A 6-0 start to your season and a career-win milestone will send the reporters knocking on your door, or more realistically, hammering your e-mail and phone lines requesting interviews. So, naturally, when I thought to interview UWL head women’s basketball coach Karen Middleton, I became just another local media voice aboard the S.S. TrendingNow, right? Well, to be honest, I originally was never intending to interview anyone this week, but when digging up the stats and info on the Eagles’ recent run of success following Coach Middleton’s 100th career victory, I was drawn by the path she came down to end up at her current position. That, along with intriguing social media content, was all the pushing I needed to sit down with the former-Gamecock outside shooter supreme:
AR: What was a determining factor in making UWL your coaching home three years ago?
KM: Well, education has always been a huge part of me growing up; it was a really big emphasis from my parents. My undergrad and grad are both in education, so I really value that significantly, and seeing what UWL has for division three students, I really think division three athletes are the ultimate student athletes. Here at UWL we really have tremendous academic programs, but our athletic programs are also elite, winning and competing for WIAC championships every year. That combination was really inviting and something that I was excited about, and once you meet our young ladies you’ll know why.
AR: Yeah, you have a lot of All-WIAC academics on your team, and it’s certainly not exclusive to the women’s basketball program. Looking at the athletic side of things, though, a 6-0 start to the year is hard to overlook. You’re beating teams by an average of 23 points per game, and going over the stat sheets one of things that I’ve noticed is the defense for the Eagles. You’re limiting your opponents to around 50 points per game…what things do you think have been done differently this year than in your two previous seasons here that have led to this defensive dominance early on?
KM: Our defense is something we’ve really emphasized since day one. Everyone knows you’re not always going to have great offensive nights, but you can give a good effort on the defensive side and the rebounding side every night. We want to work to have each others’ backs, and we want to be disciplined. When we scout opponents, we really want take away their strengths, their “bread and butter” so to say. Our players have really bought into our system, and have worked real hard to make it challenging on that end of the floor.
AR: So, if someone is coming out to the Gustavus game [tonight], and they’ve never seen your program play before, is that sort of thing maybe what you would describe as the “Karen Middleton Brand of Eagle Basketball”?
KM: Well Gustavus is going to be a tremendous, tremendous challenge. We’ve played them the last two years and gotten a little closer…they’re a talented group led by two seniors; we have no seniors, so our defense is really going to have to be strong, we’re going to have to play at our pace and not get too frantic…we need to really be solid on the defensive end to one, settle ourselves down, and two, give us some opportunities to create offense from our defense, too.
AR: You mention that you don’t have senior leadership, but you do have a lot of local presence with your underclassman. Just going down the list: freshman Jessa Peterson, Emma Gamoke, Kyah Steiner, Whittni Rezin, and Kendra Leis, and then junior Jayne Emerson from Winona…does having that group of athletes that have played against each other in the past give your team maybe an added flair?
KM: I think it helps instantly, honestly, with chemistry. They’re very familiar with each other, and as freshmen there’s a lot coming at them. One part of things is getting to know your teammates and build relationships, and they’ve done that already…The Coulee Region, as you know, is super super talented, so we work hard to keep the best local talent we can home. We obviously know there are a lot of other kids that are going on to bigger levels, but we’re excited about what we’re building here, and these local talents are really making an impact for us.
AR: While researching your background for this interview, something that really caught my eye was on the UWL athletics page. You mention your time learning underneath the legendary Tara VanDerveer. That’s a very extensive coaching tree, including former Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsie, now with the L.A. Sparks in the WNBA. You were an assistant there right after [VanDerveer] led the Olympic team to gold in Atlanta. What do you remember most about your time at Stanford, and how has VanDerveer’s instruction shaped the way you run the Eagle program?
KM: Tara’s a pioneer in our game. She’s in the hall of fame, not just Naismith, but the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. She’s an excellent teacher of the game, but she also builds tremendous relationships with her players. She, along with my college coach Nancy Wilson really shaped me into who I am and how we run our program. We do very similar things to what they do at the division one level. Tara was an awesome teacher, and a part of many many teams there that won championships and competed at the highest level. Also, she taught how you handle those situations and continue to teach through the losses but also the wins. She was an awesome person off the court, but a tremendous teacher on it as well.
AR: Something I notice about the team as someone trying to build a Twitter following of my own is the social media presence for the ladies, and one video I watched in particular was from right after your 100th win where you added a link to the chain you all hold onto together in the locker room after each contest. What’s the significance behind the chain?
KM: Well with Twitter in general I have to give all the credit to my assistant Jonelle Streed, she’s awesome in social media…it’s a way for our program to be seen by the community to learn what we’re about, for recruits to see what the experience is like: we work really hard, but we also want to have a lot of fun. The Chain developed before I got here, and it’s been carried on and our players have bought into it. We’re excited about our accomplishments, and for us it’s not just about scoring. The person that gets The Chain could have been a huge defensive presence, or could have been dominant on the boards, so it’s just whoever made a big impact in that game. We talk a lot about having each others’ backs and being linked together, and that’s what that represents. It’s a fun way to do it.
AR: And speaking of accomplishments, how did it feel when you walked off the floor with win number one hundred? I think that feat started this recent flurry of media attention.
KM: I’m not big in those types of things, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t really know that much about it until it was getting a little closer. Obviously I’m very excited for that, it means I’ve had some great players before and awesome coaches that have helped us do what we’ve been able to do. My concern is with Gustavus, “on to the next one”, as most coaches would be. But I am very happy with where our program is going, and excited for all the support we have from Kim Blum and Erin Thacker and all of our administration here at UWL.
AR: Last question I have for you and I admit it’s a tad cliché: where do you see your program heading this year? What is the ceiling for the Eagle women’s basketball program?
KM: Quite honestly, with the youth that we have, we’re trying to figure those things out. It’s a lot to ask seven freshmen to come in and instantly learn what’s going on; we’re six games in and learning a lot about us. We definitely want to be in the mix in the WIAC; it’s a goal we’ve had since we got here and I think that’s why a lot of these young ladies are here now. They want to compete and they want to be challenged, and the WIAC is the toughest division three conference in the country. These games are definitely preparing what’s ahead for us in January. And we want to get to that national level. [UWL] soccer has had a lot of success before us, football has as well, and success breeds success. We’re just trying to do our part, while at the same time making sure it’s a good experience for our players. There are still a lot of lessons for these freshmen to learn, but I’m happy with the start that we’ve had, and again, [tonight’s] going to be a super big challenge for us. We’re excited for it and looking forward to Gustavus.
UWL takes the floor tonight against Gustavus Adolphus at Mitchell Hall starting around 7pm.
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