Texas hit a shot with two seconds remaining. It had been a great run. However, Meghan Brue made sure the season continued. She caught a pass at half court, dribbled once and hit a half-court shot as time ran out. Now the peaking had allowed us to reach the summit.
Even with all the chemistry, jelling and peaking we had at that point, injuries can still derail the best run. Mandi needed a day off to get the swelling out of her chronically bad knee. She didn't get it. Still we led by seven points the next day when Meghan went down with a thigh bruise. Emporia caught us with about 10 minutes left and the run was over.
If a student were to write me and ask how that 2008 team developed team CHEMISTRY, JELLED together as a team, and PEAKED at just the right time, I might actually develop writer's block.
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