Chris Mennig follows up his “On the Road” chronicle of pre-season campus visits adding eight more stops to the 2013 tour before heading home to Illinois and the tip off of practice with his St. Thomas More squad. Mennig and his Sabers will be looking to take just one more step past last season’s state runner up effort and claim that elusive state crown. Check out the initial part of his fall travels at the link below as well as his first stop in Georgia and seven new destinations in Florida this time around.
With my last day in Georgia looming, I headed over to Georgia State’s campus to kick off the second leg of my journey. This program has come a long ways in a short time under Sharon Baldwin-Tener. The team has positive energy and it would be no surprise to see the Panthers turn the corner this season as Sharon helps advance the third program of her career. This group had great energy with lots of focus, fun and chemistry for virtually the entire session which wrapped up with some of the always popular running. The common thread for successful programs at the Mid-Major and Lower D-I levels is a head coach’s ability to retain staff and this line-up has been with her since day one. Jonathon Barbaree and Jocelyn Wyatt delivered great energy and teaching points throughout the practice. The chemistry between the three of them was evident and you can see it spilling over to the players. Jonathon and Jocelyn both have bright futures ahead of them. Again, I was humbled to be asked to speak to the team. I challenged them with the “never too high, never too low” adage and put it on the seniors to help the freshmen along. I then slipped out and to make my way to the airport and catch a flight down to Tampa.
Starting the next day, I caught up with Dan Olsen, the owner/evaluator of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. I’ve known Dan a long time, clear back to the time he was launching his own company and we (Blue Star) approached him to be a part of our efforts. I can appreciate a man that takes a chance, works hard, puts in the time and builds a sound business. This was a bit of a “celebratory breakfast” as Dan recently was given the task of taking over the online ESPN girls grassroots rankings. We discussed many things, including the future NCAA recruiting calendar, and afterwards I made my way down the road to the University of South Florida’s campus.
Jose Fernandez has built himself a mini empire down in the sunshine state. As I walked into their new practice facility, it was easy to see the pride taken in a building that has, in part, been the fruition of his hard work. As practice began the focus and attention was obvious on all of the player’s faces. Naturally there was a solid balance between transition and halfcourt execution as anyone that knows Jose knows he is the “King of Sets”. As practice finished up we walked over to the arena which has been given an entire interior facelift. As we walked we discussed the changing dynamics of conferences across the country and then wrapped up our time together talking some more X and O’s.
Never one to overlook family or an opportunity, I made my way down the road to a golf resort that my new grandfather-in-law had been a member at for years. I dropped in and got him a new golf shirt from there and made my way back to the airport.
Taking an early flight out to Tallahassee the next morning I was able to catch a late breakfast with Kimberly Davis-Powell, director of the Florida Essence Nike sponsored travel team. We shared some of our stories of helping young people along their journeys to becoming young adults and traded some thoughts on the changing environment of grassroots basketball. After checking into the hotel I made my way over to Florida State University’s campus to catch up with Seminole head coach, Sue Semerau. Sue has risen to the Presidency of the WBCA (Women’s Basketball Coaches Association) for 2013; taking over for past president Charlie Turner-Thorne from Arizona State who I had the chance to help out back in 2012. At FSU Sue has a young group and they focused a lot on pressing and press breakers throughout their practice session followed by some halfcourt execution. Meeting up later that night for a meal with her staff, we discussed the present landscape within the WBCA as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly in the game right now.
Following a good night’s rest I made my way to Gainesville and the home of the Gators. Seeing an alumnus of the university as the program’s leader gives you a good look at the emotional tie that seventh year head coach Amanda Butler holds for her alma mater. I had a chance to get a quick bite of lunch with her staff and heard tales of their journeys to the University of Florida. My visit finished up with assistant David Lowery taking me around campus and sharing his career path. His love and passion for the game are very evident. As the team took the practice floor the first noticeable thing was a definite lack of depth. Playing time shouldn’t be an issue for those in orange and blue this season. Amanda asked me to talk to the team and I encouraged them to embrace each other and the journey before them. I also cautioned not to get too consumed with themselves and challenged them to help raise each other up. I then hit the road and drove up to Jacksonville looking to call it an early evening with two stops on the schedule the following day.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from the North Florida staff informing me that the 6:30 am practice was moved to 1:30 that afternoon. After a good night’s sleep I made my way through their quaint campus to the arena. One of my fellow upstate New York natives, Mary Tappmeyer, has been with this program since its inception in 1991. By her side has been Nancy Miller who both played and coached with the Ospreys. Their spirits seem strong as they looked forward to the coming season.
As I left the facility I made my way over to Jacksonville University’s campus to meet up with Yolette McPhee-McCuin who is in her first year as a head coach after a stint at Clemson. This team had a lot of fun personalities that meshed well when things went their way and struggled when things went bad. They seemed to feed off of Yolette’s youthful energy and are starting to embrace the process of taking pride in their craft. Asked to speak to the team at the conclusion of practice, I shared with them what a great opportunity for greatness they all have with there being no banners or retired jerseys hanging from the rafters for women’s basketball. Someone or some team is going to start a tradition. Being a champion is not easy, but it has to start somewhere, so why not now?
My last day began with an early morning practice at Stetson University where I had the chance to catch up with an old friend, Lynn Bria. Lynn led the second largest turnaround in NCAA history by taking the program from 6 - 24 to 20 - 13 the following season under her guidance. The energy level of her kids was solid throughout the workout and they maintained a serious pace for the majority of practice. Her staff of Kenny Anderson, Pam Brown, & David Saur capitalized on their youthful energy by teaching throughout the session. This year’s squad has a lot of growing up to do with a graduated her core senior class moving on this past spring. Needless to say, instruction was at a premium. Unfortunately I had to sneak out before the conclusion of drills to make my way to the next stop.
Luckily I encountered little traffic which allowed me to walk in with five minutes to spare before Central Florida got down to work for the day. The Knight’s leader, Joi Williams, and I go back to the time when she was at the helm at Murray State. I met her when I was asked to come and install my database program back during my tenure at Illinois State and Illinois. She built that program up and then moved on to help make the UCF into a consistent winner in Conference USA. Along the way she had the chance to serve on staff for USA Basketball U18 and U19 teams in 2010 and 2011. Joi is presently is serving a four year term with the USA Junior National Team Committee. This season she has a challenging task in front of her as her young and already injury plagued team makes the move to the American Athletic Conference joining the likes of UConn, Louisville, and South Florida.
I made my way back to the Midwest for a couple of days, before heading out east to meet up with the USJN group to map out the game plan for 2014. I returned home just for a moment to swap suitcases and then headed to Arizona for the Nike Grassroots Annual Meeting. With so many possible changes in flux within the NCAA calendar it made it challenging to find the best scenario accommodating everyone’s program. After enjoying the warm weather I was finally able to get back home to Illinois with just a few days to prepare for the start of a promising high school season.
If you want to see a more detailed depiction of these stops I write back to my players and parents on our website at
To see the breakdown of the 2014 listing of USJN events you can go to