|Pat Juckem leads his WashU men's basketball team in practice.
Washington U. athletics photo by Chris Mitchell
By Ryan Scott
Pat Juckem hadn’t updated his resume since 2012, so it’s clear he was not looking for a new job. His UW-Oshkosh Titans had just come within inches of a national title and all but one of his rotation players were back for the 2018-19 season.
But there are few jobs in coaching like Washington University in St. Louis.
So when the Bears’ head coach, Mark Edwards, announced his retirement just days after Juckem returned from Salem, plans had to change.
“I had been on campus (at Wash U) 10-12 years ago, when I was at Coe,” says Juckem. “I was just floored by the campus and more so the people I met. It created an impression on me that maybe someday, if things go well. ... When the job came open, I was interested from the get-go, but also realistic; it was going to be a very competitive process.”
“(Wash U) is, by a country mile, the best Division III setup I’ve ever seen,” says Whitman head coach, Eric Bridgeland, who was said to be among the finalists. “It’s a compliment to Coach Edwards and what he’s built there. I have so much respect for their infrastructure and what they’re capable of doing. I don’t think it’s even close to anywhere else.”
In other words, it’s a job you don’t turn down, although if anyone might, Juckem was certainly in a position to do so. “I had a great position with unbelievable young men at Oshkosh and great colleagues. ... WashU is probably the only job in Division III I would’ve considered.”
Juckem is humbled by the opportunity, both to be selected from among a stellar short list of candidates, but also to be part of an incredible basketball legacy. Edwards, a former Wash U player, was invited to restart the basketball program at his alma mater in 1981 – 685 wins and two national championships later, it’s become a premier destination in Division III.
“When they invite you to come to campus and interview, it starts to get real,” says Juckem, who got to share an office with Edwards for a month this summer as their tenures overlapped, “We’ve got a really strong tradition – all credit to Mark Edwards – our responsibility is to try not to screw that up.”
The cupboard is not bare for Juckem, but Wash U graduated seven players from the 2018 NCAA Tournament squad, including all five starters. The most experienced returning player is sophomore Jack Nolan, with about 500 college minutes under his belt.
“My team is full of quality young men,” says Juckem. “They’ve been really receptive, but we’re essentially teaching them a new language. It can almost be harder for our upperclassmen who’ve been in a defined system for two or three years than for our first-year guys who don’t know any better. We are a work in progress; hopefully by UAA time in January we know who we are and what we’re trying to do.”
What they’ll be trying to do is replicate some of the success Juckem say at Oshkosh in recent years. Sitting at preseason No. 2, the Titans will be led by Juckem’s long-time assistant coach, Matt Lewis, who accepted the interim head coaching job while standing in the Eiffel Tower on a vacation with his fiancée. “She told me,” says Lewis, “you’re not going to forget your first one.”
|Matt Lewis won't be in the background any longer for UW-Oshkosh.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
Expectations are as high as can be in Oshkosh, but Lewis and the Titans don’t forget how tough the WIAC will be, with four teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 – three in the top 12. “Last year we finished third in the conference,” says Lewis. “We were sitting at home for 72 hours trying to figure out if we were getting in the (NCAA) Tournament. We could have a really good team and be on the outside looking in in March.”
To make sure that doesn’t happen, senior Ben Boots leads the way. Last year’s leading scorer, he hit six three is the national title game and possesses the kind of incessant drive to improve of which champions are made. “It starts with Boots,” says Lewis. “Along with his fellow senior, Brett Wittchow, they have been leaders for several years. Those guys have a confidence about them that’s never shook. They have a will to win and they’re not going to let us have a bad practice.”
During the NCAA Tournament, this Oshkosh team learned just how small the difference is between winning and losing. The players are determined to get better, but Lewis and his coaching staff have to make sure that determination is focused in the right place.
“They have six months off, where they spend time in the weight room, work on their shooting and other skills,” says Lewis. “When they get back, they need us to help with the details, the defense, bringing it all together. We have so many returners, who know the system, so we have to focus on not forgetting the little things, because there are no little things.”
It’s that same culture of confidence and hard work that Bob Amsberry is relying on for his Wartburg women to live up to the reputation they’ve established in recent years. Participants in two Final Fours in three seasons, like Wash U the Knights graduated seven players and five starters.
“That class,” says Amsberry, “was the most talented group of players I’ve ever had. They were tremendous, not just for our program, but as people. They’ve set the bar so high and taught our younger players more about leadership than I ever could.”
|Bob Amsberry said farewell to Katie Sommer and the rest of the Wartburg senior class after a great run.
Photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
Despite the losses, Wartburg is still ranked No. 15 in the D3hoops.com preseason Top 25. Asked whether the ranking puts too much pressure on the students, Amsberry responded with a history lesson: “Three years ago, we learned that rankings don’t matter. In our first Final Four run we were unranked. Last year we were ranked pretty high all year and we still had to show up and play every game. Rankings don’t have any real impact on what we do.”
Receiving the torch are junior Emma Gerdes and senior Adrienne Boettger, who were previously the first players off the bench and have logged a lot of meaningful minutes. “Our number one goal is to have a great culture,” says Amsberry. “Our returners know what it takes to build and pass on that culture. We’re a very talented team, even if we’re not sure what they will look like yet. As long as we achieve that first goal, and I think we will, we’ll win a lot of games.”
The theme through each of the interviews conducted for this piece is how coaching sets the tone for what players do on the floor. Whether it’s the expectations a legend like Mark Edwards instills through his legacy or the confidence great players such as Katie Sommer pass on to the Wartburg classes that come behind them, success on the court is more than just getting the strategy right. Talent matters, for sure, but relationships, chemistry, drive, and commitment are ingredients teams can’t win without.
I could hear the emotion in Juckem’s voice as he talked about telling his Oshkosh players about his departure. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “In the moment you feel terrible, just awful. Fortunately, I was able to spend individual time with each of them in the following days, to look them in the eyes and thank them.”
Division III basketball is a lot less like a business than other levels of basketball, but still circumstances and situations do change. Jobs come open and jobs get filled. Players graduate and new players come in. It’s easy to get caught up in the grind or become calloused and disconnected. We shouldn’t forget, though, that coaches and players investing all of themselves in the team and in each other is what this game is all about.