Around the Nation – D3hoops

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DePauw athletics photo, DeSales photo by Pat Jacoby Photography

By Ryan Scott

On the surface, DePauw and DeSales don’t have a lot in common. They’re both Division III institutions, and they are adjacent alphabetically, sandwiched between Denison and Dickinson. But one was founded by Methodists while the other is very Catholic. I’m sure there are commonalities between Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Greencastle, Indiana, but it’s probably easier to name differences.

What these two schools do have in common are under-the-radar basketball teams led by coaches in their 31st year at the helm. Kris Huffman, the two-time national championship women’s basketball coach at DePauw, has passed on opportunities for higher profile jobs over the years; and Scott Coval, head coach of the DeSales men never intended to stay. Both, however, cite the unique, supportive communities at their respective institutions for their longevity.

“I’m not even the longest-tenured coach at DeSales,” notes Coval, who has been at the school since it was still known as Allentown College, and has served in the dual role of athletic director for more than two decades. “Our baseball coach has been here longer than me. Our track coach has been here longer than me. Many of our coaches have been here for 20 years or more. We’re on just our third president in my 31 years, which is incredible stability, and they’ve all been supportive of athletics, which allows you to recruit the type of kids you need to win.”

A Division I player and coach at William & Mary, Coval’s initial intent was to get a few years of head coaching experience at DeSales and head back to familiar territory.

“To be honest,” he says, “I just fell in love with the mission of the school, to find the good in everyone and to respect everyone as an individual.”

Spiritual growth and development is important at DeSales, just as the development of talent and skills are essential to DeSales’ basketball success -— just one sub .500 season in Coval’s 31 years at the helm, despite not being a high-profile program.

“We have to get our players better while they’re here,” notes Coval. “It’s the only way we can survive. When kids play, they get better. We’re always trying to get minutes for the younger guys so we never take a step backward when guys graduate.”

DeSales brings almost the entire team back — a roster full of guys with lots of experience — but, as Coval notes, because of the COVID year, it still feels like they’re younger than a lot of their opponents. That could not have been more evident than the home loss to Widener, who plays multiple fifth- and sixth-year players.

“They are so deep and so many of their guys can score, it’s very difficult to play against them. We learned where we need to be and that we really need our point guard.”

Coval also points to the tough non-conference schedule as important in the development process. Swarthmore, TCNJ, Hamilton, and Montclair stood out as tough tests, and the Bulldogs went 3-1 against them. If DeSales and Widener meet again in March, Coval’s guys will be much better prepared to match-up and win.

A tough non-conference slate is an understatement for Huffman and her DePauw squad. She didn’t plan to be sitting on 699 career wins when she put the schedule together, but there was a real possibility she could have gone the entire fall semester without hitting that milestone.

“To be honest, this fifth year made scheduling a nightmare. We didn’t expect Transylvania would bring everyone back when we scheduled them in the first game.” Huffman is being a bit modest. Her squad lost by ten — better than most Transy opponents this season — and earned high praise from Juli Fulks, who said “That team is very talented and I expect they’ll be a tournament team at the end of the year.”

The Tigers currently sit at 10-4, despite playing perennial contenders WashU, Oshkosh, RHIT, Millikin and Wartburg, in addition to a much improved NCAC slate.

Huffman secured that historic 700th win against a rebuilding Calvin squad and, with a few retirements over the summer, now stands as the active winningest woman coach in Division III basketball. While so many young coaches look to her for leadership and inspiration, Huffman is quick to cite WashU legend Nancy Fahey as the goal she continues to pursue.

“Nancy was so quick to make time for young coaches,” says Huffman. “She set the bar in terms of longevity at one institution and the ability to win year after year. I looked to her to learn how to be competitive. She has such a high basketball IQ, was such a hard worker, and an incredible scouter. She was always willing to be a colleague and a friend.”

With David Hixon breaking down the door in Springfield for Division III coaches, the next logical move is for a Division III women’s coach to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Fahey is certainly at the top of the candidate list, but Huffman has made a great case for herself as well.

In addition to two titles, DePauw has not had more than seven losses in a season since Huffman’s second year in 1995. Her squads won conference titles 21 times (and counting), although the conference will be, perhaps, as challenging as it’s ever been .

DePauw squeaked by Ohio Wesleyan in the opener and has a trip to Wittenberg on deck this week. Both programs posted significant first semester success and look to challenge for the conference title that’s so often resided in Greencastle.

While the vast majority of a pretty young team returns for DePauw, they lose two seniors who were integral to maintaining success through the tough COVID period.

“Mya Shannon was an elite scorer,” explains Huffman, “and Maura Fitzgerald is one of the best defenders I’ve ever coached. They understood what it took to be an NCAA tournament team. Details are what help players grow and you need experience to master the details.”

The excitement for those details — evident in conversations with both Huffman and Coval — is what enables each coach to be so consistently successful on the court.

It’s a common stereotype that coaches are inflexible. You hear a lot of talk about adapting to players’ abilities, but more often we think about coaches as having a system, a style, a set way of doing things, and fitting players into that system.

No stereotype is entirely accurate, but often, especially when a coach has success at one place over a long period of time, it can feel like they’re just running things back year after year — plugging new players in, of course, but producing the same results through the same method over and over again.

When you reach thirty years of coaching, especially at one school, you’re going to get more and more questions about retirement. It’s unavoidable as a present issue, but retirement is not on the radar for either of these coaches.

“I see each season as a new puzzle,” says Huffman. “Every year I write everything down,” adds Coval. “I’m constantly asking how I can get better at coaching, at relationship building. You have to keep changing and adapting.”

After years of interviews, you learn to read between the lines with coaches, but the energy and excitement evident in talking to both Huffman and Coval make it clear they don’t see the end immediately in sight.

“Practice is still the most exciting two hours of my day,” notes Coval. “If that ever changes, maybe I’ll rethink things.”

“You never want to stay anywhere too long,” adds Huffman, “But this is not an easy profession to be in, so as long as I’m enjoying it and I’m capable of doing the work, I’m all in .”

DeSales and DePauw are different institutions, but they’re in very similar situations. Tough schedules led to early losses, which might keep them off the national radar until February or March. Both have plans to be relevant at the end, though, and with Kris Huffman and Scott Coval on the sidelines, no one who knows anything will ever count them out.

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