A Gentle Giant

Solomon Young's journey through a life in basketball

By Brian Mozey
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

A Gentle Giant

Solomon Young's journey through a life in basketball

The trip was needed.

A trip that allowed Solomon Young to reconnect with his family.

A trip that allowed him to reflect on his life.

A trip he knew was special.

Last year, Solomon and his two sisters decided to give their mother, Tina Solomon, a birthday present.

She’s always talked about driving up the coast from Sacramento, California, his hometown, so her three kids gave her exactly what she wanted. All four of them packed into a car and drove up the coast to enjoy the ocean view and the scenery as a family.

“It was one of the best birthday presents for me,” Tina said. “I was with my family, and we were enjoying time together.”

One of his sisters, Treshenia Solomon, said she loved that drive because there wasn’t fighting or bickering going on. It was just peace and quiet.

From his father dying at a young age to moving in with his relatives to being the star basketball player in Sacramento to an unimaginable recruiting process to battling injuries and weaknesses to becoming a leader of the Iowa State men’s basketball team.

Peace and quiet.

A rare thing in Solomon’s life, something he appreciates when he has the chance.

Solomon Young grew up in the Sacramento, California, and started his sports career in baseball. Soon, he realized basketball was his true passion.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

A swing and a miss

Solomon’s parents, David Allen Young and Tina, divorced before he was born.

He had two sisters on his mom’s side of the family and two sisters and a brother on his dad’s side. Before he started school, Solomon stayed at his mother’s house. When it was time for him to start school, she found an accelerated school near his father’s house and decided that Solomon should stay with his father and attend that school.

Tina described Solomon as a quiet, soft-spoken kid, but also intelligent. She thought this accelerated school would be beneficial for him in the future.

While Solomon attended school, he stayed with his father during the week and his mother on the weekends. During those weekends, Tina worked a full-time job as a bus driver while attending school on her own. It was hard for her to find time and things to do to keep Solomon busy.

Solomon Young was first introduced to baseball before he found his passion for basketball at a young age.
Photo by Hector Nevejas

Solomon’s father decided to sign him up for weekend activities. He registered Solomon for baseball.

“I thought that was going to be his sport,” Tina said. “He liked playing it, but it wasn’t his sport, and football wasn’t a choice [because I wouldn’t let him], so he went to basketball. Once he went into basketball, he took to that like a fish in water.”

In the beginning of his basketball career, David hardly allowed Tina to be a part of the process. Tina described David as a person who knew it all and excluded her because she would always ask Solomon, “What do you want to do?” and leave the option open to him.

David helped Solomon with the basics of how to play basketball, and that’s when the game became a passion.

Then, the summer before Solomon started seventh grade, his father died. Tina doesn’t know specifically how he died, but she knew he didn’t take good care of himself from a health perspective.

That hit Solomon hard.

“When it happened, it was tough,” Solomon said. “The things he instilled in me before he passed, like always work hard and grades, are important. I know he would want me to do well and not end up like my brother.”

His older brother decided to join a gang when Solomon was young, and Solomon knew he didn’t want to follow that path.

“Solomon was mature for his age and knew that wasn’t the path for him,” Tina said. “He hasn’t talked much about his brother. He’ll always love his brother.”

But Solomon knew he was destined for something greater.

Iowa State freshman Solomon Young looks up at the hoop during their game against Drake as part of the HyVee Classic in Des Moines Dec. 17. The Cyclones would go on to defeat the Bulldogs 97-80.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

A new father figure

Solomon didn’t just play for his high school; he was also a part of the AAU program in Sacramento. He played for the AAU Yellow Jackets from fourth grade to his freshman year of high school.

“He grew up with the team,” Tina said. “In high school, he had the ability to change AAU teams, and I think he made a good decision.”

George Sousa was head coach of a new AAU team that was forming in Davis, California. He and Solomon met during Solomon’s freshman year in high school at a basketball camp for AAU. Sousa wanted Solomon on his new team because it had all of the elite players from the Sacramento area.

Solomon had been on the Yellow Jackets all his childhood, so changing to a different team would be a hard transition, but after talking to Sousa and seeing what he could do on the team Solomon switched to the Wildcats. Sousa made sure Solomon could shoot from the 3-point line, rebound and go on a fast break, pass to an open shooter and be a physical presence in the paint with the Wildcats.

Solomon Young played on one particular AAU basketball team, the Yellow Jackets, the majority of his childhood. Once in high school, he made the hard decision to switch AAU teams and play for the Wildcats.
Photo by Tina Solomon

The relationship Sousa and Solomon created allowed them to trust each other. It also meant more to Solomon than anyone imagined. Not only did Solomon look to Sousa for help in improving his basketball skills, but he also looked to him for guidance in high school.

“I look at coach [George] Sousa as a role model and father figure,” Solomon said. “He’s been there through the ups and downs and has supported me in any decision I’ve made in my life.”

Sousa helped Solomon and his family during his junior year when colleges started recruiting Solomon. Besides Tina, Solomon used Sousa to bounce ideas off of regarding strengths and weaknesses of schools.

When he made the decision to go to Iowa State, Solomon told his family first.

Then Sousa.

Sousa knew it was a perfect fit.

He knew Iowa State was a team that played a small-ball type of game that relied on the 3-point shot, but Solomon could be a good change of pace. With his size and skills, Solomon could provide balance with his rebounding and physical presence in the paint.

Sousa knew Solomon was going to be a special player for any team that took a chance on him.

A new home

After his father died, Solomon started living with his mother full-time. He had to adjust to his mother’s work schedule because she was gone most days.

After a couple of years with his mom, Solomon finished middle school and had to decide which high school to attend. They all wanted him because of his basketball abilities.

“It was a difficult decision,” Solomon said. “[Sacramento] High was the best place for education and basketball, so that’s what ultimately made my decision.”

In high school, Solomon moved in with his aunt and uncle, Mary and Dennis Woods. The two were retired and had time to pick him up and drop him off at practice and be there for the games. He lived with them during his freshman, sophomore and junior years.

During those three years, Mary and Dennis spoiled Solomon, Tina said. He didn’t learn much about independence, but he was able to focus on basketball and improve his game.

Solomon Young played basketball at Sacramento High School, but lived with his aunt and uncle throughout the majority of his high school career.
Photo by Tina Solomon

Going into the summer before his senior year, Solomon talked to his mother about the possibility of returning home for his last season. Solomon wanted more independence and to learn how to be on his own before college.

“I told [Solomon] that he can come home, but he’ll be on his own regarding basic daily routines,” Tina said. “He wanted to be on his own, so it was a perfect fit for his last year.”

When he moved back home, Tina and Solomon became closer. Tina had more time off from work, allowing her to see Solomon play in his games and be that number one fan she always wanted to be. They also had more time to talk and understand one another.

And that strengthened bond became essential after Tina got a call from her doctor.

Solomon Young and his mother, Tina Solomon, became really close during his senior year of high school. She helped Solomon in the recruiting process.
Photo by Tina Solomon

An unbreakable bond

Tina was waiting at the bus station for Solomon in June. They were meeting for lunch when she received the phone call.

She had breast cancer — again.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Not again,’” Tina said. “I didn’t want to ruin my lunch with Solomon.”

Tina has been dealing with cancer for much of her adult life. She had her first diagnosis of cancer when Solomon was about 4 years old. Her second diagnosis came when Solomon was in middle school and still living with his father most of the time.

This past June was her third diagnosis, and all three had been some form of breast cancer.

When Solomon reached the bus station, he knew something was wrong. That’s when Tina told him the news. They still went out to lunch that day, but their discussion was different.

Solomon went back to Iowa State during those couple of months for summer sessions and to continue working on basketball. He went back to Sacramento in August to check on his mother before heading to a leadership conference with the basketball team.

When Solomon arrived, Tina wasn’t able to walk and needed a helping hand. That’s when Solomon stepped in to help her get back on her feet. He did simple workouts with her, activities like stretching or walking in a pool or around the house. He needed to be with her.

He called coach Steve Prohm and asked if he could miss the leadership conference. He, of course, said yes, and Solomon focused his attention on Tina.

Throughout that week, they proceeded to work out every day. They made small steps, but by the time he left, Tina was able to squat and walk up and down her steps.

“Those couple of weeks really meant a lot to me, and I know they meant a lot to my mom,” Solomon said. “It was just another opportunity for my mom and I to get closer and continue building our relationship. I’d do anything for her.”

In those two weeks, Solomon and his mother talked about her past cancer experiences. He doesn’t remember the first diagnosis, and only remembers bits and pieces of her second bout with cancer.

“How did you get through those two times?” Solomon asked.

“Fight,” Tina said. “All you can do is fight and hope the treatment does its job.”

The family has made a GoFundMe page to help with paying off some of the bills for her treatments, since it’s a more aggressive treatment plan. She also appreciates all the prayers coming her way. She said they do help.

Tina is now working out at the local gym, and Solomon and her stay in contact almost every day to see how that particular day went and to encourage one another to continue working hard to reach each other’s goals.

“I want Solomon to focus on basketball,” Tina said. “That’s why he went to Iowa State. He can get an education and also continue pursuing his dreams as a basketball player.”

To the cornfields of Iowa

Tina told Solomon that she wanted him to pick a college before his last season of high school basketball. That way it would be more fun to play in his senior season without the stress of picking a new school hanging over his head.

At the beginning of his junior year, he was getting calls from many different schools in the Midwest and West Coast. It was too much for Tina and her family. It became so much that Tina actually gave some of the interest forms and information to Sousa and some family members to sift through.

“We were getting calls constantly,” Tina said. “It was really bad. I couldn’t answer half the calls because there was so much.”

They traveled throughout the country, going to the state of Texas to check out a couple of schools, to Las Vegas, to Washington state and Oregon, and to some of the local schools in California.

But something changed.

Solomon thought if schools were interested in him, they would be asking him to come for a visit. But none of those calls came. Some of his favorite schools, such as Washington State and Oregon State, were growing disinterested while some of the schools lower on his list continued to pursue him.

It wasn’t an ideal situation.

Solomon was saved by T.J. Otzelberger, then an assistant coach with Iowa State who told coach Steve Prohm, who had just been hired to replace Fred Hoiberg, about Solomon.

Solomon Young boxes out West Virginia's Brandon Watkins in the first half of the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Otzelberger told Solomon he needed to make a decision, because otherwise he wouldn’t be attending any of his dream schools. He also told Solomon to visit every school he was interested in, then make Iowa State his final visit.

Solomon and Tina found that Iowa State was different from those other schools. Otzelberger didn’t talk about basketball as much as he talked about education. Tina liked that.

“Most of the schools tried to impress Solomon with the team, the gear, the gym, the sport,” Tina said. “Education is my number one thing. Always has been.”

When they visited Iowa State, the first thing they discussed was courses and professors and the daily schedule of being a student-athlete. Then they discussed basketball.

Before they left, Otzelberger told Solomon that he was going to have another prospect come visit unless Solomon committed soon.

Within 24 hours of returning home, Solomon made the decision to go to Iowa State. He called Otzelberger and told him to tell the other prospect to go home, because they had their guy.

Ups and downs

Solomon came to Iowa State knowing four of the five starters were senior leaders and the main four for the upcoming season. He continued to learn and progress and vie for that fifth starting spot, but then he broke his hand and had to sit out for about a month.

After working hard to get back to 100 percent, Solomon had his shot to start on February 11, 2017, when Iowa State hosted Oklahoma.

He had eight points, two blocks and two rebounds during 22 minutes of play. Prohm said it was nice to have a big man like Solomon to be in the paint grabbing rebounds and also using the paint to score points.

In his 12 starts last season, Iowa State went 10-2. One of his biggest games was at Kansas State when he recorded a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

In the Big 12 Tournament, Solomon showed his dominance in the paint by blocking four shots, a career high, against TCU in the semifinals.

“He was the puzzle piece Iowa State was missing,” Sousa said. “It was a perfect fit that led to a great ending with a Big 12 Tournament championship.”

Solomon couldn’t have asked for a better first season with a Big 12 championship and experience in the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a fun first year,” Solomon said. “Of course, we wanted to make it farther in the NCAA Tournament, but winning a Big 12 championship helped me learn how hard you need to work and the determination you need to reach that goal.”

Now he wants more.

Iowa State forward Solomon Young dunks the ball after a lob pass from a teammate. The Cyclones went on to win 130-63.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

“I know I’m going to be a leader this season,” Solomon said. “I just need to continue working hard to show what Iowa State basketball is all about in Ames.”

Prohm wants to see Solomon continue to build his physical presence from last year, while being a threat out on the 3-point line. The ability to have that versatility is key to Solomon’s success.

His sister Treshenia thinks this Iowa State team will win a national championship within the next three years.

“They’ve already won a Big 12 championship and they are continuing to get better,” Treshenia said. “They should be winning a national championship soon.”

As for Solomon, he’s taking his college experience day by day. He’s not thinking too far into the future. And he always remembers where he comes from.

“When I go back to Sacramento, the younger kids know who I am and what I’ve done at Iowa State,” Solomon said. “They look at me as a role model, so I continue to strive not only to be a better basketball player, but a community person too. I’m always representing Sacramento.”

It's not just another game

An oral history of the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry

By Emily Barske
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

It's not just another game

An oral history of the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry

Keep your options open.

In December 2014, ESPN told the Iowa State Athletics Department to be flexible on the start time for the Kansas game they were hosting in January. There was a possibility that the College GameDay crew might come to Hilton Coliseum to host its show that day.

The Athletics Department sprang into action — all hands on deck. The department ran a student-ticket pick-up in December to reserve seats for the game on a first-come, first-serve basis. The reserved tickets were meant to allow students to attend the potential College GameDay broadcast instead of waiting in line outside Hilton for the best seats.

ESPN had a decision to make. There were plenty of matchups ripe for a showdown scheduled for Jan. 17, 2015 — Duke at Louisville, Utah at Arizona, West Virginia at Texas. But none of those games were selected.

Instead, for the first time in the telecast’s history, College GameDay chose to host the show at Hilton Coliseum, where No. 9 Kansas (14-2) would take on No. 11 Iowa State (12-3). The only two losses in Hilton over the past two seasons were to none other than the Kansas Jayhawks.

Students showed up in bulk to be in the background of the telecast, holding signs like “Bill Self stole my bike,” “Bill Self drinks wine coolers,” “Perry Ellis shaves his legs” and a sign with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz saying “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” And as if the fans weren’t excited enough, the crowd exploded when College GameDay host Jay Williams ripped open his button-down to expose an Iowa State jersey.

ESPN's Jay Williams reveals an Iowa State jersey during GameDay in January 2015.
Photo by Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

While the wind chill was at 28 degrees just before the 8 p.m. tip, Hilton Coliseum was anything but cold. Packed in like sardines, more than 14,000 fans — many of whom witnessed Iowa State winning its first Big 12 Tournament Championship since 2000 the previous spring – filled Hilton.

At the half, the Cyclones were up by three points. After an explosive start to the second half, Iowa State was up by as many as 12 points. But as the Jayhawks normally do, they crawled back in, narrowing the deficit to three points again.

With the help of 20 points from Naz Mitrou-Long, the Cyclones held off Kansas, winning 86-81.

"I told those guys how much they deserve getting a GameDay [telecast] to Iowa State because of what they have done to help put Iowa State basketball on the map," then-head coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "That is a credit to what has happened in this program the last few years, and that is all due to the players, so I told them to enjoy it."

A sign at Allen Fieldhouse after Iowa State beat Kansas in early 2017.
Photo by Luke Manderfeld/Iowa State Daily

SB Nation writer Kevin Trahan said the game symbolized “the return of Hilton Magic, stolen back from the Jayhawks.”

“But this game was different than winning in the Big 12 Tournament, and it was different than pulling a major upset against the Jayhawks,” he wrote. “This was Iowa State gaining the upper hand on Kansas and proving to be a credible challenger in the years to come.”

But long before that national recognition in 2015, the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry was alive and well. It has a storied past full of peaks and valleys, controversial calls and games with everything on the line. Here is some of that history, told through the people who have been through it.

The history

Iowa State’s first intercollegiate basketball game in 1908 was against Kansas, according to university archives. The two schools are in the middle of the Midwest, approximately 268 miles apart, and are separated by the state of Missouri. They are unlike other basketball powerhouses.

Kansas has won 17 regular season titles in the 25-year history of the Big 12 Conference. While Kansas basketball has had a name brand for many years, many would argue Iowa State has created one for itself as well.  

The Jayhawks lead the matchup 115-48 if you started keeping track in the 1949-50 season. If you look at the last five seasons, Kansas still holds the lead, 8-5. But if you narrow the scope a litte more, and look at only the last four seasons, the series is tied 5-5.

Assistant athletics director for communications Mike Green: If there’s one team in the league, if you ask any Kansas fan, who’s been their pest, I would say it’s Iowa State.

Longtime Des Moines Register columnist Randy Peterson: I’ve always known it to be a rivalry. Even in years Iowa State hasn’t been the greatest, they get up well for Kansas. Whether the game’s in Ames or whether the game’s in Kansas, it’s usually always been a good game.

Kansas head coach Bill Self: I think KU and Iowa State have always had a nice rivalry, but I think it has certainly intensified in the last eight to 10 years. They have had such a good run of players, and we have, too.

In the past 20 years, no other team has beaten Kansas more than Iowa State.

Peterson: It annoys me when people say Iowa is Iowa State’s biggest basketball rival. Well, that’s B.S. — I mean, please. If the Iowa fans want to think that, that’s fine. But it’s no question that Iowa State, Kansas is the biggest rivalry. I can never remember when these games weren’t heated among fans or among players.

It’s a rivalry that reaches beyond the bounds of the Big 12. Head coach Steve Prohm said he was paying attention to the matchups even before coaching at Iowa State.

Prohm: I followed it. When I was head coach at Murray State, you know you’re ingrained in your program, but I liked watching Big Monday and ESPN Super Tuesday. I remember watching Niang on ESPN GameDay. I liked watching Iowa State play. Obviously, I followed Kansas. I’ve joked about this — a lot of stuff that we did ball-screen-wise were things that I took from [Kansas] and studied from them. That’s what a lot of our playbook was — it’s changed now.

The phantom points

Alongside the memorable games are also memorable calls — some that the Cyclones still hold onto.

One of the craziest calls Green has ever seen happened in Allen Fieldhouse during former Iowa State head coach Wayne Morgan’s first year — 2004.

Green: A couple things happened in that game that to this day are just bizarre.

Iowa State was down double digits. Iowa State forward Jared Homan went up for a layup and got fouled in the act of shooting. He went to the line to shoot his two free throws. He dribbled twice, took his first shot, missed it. And then things got weird.

Green: Our guys are in the lane off to the side. They obviously don’t do anything after the first shot because it’s a two-shot foul.

A Kansas player grabbed the rebound, threw it to a guy at half court on fast break, and one of the Jayhawk players took a shot from the corner — the refs call it: basket good. All without Iowa State defending them because the team had another free throw.

Green: And our coach just goes ballistic. ‘What is going on? You know, that was a two-shot foul.’ So the refs are like, ‘Oh crap,’ and they start conferring, like, ‘yeah we screwed this up, you’re right, that was a two-shot foul.’

The refs huddled for five minutes, trying to figure out what they were going to do. The decision was that they count the basket for Kansas because it was an uncorrectable error.

And the calls didn’t get better.

Morgan: There were the phantom [points from free throws] that they didn’t take off, but at the end of the game, we were up three, and the kid [Keith] Langford shot a jump shot that the referee said it was three points to tie the game. The replay showed his foot was on the line, it was a two.

Iowa State senior Deonte Burton goes in for a lay-up during its game Jan. 16, 2017, at Hilton Coliseum. The No. 2 Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones 76-72.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Green: I explain this play to people and they go, ‘What, that happened in a game?’ ‘That happened in a game.’ And they go, ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ ‘I know it doesn’t make any sense. It happened in a game and it happened to us.’

Morgan: So they should’ve lost in regulation.

Instead, Iowa State lost in overtime. And if the game wasn’t bad enough, the night got worse.

Green: We drive into the Lawrence airport … and we see like five cop cars. Their cherries are going, and we’re like what’s going on?

As they drove the bus in to get on the plane, they were told someone was on their plane and they had to search it. Protocol said they had to wait two hours to make sure the plane was safe, so they ended up just making the four-hour drive home.

The ‘no call’

Iowa State was up by two points in Hilton Coliseum on Feb. 25, 2013.

Flashback to January earlier that year, Kansas was down three with just a few seconds on the clock in Allen Fieldhouse.

Former player and former head coach Fred Hoiberg: We knew exactly what they were gonna run and we messed up on one of the switches. It left McLemore’s hand and it looked so off when he shot it that I actually started my way down to shake coach Self’s hand. Then it banked in and I almost fell over.

Iowa State senior Monte Morris loses control of the ball during a game against Kansas Jan. 16, 2017, at Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Despite outscoring the Jayhawks in the second half, that buzzer-beating play forced the game into overtime. Kansas eventually won 97-89.

Flash forward to February — Iowa State was looking for revenge.

The clock was winding down. Kansas’ Elijah Johnson drove to the hoop, with his team down two points.

Green: He comes down, throws up a shot and misses it badly. Georges Niang was a freshman at the time. He plays it perfectly — he’s right underneath the basket and Johnson flies right into him. Georges falls down and Johnson falls basically on top of him. They didn’t call anything.

Hoiberg: Georges clearly took the charge, and unfortunately we didn’t get the call and lost that one in overtime.

Prohm: I remember watching the charge call. I watched that game live.

Peterson: The officials did such a horrible job that two of the three were publicly reprimanded by the Big 12. It was crazy. Iowa State had the game won. The officials, not only on the questionable calls they made, but there was one Kansas player [Johnson] who committed the foul. It should’ve been his fifth foul and he would’ve fouled out of the game. That was one of the many questionable calls.

Georges Niang goes up for a lay-up against Kansas at Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Allen Fieldhouse and Hilton Magic

Former Iowa State point guard Jamaal Tinsley was a transfer and only played two years at Iowa State. Growing up in New York, he wasn’t intimidated by away games.

Green: We were getting ready to play Kansas again down in Allen Fieldhouse and we had won the year before with Marcus Fizer.

Iowa State won that game in the 1999-00 season 64-62.

Green: All the media were talking to him and they were saying what a tough test this is going to be to go down to Allen Fieldhouse, it’s hallowed ground, one of the greatest arenas of all time, toughest environments. And Jamaal goes, ‘It’s just another gym.’ So when he says that it comes out in the paper.

The comment was pre-social media, but the news still spread.

Green: It appears in the Kansas papers too and they’re all up in arms. ‘How can you disrespect us?’ And then he backs it up.That was the thing that was so cool about it. He says it and you’re like, ‘Ah, jeez, Jamaal, why’d you say that? Cause they’re going to flip out, you know, this is Allen Fieldhouse.’ And he goes down there and he backs it up.

Tinsley ended up with a 4-0 record against the Jayhawks.

Green: Not only 4-0 against Kansas, but 2-0 in Allen Fieldhouse. There’s probably not too many people who can say they’re 4-0 against Kansas.

For some, it wasn’t just another gym.

Peterson: It’s very old — ancient. But it’s historic.

Hoiberg: The first thing I would think about with the Kansas games were as a player, and I’ll never forget the first moment that I walked into Allen Fieldhouse and saw the banners, retired jerseys and all the history.

Peterson: Before the game, when all the players come out on the floor, they’ve got this whole elaborate introduction with all the bells and whistles. It’s like a rock concert. Kansas is off the charts. You shake — you can feel the boom, boom, boom. And they play the music loud and there’s so much history with Kansas basketball they show on the huge video board that hangs over the floor. They’re showing highlights from Kansas in the past from Wilt Chamberlain to Paul Pierce. ... Some opponents don’t even come out on the floor until Kansas’ introduction is over.   

Hoiberg: It was a really fun rivalry to play in, and unfortunately I never won in that building, but we did have some success against them at home.

What makes it so hard to play at Allen Fieldhouse?

Prohm: Great players. Great coaches. Simple.

Former Iowa State point guard Monte Morris: That was a great atmosphere to play in. Nobody really wins there.  

Except last season, the Cyclones did. Iowa State snapped Kansas’ 54-game home winning streak with a 92-89 comeback, overtime win at Allen Fieldhouse. Iowa State guard Donovan Jackson hit a 3-pointer to ice the game with under a minute left to play. The Cyclones trailed by 14 going into halftime.

Morris: We just went in there and played; you need to make plays to win in there. Being down 15 in the second half, to go and come out on top, it speaks for itself.

Hilton is a tough place to play, too.

Self: It seems to me that the players from both teams enjoy the atmospheres at both places. Going to Ames, we know it is going to be hard and we certainly look forward to each year.

Hoiberg: Allen Fieldhouse speaks for itself. So many people say that it’s maybe the loudest arena in all of college basketball, but I would put Hilton up there with it. I think Hilton’s every bit as loud when the fans get going, especially late in games and it’s bouncing off the wood ceiling, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Peterson: At Iowa State you do have Hilton Magic. I’ve heard the fans so loud, and so revved up, that you can see the backboards shake. I don’t hear that for every game. I hear that for the Kansas game if there’s reason to be loud.

Prohm: They’ve got great tradition there. When you talk about great environments in the Big 12, you’re talking about Hilton and Allen Fieldhouse.

‘A guy you’d like to have a beer with’

Green: I really respect Coach Self …. He has the ideals of a normal Iowan. He grew up in Oklahoma. He’s just a good ol’ nice guy. When you see him behind the scenes, he’s funny, he’s engaging. He doesn’t big-time you. You know I’ve been around coaches and they’ve got the bravado and the ego and the crowns. Bill Self’s not that way ... I know he respects our program. I know fans have that hatred and they just don’t like him.

Peterson: You can say what you want to about Bill Self. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. Bill Self reached out to me when I broke my leg. It had nothing to do with the Kansas game obviously, it was against Iowa [in 2015]. It was a text message because I was in the hospital and pretty loopy. When I ran into him later in the season, we reached out and talked before the game. That was pretty cool.

Prohm: If [Self] does something well, I’ll shoot him a text. If we do something well, he’ll shoot me a text back. I thought it was really nice of him when we won at Allen Fieldhouse, he called me the next day and congratulated us and talked about how much respect he had for our senior class and this program.

Hoiberg: I have a very good relationship with Bill. My daughter actually went to Kansas and works for Bill a couple days a week so I’ve got a really good relationship.

Prohm: When he went into the Hall of Fame, we put a nice video tribute together. I just opened a letter from him today [Sept. 27] thanking us for sending him a note of congratulations for making the Hall of Fame, and also how much he appreciated and thought the video was first class.

Hoiberg: I was down at the Hall of Fame ceremony a couple weeks ago [Sept. 8]. I went out to visit Dwyane Wade, who was getting the humanitarian award, and I was able to spend some time with Bill and the Kansas coaches. It was fun, it was good to see him and it was a very well-deserved honor.

Green: He’s the guy you’d like to have a beer with cause he’s funny and he doesn’t have that ego like a lot of Hall of Fame coaches have.

Mutual respect

Peterson: While there’s a huge rivalry, there’s tremendous respect between the two programs. I don’t care who the Iowa State coach is or players, they go out of their way to compliment Kansas. And why wouldn’t you?

Green: Iowa State has four wins in Allen Fieldhouse since the 1996-97 season. Most teams have one.

Prohm: You want to compete against the best. Coach Self is a Hall of Famer. Kansas is one of the top-five programs of all time.

Iowa State fans hold up signs during ESPN's GameDay show on Jan. 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelby Winger/Iowa State Daily

Peterson: They made an announcement to the crowd after the game that this was Georges Niang’s last game at Kansas. They’d never done that before for an opponent. I remember Georges, after the game, he started crying. That shows you the respect there is among the two programs.

Prohm: That’s the thing, it’s a great rivalry, but you also want it to be a first-class rivalry by the way you handle yourself and the way you compete against them.  

New life to the rivalry

And though Iowa State comes in with a lot of new faces this year, it seems the rivalry will be just as serious.

Peterson: Donovan Jackson won’t let Lindell Wigginton, Terrence Lewis — whoever the newcomers are — he’ll inform them of how big this rivalry is. Solomon Young will. Those guys will let them know. And they’ll sense even before the game. Even Steve Prohm picks up his pace a little bit before Kansas games. So they’ll figure it out.

Perhaps the rivalry will even take on a new meaning for some.

Freshman point guard Lindell Wigginton: On my visit, everybody was like, ‘Forget Kansas, you gotta come here.’ Nobody likes Kansas. So I mean, I was kinda familiar with it. And everywhere I go, everybody’s like ‘Beat Kansas.’ It’s a fun rivalry and I look forward to playing in that game too.

Wigginton’s teammate from Oak Hill Academy, freshman forward Billy Preston, is set to play at Kansas this fall.

Wigginton: Yeah, we’re definitely gonna be talking trash to each other. We used to talk trash to each other in practice and everything, so we’ll definitely talk trash.

Prohm: It’s become a good rivalry and hopefully we can keep that.

Point Guard U

A history of Iowa State's best position

By Aaron Marner
Photo by Iowa State Athletics. Design by Jon Hesse

Point Guard U

A history of Iowa State's best position

Lindell Wigginton stood in a tiny gym in central Iowa wearing a neon-green jersey tucked into his shorts. Most of his teammates played for local community colleges, and given the nature of the Capital City League, Wigginton didn’t know some of the guys with whom he shared the court.

He was playing for no reason other than to show the most loyal of Iowa State fans a glimpse of the star they had heard so much about. Given the hectic summer Wigginton had overseas, nobody would have blamed him for not playing in the Capital City League. Wigginton showed up nonetheless.

The highest-rated recruit to come to Ames since Craig Brackins a decade earlier, Wigginton had the weight of an entire fanbase on his shoulders before he ever played a game at Hilton Coliseum.

On that July night at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa, the crowd was quiet and patient, waiting to explode at a moment’s notice if Wigginton leaped for a dunk, crossed over a defender or nailed a long-range bomb.

Wigginton caught an outlet pass, dribbled up the court and missed a pull-up jumper short off the rim. The only voice Wigginton heard as he jogged back on defense was that of Monte Morris.

“That was great,” Wigginton said. “A lot of players played before me at the Cap City League but he made a point to just come watch me. He was talking on the sidelines, telling me what to do and things like that during the game. It was just fun.”

A history of greatness

Dating all the way back to the 1950s, Iowa State’s greatest teams and moments have almost always been led by talented point guards.

When Iowa State knocked off Wilt Chamberlain’s No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in 1957, it was Cyclone All-American guard Gary Thompson who outscored Chamberlain, 18-17, in the two-point margin of victory.

When Hilton Magic began with coach Johnny Orr in the 1980s, point guard and future NBA all-star Jeff Hornacek ran the offense.

In the 21 seasons since the formation of the Big 12 conference, a Cyclone point guard has led the league in assists nearly 25 percent of the time (five times) — an extremely disproportionate number for a conference that has had 10 or more teams each year.

Since 2006, a Cyclone has finished in the top 20 nationally in assists five times among all 351 Division I teams.

It’s been a tradition for every coach from Orr all the way through current coach Steve Prohm. Nobody can pinpoint the exact cause, but for some reason, Iowa State has always found a way to produce great point guards. It’s as much a part of Cyclone basketball culture as Hilton Magic and Clone Cones.

Some have been flashy passers like Jamaal Tinsley. Others, like Curtis Stinson and Mike Taylor, looked to score first. They’ve come in all forms and play styles, but the one constant throughout the years of Cyclone hoops has been leadership and strength from point guards.

‘Your guards are just so good’

Iowa State was in a panic.

Just two years removed from back-to-back Big 12 regular-season titles, head coach Larry Eustachy resigned after photos surfaced of Eustachy drunk with college students at a house party in Columbia, Missouri, after a January 21, 2003, Cyclone loss to the Tigers. Arguably the most successful stretch in Iowa State basketball history was ending in shambles and national embarrassment.

Desperate to cling to the recent success, Iowa State promoted assistant coach Wayne Morgan to the head coaching position. The goal was to keep Eustachy’s recruits — namely guards Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock — on board with Iowa State’s new hire.

After all, Morgan had been the lead recruiter for both Stinson and Blalock. As a New York native, Morgan had a strong connection with them since they had also come from the Northeast.

Iowa State first learned about Stinson from a friend of Morgan in New York when Morgan was still an assistant coach.

Morgan’s friend called him up and said he had a kid named Curtis who Morgan should see. The kid, Morgan’s friend said, played a lot like Jamaal Tinsley, who had been named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2001.

That, of course, piqued Morgan’s interest. He went to see Stinson’s AAU team and immediately knew he had a special player on his hands.

Curtis Stinson (above) and Will Blalock were a fearsome guard duo right when they came to Iowa State.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

“Curtis played on a team where he was the point guard, but he was like the biggest guy on the team,” Morgan said. “Nobody could stop him. He just went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored … and I said, ‘Yeah, we’d be absolutely interested in him.’”

When Stinson and Blalock arrived in Ames, they were ready to go right away.

Stinson led the team in scoring and assists as a freshman, with Blalock finishing second in assists while coming off the bench. Stinson still holds the Iowa State freshman scoring record with 534 points.

The magic of Stinson and Blalock, however, came during their second season. That’s when the backcourt took over.

Stinson again led the team in scoring, with Blalock finishing third on the team in points. Blalock, the more natural passer, led the team in assists, while Stinson finished second. Iowa State went on to win 19 games that season before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion North Carolina.

The biggest moment, though, came on a Saturday afternoon in February in Lawrence, Kansas.

Iowa State pulled off a massive upset over No. 2 Kansas, thanks in large part to Stinson’s game-high 29 points. He hit a game-winning pull-up jumper with 5.1 seconds left in overtime to seal the deal.

“I can’t tell you how many times an opposing coach would say to me, ‘Your guards are just so good,’” Morgan said.

Will Blalock (above) and Curtis Stinson forwent their senior seasons after Wayne Morgan left the program.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

In 2005-06, Stinson and Blalock finished first and second on the team in points, assists, minutes and steals. Iowa State lost six games by one possession or in overtime, however, and missed out on the postseason.

When Wayne Morgan was let go after the season, Stinson and Blalock elected to forgo their final year of eligibility. Both declared for the NBA Draft. Blalock was selected 60th overall by the Detroit Pistons while Stinson went undrafted.

Morgan called it a “travesty” that Stinson never got to play in the NBA. While he never got that opportunity, Stinson left his mark as a Cyclone. He ranks ninth in school history in career points per game at 17.6 and is eighth all-time in career assists. His backcourt mate ranks seventh in career assists.

Taylor, Garrett and a new era

The departure of Morgan after three short years was followed by an in-state hire. Northern Iowa’s Greg McDermott had led the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, but he walked into a depleted roster in Ames.

Gone were Stinson and Blalock, two leaders and veterans who had more experience than just about any pair of players in the country. Sophomore Tasheed Carr and freshman Shawn Taggart elected to transfer as well, leaving McDermott with a bare cupboard.

Rahshon Clark and Jiri Hubalek were the only contributors that remained from the Morgan era, but neither of them were guards.

Mike Taylor was.

Taylor was a skinny 6-foot-2 guard, who, as McDermott said, played the game more like a two-guard than a point guard.

Nobody could guard Mike Taylor except, well, Mike Taylor. He led Iowa State with 16 points per game in his first year at the Division I level and also led the team in assists.

The problem? Turnovers and missed shots. In his only year at Iowa State, Taylor racked up 168 turnovers. In contrast, Monte Morris finished his four-year college career with 165.

Mike Taylor was wild with the ball, but he sure was a playmaker. He eventually played in the NBA.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

“He hated to lose a drill in practice, let alone a game,” McDermott said. “We gave Mike a tremendous amount of freedom that year he played for us and obviously he’s gone on and done some good things in his professional career as well.”

Taylor became the first NBA D-League player to be drafted into the NBA when Portland picked him up in the 2008 NBA Draft. The highlight of his professional career came on the bright stage of Madison Square Garden in 2009 when he lit up the Knicks for 35 points and eight rebounds as a member of the Clippers.

With Taylor gone after only one year, McDermott was able to hand the reins to the next man in line.

Diante Garrett had basketball in his genes. His father, Dick Garrett, played in the NBA in the 1970s, and Diante’s 6-foot-4 frame made him an intriguing prospect.

When he first arrived in Ames, however, Diante was about as raw as a prospect could be.

“Diante really worked on his game,” McDermott said. “He really had an endless motor … Obviously, there was a learning curve as a freshman, but he had a good sophomore year and a better junior year, then a great senior year when he was playing for Fred [Hoiberg].”

Garrett got better each year. His assist and steal numbers progressively improved each of his four seasons. As a scorer, Garrett jumped from 6.3 points per game as a freshman to 17.3 as a senior.

He marked the transition from the Stinson and Blalock days to the Hoiberg era, too. Garrett never had a winning season in college, but he played a crucial role for both McDermott and Hoiberg and became a steadying force in a time of turbulence.

“He was pretty consistent,” McDermott said. “He wasn’t one of those guys where he’d have a big game and then disappear. He was a rock for us. He had to play a lot of minutes and he never got tired.”

When Iowa State had rare moments of success on the court in those years, Garrett was at the forefront. Iowa State knocked off then-No. 5 Kansas State in 2010 as the Wildcats fought for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They wouldn’t have won without Garrett, who McDermott called “huge” in that game.

Iowa State’s star forward, Craig Brackins, had fouled out with about two minutes remaining in regulation of a tight game. Garrett took over.

“It was a great win at the time,” McDermott said. “We put the ball in Diante’s hands a lot late in that game, and he made some great decisions for our team.”

Diante Garrett was a steadying factor in the backcourt during Fred Hoiberg's first year as head coach.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Garrett scored the first five points of overtime and Iowa State held on for the biggest win of the McDermott era. He finished with eight points and eight assists in the win.

Garrett’s senior year was completely unlike his first three. With McDermott now coaching at Creighton and former Cyclone legend Fred Hoiberg patrolling the sidelines at Hilton in his place, Garrett had a lot of freedom as a point guard that he didn’t have earlier in his career.

“When I was able to recruit after that, I showed a lot of what we did with Diante,” Hoiberg said. “I think that was very attractive to point guards. They loved how we played with him [with the] freedom. … That was huge that I had Diante to be the catalyst in that system that first year because it really set the tone for my future guards and the way that we recruited them. Diante was a very important player.”

He led the Cyclones in minutes, points, assists and steals his senior year en route to being named All-Big 12 second-team. Garrett eventually played two seasons in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns before playing overseas.

After Garrett’s one year with Hoiberg, the Cyclones needed a new floor general. Guards such as Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were good one-year options, but Iowa State needed someone fresh to be the face of the backcourt for years to come.

Controlling the game

When Monte Morris arrived in Ames as a 170-pound freshman, he didn’t know what to expect.

The Cyclones were coming off back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Half of the team from the previous year was gone. Hoiberg was a local legend who had somehow revitalized a struggling program within two years, but for the first time in his brief coaching career, there were legitimate expectations for his program.

But the 2013-14 season? That was completely up in the air. Morris, fellow freshman Matt Thomas, and some transfers — such as Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane — would be asked to step up, but nobody really knew what the team would look like. The stable of transfers Hoiberg brought into Ames had finally expired, and the Cyclones were looking for new faces to lead the program into the future.

Morris would go on to become arguably the most decorated basketball player in Iowa State history. He currently holds school records for career wins, assists, steals and a number of other achievements. But back then, Morris was just a skinny freshman getting pushed around in practice.

“I think the biggest thing was DeAndre was almost 24 years old and here comes Monte as an 18-year-old kid,” Hoiberg said. “His eyes were wide open, I don’t think he really knew what to expect. DeAndre really pushed him.”

At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Kane had a considerable size advantage over Morris. Having three years of college basketball experience and six years of age ahead of Morris didn’t hurt, either.

Kane started at point guard as Iowa State raced out to a 14-0 record to start the year. For the first half of the year, Morris came off the bench. But as conference play got rolling, Hoiberg switched things up and started Morris in place of Matt Thomas. Morris started the final 17 games of the season alongside Kane.

Playing beside Kane was more fun for Morris than playing against him in practice.

“It was tough,” Morris said. “He definitely bullied me [in practice]. But around February or March, I started learning his style and his tricks and I got better with it.”

Iowa State went on to win the Big 12 Tournament title that year for the first time since 2000, and a Sweet 16 run followed. But once the season ended, the Cyclones again were faced with replacing star players. It was Morris’ time to shine.

Nobody wondered about his passing ability, but people questioned Morris’ size. They questioned his scoring ability and whether he could be a go-to offensive player for a Big 12 team.

He wasted no time proving people wrong.

During the next three years, Morris led Iowa State to two more Big 12 Tournament titles, three more NCAA Tournament victories and a number of unforgettable moments.

One of those moments came during his sophomore year at the Big 12 Tournament. Morris scored a game-high 24 points, including a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper to give Iowa State a first-round victory over Texas.

“I’ll never forget Monte hitting the shot against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament,” Hoiberg said. “We were down the whole game. I think we may have been down 20 that game in the first half.

“We called a play to run a screen and he was gonna read how the defense played it and he read it perfectly. He rose up and hit one of the biggest shots of the year.”

Monte Morris celebrates in the first half of the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri, in March 2017.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

When Hoiberg took the head coaching position with the Chicago Bulls, Iowa State’s next head coach — naturally — was a point guard guru.

Steve Prohm came from Murray State after just four years as a head coach, but he already had produced two NBA point guards at a little-known, mid-major school. Those two guards — Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne — were proof of Prohm’s ability to get his floor generals to the next level.

“You have guys that you give freedom to because you can trust them,” Hoiberg said. “That takes a good coach to be able to have that trust in your point guards as opposed to having your thumb on them all the time and controlling every play. Steve’s done a good job of that.

“It’s always good when you’re coaching and you have players that you helped put in the league because it helps you with recruiting and I believe that’s why he’s continued to have success with the guards that he has in there now.”

Thanks to Morris being drafted by the Denver Nuggets last June, all three primary point guards who have played for Prohm at the college level have gone on to get selected in the NBA Draft.

By the time Morris left Ames, his name was etched in school history among the best to ever play in a Cyclone uniform.

The next chapter

Lindell Wigginton stood in Cairo, Egypt, with a gold medal draped around his neck and a brazen grin plastered across his face. Next to him, one of his teammates held a Canadian flag stretched across his body.

Wigginton had just captained the Canadian U19 team to the 2017 FIBA championship. Basketball fans around the world watched as Wigginton and his teammates knocked off France, the United States and Italy during three consecutive days in early July to win the tournament.

“That was a mind-blowing experience,” Wigginton said. “That’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Two weeks later, as he stood in that tiny gym in central Iowa, Wigginton felt a different kind of pressure.

Although Morris and Wigginton never overlapped as Cyclones, the pair of floor generals developed a strong relationship during the last year.

Just as DeAndre Kane pushed Morris when he was a freshman, Morris wants to push Wigginton. Since Wigginton holds the size advantage, the bullying isn’t quite the same.

Still, Morris and Wigginton both recognize that the torch has been passed. It’s Wigginton’s time now, Morris said.

“He’s definitely ready to take over,” Morris said. “He’s only a freshman. I just broke records, but if anybody can break them, it could easily be him.”

Arguably the most accomplished player in school history said Wigginton could break his records before Wigginton had ever set foot in Hilton. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to, especially for an 18-year-old kid.

Wigginton doesn’t have the luxury of being eased into his college career like Morris did. Instead, he has a target on his back, along with loftier expectations from fans than probably any Cyclone since Marcus Fizer.

“I’m just always gonna go play my game,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really feel pressure. I don’t get caught up too much in the hype.”

He has the benefit of playing alongside senior point guard Donovan Jackson, but instead of learning behind Jackson like Morris did with Kane, Wigginton will be sharing the role right off the bat.

“I know I’ve got big shoes to fill since Monte left. I know the team’s got big shoes to fill because they’ve been making the NCAA Tournament for so many consecutive years,” he said. “It’ll be a disappointment to me if I don’t lead my teams to the NCAA Tournament, or get as many wins as [fans] are used to having.”

Lindell Wigginton will be expected to carry the torch of Iowa State's well-chronicled point guards.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

For Iowa State to make the tournament, Wigginton will certainly have to play a big role. The team is replacing six seniors and a transfer from a year ago, but that doesn’t faze Wigginton.

Individually, he wants to play in the NBA one day.

For now? Wigginton has other things on his mind.

“I just want to be a winner,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really care about my individual stats. Obviously that’s a bonus if [I could be] Big 12 Freshman of the Year or All-American, but I just want to be considered a winner.”

When Wigginton leaves, whether that’s after one year or four years, Iowa State will still be in good hands at the point guard position, thanks to the program’s long tradition and Prohm’s reputation.

“You look at guys like Hornacek and Tinsley and Morris and Diante Garrett and Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson and, who am I leaving out?” Prohm said. “I know there’s a couple I’m probably leaving out. You look at all these guys; we’ve had a special, special run of point guards here from Orr to now.”

Two Pops and a Return

After knee surgeries, Hans Brase is ready to contribute

By Brian Mozey
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Two Pops and a Return

After knee surgeries, Hans Brase is ready to contribute

Pop.

A single sound that no basketball player wants to hear in his career.

Hans Brase has heard that sound twice. He’s also felt it.

“I remember it vividly,” Brase said.

Oct. 27, 2015. The first pop.

It was a couple of weeks into fall practice of 2015 during his senior year at Princeton, and he was practicing some basic drills. Brase drove the line, then stopped near the basket.

He tried pivoting his foot back, but his body continued to move forward, causing his right knee to move two ways and pop. He felt pain instantly as he fell to the floor, but quickly got up from the ground and walked it off.

For a player that hasn’t had any major injuries, Brase didn’t think ACL instantly, but instead thought he could tape it up.

“I heard a pop, but I walked off on my own, so I thought it couldn’t be that bad,” Brase said. “Maybe a couple weeks.”

He went to the doctor the next day, who told him what no athlete wants to hear — a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which signifies a rehab process of eight to 12 months. Even then, he may not return as the same player for his senior season.

Brase took a year off from basketball and school because the Ivy League doesn’t allow standard redshirts. To maintain his last year of eligibility, he had to take a break. He returned for the 2016-17 season ready to show he was ready to make an impact again.

Then, Nov. 29, 2016. The second pop.

Brase and the Princeton basketball team were at Virginia Commonwealth University for its fifth game of the season. It was getting closer to the end of the first half and Brase was getting a pass from a teammate.

As the ball was coming to Brase, a VCU defender stole the ball. Brase stopped quickly to try and stop the fast break when his shoes stuck to the newly finished floor. As he tried to get back on defense, his knee gave out and he heard the pop.

Brase’s mother, Bertina, was at the game. When the second pop occurred, Bertina heard a scream from Hans that she’s only heard when he injured himself before. It’s not a cry of sadness; it’s a scream of pain and frustration.

If you run the video back of his injury, there’s a woman behind the Princeton bench, leaned over and holding her head in her hands. That’s Bertina Brase.

“I knew the second he hit the floor it was the knee again,” Bertina said. “Hans has a very high pain tolerance, and I heard one loud cry and I knew it wasn’t good.”

She was right. It was the second torn ACL on the same right knee. Another eight to 12 months of rehab and getting his knee back to normal.

On top of that, his career at Princeton was over. The next question: Was his college basketball career over, too?

Simply put, no. After visiting with the doctor, Hans found out it was just the ACL and that basketball could be in his future if he wanted to rehab and go through the process again.

Easy decision.

Basketball had been his life. He couldn’t leave the sport now when he could finish strong. It was time to rehab the knee — again

Hans Brase, whose family has German roots, has aspirations to play for the German senior national team some day.
Photo by Brase family

Finding his path

Hans was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but after about two weeks in the United States, he and his family moved to Germany. His parents were from Germany and lived there for most of their lives.

His mother, Bertina, and his father, Joe, were born and raised in Germany. Hans’ family are the only members of both his mom’s and dad’s families that aren’t currently living in Germany.

“I’m always excited to go back to Germany because I get to see my extended family,” Hans said. “It’s also nice to see where I grew up and continue to learn more about my heritage and culture.”

After two years overseas, his family decided to move back, but jumped from place to place at the beginning. They lived in Kentucky for a couple of years, then lived outside of Detroit for another couple of years.

“All of my friends thought one of my parents was in the military because we moved so much,” Hans said. “It wasn’t actually that though. It was my dad’s work.”

Hans’ father is in corporate finance and had to travel for his job when Hans was growing up.

The Brase family finally decided Clover, South Carolina, would be the final destination. Growing up in Michigan, Hans didn’t touch a basketball, but rather picked up a hockey stick. He also followed the footsteps of his mother, who was a swimmer when she was younger.

In Michigan, hockey is a religion, but once he moved south, the sport of hockey vanished quickly. That’s when he gravitated toward basketball.

“I was tall and athletic and had good footwork from playing soccer,” Hans said. “I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’”

Hans played a variety of sports each summer in middle school, but once he played basketball in high school, he realized the potential of playing at a college in the future.

He played three seasons at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, North Carolina, before he made a big decision that would pay off for his future plans in college.

The formative years

After three years at high school, Hans decided to attend a boarding school called The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

The decision to go there was easy because his older brother, Janpeter Brase, and sister, Marie-Luise Brase, nicknamed Lulu, went there for academics and basketball, so he knew the program was excellent. He also wanted to get away from the house since he was the only child left.

“I was so used to having people be in our house constantly,” Bertina said. “Once Hans left for boarding school, it was an eye-opening experience because no one was there.”

When he went to The Hill School, he reclassified as a junior. Since he had an early birthday in September, if he were to play only four years, he would have graduated at 17 years old. Due to the age factor and how common it was to reclassify at The Hill School, Hans decided to play five seasons in his high school career.

That extra year, especially at The Hill School, helped build Hans’ confidence, and also made his name known throughout the East Coast.

Once he started his reclassified junior year, colleges and universities connected with The Hill School coach as well as the Hans family. Hans wasn’t sought after by big-name college programs, but a Division I school was in his future. He had aspirations beyond that, too, in national basketball for Germany.

The three biggest schools on Hans’ radar were the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Davidson. After being at The Hill School for two years, he was surrounded by the brotherly love of Philadelphia, so Penn — located in Philadelphia — and Princeton — just an hour away — were always ranked higher than the hometown school of Davidson in North Carolina.

He also wanted the opportunity to learn from the best, so playing in the Ivy League would allow him to be challenged academically in the classroom and physically on the court.

“I decided to go to Princeton because of my connection with the coach at Princeton, the family-type atmosphere with the team as well as the rich history in basketball that they have there,” Hans said. “Combine that with the number one school in the country, it’s kind of hard to turn that down.”

He was going to be a Tiger.

Hans Brase in a Princeton uniform. Brase committed to Princeton because of his Philadelphia roots.
Photo by Princeton Athletics

Once a Tiger, always a Tiger

Hans played minimally in his first season with the Tigers because they already had one dominant post player. HIs name was Ian Hummer, one of the all-time greats at Princeton and one of Hans’ mentors.

Hans described Hummer as a “freak athlete.” After all, he was two-time unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and the Ivy League Player of the Year his senior year.

Hans learned the ropes from Hummer and played in 18 games, averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game during that first campaign.

After his freshman year, Hans became the inside man and a dominant presence in the paint for the next couple of seasons. He averaged 11.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game his sophomore season and 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game his junior year. His leadership off the court was one of the biggest aspects that the Princeton basketball staff appreciated from him.

He also had some fun. Hans’ teammate, Mike LeBlanc, recalled a handful of memories with Hans as a roommate during the summers, specifically at 6 a.m. every day.

They drove together to go work out every morning in Hans’ car, but his radio was broken. The only thing that worked was his CD player.

“He had a CD that we found underneath the seat,” LeBlanc said. “We had no idea what the CD was, so we put it in one day and it was the most unique songs we’ve ever heard. We listened to it every day after that and ended up knowing every word at the end of the summer.”

The CD had three songs: Time of Your Life by Green Day, Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson and Tongue Tied by Grouplove. Now when they hear those songs, they send each other Snapchats, singing.

LeBlanc also said he and Hans had a tight budget for food and other such expenses, so they tried to find the cheapest options. They could barely afford the apartment, so for food, they went to Costco and bought big bags of frozen fruit, a huge bag of frozen chicken and pasta.

“We weren’t great cooks, but we could throw everything in a pot and stir it up,” LeBlanc said. “It was macaroni with eggs and hot dogs. That was our go-to meal. Not the healthiest thing.”

But they made the meal so much that now they get together at least once a year and make macaroni with eggs and hot dogs. It’s become their tradition.

But the funniest memory he can recall is when the two of them along with their two roommates went to see the movie “We Are Your Friends” featuring Zac Efron.

They didn’t just go to the movie; they dressed up and looked slick for the movie.

“We thought it was going to be a big movie at the end of the summer,” LeBlanc said. “We thought girls love Zac Efron, so we dressed up all nice and went to the movie theater to realize we were the only people in the movie theater.”

LeBlanc was in a full suit and Hans was decked out in some fancy threads, but they decided to stay and watch the movie. It became one of their favorite films and they watched it countless times when the movie was available on DVD.

Those are the types of memories LeBlanc will keep with him for years ahead, but Hans has a distinct memory of his time on the court as a Tiger.

Even though Hans was on the bench the majority of his senior year at Princeton, he remembers the run to the Ivy League championship game. The Tigers went a perfect 14-0 against Ivy League opponents in the regular season. Then, they only had two games to win the title.

After a close 72-64 overtime win for Princeton over Penn, the team took on Yale for the title. Princeton took control for most of the game, winning 71-59, allowing Hans to finish his career as a Tiger with his one and only Ivy League title.

“Every season is memorable with different teammates and forming those friendships that will last a lifetime,” Hans said. “That Ivy League title is something special, though, and that will always be in my heart.”

LeBlanc was happy to win that title for Princeton and especially Hans after the injury, but he wished Hans could have been out there to end his Tigers career with a jersey on and the ball in his hands.

Recovery and redemption

LeBlanc thought Hans was banged up after hearing the first pop in practice, but after he walked off on his own, LeBlanc thought Hans was fine. Then he heard that the team would be losing its captain to an ACL tear.

“Everyone on the team called him Papa Hans because he was older than all of us,” LeBlanc said. “You hate to see a guy like him go down with an injury because he doesn’t deserve that to happen to him.”

Hans knew he would be back to play after that first tear. Bertina remembered the phone call from Hans telling them he had torn his ACL, but had all the steps he needed to take to get back on the court.

His recovery was complicated by the Ivy League’s lack of a redshirt season. Hans had to decide whether to stay on the team, injured, and lose a year of eligibility or leave the team to keep that year.

“I decided dropping school would be the best option for me, so I could play my senior year,” Hans said. “It was difficult being away from the team and such, but I knew it was the best choice.”

After making the long recovery back to 100 percent, Hans was cleared to practice fully at the end of summer 2016. His first few games were shaky because he hadn’t played a game of basketball in about a year.

The VCU game, Hans admitted, was the first time that season he felt he had his groove back and was starting to get on a roll before the second pop.

Hans Brase suffered two ACL injuries during his collegiate career at Princeton.
Photo by Princeton Athletics

LeBlanc remembered seeing Hans go down on the court and knew it wasn’t good, especially after he grabbed his right knee, the same one he tore before.

After the second one, though, Bertina wanted to talk it through with Hans and see if he wanted to proceed with the rehab. Once the doctor said it was just the ACL, Hans knew he was coming back for a fifth and final season.

“There was no question that I would be coming back,” Hans said. “There was no quitting in my mind. I was going to be back for the fall of 2017.”

The problem was that he needed a final destination to his college basketball journey. Princeton couldn’t keep him for another year, so Hans decided to rely on his head coach, Mitch Henderson.

Henderson had not helped with graduate transfers in his time at Princeton, but wanted to help Hans play his final season.

Once Hans was available to recruit, Henderson received many phone calls from different head coaches. He would discuss them with Hans and they worked together to find the right school.

That school became Iowa State.

Hans enjoyed the rich tradition of winning at Iowa State and playing in the Big 12, one of the best conferences in the country. He also understood the ability to reach the NCAA Tournament and wanted to end his final season on a high note.

Anything less would be a disappointment.

Hans Brase is back healthy for his final collegiate season, which is at Iowa State.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

His German roots

Hans has dreamed of playing basketball professionally, specifically on the German national team. He’s taken steps to reach that point sooner rather than later by playing in the German program during the summers of his college career.

Every summer, Hans flew to Germany and played with the national players. He first played with the U-20 team in the FIBA European Championships in the summer of 2013. After that summer, he went to the second-tier national team, but his injuries haven’t allowed him to play on the senior national team.

He continued to go back each summer, even while he was injured, to reconnect with the players and build a stronger chemistry for the future.

Hans also enjoys going to Germany during the summer because he’s able to see the culture and family his parents grew up with during their childhood. The most exciting part for him is to see the extended family, which provides a stronger tie to his heritage and culture.

“It’s been so much fun going back each summer to practice with the German team,” Hans said. “It makes me truly proud to be a German.”

His mother, Bertina, couldn’t agree more.

“I’m so proud of him for striving to play on the national team and represent Germany on the basketball court,” she said.

Hans knows that Iowa State can help him reach those goals, while striving to win Big 12 and NCAA championships.

“I think this is a perfect place to wrap up my college basketball career,” Hans said. “I’ve appreciated my time with Princeton, but this season I’m a Cyclone.”

More than an Assistant

David Hobbs uses role to be a mentor, friend, coach

By Aaron Marner
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

More than an Assistant

David Hobbs uses role to be a mentor, friend, coach

Nobody is quite able to sum up what David Hobbs means to the Iowa State men’s basketball program.

Not even Hobbs himself.

“Well, my title is — hang on, I gotta read it off the door,” Hobbs said. He got out of his chair at his Sukup Basketball Complex office, walked over to the closed door, opened it, checked the sign, and leaned back into the room. “Special assistant to the head coach,” Hobbs said, walking back to his desk. “But basically, what it is, since this position under NCAA regulations is not an on-the-floor situation, I’m more of like a consultant slash mentor.”

On some days he’s a coach. On others, he’s a spectator, somewhat removed from the day-to-day activities of the team.

He has a wealth of basketball knowledge and experience dating back to his first job in 1972 as a high school assistant coach in Virginia, through stints as a college coach, to coaching the Japan National Team in 2009, and including nearly a decade as an NBA scout.

To head coach Steve Prohm, Hobbs is a trusted mentor.

To Iowa State players, he’s just coach Hobbs.

Former Iowa State point guard Monte Morris credited Hobbs with helping his jumpshot and preparing him for the NBA Draft. One of the first people highly touted freshman guard Lindell Wigginton sought out when he arrived in Ames was Hobbs.

“I talk to him almost every day because I’m trying to get to the next level,” Wigginton said.

Regardless of his title, Hobbs’ role with the Cyclones can’t be overstated, even if he isn’t running the show on the sidelines or hitting the recruiting trail.

Coaching the Crimson Tide

Hobbs spent eight years as an assistant, then a head coach at the high school level in the 1970s. For the first half of the 1980s, Hobbs was an assistant coach alongside Tubby Smith at Virginia Commonwealth (VCU).

In 1985, he got his first major college basketball coaching job at Alabama. The Crimson Tide made the NCAA Tournament six times in Hobbs’ seven years as an assistant coach. When longtime Alabama head coach Winfrey “Wimp” Sanderson left in 1992, Hobbs was promoted to head coach, his first time in that role at the college level.

From 1992-1998, Hobbs patrolled the sidelines, coaching Alabama to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a 110-76 overall record, the sixth most wins by a coach in Alabama history.

During five of those six years, a young student manager named Steve Prohm did whatever the coaches and players at Alabama asked.

Hobbs was impressed.

“The more you’re in athletics, the more you realize there’s two kinds of people,” Hobbs said. “One is talkers, and the other is doers. There’s plenty of talkers in this business. There’s not as many doers. As a manager, Steve was always a doer.”

Steve Prohm (left) and David Hobbs (right) are friends off the court and first met when Prohm helped out Hobbs' staff at Alabama in the 1990s.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Steve Prohm, who is now Iowa State’s men’s basketball head coach, listed his duties as a student manager at Alabama: “Laundry, rebounding, stuffing envelopes to mail to recruits, running to get people’s lunch.”

While that doesn’t sound glorious, Prohm said it helped him in his coaching career. He made connections with players, other managers and coaches who have helped him along the way.

He also caught the eye of Hobbs, who has remained a mentor and a friend ever since.

Hobbs resigned after the 1998 season after missing the postseason in his final two years.

When 1999 rolled around, both Hobbs and Prohm were gone from the Crimson Tide basketball program, set on different paths that wouldn’t reconnect for another 15 years.

After Alabama

In 2000, Hobbs accepted a job as an assistant coach with one of the most prestigious college basketball programs: the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

His old assistant coaching partner from VCU, Tubby Smith, had won a national championship as the head coach of the Wildcats in 1997-1998. Just two short years later, an assistant coaching job opened up and Hobbs was hired.

From 2000 until Smith left for Minnesota in 2007, Hobbs got to coach future NBA stars in front of one of the most passionate fan bases in America.

“A lot about Iowa State reminds me of when I was at Kentucky,” Hobbs said. “The fans are rabid, the fans are knowledgeable, they really care about their basketball program.”

The main difference, he said, is Kentucky’s tradition. Fans at Kentucky expect the team to succeed. It’s championship or bust for the Wildcats. After all, Kentucky has eight national championships to its credit, whereas the Cyclones haven’t made a Final Four since 1944.

When Smith left, Hobbs accepted a job as an NBA scout and during the next nine years he worked for three NBA teams and watched hundreds, if not thousands, of games.

The only break he took from scouting was in 2009 when he spent a year in Japan.

“That was kind of an interesting situation,” Hobbs said. “It’s probably a two- or three-beer story.”

Gregg Polinsky, the director of player personnel for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, was a former assistant coach at Alabama under Hobbs in the 1990s. The Nets had an intern who was involved with the Japan Basketball Association. Polinsky recommended Hobbs to the intern, who got the wheels in motion back in Japan.

“There was all kinds of challenges,” Hobbs said. “The culture, the language, the 14 hours difference in time.”

For Hobbs, it was the wrong place at the wrong time. He had grandchildren by that point, and his family was nearly 6,000 miles away, back home in Alabama. He returned to the United States to be closer to home, but his heart remained in basketball.

In the pros

After returning from Japan, Hobbs resumed working as a scout for the Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets and the Charlotte Bobcats.

The Jazz, like many professional sports teams, had regional scouts. Hobbs was based out of Birmingham, Alabama, and therefore scouted a lot of SEC and ACC games, but during conference tournament season, the Jazz sent scouts out of their typical regions in order to get a second pair of eyes on players.

One year, Hobbs was assigned to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. The Jazz’s primary Big 12 scout was based out of Waco, Texas.

“The guy from Waco, he was sending me things,” Hobbs said. “So we got [down the list] to Iowa State, and he listed a couple of guys and his questions about them.

“And then he says, ‘Man, they’ve got this guy. He’s a freshman named Georges Niang. The guy looks like he would be the last guy in the YMCA you’d pick. He’s unkempt-looking, he’s overweight, he can’t jump, he’s got no quickness, but I’ll tell you one thing, that damn guy knows how to score.’”

In two games at the Big 12 Tournament that year, Niang averaged 14.5 points per game on 52 percent shooting. Needless to say, Hobbs was impressed

But the story doesn’t end there.

Fast-forward to the offseason between Niang’s junior and senior seasons, when Niang lost upwards of 30 pounds and was preparing for his final college season and a future in the NBA.

Hobbs was at the Adidas Nations camp in Los Angeles, an elite camp for several dozen of the top college and high school players in the nation. He was talking to some other scouts and watching a few players shoot.

“You kind of knew who everybody was because you had seen them all year,” Hobbs said. But one unfamiliar player caught his eye. “So I went over and I said, ‘Who is that?’”

When another scout told him the skinny forward was the same overweight kid he saw two years earlier, Hobbs couldn’t believe it.

“That ain’t Georges Niang!” Hobbs told the other scout. “Georges Niang was about twice that size.”

A reconnection

Hobbs never really planned to get out of scouting, but in the summer of 2016, the perfect offer arose.

Prohm had wrapped up his first season in Ames. Former Iowa State assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger had taken the South Dakota State head coaching job. Prohm was promoting Neill Berry from the special assistant role to the open assistant coaching job, which left a vacancy in Berry’s old position.

Prohm reached out to Hobbs, who was scouting in North Carolina at Chris Paul’s camp. Hobbs hadn’t been looking for a new job and, frankly, he wasn’t looking to leave his current situation.

“I’ve got five grandkids; they all live in Birmingham,” Hobbs said. “My two kids live in Birmingham. I was happy where I was.”

The two most important factors in any new job, he said, were “who and where.”

His relationship with Prohm was a checkmark for the “who” category.

As for the where?

It took awhile, but because of Prohm and the position, Hobbs knew a great opportunity awaited him in Ames. He eventually accepted the job.

Prohm couldn’t be happier.

“He’s made a big impact on all these guys just from the experience and the knowledge that he can talk to them with,” Prohm said. “When they go visit him in his office, he can share with them a lot of knowledge of high-level college basketball and putting themselves in a position to play in the NBA one day, and that’s what everybody who plays at this level wants to do.”

David Hobbs and Steve Prohm have reunited at Iowa State. Hobbs' mentorship has helped many Cyclones, including Monte Morris.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

When Hobbs arrived in Ames before the 2016-2017 season, he was a perfect resource for Morris, Iowa State’s star point guard who was preparing for the NBA in his final season at Iowa State.

Morris needed to improve his jump shot. Morris’ 3-point shooting percentage had decreased throughout his first three years, including a drop to 36 percent during his junior season.

Because Morris isn’t the most physically imposing guard, his ability to knock down jumpers from the outside was critical for his NBA future.

“With him being in the league [as a scout], he told me what they were looking for,” Morris said. “I’m definitely seeing what he was talking about. I’m just happy that I had the chance to work with him over that year.”

Morris isn’t the only one to take advantage of having a former NBA scout in the basketball complex.

Before he ever played his first game as a Cyclone, Wigginton had talked and worked extensively with Hobbs.

“Me and coach Hobbs talk a lot actually,” Wigginton said. “Him being a former NBA scout [is a bonus]. We talk a lot about what I need to work on and what’s working for me best.”

That’s part of the “consultant slash mentor” role Hobbs mentioned, and it’s why he’s been able to stick around the game of basketball for nearly 50 years.

“The NBA’s a different game,” Wigginton said. “He says everybody’s bigger, stronger, faster than you when you’re coming in as a rookie.”

While Hobbs may not have been the reason Wigginton chose Iowa State, he’s part of it. Wigginton said part of the reason he was interested in Iowa State was how Morris was able to grow and become an NBA player as a Cyclone, and some credit for that is due to Hobbs.

“He just brings a wealth of knowledge and he brings a wealth of understanding of being a head coach at this level,” Prohm said. “The responsibilities, the pressures, the things that go on every single day that come at you.”

Through the fire

Meredith Burkhall struggles early, but emerges a leader for Iowa State

By Noah Rohlfing
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

Through the fire

Meredith Burkhall struggles early, but emerges a leader for Iowa State

Imagine this:

You’re the top-rated player in your home state coming out of high school. You commit to Iowa State to stay close to home and be a part of the family culture that coach Bill Fennelly has cultivated.

Now imagine the player you’re supposed to learn from leaving four games into the Big 12 season.

Imagine having to start conference games as a true freshman against some of college basketball’s biggest and baddest and best, without a true replacement.

Imagine having no adjustment period and having to perform at a higher level than you’ve ever seen before.

It’s only you and four teammates, going up against the imposing forces of 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown of Baylor and 6-foot-4 Vionise Pierre-Louis of Oklahoma as a 6-foot-3 freshman.

An 18-year-old, thrust into the spotlight.

Imagine being thrown into the fire, without a hose to put it out.

Imagine coming out alive and rising to new heights.

Welcome to the world of Iowa State forward Meredith Burkhall.

The high school star

Meredith’s journey to Ames began at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. Even before she played for the varsity squad, her high school coach, Chris Cundiff, knew better than anyone, except maybe her parents, Clint and Stephanie, that there was something different about her.

“She was one that you knew was going to be special,” Cundiff said of the times he spent scouting her at eighth-grade basketball games.

Even then, he had a feeling he was looking at a level of player he had never coached before.

Meredith Burkhall was one of the top high school recruits in Iowa's 2015 class.
Photo by Burkhall family

A starter from the moment she stepped on the court as a high schooler, she was a matchup nightmare. She was taller and better than anyone she faced, and the double and triple teams soon followed.

Since other teams focused their game plans around Meredith, Cundiff was forced to get creative and find new ways to develop his star and involve her in the team’s game plan. At times, Cundiff would have Meredith bring the ball up the court, effectively deploying his wunderkind forward as a point guard. It didn’t help that Roosevelt wasn’t known as a team full of generational ability, but she still averaged 19.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

As Cundiff puts it: “She made me a better coach.”

It didn’t matter what opposing defenses did, Meredith was simply too strong. She was growing as a player. And her confidence was soaring.  

Naturally, her extraordinary exploits in the Central Iowa Metropolitan League (CIML) and her status as Iowa’s top prospect drew the enamored gaze of Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly. How she wound up in Ames is a story of persistence and a yearning for a basketball family, one that Fennelly was only happy to provide.

Finding a fit

The calls began to come from everywhere. After one year of starting as a freshman on Roosevelt’s girl’s basketball team, schools were taking notice. There was one team, however, that was a mainstay from the beginning: Iowa State.

Iowa State coaches went to a couple of games during her freshman year, and from there, it was game on.

Iowa State went hard for Meredith, sending assistant coach Jodi Steyer to games and Kingdom Hoops tournaments. It wasn’t a rare occurrence to find Fennelly there either.

With Fennelly interacting as much as possible, relationships were formed and Fennelly began to show Meredith his vision. He wanted to keep her in-state and show her what kind of atmosphere she could be a part of if she chose the Cyclones.

Meredith always kept Iowa State on her mind, even when Big 12 rival Oklahoma came sniffing around.

“She had offers from Stanford and Syracuse,” said Stephanie, her mother. “But Iowa State was always on her list. They never left her top three.”

Meredith is a family-oriented person, and when coaches went into meetings to try and sway her, it was absolutely a family affair. In the end, that’s a huge part of what drew her to Ames.

From her younger brother Myles, to her mother and father, there was nothing that she didn’t talk over with her family or with Cundiff, who she still considers a mentor. The two still speak regularly, and Cundiff describes her as “about as close to family as you can come.”

He was there to meet the coaches, and he was blown away by Fennelly, describing him as “very genuine” throughout the recruitment.

Don’t think that she got a big head during the process, either. Her parents wouldn’t let her. Her coach wouldn’t let her. And she wouldn’t let herself.

A little-known gem from the recruitment process: the blossoming friendship that Fennelly formed with Myles. Buddying up with Myles just confirmed to Meredith’s parents that Iowa State would be the perfect fit for her. For Fennelly, Myles was one of the keys to landing Meredith.

“He and my son [Billy] got really connected, It was almost like we recruited Myles to get to [Meredith],” Fennelly said.

“He might have committed to us before [Meredith]. I had to work him a little bit.”

She was in Ames a lot before she arrived, watching practices and interacting with the players. For those who know Meredith best, it was no surprise that she chose the Cyclones.

“She called me on July 2; she committed on my anniversary,” Fennelly said. “I told my wife, [Deb], you just got a great anniversary present.”

She took to Ames like a fish to water. From the instant she arrived on campus, Meredith felt as if she was at home. She had a new basketball family, she was going to learn and grow, and she was the future of the program.

But the fire had yet to begin.

Iowa State sophomore Meredith Burkhall has the ball poked out of her hands as she goes up for a layup against Kansas in Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 8, 2017.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Without a safety net

January 11, 2016.

A bombshell dropped on the Cyclone program and thrust Meredith into the spotlight.

Starting center Bryanna Fernstrom announced her intentions to leave Iowa State and go to Minnesota, despite losing the second half of that season and the first half of the next season due to transfer rules.

The proverbial safety net for Meredith was gone.

Her freshman season was supposed to be one of learning and providing minutes off the bench. One decision tossed those plans out the window.

Fennelly knew that it was unfair to Meredith so soon in her career.

“We didn’t have a lot of help for her,” Fennelly said. “So we threw her in the deep end and said, ‘Hope you don’t drown.’”

To put her under such pressure so soon into her Cyclones career was difficult. But the team was down to seven scholarship players. There was a massive void in the post, and Meredith was the only one who could fill it. It didn’t matter whether she was ready or not. It was time for Meredith to be thrown into the fire.

She was in a completely foreign situation entering the homestretch of a season that started with promise but devolved into a brutally disappointing finish, with 13 losses in the Cyclones’ final 15 games.

She would either survive and thrive, learning from the experience and progress as a player, or have her development stunted, perhaps never recovering.

For those who know Meredith best, there was no chance she was going to falter.  

Meredith looked at the difficult situation as an opportunity to learn and grow. It was a chance to prove herself on the biggest stage, and she wasn’t about to back down.

This meant games against 6-foot-7 Imani Boyette of Texas, who averaged 2.9 blocks a game in the 2015-16 season, and 6-foot-5 Lanay Montgomery of West Virginia, who recorded six blocks in a single game against Oklahoma State that season.

These were the big guns, the cream of the crop.

Meredith Burkhall struggled against bigger and stronger forwards in her freshman season at Iowa State.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

These games were worlds away from games against Waukee and Des Moines North in the CIML.

“You hear about it, you see it on film,” Meredith said. “But it’s nothing like going in there and actually playing, and then you’re up against someone who’s 6-foot-7. That was an ‘A-ha’ moment for me.”

Mentally, the Burkhalls had no worries. Meredith was ready to go and prepared for the fight. That’s how they had raised her. However, the physicality of the Big 12 took some time to adjust to.

“There were times where she was pushed around like a toothpick,” Stephanie said.

“She was manhandled,” Clint added.

It was difficult. It was, at times, frustrating.

In games against big, physical teams, Meredith struggled. She was inefficient against Oklahoma, shooting 3 for 12 from the field and only scoring seven points against an NCAA Tournament team.

She only managed four points on 2-for-7 shooting against Texas, a team that ran rampant in the 2015-16 season, and she struggled with foul trouble in games against West Virginia and Oklahoma.

Against Oklahoma State, she allowed the Cowgirls’ star center, Kaylee Jansen, to go 12 for 16 from the field for 27 points in an overtime loss.

In those moments, it seemed like she wasn’t quite there yet, and her inexperience showed.

Even with the little things, as her parents explained, there was room to improve.

“She never wore a mouthpiece at the beginning of the season,” Stephanie said.

“But a couple weeks after [she began to start games], she already told us she had started wearing one. She was always learning.”

But the team surrounded her with support, and Meredith said the team “never missed” Fernstrom on the court. It was full speed ahead.

By the end of her first Big 12 season, there was a noticeable difference in Meredith.

In her second of three games against Tech that year, she scored a season-high 19 points and had two blocks and two steals. That marked her second-straight game leading the Cyclones in scoring. Her parents saw growth.

“By the end of the year, she was getting stronger than when she came in,” Stephanie said.

“She was adapting, and she became someone [her opponents] had to deal with in the post,” Clint added.

It might not have been the best situation for her, but Meredith stood firm and took the punches.

“She never complained one time, and she took our hard coaching,” Fennelly said. “We were really demanding of her and we didn’t feel sorry for her, so she never felt sorry for herself.”

“She loves those challenges,” Cundiff said.

Keeping in contact with Cundiff throughout her freshman year and receiving constant encouragement from her support base, Meredith never lacked confidence that she would come out strong.

A brighter dawn awaited after the smoke cleared.

The next step

There’s no hiding it: Meredith has become a leader for the Cyclones.

With a new post presence and a freshman in Kristin Scott that Fennelly called a “Meredith clone,” it’s clear that Meredith’s impact on Iowa State is growing. Now a junior, the time is right for her to use the natural leadership skills her parents always saw in her.

“She’s a no-nonsense type of person,” Clint said of her on-court attitude. “She’s a gym rat and a very loyal teammate.”

Having gone through the ringer and not having a post player to learn from her first two seasons, her parents see her taking on a larger role and taking the freshmen under her wing.

Meredith feels the same way.

“This is my third year here. I’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Meredith said. “It’s a chance for me to use my leadership role to teach Kristin how to do this.”

Scott is already learning from Meredith, who she calls the “go-to” for lots of players.

“If you need anything, she’s always there to help you,” Scott said. “She’s a really good teacher.”

Meredith’s positive attitude reverberates throughout the team. The self-described “encourager” of the team, there’s nary a practice where you will not hear Meredith’s voice.

“If you go [to practice], she’s always talking, she’s always upbeat,” Fennelly said. “She’s a very vocal kid.”

There’s always two voices heard at Cyclone practices: Fennelly’s and Meredith’s. She’s always trying to get the best out of her teammates.

Meredith Burkhall felt a lot more comfortable in her sophomore season, but she still has work to do to become a dominant post player.
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

After her turmoil-filled freshman year, it was like a switch had been flipped. She came through the fire and emerged on the other side a stronger player.

She established herself in her sophomore year as one of the starting forwards for the Cyclones, averaging eight points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

During the offseason, she worked hand in hand with the Cyclones’ strength team to improve her ability to get physical in the low post. She’s been working on post defense and moving quicker on the defensive side of the ball.

Post work is just the tip of the iceberg for Meredith. She plans on making this season one to remember.

She wants to make the leap.

Adding another dimension to her game, Meredith has done lots of work this summer hoping to expand her shooting range. For her, it’s about adding more versatility to her game and finding new ways to make an impact on the offensive end. She only took 17 three-pointers last season, hitting five for a 29.4 percent clip.

She’s improved so much over the summer that, when asked who would start this season at the team’s media day, Fennelly only mentioned two names as surefire starters: Bridget Carleton and Meredith.

It’s not just on the court that Meredith is making strides, either. Meredith has been looking toward her future, and the Child, Adult and Family Services major may not have all of her future plans figured out, but she knows one thing: She wants to help people in need.

“I want to help kids. Even if it takes me out of the country,” Meredith said, mentioning her desire to help charities and to help those who have suffered from natural disasters, such as the victims of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Perhaps Fennelly described it best when asked what his experience has been with Meredith.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a kid that cherishes wearing the Iowa State uniform like [Meredith],” Fennelly said with a smile on his face.

“There could be a sitcom, Everybody Loves [Meredith]. Because everybody does love [Meredith].”

Wise Beyond Her Years

Iowa State freshman symbolizes 'Iowa State Way'

By Garrett Kroeger
Photo by Sarah Henry/Iowa State Daily

Wise Beyond Her Years

Iowa State freshman symbolizes 'Iowa State Way'

On paper, former Greenfield-Central coach Doug Laker could have been just another run-of-the-mill coach that Iowa State freshman Madison Wise had throughout her basketball career.

But Wise and Laker’s relationship is much more than that.

They have a special bond.

“Just a special bond, that we always and will have,” Laker said.

Laker is like another father to Wise. If they can’t talk over the phone, they text each other. Not only that, but Laker plans on coming to see Wise play and practice at Iowa State several times this year.

“I’m just so proud of her,” Laker said.

Wise always knew Laker would have her back no matter what. If she was in search for advice, Wise would go to him to sort things out. They talk on the phone every week, even while Wise is in Ames.

And last summer, Wise had Laker’s back when it mattered the most.

Madison Wise is one of the best high school girls basketball players to come out of Indiana.
Photo by Wise family

Embodiment of “The Iowa State Way”

Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly can name plenty of reasons why he recruited Wise.

She is athletic. At 6 feet, Wise can play any position from point guard to power forward.

She can score and rebound. In Wise’s high school career, she scored 2,109 points and grabbed 1,091 rebounds, making her just the fifth girls basketball player in the state of Indiana to surpass 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career.

But the biggest reason why Fennelly recruited Wise was that she embodies what he calls “The Iowa State Way” of doing things. Players who live “The Iowa State Way” respect themselves, their coaches, their teammates, their university and their community, and they do things for the Iowa State community, he said.

And Wise lives that way.

“Absolutely. In every way, shape and form,” Fennelly said.

End of an era

Wise is a serious, driven individual. She is almost a perfectionist in Fennelly’s eyes. In practice, Wise strives to get everything right the first time. However, underneath that serious, hard-working attitude, Fennelly sees a person who cares about everyone she meets.

Laker first saw Wise play basketball when she was in second grade. He knew she was good, but he didn’t know how good because she was only a second grader. But in her seventh- and eighth-grade years, Laker knew for sure that Wise would have a future in basketball.

“She would dominate,” Laker said. “When she could go behind her back in eighth grade in traffic, lay it up and in and do a euro move, you knew she was special then.”

Not only did Wise have the talent to be special, but her work ethic also was unquestionable. She was in the gym every day, grinding. Wise worked on her jump shot, ball-handling and conditioning.

What ultimately caught his eye was character. It’s why he knew Wise would someday blossom into a once-in-a-lifetime player.

She was the ultimate teammate. Wise wore her heart on her sleeve. She was compassionate with her teammates and cared deeply about Greenfield-Central High School.

“You don’t get those type of players that are the best player on the team and an above-and-beyond great teammate,” Laker said. “They don’t come very often in this day and age.”

During her time under Laker, Wise became one of the best basketball players of all time from Indiana. In Laker’s mind, Wise is easily one of the top 20 players to come out of Indiana, and he could make an argument that she is one of the top 10 players, because the statistics back it up.

Wise also became Greenfield-Central’s first Indiana high school all-star since 1989 and was a finalist for the 2016-17 Miss Indiana Basketball Award.

She credits a lot of her success to Laker. Not out of fear of him potentially chewing her out for making a mistake, as he’s been known to do, but out of respect and gratitude for pushing her to accomplish her goals.

After 129 wins in nine seasons as Greenfield-Central’s varsity girls basketball coach and seven winning campaigns, including a school-record 23 wins, Laker said he had a 90 percent approval rating among his players. But it was that 10 percent non-approval rating that did him in.

In early April 2017, after Wise’s senior season, Laker was forced to resign from Greenfield-Central. His resignation was centered around three speculative charges, according to the Greenfield Reporter, the local newspaper.

The first was that he did not wear enough Greenfield-Central apparel. The second was the administration heard he was telling players they can’t play like JV players their whole life and need to start making varsity plays. The final reason was he used degrading language.

By his own admission, Laker knows he can be abrasive, but he is adamant that using vulgar or demeaning language is not in his character. A Type-A personality to the core, Laker demands the best from his players, and they have expected that of themselves — and they respect their coach for it.

“I would say, since I played for him for four years, I knew him for a long time,” Wise said. “I grew up watching him coach.

“[He’s] one of the greatest high school coaches I have been around, probably the best,” she said. “He is a hard-nosed coach. Some people just can’t handle it. Soft people. He was a great coach, great person.”

With that in mind, Wise knew she had to do something.

A thorough decision

During last year’s early signing period, the last day to sign was Nov. 16, 2016. That was the day Wise decided to sign with Iowa State.

“It drove me crazy,” Fennelly said. “I still remember, I was driving to the student-athlete, academic thing on the last day she could sign in the fall. She called me at five o’clock. So, we were scrambling to make sure we got it done.”

Every player goes about their commitment a different way. Some commit early and some make a big show about it. The way Wise decided to commit to the cardinal and gold speaks about her character and personality.

“It’s like [Wise’s] personality -- very analytical, methodical, going to make sure [she] pick[s] the right choice and [she] do[es] it right,” Fennelly said.

Wise also generated interest from Arkansas, DePaul, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan State. She could have decided to go to one of those programs instead of Ames.

In today’s recruiting, it is not uncommon for recruits to decommit, but that does not sit well with Wise. She lives by the motto that if someone treats her right, she will treat them right. That is why she did not want to be one of the prospects who decommits after pledging herself to a school. So decommitting was never a thought that crossed Wise’s mind.

Madison Wise took her time to commit to Iowa State and for good reason. She was a five-star recruit out of high school and was highly touted.
Photo by Brian Mozey/Iowa State Daily

“I just prefer to be thorough in my decision,” Wise said. “That is why I did wait. I’m really happy that I did because you never know where you’ll end up.”

Wise ultimately decided on Iowa State because of its playing style and family atmosphere. But Fennelly was a big factor as well.

Wise said she thinks Fennelly and Laker are almost the exact same coach. They care about their athletes as people first, instead of a player on the court. Plus, Fennelly is known as a hard-nosed coach, and Wise thrives on playing for coaches like Laker.

In her short time in Ames, Wise has made a strong impression on the coaching staff and her teammates. In fact, Fennelly believes that she will remind Iowa State fans of star guard Bridget Carleton once she masters the college game.

“[Wise] is not as good as [Carleton] yet, but she can score in a variety of ways,” Fennelly said. “She has a physicality to her that she can take the ball to the basket. She can play a lot of positions. We have tried her at a lot of spots. She is going to play a lot here.”

Carleton is known for always coming to the gym early and staying late to work on her game.

Wise has the exact same drive.

“She is a kid that likes to be in the gym,” Fennelly said. “I think she has that Indiana basketball DNA, where they grow up and you got to love basketball in Indiana and she has that. Her high school career, she was very well coached in high school.”

Although Fennelly thinks Wise came to Ames more ready for the collegiate game, it will take some time before she reaches Carleton-type level of success.

“[Wise] came here a little more ready for the college game than some kids,” Fennelly said. “So her adjustment will be easier than most, but it will take some time.”

Standing tough

Shortly after Laker’s resignation was accepted without contest by the school board, Wise and her teammates handed out shirts featuring the Greenfield-Central’s logo. It also read: “All in.”

During the school board meeting, there were moments of contention between the public and the board on whether Wise should be allowed to talk since it was her dad who formally requested to make a statement. But the board decided to allow Wise to speak for five minutes.

Madison Wise walks off with Doug Laker, her high school coach.
Photo by Wise family

Wise read a message about Laker’s accomplishments and the support for him.

She was heartbroken to see her mentor, role model and her “five-star” coach, as she called Laker, get treated this way.

“He pushed me to be my best,” Wise said. “He treated everyone fairly. He made people better on and off the court. It just wasn’t right what they were doing to him.”

Wise was on the brink of tears as she read her message. Once she started reading a former player’s message, who went unnamed, tears began to flow.

In the anonymous player’s letter, it talked about how she came from a low-income, single-parent family, how her life was not easy and that playing on the basketball team kept her out of trouble and helped her become the woman she is today.

Wise talked about how the player and her mother debated whether to transfer to another school, but in the end, they decided she would stay at Greenfield-Central because of Laker, who she described as her first-ever male role model.

“One of the greatest high school coaches I have been around, probably the best,” Wise said.

The aftermath

Despite standing up for what she believed in, Wise didn’t get Laker his job back. He’s taking the year off from coaching to figure out his future.

In the days after she defended Laker, Wise appeared on Dan Dakich’s nationally syndicated radio show in Indianapolis. During that interview, Dakich raved about how mature she was for not backing down on something she believed in.

“I mean, you are talking about a 17-year-old kid going on a nationally syndicated radio show and supports people she cares about,” Fennelly said. “She did it in the school, she did it in the school board; most adults don’t want to do that, let alone a young person.”

Madison Wise dribbles the ball during women's basketball media day in October.
Photo by Sarah Henry/Iowa State Daily

The way Wise supported Laker speaks of her character, upbringing and just what type of person she is, Laker said.

“That tells you everything about her,” Laker said. “She is an incredible young lady. It was one of those things that you are never going to get approval from everyone. It wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. The way she handled herself up there, in front of the school board and with the school board trying to cut her off, she just kept going. She is just an incredible, incredible young lady.”

In her four years at Greenfield-Central, Wise left her mark as a role model and as the ultimate teammate. Now, she hopes to do the same at Iowa State.

“She is just going to be a great player for the Cyclones, but they got an even better person,” Laker said.

Learning to Lead

Emily Durr goes from star on the court to star off it

By Jack MacDonald
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Learning to Lead

Emily Durr goes from star on the court to star off it

Emily Durr had walked into the Sukup Basketball Complex hundreds of times before, but this time it was different. This time it was more than practice. This time it was a meeting about her future at Iowa State.

She was a heralded recruit out of high school who dominated in every facet of the game — that is, of course, in high school. College was a new reality, a reality that became a gut check.

For two years, Durr played sparingly at Iowa State, and change was needed. More shots needed to go in, more hustle was needed defensively and more leadership needed to come out of her.

That meeting in the spring of 2016 changed her path. The path that Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly gave her had three directions: be a leader and forever engrave ‘Emily Durr’ into Iowa State history, be a role player and watch freshman play in front of you, or leave.

For Durr, the choice was easy. All she had to do was remember what her father once told her. “I remember my Dad saying, ‘You can't quit. We don't raise quitters,’” Durr said.

Easy — Durr was staying at Iowa State.

But that’s not the beginning of her story.

Emily Durr was a star at Notre Dame High School as early as eighth grade.
Photo by Durr family

Household game

The year: 1998.

The court: Notre Dame High School in Utica, New York.

That’s when and where 3-year-old Emily Durr first broadcasted her basketball talents to the world -- a small audience, but an audience nonetheless.

Her father, Mike, was the head varsity coach of the boy’s program at the private school in upstate New York. It was there that the youngest Durr would put on a show during halftime of the varsity games, only to be driven off the court as the teams filtered out of the locker rooms to resume the game.  

“I used to have this little basketball, and during timeouts or halftime, I'd go out there and have my little ball and I'd make everything, everybody said,” Durr said. “The cheerleaders would get mad because everybody would be watching me on this end, and the cheerleaders are trying to do their cheer on the other end.”

From a young age, she knew basketball was her true love. She had four older siblings to battle against on mini hoops at their home in Utica. But those sibling battles progressed, and so did Durr’s talents, which led her parents to sign her up for organized basketball.

Not long after playing in second and third grade, she was playing up with fifth- and sixth-graders. But that didn’t surprise anyone. She did have three older brothers to toughen her up and Kate, her sister.

“Her brothers used to knock her around in the driveway and everything, and that didn't hurt her at all,” Mike said.

It wasn’t just basketball that the youngest of five kids excelled at, but rather another calling: softball and baseball.

“She was the best Little League pitcher in our area,” Mike said.

Nonetheless, Mary Ellen, Emily’s mom, and Mike had a budding basketball talent in front of them. And there was evidence to back it up.

During a third- and fourth-grade game, Emily caught the ball at the top of the key near her own basket as the seconds ticked closer and closer to halftime.

“She threw it in from half court,” Mike said with little surprise. “I think back then you kind of knew she was going to be something special.”

From there, Emily continued to develop into a basketball star, but it was in eighth grade that she finally had a chance to prove herself.

Mature beyond her years

The skills of 13-year-old Emily had landed her on the varsity team at Notre Dame High School. She was a year away from high school, but she was already there in a basketball sense.

She was never far from her father at Notre Dame either, but if she was, Mike Plonisch, the girl’s coach, was right there, almost as an extension of her father.

Before being an assistant coach for her father for two seasons, Plonisch played for him at Notre Dame from 1996-1998, and it was Plonisch who quickly remembered little Emily shooting the ball as the varsity team ran onto the court.

Maturity was never a question when she jumped up to a team filled with girls almost four years older than her. To Emily, it was just another basketball game.

“It's different when you have older kids on the team and you're an eighth grader, but the kids really understood what she brought to the table and her talent,” Plonisch said.

Emily Durr struggled to win a state championship in her high school career, but she never gave up.
Photo by Durr family

Emily didn’t just fit in with the team, she was the star of the team. She was so feared in New York, opposing coaches took notice of her and used the guard as motivation ahead of matchups.

That season, fifth-seeded Notre Dame played fourth-seeded Waterville in the second round of the sectional tournament. It was a win-or-go-home contest for Emily and the Jugglers. A tale from the Waterville locker room was leaked to Plonisch after that game that a Waterville coach wrote on a board: “Don’t let an eighth grader beat you.”

What did that eighth grader do? She backed her team to an upset of Waterville with 10 points. Then the Jugglers upset Bishop Grimes, the No. 1 seed. In the Section III championship game, Emily scored a game-high 18 points as Notre Dame knocked off second-seeded Thousand Islands.

From then on, Notre Dame was a basketball powerhouse, at least as long as Emily stayed healthy.

During her freshman year, Emily and Notre Dame dominated the opposition once again, even though it had been moved to a higher class bracket. Emily led the Jugglers to the sectional finals before losing to the No. 2 seed by nine points. In four games during that sectional, she averaged 26.75 points, highlighted by a 35-point performance against Canastota in the first round.

After back-to-back sectional championship appearances, the Jugglers looked on track to have a real shot to capture a state championship title. But then Notre Dame ran into South Jefferson in the sectional quarterfinal game.

Emily had just racked up a whopping 31 points in an 81-51 win against Bishop Grimes in the second round. That performance notched a date with South Jefferson, the second seed, which beat the Jugglers and kept them from a state championship that season.

Three tries, zero state championships. The years were ticking by and all of a sudden Emily only had two more attempts at that coveted state title.

Again, just like her sophomore season, her junior season had so much promise for a team that she had now led for three seasons. Heading into the postseason, the Jugglers were ranked seventh in the sectional, which wasn’t ideal.

But for Emily that didn’t matter. Nothing was going to stop her from inching closer to a state championship. Not even a high fever in their second-round game against No. 2 Westhill at Westhill’s gym or a fractured elbow in the middle of the season.

“They had to take her out just toward the end; I think they were up by three and then Westhill came up,” Mary Ellen said. “[Emily said], 'Coach, I'm going back in,’ put her in, hit a 3, the game winner.

“And then she just collapsed out there on the court. But that's her. I mean, she will play. She loves to win.”

Fennelly was in the stands to watch a 20-point win in the Section III championship game, but that year they bowed out in the first round of the state tournament.

Four tries, zero state championships.

Finding a new home amid one final shot

For four seasons, Emily had chased a state championship title, and for four years the Jugglers couldn’t get over the hump. But before she and the rest of her Notre Dame teammates embarked on one final trek, Emily had embarked on her own trek, one that would lead straight to Ames.

The connection to Iowa State started well before her senior season. It started after her sophomore season when Billy and Bill Fennelly were in Nashville on a recruiting trip.

Emily’s AAU team, the Albany City Rocks, were in the Music City playing against a Texas team that featured a player the Cyclones were targeting. But Emily being Emily, she took control of the game and finished with 21 points, her mom said.

Luckily for the Durrs, Billy was in attendance and immediately took notice of this lengthy player from New York. Billy phoned his dad and demanded that he come over to the court to see Durr play.

“My initial thought was, ‘Billy, she lives in New York, what are you talking about?’” Bill said.  “He was like, 'No, Dad, we gotta try, we gotta try. She fits what we're about, she's our kind of kid.’”

And much to his father’s dismay, Billy kept pushing and pushing until Bill finally made his way to the court to see Emily play for the first time. It helped that Billy was a young coach who had yet to get burned in the recruiting scene.

“That's the thing with Billy,” Bill said. “When you're young and you haven't been burned as many times as I have recruiting, you don't care.”

From there, a connection was formed with the Durr family. It helped that the women’s basketball family is a tight-knit group, considering her dad has 42 first cousins on his side of the family. But the real tickler of the whole recruiting process was when members of the Iowa State program sent a puzzle to the Durr household.

Each envelope included three puzzle pieces and each piece added to a puzzle. When finished, it was Emily on the court in an Iowa State jersey.

“She really got a kick out of that,” Emily’s dad said.

The game in Nashville, the puzzle and Bill watching Emily dominate a sectional game ultimately led to a scholarship offer and an unofficial visit.

“I first heard that Iowa State was recruiting me, I still remember this. My AAU coach told me, and I go, 'Ohio State?’” Emily said. “[Being from] New York, we're kind of focused on the Northeast, and I knew of Iowa State, but it was just a little different because they are so far from New York.”

Emily Durr is one of the most chronicled high school players in New York girls basketball history.
Photo by Durr family

Mike, Mary Ellen and Emily made the long trip from Utica to Ames for an unofficial visit during her junior year on spring break in mid-April. For Mike and Mary Ellen, it was just a visit to explore options.

It was different for Emily. She knew it was home. She knew she wanted to spend four years in the town nearly 1,200 miles from Utica. So Emily took it into her own hands. She committed to Iowa State University without even giving a hint to her parents.

“She did it without telling us, but that's typical Emily,” Mary Ellen said.

It was a simple car ride to Hilton Coliseum. Mike and Mary Ellen in one car, Emily and the coaches in another. Once at Hilton Coliseum, Emily exited the car and walked over to her parents and said five words.

“She said, ‘I told coach I’m coming,’” Mary Ellen said.

A surprise to everyone. Her dad nearly passed out at the news. His daughter just committed to a school halfway across the country without a heads up.

“I just asked her, ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ And she said yes,” Mary Ellen said.

And just like that Bill had a commitment and Emily could play her senior season without the stress of recruiting.

A stress-free season was crucial. It was her last shot at a state championship and maybe her best shot yet. She was also coming off an injury to her elbow during her junior season.

“I think her main focus was she just wanted to win a state championship that year and she put her heart and soul into doing that,” Emily’s dad said.

That season, Emily broke the Section III all-time points record of 2,367 of Breanna Stewart, a former standout player at Connecticut and current Team USA player. Not only did she break it, she did so by almost 100 points, ultimately finishing with 2,445.

On top of that, she was a leader, one that didn’t need instruction from Plonisch on what to do. Her previous four seasons had prepared her for the state championship that year. It was just another business trip for the Notre Dame girls, and Emily wasn’t going to be denied for a fifth time.

In the first three games of the sectional tournament, Emily scored 24, 24 and 20 points, respectively, all game highs. Her last chance for a trip to the state tournament came down to a game against Westhill, a team that the Jugglers had not lost to in the playoffs since Emily joined the team.

It wasn’t about to be her first either. That game, which the Jugglers won 46-39, brought that state championship even closer.

“We checked into the hotel room, and you saw all these teams there playing for all classes for the state championship, and they're all giddy,” Plonisch said. “She had our team so focused it was like a business trip for them, and we didn't have to really do anything to keep them under control, because they were under control because of her and some other seniors on the team.”

Under control by Emily, the Jugglers marched to a state championship and throttled Bishop Kearney 71-36. In typical Emily Durr fashion, she dropped 29 points against the defending state champions.

She was also named the Class B Player of the Year and then led Notre Dame to New York State Girls Basketball Federation Tournament of Champions title and a 24-3 record. In that game, Durr finished with 27 points and another trophy to add to her shelf.

“[Winning a state championship] was her goal, and they succeeded,” Mike said.

Mission accomplished. Next stop: Iowa State.

Iowa State senior Emily Durr celebrates a teammate hitting a 3-point shot early this season.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

This isn’t high school

Emily arrived in Ames as someone who had been a high school star for five seasons. But this was college basketball, not high school basketball in upstate New York.

“I was slower, and the pace in college, I was like, 'Holy cow, this is fast. I need to get a lot faster on defense,'” Emily said. “I think that was the moment when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot different.’”

And right from the get-go, things were different. That first year in Ames, she played in every game, but it wasn’t the typical role she had at Notre Dame. It was a bench role where she averaged only 15 minutes per game and just less than five points. She scored in double figures just four times after recording nearly 30 points in her last high school game.

“They're all all-stars and you have to put that away,” Mike said. “It's a whole new environment, it's a college basketball team, this is Division I, it's big time and you know you got to find yourself and see where your weaknesses are and see where you fit in and play to your strengths.”

Times had changed, and a change in her skill set was needed. It also didn’t help that the Cyclones were guard-heavy, deep in talent with the likes of Nikki Moody, Seanna Johnson and Kidd Blaskowsky.

Emily had gone home that summer and admitted that she wasn’t sure if she could play. She even admitted that she had some work to do, but she went back to work and returned for her sophomore season.

“I think she started to doubt herself a little, but like my husband said, 'It's your freshman year, there's a lot to get used to; just go back, give it 110 percent and see how it goes,’” Mary Ellen said. “And she did, and I'll tell you, she loves it there.”

But that sophomore season wasn’t much better. She appeared in all 30 games again, even getting the starting nod twice, but it was still a smaller role from her high school days.

A lot of people in her situation would consider transferring and several from that recruiting class did transfer. It’s just Emily and Claire Ricketts left from that class, but Emily knew she couldn’t leave. She had to suck it up, wait her turn and get better.

Not once did her mind drift away from Ames; not once did she consider leaving.

“I knew I had to tough it out; there were tough times, and I'm not going to say there wasn't,” Emily said. “I never had any doubt that I wasn't going to play for Coach Fenn for four years.”

She was 1,000 miles away from home and going through a rough transition. But Mary Ellen knew it was homesickness and being so far from her close-knit family. But there was another family that had always had her back, and that is Iowa State.

During her sophomore season, the team finished 13-17. Fennelly knew a change had to happen for the Cyclones, and that change had to involve Emily.

The meeting and last go-around

It was finally time for that meeting with Fennelly at the Sukup complex. And it was simple — the purpose was to ignite Emily and let her know the options she had.

But for Emily, she knew what was needed, and the meeting was just reinforcement to the work she needed to put in.

“[Coach Fennelly] just told me not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear, and it really gave me a springboard to really work on my game and work on the player and teammate I wanted to be and remembered by,” Emily said.

The meeting changed her path that had been in the making since 1996, but it was almost as if the meeting wasn’t even needed. Fennelly and Emily think in similar ways.

Emily’s dad has a similar coaching style to Fennelly — a straightforward approach with no holding back. So she knew what was about to be hurled at her, and it was up to her to decide on how she would spend the next two years in Ames. Was it going to be a minimal role, was it going to be a leadership role or was it not even going to be in Ames?

The answer: a leadership role. And it showed from day one of her junior season. Emily went home that summer and worked as hard as she ever had to come back the next season and make an immediate impact for a team that had just missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

She went home and got faster, she got smarter and figured out her defensive style.

And that junior season featured a new Emily Durr. She earned a starting role toward the end of the season and was fourth on the team in points, averaging 8.6 per game. Her minutes were up, her points were up and her morale was up. That is, until a freak injury.

Four games before the Big 12 tournament, West Virginia came to Ames. During that game, Emily drove the baseline and got tripped up, resulting in a fall. She landed on her elbow — the same elbow she had needed surgery on when she was 3 years old and the same elbow she had fractured during her junior season in high school when she attempted to split two defenders.

 

Tommy John surgery — a procedure primarily done on baseball pitchers — was needed, and after so much progress, Emily faced an offseason of rehabbing. But not once did she look at it as something that was lost, but rather a chance to come back stronger than ever.

Three years old, her third year of high school and now her third year of college. Something about the number three doesn’t make sense, but what does make sense is that she came back from two of those three times to do something special.

At age 4 she was back draining shots at halftime of her father’s game.

Her senior season of high school, she won a state championship.

Her senior season at Iowa State? That script has yet to be finished, but a certain someone who knows her doesn’t doubt her at all.

“She'll be ready,” her mom guaranteed. “Don't you worry about that.”

A Wonderful Masterpiece

Bill Fennelly's long path to building a program

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Jack MacDonald

A Wonderful Masterpiece

Bill Fennelly's long path to building a program

Robert Carlson has been a Cyclone fan for most of his adult life and a season ticket holder for more than 20 years. He has been through the ups and downs that longtime Iowa State fans know all too well.

One of the lows he remembers was Iowa State women’s basketball’s 1989-1990 season opener against Illinois State.

Carlson was one of the few fans in the seats that night at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones had gone 15-13 in the previous season, which would be the last winning season for seven years.

Then-head coach Pam Wettig was in her sixth season at the helm of the program. Fan support was underwhelming. The average attendance for that season was 635, a slight uptick from 579 the season before. The attendance would dip under 500 two years later.

So it was no surprise that on this day, despite the thrill of a new season hanging in the air, not too many Cyclone fans were at Hilton Coliseum. The biggest group of fans was packed behind the Illinois State bench, and it felt large in comparison to the smattering of Iowa State fans.

To an outsider, Illinois State and Iowa State’s brands are almost indecipherable. Both have birds for mascots. Illinois State’s school colors are almost the same as Iowa State’s cardinal and gold. Even the abbreviations are the same: I-S-U.

The Iowa State cheerleaders, like always, led the crowd in a series of chants, but the cheers quietly reverberated around the almost empty arena and were picked up by Illinois State Redbird fans.

“Almost all of our cheers could have worked for Iowa State or Illinois State,” Carlson said. “So our cheerleaders were basically leading cheers for Illinois State, because they were the ones cheering quite a bit because they were winning [for most of the game].”

The Cyclones did win the game that night, but Carlson and the rest of those loyal fans would have to wait almost a decade before the program changed in a way that wouldn’t allow something like that to happen.

That change was spurred by now-legendary coach Bill Fennelly, who at the time was just starting his head coaching career at Toledo. An Iowa native, Fennelly would eventually come home and change the face of the Cyclone program forever.

A bigger challenge

Fennelly was ready to do it again.

He and his wife, Deb, who he credits with most of his accomplishments, had already done it at Toledo. They had built a program from the ground up and pushed the Rockets into national relevancy. They made three NCAA Tournaments in Fennelly’s seven-year stint and won the Mid-American Conference regular season title three times as well.

But a phone call in 1995 beckoned him home.

Then-Iowa State athletic director Gene Smith was in search of a women’s basketball coach after then-coach Theresa Becker resigned. The team had won just 18 times in the previous three seasons.

Ames was a comfortable place for the Fennellys. Bill, who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and Deb met at William Penn in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Deb was raised in Iowa and played 6-on-6 women’s basketball when she was in high school. Their kids, Billy and Steven, were in the fifth and first grade, respectively. While Toledo was a nice city, they didn’t want to raise young children there.

So when Smith called, the Fennellys were interested, but they wondered whether they could do it again — build a program from the ground up.

“When you leave a good fan base to go to a place that doesn’t have fans, you are still always thinking, ‘Can we do this? Can we do it again?’ Bill wanted that challenge,” Deb said. “It’s exhilarating to try and build another program up. It’s exciting to try, but yet you always come in with some trepidation with how it’s going to go.”

Smith and then-Iowa State President Martin Jischke were integral in getting Iowa State into the newly formed Big 12 just a year later. They had a vision for the athletics program that would bring Iowa State to national heights.

That vision fed right into Bill Fennelly’s important desire: winning.

“Dr. Jischke kept saying, ‘I want to win. I want to win,’” Bill Fennelly said. “He must have said it, God I don’t know how many times he said it. It was a chance to come home.

“We took the job when Gene gave it to us. We took a pay cut to come here. I told Deb, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to Davenport and I’ll tend bar or something. My brother owned a bar in Davenport, and I’d figure out something.”

It didn’t take long to realize that it wouldn’t be an easy task.

Bill Fennelly doesn’t keep a lot of memorabilia, but he does keep the box score of his first game coaching at Hilton Coliseum. It’s in a glass frame in front of his desk in his office that’s tucked away in the back of the Sukup Basketball Complex.

The attendance was 310 people. Bill Fennelly mostly remembers the yellow tape that surrounded empty sections to make clean-up after the game easier. It looked like a crime scene, he recalled. It had to go.

“I went home a little numb,” Bill Fennelly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be harder than I thought.’”

Bill Fennelly embraces former player Lexi Albrecht during the 2016 season.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

Grip and grin

Longtime Iowa State fan David Orth remembers how quickly the ascension came.

When he bought season tickets for Iowa State women’s basketball in 1997, the number of season ticket holders had already jumped from about 500 before Fennelly’s hiring to just under 3,000 three seasons into Fennelly’s tenure. A season later, season tickets were being sold in the balcony.

“It surprised me, for sure,” Orth said. “It was just fun. It was just growing. I worked for the Alumni Association at that point, so I did a lot of the pregame parties for the Big 12 spirit rallies and stuff like that. You could just tell it was exciting. It was the thing to do.”

The Fennellys were doing it again.

When they arrived in Ames late in the summer of 1995, they focused on two groups of people — elementary schools and retirement homes.

Their children attended Fellows Elementary School in north Ames. They started the Little ‘Clones Club, which gave kids perks, such as a media guide, for a fee. But the kids couldn’t get to the games by themselves, the Fennellys figured. Their parents would have to take them.

“A 10-year-old isn’t going to drive himself to the game,” Fennelly said. “So mom and dad had to come.”

The focus on retirement communities happened because Fennelly had a connection to the Green Hills Retirement Community. Kathryn Engel, who was a large donor to Iowa State, was at Green Hills. She bought tickets for women’s basketball games and left them on the front desk.

It soon became so popular that the retirement community had to use buses to get people to the games. Fennelly made frequent visits to the retirement community and talked to members at the games.

“So, literally, in the same day sometimes, I would be talking to senior citizens and would be talking to first graders,” Fennelly said. “That was how it started.”

He got the players to buy in, too. They went out into the community to help with charity work and embraced the Fennellys’ family atmosphere. They signed autographs, met with fans and children. They were just as big a factor in the process as the Fennellys.

And if any of those tactics didn’t work, the Fennellys channeled their inner-politicians and went out into the Ames community to make their faces known. They went to local coffee shops and got involved in the community.

“It was grip and grin, and put your face in front of them, and ‘you’re the coach and you seem like a decent guy, I’ll come to a game,’” Fennelly said. “It was literally that way. That’s kind of how it was for the first couple of years.”

They noticed the fruits of their labor starting to take shape. The average attendance in his first two seasons hovered around 1,700, but during the 1997-1998 season, it jumped to 3,775.

Another move helped the attendance that year.

When Fennelly first came to Iowa State, Iowa wasn’t on the schedule. Fennelly said the Cyclones were so bad that the Hawkeyes weren’t interested. One of the first things he did was call Iowa and get the Hawkeyes on the schedule.

After Iowa State lost at Iowa City in 1996, the Hawkeyes were scheduled in 1997 for the first showdown in Ames between the two rivals in six seasons. The Cyclones beat the Hawkeyes 74-57 in front of a record crowd of 5,844.

“It was our third year, but that was kind of the first big thing that people started to come to,” Fennelly said.

From then on, the groundswell took over. Word of mouth carried news of the women’s basketball program to people around Ames and central Iowa. Orth originally heard about the rising program from a friend, and when he got more involved, he passed it along to his friends.

“Once I think the groundswell was there, it just built on itself,” Orth said.

Later in the 1997-1998 season, Iowa State hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament after finishing the regular season 24-7 and finishing second in the Big 12. The fourth-seeded Cyclones beat Kent State in the first round, setting up a date with fifth-seeded Rutgers in the second round at Hilton Coliseum.

The fans came out in droves, breaking a record with 9,705 people in attendance. The game stayed close until the final minute. Rutgers freshman point guard at the time, Natasha Pointer, hit two free throws with under 10 seconds left to give her team the lead and eventual upset over the favored Cyclones.

It was a heart-breaking defeat for Fennelly in his second NCAA Tournament appearance in Ames. But as he and the team walked off the court, they received a standing ovation from the Hilton Coliseum crowd. For the next week or two, the Fennellys couldn’t go anywhere in Ames without getting congratulations from fans.

“At that moment, I was like, we haven’t arrived, but we’re in the building,” Fennelly said. “People now sort of care, and we lost. That, to me, was when I realized that this fan base was crazy, fanatical, tremendous.”

The 1997-1998 season was one the first stepping stones into something special, and Fennelly knew it. The attendance nearly doubled in the 1998-1999 season and reached more than 10,000 in the 1999-2000 season.

Bill Fennelly salutes the crowd after beating then-No. 22 Kansas State in early 2017.
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

Sustaining his legacy

Now in his 23rd year coaching at Iowa State, Fennelly’s program has more than arrived. It has become a national story.

The attendance numbers at Iowa State have consistently ranked in the top five nationally. Just last year, Iowa State slotted in at No. 3 in the NCAA behind South Carolina and Tennessee, with an average of 9,106 fans per night. That’s almost 300 more fans than Connecticut, and about 8,000 fans better than the Division I average.

It’s also a far cry from the 310 fans that attended Fennelly’s first game at Hilton Coliseum. Sometimes, the Fennellys marvel at what they’ve done.

“Bill sometimes goes, ‘Oh my gosh, babe, would you ever expect this?’” Deb Fennelly said. “We’re just kind of there, and you do sit back and kind of just go, ‘Wow.’”

Part of sustaining his fan base has been continuing to be accessible to the public. The players still connect with a community in a way that few other programs do.

Senior guard Emily Durr saw it right away when she came to Iowa State. Her teammates talked about fans like they were family. She has some favorite fans of her own. When Durr’s grandma died last year, she met an elderly woman named Hazel Hogue.

“It’s the coolest thing ever, talking to an old person and hearing what they’ve been through,” Durr said. “We go out to lunch sometimes, and she writes me cute little letters.”

Durr was also part of a group of players that made a big difference in the life of longtime season ticket holder Pam Hallenbeck, who ended up in the hospital in April. Durr visited her, along with teammates Bridget Carleton and Meredith Burkhall, and Josh Carper, the program’s director of operations.

Hallenbeck said it shows what kind of program the Fennellys have built and how the players have continued to buy in.

“That’s the kind of girls they are,” Hallenbeck said. “Bill does teach the girls to be part of the community. They do meet a lot of people in the community. Bill never fails to thank the people who got there and all of the fans. That really does go a long way.”

It’s that kind of culture that has gotten Bill Fennelly to where he’s at now, and he doesn’t plan on changing much.

His time at Iowa State may be coming to a close in the near future — he has brought up retiring more than a few times in the last few years — but the legacy he has built will live on through the loyal fan base he and his wife have created.

“It’s probably greater than I thought it could be,” Bill Fennelly said. “My goal is that people think Iowa State has a lot of great things going, and on the list is the women’s basketball program. If we can do that, then we’ve done what we’ve needed to do.”

The Fennelly Coaching Tree

From the beginning, Bill Fennelly found and nurtured the next generation of coaches

By Jack MacDonald
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

The Fennelly Coaching Tree

From the beginning, Bill Fennelly found and nurtured the next generation of coaches

Chris Kielsmeier walked into a meeting with Bill Fennelly in the spring of 1998 with no preconceived notions of what would happen. Kielsmeier wasn’t a basketball coach or a player, and he had never been around the women’s basketball program.

He was an Iowa State cheerleader.

But he was at a crossroads. He knew he wanted to coach, but he was unsure how to get into the field.

Cue Bill Fennelly, who, at the time, had only been at Iowa State for three seasons. Kielsmeier walked out of that meeting with an offer that changed his life forever.

“The thing to me that was unique about it was he had absolutely no reason to meet with just some young college kid that was reaching out wanting to talk to him and get advice from him,” Kielsmeier said.

Advice was just the beginning of what Fennelly had to offer. He provided Kielsmeier with the keys to the rest of his life.

And it hasn’t just been Kielsmeier whose life he has changed. Fennelly has his hands in many people’s lives in and out of women’s basketball.

I was just a college kid

Kielsmeier was a senior at Iowa State then, his first of two senior years. He was a sports management major and knew he wanted to be a coach, but he had just finished a course where he observed a kindergarten class and a high school physical education class. He knew something was wrong.

“I just knew that wasn't for me,” Kielsmeier said. “So I thought, 'Gosh, well if I can't teach at the high school level, I'm probably not going to be able to coach.’”

Yet coaching was what he wanted to do. Confused, he scheduled a meeting with his adviser to discuss his future, and it was his adviser who suggested he schedule a meeting with Fennelly to discuss possible paths in college athletics.

Taking the suggestion, he called Fennelly’s office and set up a meeting. As he was making the call, a thought kept going through his head.

Chris Kielsmeier (bottom right) was a cheerleader before he joined Bill Fennelly's coaching staff.
Photo by Chris Kielsmeier

“I’m thinking, ‘This man’s not going to want to talk to me. I don’t have nothing I can give him or anything,'” Kielsmeier said. “What am I going to tell him, what am I going to say? This is a naive college student; I was like, this will be tough.”

Going into the meeting, Kielsmeier was expecting nothing more than conventional wisdom from a coach who was in the middle of proving himself at the Division I level.

Then the meeting happened.

“It was like he met with me like I was somebody really important,” Kielsmeier said.

He explained his situation to Fennelly, and Fennelly recognized the drive that Kielsmeier possessed and the dreams he aspired to fulfill. He offered an internship to this random college kid who had grown up a Cyclone fan, which worked out perfectly because he needed an internship to graduate in the spring.

“He was like, ‘Man, well I'll give you an opportunity here and let you help out,'” Kielsmeier said.

The two even worked out a schedule where Kielsmeier could still cheer at most games, but when practice came, he’d be right back with the team trying to fulfill his goal of becoming a collegiate coach.

The first two

Long before the meeting with Kielsmeier, Fennelly made another hire that is arguably the most successful of the coaches he’s groomed.

“I think I was just a sponge, and I learned so much in those four years that I was at Iowa State,” said Brenda Frese, now head coach of the women’s basketball program at the University of Maryland. “But, I will say, year three, four, from just observing coach Fennelly … I started to really feel … that I could be a head coach and wanted to test the waters.”

Frese was three years removed from a career at Arizona that ended prematurely due to injury in 1992. But, rather than dwelling on the injury, Frese jumped into the coaching field.

Her first job was at Pima Community College during her senior year at Arizona in 1993. Then, for the next two years, Frese hopped over to the Mid-American Conference (MAC) as an assistant coach at Kent State.

That was when Fennelly spotted Frese while he was coaching at Toledo, also a MAC school.

“We had a lot in common and I loved how he coached,” Frese said. “He wore the suspenders at Toledo and [had] tons of energy ... so it kind of started from there.”

Fennelly needed two high-quality coaches when he was hired as the head coach of Iowa State’s women’s basketball team in 1995. At the time, the program had not seen success in years.

He hired Frese and Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.

“You look at [five-star players], can't-miss [or] whatever, you could tell that in [Frese and Abrahamson-Henderson],” Fennelly said.

The process of moving the women’s basketball program into a successful operation was one of the many things Fennelly put them through to prepare them for a head coaching future of their own.

“I just knew [Frese] had that kind of drive and passion,” Fennelly said. “She and Katie really balanced each other out and did a great job. There was no doubt at some point they were both going to be very successful head coaches, and that's what they are.”

Frese took over a Maryland program that was in similar waters to the Iowa State program when Fennelly grabbed hold of the reins.

Abrahamson-Henderson has driven the ship at Central Florida for one year, and the Knights ended with a 21-12 record. Before UCF, she started her head coaching career in 2002 at Missouri State and then moved on to Albany in 2010. She had two assistant coaching gigs in between those two stops.

These two were groomed by Fennelly and they are like family to him. To an extent, it’s a bittersweet feeling to see his former players, managers or coaches move on to other programs.

“It’s like a proud parent, to be honest with you,” Fennelly said. “I think you never like to see good people leave, but with almost all of those that have gone on, you knew when they came here, part of the reason they came here was to leave.

“And when they do leave, you hope that the relationship that you had was good, which we've been blessed to do that, but also if they're leaving to get a head coaching job, then they probably did a good job while they were here, so everyone benefits.”

Success from all angles

It’s not just assistant coaches who go on to have success, but also former players, interns and even managers. It’s no secret that Fennelly is a big reason why those people go on to have careers at all levels of basketball.

It takes more than luck to find coaches that fit in with Fennelly, and he has proven it. The biggest thing he looks for in potential coaches is if they have the drive to represent the program with what Fennelly calls “The Iowa State Way.”

“For me, you need people that understand what this place is about, what we try and do, how we do things, and luckily, over time, we've been able to find those people,” Fennelly said.

And in college basketball, it’s all about connections. All you have to do is look at Fennelly’s staff right now to see that. Jodi Steyer was on his staff at Toledo and joined him a year after he arrived in Ames; Latoja Schaben played for Fennelly at Toledo; and, of course, there is Billy Fennelly, his son.

The connections don’t stop there.

Brittany Lange, a former assistant, is now the head coach at the University of Omaha. Kelly (Kebe) Kennedy, a former assistant, was in charge at Akron. Ben Conrad, a former manager, won a national championship at the junior college level with Johnson County Community College.

These are just three people from a laundry list of names who have grown from the “Fennelly Coaching Tree” and have had a wealth of success.

“Some of them came in for different reasons; some of them, I think you look at that list and be like, 'I'll do it,’” Fennelly said. “They weren't walking in thinking they wanted to be coaches, and some of them that's what they wanted to do. It's more about the fit, kind of people and what could we do to help them move on and kind of head to the next phase of their life.”

Robin Pingeton is a good example.

Robin Pingeton coaches a game with Bill Fennelly. Pingeton has gone on to have success at the University of Missouri.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Pingeton came to Ames in 2000 as an assistant coach and helped the women’s basketball program continue its relatively new success.  She helped lead them to a NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and a NCAA Second Round appearance.

From those quick three years, Pingeton took what she learned from Fennelly and applied it to her coaching style at Illinois State. In her first season at Illinois State during the 2003-2004 season, Pingeton was named the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year, and, just one season later, she guided the Red Birds to the NCAA Tournament. In her final season in Normal, Illinois, she capped off the season with 28 wins and a stop at the Women’s NIT semifinals in 2010.

“If anything, I wanted coach Fennelly to say, ‘You know, I want you to stay,’” Pingeton said. “I think as much as maybe he wanted me to at the time, I think he did, but he just knew it was so important for me to spread my wings.”

Then off to Missouri she went. Once again, Pingeton sprinkled her coaching knowledge on the Tigers and turned them into an above .500 program within two years.

“That's the great thing about sports, your family and your connections,” Fennelly said. “There's tentacles everywhere, because whether it's their husbands and wives and kids and then they hire someone that you know, it just kind of keeps going.

“And when you do it for as long as I've done it, that gets pretty wide.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly talks to members of his bench after Mississippi State makes a shot during a game at Hilton Coliseum in 2016.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

College kid finally finds success

Kielsmeier’s first stop after leaving Iowa State was at Howard Payne University for the 1999-2000 season. His role was no longer that of setting up or tearing down things for practice. Now he was the assistant coach of a women’s collegiate basketball program — ever so close to his ultimate dream of being a head coach.

And after just one season, that dream became a reality. Kielsmeier credits Fennelly for that.

Seven seasons after being named the head coach, Kielsmeier hoisted the Division III National Championship trophy after he guided the Lady Jackets to a 33-0 record in the 2007-2008 season.

“I knew getting the initial job at Howard Payne … was having Iowa State tied to me and having that D1 experience,” Kielsmeier said. “Having coach Fennelly and just the Iowa State basketball family, that was a significant part of it.”

That success carried over to his current job at Wayne State College, where he has etched himself into the record books of college coaching. His 10 seasons at Wayne State included five trips to the NCAA Division II National Tournament, four Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular-season titles, and he coached the Division II Player of the Year in 2012.

That player of the year? Ashley Arlen, an Iowa State transfer that found a home at Wayne State because of the Iowa State connection.

Kielsmeier said he does things today that Fennelly taught him in his one year as an intern.

But what Fennelly is unable to teach is how to win a national championship. It’s something only coaches like Brenda Frese and Chris Kielsmeier themselves can achieve.

“Players go onto success, they graduate and they're pros; well, we also have coaches that have been here and worked here and they're successful,” Fennelly said. “So, there must be something in the air here or the water that allows for some level of success.”

It’s not the water in Ames that’s churning out successful coaches.

It’s Fennelly.

He gives them what they need most: a chance.