Q&A with new Jacks men’s hoops coach

 

BY JEREMY HOECK
jeremy.hoeck@yankton.net

T.J. Otzelberger was eventually going to be hired as a Division I men’s basketball head coach.

It was just a matter of where and when.

The 38-year-old Wisconsin native and assistant coach at Iowa State got that opportunity in April, when he was hired by South Dakota State.

T.J. Otzelberger
New South Dakota State head men’s basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger, right, talks with SDSU fan Dave Cornemann during a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social on Wednesday evening at Riverside Park. (Jeremy Hoeck/P&D)

He was handed the keys to a program that had reached the NCAA Tournament three times in the past five seasons, not to mention one that had been coached by Scott Nagy (the school’s career wins leader, with 410) for 21 seasons.

That could be a daunting task, but as Otzelberger would tell you, he was more than ready for the challenge.

He was in Yankton on Wednesday evening for a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social at Riverside Park, and took a few minutes to chat with the Press & Dakotan.

When you got the job, what it was like to come into a brand new place and take over for someone like Scott Nagy who had been there seemingly forever?

First of all, the opportunity was a dream come true. And from a lot of different standpoints. Professionally, for me, basketball and developing young men has been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. To be able to have the opportunity to be a coach was something I was excited about and started to think a few years back was something I was prepared for. To come into a place where there’s such passion, such unbelievable tradition, where the fans are amazing, where Frost Arena is such an unbelievable home court, you get your dream come true. To do it in a place like Brookings is awesome for my family. When I got the job, Justin Sell (athletic director) had said, ‘Every day will get better. You’ll have to almost pinch yourself because every day will get better.’ And that’s held true for the five months I’ve been here. Every day’s been great.

That’s the kind of program you’d want to come into, right? Where they have those high expectations, rather than having to build from the bottom up?

Absolutely. You can tell with the guys, coach Nagy did a great job with the culture of the program and the character of the guys he recruited. With that foundation in place, we hope we can add and continue to build on that. When you’re coming in as a head coach, to come into a place that already has that tradition; that winning expectation, it’s a huge advantage. And we’re going to capitalize.

Have you gotten a sense from the guys coming back that they know what it takes to reach the NCAA Tournament?

They know it’s something you can’t take for granted. It takes a lot of hard work every day, and a commitment to each other and to the process. It starts with a guy like Mike Daum, who had opportunities to leave and go to some other places but chose to stay here and finish the job he started. Not only be in the NCAA Tournament, but be on the winning side of games in the NCAA Tournament. That’s extremely exciting for us.

How about the Summit League, have you gotten a sense for where this league is nationally?

You look at the RPI, getting to 11th last year, that’s pretty impressive. I think the league as a hwole, and the coaches, have done a great job in scheduling up the level of competition. A lot of the coaches in this league are guys I’ve gotten to know through the recruiting trails or even coached against, so it’s a league that I have a lot of respect for. I think if we can continue this vision and keep scheduling better teams, there’s no limit to where we can go.

I imagine when you were at Iowa State, you got a sense for where South Dakota State was at the mid-major level?

Absolutely. In 2008, South Dakota State came in right before Christmas and beat us at Hilton Coliseum. That certainly created a greater sense of awareness. And I remember coach (Lorenzo) Romar (head coach at Washington) talking about them coming in (in 2011) and winning with Nate Wolters, so I’ve always been aware of the program. It’s always been one of those schools when you’re at Iowa State or at Washington that we don’t want to schedule. It’s a no-win situation. Now, to be on the inside of it and find games and try to get people to come to Frost, it’s a pretty awesome vibe.

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Mid-summer Q&A with Dawn Plitzuweit

BY JEREMY HOECK

jeremy.hoeck@yankton.net

Dawn Plitzuweit
South Dakota women’s basketball coach Dawn Plituzweit shares a light moment before a youth camp Tuesday morning at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Photo by Jeremy Hoeck)

After just over two months on the job as head women’s basketball coach at the University of South Dakota, Dawn Plitzuweit has certainly been busy.

A staff had to be assembled. She and her family had to get settled into Vermillion. Youth camps were run. Recruiting trips had to be organized. And an upcoming trip to Australia had to be planned.

I caught up with her Tuesday morning before a junior high camp at the DakotaDome.

Over two months, what’s it been like?

It’s been really busy. We’ve got an incredible staff put together, so it’s been fun to work with all of them. All of our players came back in the middle of June, so we’re in the middle of week three of workouts with them. Getting ready to hit the road for recruiting and finishing up these camps.

July is a busy month, isn’t it?

It really is. We get on the road recruiting, we’ll watch kids, and then we’ll come back and start our practices for Australia.

So, when is that trip?

We leave Aug. 7. That’s 40 days from now, approximately.

Obviously with international travel, there are certain things you’ve got to get organized.

There’s a learning curve we’re going through right now. That is figuring out what we need to take, how we need to travel, what all the plans look like. There’s a lot of prep work going on right now, but Alex (Antonen) is doing a great job of getting that figured out.

These are unique trips to take, aren’t they?

It’s really a great opportunity for us, basketball while we’re there is good, but the bonding is outstanding. The practices before we go, we really expect those to be helpful for us.

During summer workouts, have you seen some improvements there?

It’s been really good. Our kids, their energy has been very good, their attentiveness has been very good. We’re tweaking, we’re teaching the same kinds of work ethic and commitment, but maybe the terms are a little bit different. The vocab for the kids have been different. They’ve been grinding. It’s been challenging, but they’ve responded really well.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far, or maybe even the thing that stands out the most so far?

We’re still trying to figure out who we are. We’re trying to put togetghetr our identity right now. Today’s our first day with Abbi back,t his morning we had a conditioning workout, then camps. That’ll still take some time.

That’ll take some time even beyond Australia, won’t it?

Exactly. But if there’s a question, that’s probably what it is right now. Where do we go? Who do we give the ball to? We’ll be known for our toughness and our grit, all those things our kids have been a major part of it int eh past. That culture remains the same, but yet, how are we going to put the ball in the basket? How can we score more points than our opponents? Those things are yet to be determined.

Especially when you turn the page from where they were, everything is new, isn’t it?

I think certain players really respond, their roles change when you graduate five kids and you have a new system in play. That’s something we haven’t even scratched the surface on yet.

Even just getting outside of Vermillion, have you been able to meet people and develop some contacts?

Not a whole lot yet. July we have an opportunity to get out and watch more kids. We’ve been fortunate in being able to bring some of those high school kids and teams into Vermillion for camps. The numbers have been outstanding. That’s allowed us to meet some coaches and players from outside this area.

What…A…Weekend!

image1
The South Dakota connection in Salisbury, N.C. — (left to right) Steve Morgan was the S.D. Sportscaster of the Year, Logan Anderson (Aberdeen radio), me, and John Thayer (Yankton radio). 

BY JEREMY HOECK
jeremy.hoeck@yankton.net

I was on the same flight as Carlton Fisk, a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, last week as I embarked on a 4-day trip to North Carolina.

But that wasn’t even the coolest part of the journey.

Not even close.

No, the people I met and conversations we shared while at the National Sports Media Association (NSMA) awards weekend out in Salisbury, North Carolina, was one of the best moments of my young – as I came to realize – career in this business.

While yes, I was out there to receive my South Dakota Sportswriter of the Year award, the trip was more so about the experience. “Enjoy yourself” was the advice Sports Editor James Cimburek (who had won the same award and made the same trip two years earlier) gave me.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Salisbury is a town of about 30,000 residents and it’s located along Interstate 85 about a 45-minute drive northeast of Charlotte. It’s far from a town of ‘nothing,’ but when you’re there, you definitely get the small-town feel. But yet, it’s the headquarters of the NSMA. It’s where prominent sports journalists (across TV, radio and print) gather each year to honor each other and to have a good time.

It’s not a typical convention in the sense that you sit through hours of talks and seminars (which I would’ve been fine with, honestly, given the names in attendance). No, it’s more of a social weekend. Vans and buses transport people all over town to various events, such as a ‘Legacy Night’ panel, a brunch, a bus tour, a stop at a sports book shop, a BBQ dinner, a golf tournament, a tennis tournament, plenty of shopping and the big awards banquet.

And plenty of schmoozing.

As you do in a setting like that, you tend to become close with certain people. And I happened to get to know George Wallace (the D.C. Sportscaster winner) throughout the four days. Here was a guy from a big city where he helps cover the Washington Redskins and Washington Nationals hanging out with a small-town South Dakota guy who covers (among a handful of things) mid-major Division I athletics. As it turns out, we had quite a bit in common.

There were many other names I could mention of people I got to know throughout the trip, but the opportunity to hang out with them and talk shop was awesome. In South Dakota (and Nebraska), you tend to talk with the same media members. Rarely do you get the chance to stand around and chat with journalists from around the country. And that’s what I enjoyed the most.

And I’m just now realizing I should have counted the number of times I described to people where Yankton is located. “Southeast corner” or “right on the Missouri River” or “on the border with Nebraska” or “an hour from Sioux Falls.” It would’ve likely been 95 times.

But one encounter in particular stands out, as I sit here a day after I returned to Yankton.

It was early Tuesday morning in the lobby of our hotel. I was waiting for the bus to pick a handful of us up for the trip to the Charlotte airport, and up walks Cal Fussman (Esquire Magazine). He had been in town to honor and introduce his friend Gary Smith into the NSMA Hall of Fame during the previous night’s banquet. Cal walks up to me, shakes my hand, asks me where I’m from and hands me a copy of a book entitled ‘Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories by Gary Smith.’ He looks at me and says, ‘I’m going to sign this for you.’ Completely out of the blue. And as someone who subscribes to Esquire (it’s the only magazine I subscribe to anymore), it was a huge treat to meet Cal. After he signs a message that reads ‘To Jeremy, And a very good night it was!’ he tells me he’ll look me up online when he returns home.

I had the opportunity to meet people like Tom Verducci (who presented me my award), Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville and Vince Doria, and spend time up close with names like Chris Berman, Doc Emrick and Rick Reilly, but here was a famous author and reporter coming up to me completely on his own.

That was all capped off by a bus ride two rows in front of Fussman and Reilly, who spent the 45 minutes talking about their craft. I just sat and listened, and it was probably the best bus ride I’ve ever experienced.

It was awesome.

If it sounds hokey to hear me say what an incredible honor it was to be included in that fraternity, you’ll have to excuse me. Because that’s exactly what I felt, coming home Tuesday. I had been surrounded by people who have done this for 20 or 30 (or even more) years, and they are still passionate about it. They obviously love what they do. And so do I.

You don’t get into the journalism field for the awards. I’ve been lucky enough to win a few of them in my career, but when you come back from an awards ceremony, you’re right back at your desk. You’re right back to planning your next amateur baseball feature or touching base with a source for an upcoming story.

And those are the things I love about this job.

The opportunity to talk with people. ‘Everyone has a story’ is something James and I tell our staff all the time. If you approach any assignment with that in mind, you’ll come back with some great material. Everyone’s got a story.

I experienced that over four days in North Carolina.

Everyone has a story. And I was just lucky enough to be there to hear them.

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