Lavesa Glover-Verhagen, newly hired to coach girls’ basketball at Orono, poked her head in the gym late last summer as the Spartans were finishing up a captains’ practice, hoping to get a glimpse of her new players.
Glover-Verhagen, who had been coaching a college team in Louisiana, was pleasantly surprised.
“I kept hearing this was going to be a rebuilding year,” she said. “I was very surprised. I just caught the tail end of something they were doing and I thought, ‘This group can be successful if I can work with them.’ ”
With the season four-fifths over and the Spartans boasting a 16-3 record before Friday’s game against Hutchinson, it’s safe to say the work has been done.
Under previous coach Ellen Wiese, now an assistant at the University of St. Thomas, the Spartans went 74-13 over the past three seasons. They boasted the most talented group of players ever to come through the school, such as guards Kiera Nelson, Danielle Jorgenson and Tori Andrew and center Meghan Mandel.
Andrew, a senior, is the only starter left from the team that took third place in the Class 3A tournament in 2015. Once known strictly as a deadly spot-up shooter, the 5-11 Andrew has become a complete player, able to create off the dribble, score inside and rebound. And most importantly, it’s been her leadership that has helped the Spartans retain their winning ways.
“I’ve made an effort to become a good leader,” said Andrew, a 20.9 points-per-game scorer. “When I was younger, I’d get frustrated and put added pressure on myself. I’ve worked on my composure. I play better when I’m more relaxed. I took it upon myself to be the best I can be.”
While Andrew is a self-motivated type of player — she’s committed to play at Yale next year — she’s quick to give credit to Glover-Verhagen for her growth and the team’s success this season.
“I’m a little surprised at where we are,” Andrew admitted. “I was nervous at the start of the season, having a new coach and me being the only player that got substantial minutes last year, but [Glover-Verhagen] has been so emphatic that we play our own game and have fun. We don’t make many mistakes because we don’t feel that pressure.”
That’s been Glover-Verhagen’s plan all along. With a young team looking to take a step forward, she recognized the need to keep the Spartans focused on things they can control.
“Our point of emphasis has been on how we can get better,” she said. “I mean, we still pay attention to our opponents and their tendencies, but I worry more about playing our game.”
Blessed with a smile and laugh bigger than her 6-3 frame, Glover-Verhagen, who played in college at Wis.-Green Bay, has a outgoing personality. It’s the primary reason, she says, that she can get away with being a demanding coach.
“I can be very stern, but I’m also sarcastic and I make a lot of jokes. That’s me,” she said, emphasizing her point with a friendly laugh. “When I’m coaching, I’m focused, but I’m also a big goofball.”
It’s paid off for players such as senior center Natalie Smaron, who’s grabbing nearly 13 rebounds per game — “She’s one of the best rebounders I’ve seen,” Glover-Verhagen raved — and junior guard Madeline Loder, who’s shouldered a significant portion of the scoring load, averaging 18 points per game.
But it all comes back to Andrew, without whom Orono would not be where it is now. Having a player with her poise and leadership — not to mention mad skills — is just the type of security blanket the Spartans needed while they adjusted to the changes this season brought.
“I knew as the only returning starter, a lot of the eyes of the younger girls would be on me,” Andrew said. “Coach Glover and I created a relationship early and that made it easier. They saw she wasn’t terrifying or abrasive.”
That relationship, Glover-Verhagen said, is the crux of the attitude she wanted to establish.
“I’ve challenged Tori a lot and she’s responded,” Glover-Verhagen said. “She makes everybody on the court better every minute she’s out there. We’re thankful she’s here and does the things we need. Kudos to her.”