Rodriguez: Trusting the process

Jeff Thurman and the NPCC Knights look to build on last year’s unlikely success.

Ever heard the song that goes — “Cause you’re hot then you’re cold… you’re yes then you’re no… you’re in then you’re out… you’re up then you’re down…”

This iconic Katy Perry pop song summed up my thoughts on NPCC’s women’s basketball team last season, but things can change. Right?

I sat courtside at McDonald-Belton Gymnasium for most of the Knights’ home games a year ago, and three painfully reoccurring areas of concern for then first-year head coach Jeff Thurman and company had been shooting, communication and turnovers.

Those issues, however, stemmed from the inevitable growing pains of a young team pieced together in a hurry — six weeks to be exact.

But after every loss, I stood side-by-side with Thurman, who showed no signs of disbelief in his team’s chances at post-season play. In fact, he continued to allude to the overplayed Philadelphia 76ers’ slogan “Trust the Process” in a variety of different ways.

It didn’t matter that opponents had outscored the Knights by a whopping 14.6 points per game on average, or that NPCC only managed to convert on 31% of their shots.

When the Region IX Div. II tournament rolled around in late February, the Knights surged to their first winning-streak of the season — which catapulted them past Central and Southeast CC and into the District title game for a chance at a National Tournament appearance.

They won that game, too.

Thurman and the women’s basketball team punched their ticket to the National Tournament in Harrison, Arkansas, despite finishing 8-24 on the season, surpassing all other teams at NPCC, which included their male counterparts who had posted an impressive 24-5 record.

So when I sat with him at this year’s Media Day in McDonald-Belton Gymnasium, he stressed the importance of last year’s lessons and its advantages moving forward.

“Our expectations last year had been to do the best we could with what we had, especially in the beginning,” Thurman said. “We wanted to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and that’s exactly what we ended up doing.”

Thurman smiled and looked onward at a horde of new faces posing for photos against a green screen in the proverbial black-and-gold uniforms of the NPCC Knights.

“It put our program into an area where we could build,” Thurman continued. “And that’s what we’re going into this year. We are using the success we had last year to continue to build for this year and years three, four and five and so on.”

The Knights signed eight new players with distinguished resumes, including local standouts Ashley Hassett of Hershey and Janay Brauer of Sidney.

“We had a full recruiting cycle this year instead of just six weeks like last year,” Thurman said. “That’s huge as a program to have the time to watch, evaluate and recruit the sort of character that we want.”

The full recruiting cycle and time to prepare accordingly not only allowed for the team’s indoctrination of Thurman’s full-court pressure defense and rampant game speed, but it gifted him the quality of players that can carry out those staples.

“We’re really excited about our freshman class,” Thurman said. “There will be a learning curve, sure, but I think they will make it easier to play 11, 12 or 13 players a night and press for 40 minutes and make it fun.”

With six returning sophomores that include two of last year’s leading scorers in Emily Joseph and Nerea Castellano (roughly 11 ppg, respectively), the Knights added versatile sharpshooters Isa Valenzuela, Viri Escobar and Brauer in order to right last season’s shooting woes early.

Escobar, in particular, has earned Thurman’s nod early as the team’s floor general, a crucial part of the team’s ethos, following the graduation of last year’s standouts in Nahatabaa Nacona and Madisyn Francis.

“Viri Escobar comes in with a winning pedigree,” Thurman said. “She’s a two-time state champion at Yuma, Colorado, and more than capable to make that transition at the point guard spot, where we lose two of our point guards who carried a tremendous load for us last year.”

But Thurman didn’t just put fresh faces in uniforms this season.

He brought along a sideline presence in assistant coach Sarafina Handy, a former guard at Missouri Western State University who led the team to their first NCAA tournament appearance. Coincidentally, she also led the MIAA conference in 3-point shooting percentage.

“Now with coach Handy on board as my assistant, we have that area where she’s great at skill development,” Thurman said. “She’s helping all our girls, from the one to five positions, develop shooting, dribbling and passing at a high level.”

And if having a Handy assistant with extensive knowledge isn’t enough, the act of repetition has never failed a winning team.

“Shooting has been one, two and three on our list of things to fix,” Thurman added. “With more time to prepare, we’ve had the girls working since school began on their shooting using a shooting machine. We are having them get 2,000 to 3,000 shots a day as a team because shooting is repetition.”

Thurman’s and optimistic coach, a player’s coach, but he never sells without having the product stored and ready to go.

When asked about the start of the season and if the improvements made over the offseason will show right away, he shrugged, smiled and hit me with an answer I’ve heard before — let’s call it déjà vu.

“I always stress it to our student-athletes, coaching staff and administration that we’re playing for February and March,” Thurman said. “You can’t win the Region in November and December. If it was that easy, everyone would try do it.”

Fans, in turn, can expect a new and improved product early, but stick around and make no mistake — like Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, the Knights will play their best basketball when it counts most.

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