Thinking Your Way to the Win
#1 Finish! Still Undefeated! Tourney Bound!
Update since press time
Bowdoin's women's basketball team is undefeated and nationally ranked, and the team was placed on the 2002-03 Academic Honor Roll by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Ð an honor shared by only 25 colleges in the country. But it's not just the combination of excellence on the court and in the classroom that makes them standouts. It's how they make those skills work together.
Just before the holiday break, the Bowdoin women's basketball practice in Morrell Gym was interrupted repeatedly by events of a largely un-athletic nature. The Polar Bear women were in the middle of a lay-up drill, for instance, when a young man wearing a New England Patriots jersey wandered in and read a love poem, much to the delight of her teammates, to sophomore guard Vanessa Russell. The team was doing stretching exercises when another young man showed up to challenge senior forward Lindsay Bramwell to a game of around-the-world, five shots from each of five spots around the three point arc. Bramwell's teammates cheered on the deadly outside shooter as she dispatched her challenger, 11-10.
Then things began to get really out-of-hand. In the middle of a black versus white scrimmage, a representative from the dean's office showed up to instruct first year guard Katie Cummings, who reportedly had failed to register for classes on time, in the art of course registration. Then a young woman arrived to apply make-up to the face of Erika Nickerson, the consensus being that the junior forward was chronically deficient in the cosmetics department. The spirited scrimmage was just under way again when a young man arrived to challenge team co-captain Lora Trenkle to "do body shots." The stellar senior guard obligingly took a shot glass (filled not with tequila but 7-Up), licked salt from the young man's neck and took a wedge of lime from his lips with her teeth, all without ever losing her pre-season All-American cool.
And where was Coach Stefanie Pemper while all this foolishness was going on? Laughing harder than any of her players and egging the interlopers on. It was only when a dance between senior guard Beth Damon and a young man clad only in a bathing suit and bathrobe began to get a little risqu that Coach Pemper finally whistled the hijinks to an end.
All of these distractions, however, were aided and abetted by Coach Pemper as part of a Secret Santa tradition she has established. Old-fashioned whip-cracking coaches might disapprove of such unsportswomanlike conduct, but they couldn't argue with the success Stefanie Pemper's teams have had since she arrived at Bowdoin in 1998.
Banners hanging in Morrell Gym attest to the fact that the Polar Bears have won three straight New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championships Ð 2001, 2002, and 2003. And as they were horsing around at practice, the Bowdoin women were riding high again, ranked #4 nationally out of 422 teams in NCAA Division 3 women's basketball. They would improve to #3 nationally a few days later. (At press time, they had moved up to #1). Indeed, the Polar Bears have been ranked in the top 10 nationally for the past three seasons, having won 32 straight regular season games, 28 straight home games, 27 straight non-conference games and 20 straight road games. No doubt about it, these Bowdoin women got game.
Nor are the 2003-2004 Polar Bear women hoopsters a bunch of non-scholarly ringers recruited to beef up Bowdoin's athletic resume. In October, they were the only NESCAC team named to the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll with a team GPA of 3.342.
"The team that plays the smartest wins," insists Pemper. "There's a relationship between our on-court success and our success in the classroom. If you're successful at one thing, you're going to be more successful in the other things you do."
Read my mind
And Stefanie Pemper knows about success. A multi-sport standout in high school in Huntington Beach, California, Pemper played Division I basketball at Idaho State University where she set a school record for free throw percentage and was selected the All-Big Sky team in her senior year, 1992. She has since been inducted into the Bengals' Sports Hall of Fame.
After serving as an assistant coach at her alma mater for two years, Pemper came east to serve as an assistant coach at Harvard from 1995 to 1998, during which time the Crimson women won three Ivy League titles. Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith says Stefanie Pemper "stood out right from the get-go" when she went looking for an assistant.
"Like a lot of coaches, Stef has a tremendous knowledge of the game," says Delaney-Smith, "but that's not why she is successful. I think she is successful because she has the ability to put basketball in perspective and maintain a balance. That's particularly important at a school like Bowdoin. As a coach, you can get obsessed by your sport, but Stef does not do that. She teaches her players life skills through the sport of basketball."
"I've always loved basketball. I love playing it and coaching it," says Pemper, reflecting on the lessons her mentor taught her. "What I learned from Kathy Delaney-Smith at Harvard is that as a coach you can't forget, even for a second, that you're loving it and enjoying it."
Pemper believes that communication, respect, trust, and collaboration are the keys to success on and off the court. When you talk to her players about the winning tradition Pemper has brought to Polar Bear basketball, it is these intangibles, not game strategy or style of play that they cite.
"A big part of our success is that Stef is an amazing coach," says Beth Damon '04. "She's someone who sees a situation and knows what that situation needs. She has strong individual relations with the players and knows her players really well."
"Stef is an exceptional coach," echoes co-captain Lora Trenkle '04. "She knows the game of basketball and she recruits well too. She's always seeking players who bring what she values to our team Ð an academic orientation, enthusiasm, commitment to the team and commitment to the program."
"When we are successful, I credit the players," says Pemper, citing what might be considered her Golden Rule of Coaching. "When we're not, I don't blame them Ñ I credit the other team."
What Pemper brought to Bowdoin was a strong grounding in sports psychology and a belief in what she calls "the thinking athlete." She has all her players practice pre-game visualization exercises in which they "see" themselves and their teammates executing plays and succeeding. She also tries to get her players to "think like a coach" Ñ for example, waiting several minutes at half-time before entering the locker room in order to give the players time to talk about what they think is working and what's not. During practice games, she calls frequent timeouts during which the players huddle to discuss among themselves how to improve their play.
In game situations, Pemper rarely disputes an official's call and never screams at her players when they make mistakes.
"She's intense, but she's calm," says co-captain Courtney Trotta '04 of Pempers game demeanor. "She doesn't want us to rattled, so she sets an example for us."
"When kids make a mistake in a game," says the coach, "you shouldn't say anything to them on the court. You should think twice about saying anything to them when they come off. Maybe at half-time."
A true student of the game, Pemper is a big fan of Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson's book Sacred Hoops, which counsels a Zen-like approach to basketball, focusing on "being in the moment" and controlling what you can control and not worrying about things beyond your control, such as officials' calls. She also makes a practice of visiting basketball powerhouses such as UConn, Duke, Arizona State, and Oklahoma to watch practices. What interests her in observing big-time Division I programs is not so much their strategies and plays as how the coaches communicate with their players and what they talk about.
Ultimately, Stefanie Pemper sees the coach's role as the same as the teacher's role Ð to prepare young people to be successful.
"One of my big coaching philosophies," Pemper explains, "is, 'There's two minutes to go in a tie game and I have no timeouts left. Have I prepared my team to be successful in that game?' One of my favorite things in sports is when the athletes read my mind. Jessie Mayol ('02) read my mind very well. This year's senior class reads my mind very well. They think like a coach."
Inspire your teammates
The seniors on the 2003-04 Bowdoin team Ð Lora Trenkle, Courtney Trotta, Lindsay Bramwell, Kristina Fugate and Beth Damon Ñ began the season with a career record of 77-13, an amazing .853 winning percentage. And the fact that there are so many seniors on the team is a testament to the loyalty Stefanie Pemper has instilled in her charges.
"We have five seniors on the team. They were my second recruiting class," Pemper says. "At a school like this where there are so many things that can pull you away, all five seniors have stayed with the program. They are getting something out of the experience that is very valuable to them."
"Being on the team is one of the most valuable things here at Bowdoin for me," confirms Beth Damon, "being part of that group of people and having a sideline role."
Damon, who grew up in Livermore, Maine, and came to Bowdoin from Hebron Academy, stayed with the team despite minimal playing time. She understands and accepts her role, which is to push the starters at practice (Lora Trenkle hates being guarded by Damon), to bring her huge positive energy onto the court when she does get into a game, and to be a vocal leader on the bench. Stefanie Pemper says Damon deserves the "Biggest Contribution in Fewest Minutes" award.
The nucleus of Bowdoin's recent basketball dynasty have been players from Maine Ñ Jessie Mayol '02 from Westbrook, Kristi Royer '03 from Lewiston, Lora Trenkle '04 from Surry and George Stevens Academy, Erika Nickerson '05 from Benton and Lawrence High School, Alison Smith '05 from Stockton Springs and Bangor High School, Lauren Withey '06 from Rockport and Camden Hills High School, and Justine Pouravelis '06, from Old Orchard Beach by way of a state championship at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.
It is easier, of course, to attract good players to a winning program, and this year's recruiting class of '07 boasts four young out-of-state women Ð Julia Loonin from New York, Katie Cummings from New Jersey, Eileen Flaherty from Connecticut, and Kristen van der Veen from Massachusetts Ð all of whom were all-star players in high school. But Stefanie Pemper's recruiting successes are all the more remarkable because Bowdoin's highly selective nature limits her to going after athletes who are also academically gifted. Pemper, however, believes Division III NESCAC schools are increasingly attractive to female scholar-athletes.
"These are the places," she says, "where you find the best balance between academic pursuits, athletic pursuits and social life. More and more young women are interested in finding that balance."
Lora Trenkle, for instance, was recruited by several Division I colleges, yet she opted for early decision at Bowdoin.
"I wanted a life after basketball," Trenkle explains. "D-I was appealing, but it wasn't that appealing."
As a four-year standout at Bowdoin, Lora Trenkle missed Stefanie Pemper's first two seasons as coach. In 1999, the Polar Bears were good enough to win an at-large birth in the NCAA tournament and advanced as far at the round of 32, but in 2000 Pemper says she suffered "a sophomore slump," her team posting only a so-so 21-11 record. In hindsight, Pemper believes she carried her philosophy of empowering players to think for themselves too far, providing too little leadership in difficult situations.
In 2001, however, the Bowdoin women went 21-8, losing in the NCAA Sweet 16 round to New York University. In 2002, they compiled an outstanding 26-2 record, advancing to the Elite 8 before losing to runner-up St. Lawrence University. Last year, the Polar Bears went 26-3 and, undefeated in league play, made it once again to the Elite Eight before losing to runner-up Eastern Connecticut.
Some of Bowdoin's biggest games in recent years have been against in-state rival University of Southern Maine, a public-private match-up that has become one of the best hoop battles in New England. In advancing to the Elite Eight last year, Bowdoin knocked off USM, 64-47, in the Sweet Sixteen tournament in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. But during the regular season, the Polar Bears and the Huskies battled into double overtime before Bowdoin managed a 78-75 victory.
"We've beaten USM four years in row now," says Lora Trenkle, "but before that we hadn't beaten them in 21 years."
Despite being ranked #4 nationally this year, the Polar Bears knew their national ranking was based on past performances and had to wonder going into the season whether they would be the same team after graduating stellar post player Kristi Royer. Coach and players alike knew they would have to do something to compensate for the loss of Royer, so, adopting the slogan "Inspire Your Teammates," they focused on getting each and every player to elevate her game.
"This year more than any other since I've been here," says co-captain Courtney Trotta, "we're much more team-oriented. The last three years we had a one-two punch in Lora and Kristi. It was great to have them to go to and to have them deliver, but we've spread the offense out a lot more this year, so opponents can't key on us the way they have in the past."
Trotta describes the 2003-04 Bowdoin style of play in one word Ñ "relentless." Playing relentless defense, the guard-heavy Polar Bears (10 of 15 players are guards) force turnovers and use their team speed to advantage in fast breaks. With strong rebounding from forwards Erika Nickerson, Justine Pouravelis, Lauren Withey, Eileen Flaherty and Kristen van der Veen, they capitalize on put-backs and post moves. Opponents find it difficult to contain Bowdoin with full-court presses, because Trenkle, Trotta and Vanessa Russell are all deft ball-handlers, and two of them are usually on the court at any one time, meaning that whoever takes the outlet pass becomes the point guard. When action slows to half-court play, the Polar Bears have eight offensive set plays where most teams have only two or three. And when all else fails, Bowdoin has long-range scoring power that runs from co-captains Trenkle and Trotta to Ashleigh Watson '06, a three-point bomber from California.
The defining moment for this new-look Polar Bear team offense came on December 3, 2003, when Bowdoin faced off with USM at Hill Gym in Gorham. With both teams playing smothering defense, the Polar Bears and the Huskies committed a combined 32 turnovers in the first half which saw USM take a 27-21 lead. But in the second half, Bowdoin exploded with a 15-3 run to take a 36-30 lead. USM battled back, retaking the lead 43-42, but by then, says Courtney Trotta, she and her teammates were confident that they could contain their arch-rivals and proceeded to hold the Huskies scoreless for nearly eight minutes in posting a decisive 59-52 victory.
In keeping with the "spread the offense" strategy, Bowdoin got 14 points out of Vanessa Russell and Erika Nickerson and a dozen from Justine Pouravelis, who also contributed 11 rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots. Lora Trenkle scored eight points with five rebounds and five assists, including a gorgeous feed to Pouravelis who put Bowdoin ahead for good at 50-49. In their next game on December 10, the Bowdoin women won a lopsided 72-29 victory over Colby-Sawyer College in which all 15 players saw action and 12 of them scored. Now that's what you call a balanced offense!
Lead by example
The sustained success of the womenÕs basketball program has not gone unnoticed on the Bowdoin campus or in the community generally. "You have to see this team to appreciate it. This is not just another good team Ñ good teams come and go. What Stef Pemper has brought is sustained excellence," says Richard Mersereau '69, Secretary of the College and former women's basketball coach. With such a stellar reputation in the community, the players have become local heroes to young girls who hope to follow in their footsteps, and folks around campus have been impressed by how lightly the Polar Bear women wear their laurels.
"One of the great things about this college," says Eric Chown, assistant professor of computer science and a fan of women's basketball since he served as public address announcer at Northwestern University while in graduate school there, "is that the women's basketball team is at the top of the heap, but they don't carry around the attitude that successful sports teams usually do. These are not kids who are just here to play basketball."
Lora Trenkle and Beth Damon, for example, are the senior class representatives on student government. Trenkle, Damon and Lindsay Bramwell network with alumni through the Young Alumni Leadership Program. Courtney Trotta is very active with residential life as a proctor for first year students. And Alison Smith is performing the in the Bowdoin production of "The Vagina Monologues."
"This is a group of women who are really confident and really down-to-earth," says Beth Damon. "We're not a bunch of jocks at all. We're well-rounded, smart females."
Eric Chown credits the success of Stefanie Pemper's teams with validating a style of leadership that is important for Bowdoin students to see and to experience.
"When they have success on the court it lends greater credence to what she is doing," says Chown. "SheÕs not screaming on the sidelines or grabbing players' jerseys. She has a very calm demeanor on the sidelines. She's setting a leadership example for the rest of the school."
College President Barry Mills agrees.
"Coach Pemper's teams have been incredibly successful academically and athletically, and we're very proud of them," says President Mills. "I go to many of the home games, and they have strong support from students, the rest of the campus, andÉthis is pretty specialÉlots of young girls in the community who look up to our student/athletes. It's hard to imagine a better example of the kind of athletic program weÕd like to have at the College, and in NESCAC."
Watching Stefanie Pemper interact with the young women she coaches, it is clear that she plays numerous roles in her players' lives. Doubled over with laughter at their Secret Santa antics, she seems nothing quite so much as their big sister. Taking a player aside for a little one-on-one chat, she becomes confidant and mentor. Ordering the losers of a scrimmage to run wind sprints, she looks more like the traditional coach-as-whip-cracker. Observing them in action while she sits quietly on the bench however, she takes on an almost maternal aspect. But no matter what she is doing, her affection and enthusiasm for her players is obvious.
"If people come and watch us play and see confident young women putting themselves out there, playing hard, taking risks, handling failure with dignity and handling success with dignity," says Coach Stefanie Pemper, "thatÕs pretty cool!"