Monday, December 22, 2014

Olivet Nazarene off to fast start with Hengesbach leading the way

A great way of learning about The Grinnell System is seeing it person. An even better way? Well, being on the opposing team might be one.

That’s what happened to Abbey Hengesbach, then an NAIA All-America guard at Concordia (Mich.) University who took the court in the opening round of the 2013 National Tournament against Olivet Nazarene. Hengesbach finished with 28 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks as her team eliminated the Tigers 90-80.

(Quick side note: ONU made only one of its first 19 shots from beyond the 3-point line and finished 9-for-47 in that one. Still, the Tigers eventually got within one point in the second half, which is a wonderful testament not only to The System but to the effort of their coaches and players.)

When Hengesbach decided to take a year off from basketball and find a different school, one of those she considered was NAIA Division II Olivet Nazarene -- based in Bourbonnais, Ill. -- through coach Lauren Stamatis.

“I talked with a couple of schools pretty seriously,” Hengesbach said. “Coach just sold me on Olivet as a whole. Obviously, The System wasn’t anything I was used to. She felt like I would play well in it, and here we are.”

So far, her decision appears to have worked out. Hengesbach is second in NAIA Division II at 24.1 points per game for the Tigers, who have won eight of their past nine games to move to 11-4 (3-1 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference) headed into Christmas break. She is tied for fourth with an average of 4.33 steals and seventh with an average of 5.4 assists.

And along the way, Stamatis’ squad is averaging 111.9 points, better than their NAIA record of 107.5 from last season.

Hengesbach has been a big part of that, part of a 15-player rotation (this is The System, remember?) that includes nine freshman. So with Hengesbach, Stamatis has 10 brand-new players getting it done.

“Having so many new girls learning it at one time helped us all, I think,” Hengesbach said. “Having them go through the process with me has made it less stressful, that was really helpful.”

Stamatis is in her third season running the program at Olivet Nazarene, taking over when Doug Porter retired. She served as Porter’s graduate assistant for two years before becoming the first full-time assistant in 2009, so she’s seen the ups and downs of what the school refers to as “TigerBall.” She doesn’t plan on changing.

“It’s funny, Coach Porter asked me when I was his grad assistant how I would want my team to play if I was head coach,” Stamatis said. “After about my second year here, I knew there was no other way I would want to coach. To see the players have success and to see how much they love it as a group is amazing.

“I knew even if I left, this is how I would want my teams to play.”

Stamatis first saw The System as an undergrad, as a member of the women’s team at the University of the Redlands in southern California. At the time, the men’s program was run by Gary Smith, and his teams set many NCAA Division III records.

“When I first saw it, my first thought was, ‘This is crazy, this is not basketball,’” she said. “I had no idea what was going on. You have a certain perception of what basketball should be, and this wasn’t it. You don’t really understand what they’re trying to do.

“It wasn’t until I started learning about it that I realized there were specific goals they were trying to reach, and there was a method to it. I really liked it.”

Certainly, given the way her team does it, there is a lot to like about what Stamatis is doing at Olivet Nazarene. All 15 players have played in all 15 games – getting between 6 and 18 minutes of run per game – and 13 of them have made a 3-pointer. Everyone averages more 1.2 points, too.

One adjustment that Hengesbach worried about was sharing playing time, or least, sitting out more than half the game. She has discovered that isn’t a problem.

“When I played in traditional basketball, you always feel like you’re trying to save energy throughout the game, because you know you’re going to be in there for a while,” she said. “Now constantly going 100 percent is more of a habit, and it’s a little easier.

“Coach had told me when you have your shift, you’re so excited, and that’s the truth. Obviously, the style we play, you’re going 100 percent all the time. Personally, I’m much more efficient when I’m on the court.”

That was the case late last week when the Tigers won both games at the JustAGame Holiday Classic at Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin. In the opener, a 120-103 victory over William Penn University, Hengesbach had 22 points (one of seven players in double figures), seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

She backed that up by joining fourth teammates in double figures when Olivet Nazarene beat Buena Vista University 116-110, as Hengesbach totaled 16 points, nine assists, six rebounds and six steals.

With all those young players, the future clearly is bright for Stamatis’ program. She had led Olivet Nazarene to the national tournament in each of her two previous seasons, and there is little reason to think this year will be any different. Her new players are getting it, the returning ones continue to push the pace and achieve The System goals, and everybody appears to be having fun doing it.

“During finals week, a few of them were saying they were planning to go home for Christmas and watch their high schools play,” Stamatis said. “They were saying how boring regular basketball was going to be to them. They said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I could ever play that way again.’

“So they’re sold on it, and they’re having success. That’s a great thing.”

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