Sitting with CSU women’s basketball players Ashley Augspurger and Joy Jenkins, this reporter asked them what they liked about first-year head coach Chris Denker.
“You don’t have enough space, I’ll tell you right now,” Augspurger replied.
That was my warning.
Twice while talking with Augspurger and Jenkins, I felt I had what I needed. I tried to end the interview.
They kept talking. For 35 minutes.
They talked about a man who is a battle commander on the court and a best friend off it. Talked about how, despite a 14-10 record, they feel better about their team than they ever have in their veteran careers. About how, if they could, they’d play all four years for Denker in the dribble of a basketball.
Keeping an interview going for 35 minutes with a Collegian reporter when you don’t really have to? That should tell you something about what Denker’s players think of him.
“He’s incredible,” Jenkins said. “He puts pressure on you, but at the same time, he gives you confidence to handle that pressure.”
Such a sentiment could be seen as surprising to many who have followed CSU women’s basketball. Spirits haven’t always been high in a season that will undoubtedly go down as Denker’s transition year.
Yet, though the perennially victorious Rams have flirted with dropping below .500 late into this season, the players feel good about themselves and good about their team.
“No matter how good or bad it got, you could tell he always believed in this team,” Augspurger said. “You know he’s going into work everyday thinking, ‘What do I have to do to make this team better?’ and he does it. I’m learning new things every day.”
One thing the Rams have learned is Denker’s willingness to get involved in a drill.
The day before a game earlier this season, Denker joined in a practice drill in an attempt to get his post players to take the ball up stronger. When Jenkins went up for a lay-up softer than he liked, Denker swatted the shot off the court and proclaimed loudly to the team, “This is my house!”
It was half joking and half serious, but all Chris Denker.
“He likes to interact with us any chance he can get,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s hard for him to constantly just be telling us what to do. He wants to get in there and show us and be a part of it. That’s part of what makes him unique.”
It was more than four months ago when the Rams found out quickly Denker’s style was a far cry from that of his predecessor, Tom Collen, who rarely got involved in a practice drill and didn’t put nearly as much of a premium on teammates displaying positive encouragement.
Where before, a positive play would draw an appreciative but mild reaction, now every good play, every positive move made on the court is met with teammates running across the floor to offer congratulations or pats on the back.
“If you get a deflection and your whole team is telling you, “Good job,” how much harder are you gonna try on defense?” Jenkins asks.
The Rams’ positive, encouraging mindset, established from day one of Denker’s regime, is now firmly entrenched in the psyche of a team determined to dig its way out of a slow start.
“It’s because of him,” Jenkins said. “We had six seniors, we should have been together from the start, but we just couldn’t find it. Now we’re really feeling like a team. We have togetherness and it’s all because of him.”
Beyond togetherness as teammates, Jenkins and Augspurger speak of friendships off the court that may not have existed were it not for Denker’s fresh outlook.
Augpurger tells Jenkins flat out, “Honestly, I don’t think me and you would be as good of friends this year.”
Much of this dynamic has to do with Denker handling playing time and positions differently than Collen. Players who before were competing for a single spot – such as centers Shannon Strecker and Lisa Narkiewicz, small forwards Katie Borton and Jackie Campbell and point guards Jasai
Ferrucho and Vanessa Espinoza – are now being utilized on the floor at the same time.
As a result, not only do the Rams pose difficult match-ups, but friendships that were, by Augspurger’s account, “clinging by a thread,” have been solidified.
All this togetherness comes from a family attitude and atmosphere Denker stresses every day.
“When you’re close-knit, everybody feels good being around one another and you know that people genuinely care about you. Everyone’s just a little more relaxed and things just flow better and I think that affects how you play,” Denker said. “If people play unselfishly, that’s probably how they act off the court, too.”
One of Denker’s biggest strengths, it seems, is developing off-court relationships with his coaches and players to create that family atmosphere.
“Chris and Jeff (Dow, assistant coach,) are great guys and they’re always there to talk to, whenever you want,” junior transfer Da’Love Woods said. “Chris is cool to hang out with. A lot of people would be surprised how well we get along with him off the court.”
Unfortunately, Denker’s ability to create successful personal relationships hasn’t always translated into wins for the Rams. Asked how trying this year has been for him, Denker’s initial commentary is on the pains of moving to a new city, such as finding a new dentist.
But where his team’s struggles are concerned, Denker looks at this season – one that could be considered a disappointment from a win-loss perspective – as a learning experience.
“It’s been really, really good for us as coaches because we’ve learned so much,” Denker said. “It’s been a challenge and we’re all drained from the recruiting road and from our struggles, but it’s been fun mostly because of getting to know these girls.”
Indeed, Denker’s greatest satisfaction in this season filled with turmoil has been developing bonds with his team and especially the Rams’ six seniors.
“We didn’t know in the short period of time we had if we’d get to know them as well as you’d like,” Denker said. “But getting to know Ashley and Katie (Borton) and everyone else has just been a blast.”
Through his friendly nature, his demanding but encouraging attitude and overall demeanor, at least one of Denker’s players has undergone a personal basketball renaissance.
“You get tired because you’ve been going so hard for so long as the season gets older, but for the first time in four years, I don’t feel that way,” Augspurger said. “I don’t dread going to practice, I feel excited to go. I don’t feel like I’m getting burned out. I’ve fallen in love with the game of basketball all over again this season, in large part because of him.”