Culture. It can be a buzzword in sports. And my goodness, it can be overused. But, that doesn't mean it's not important. I'm a firm believer that to have success a solid foundation of principles and expectations is needed to have success in sports. You can't just throw a group of athletes together and roll the ball out and say, "Go for it." Well, I mean you can, but the results aren't going to be ideal.
Last year when we started the RPAC Rundown, I was told by many that the Maywood-Hayes Center Girls Basketball Team would be a squad to watch for. And I understood why after watching the volleyball season. Outstanding athletes and determination were what stood out on the surface level. They did have a solid season in 2022-2023. This was a team with six seniors that led the way. They went 23-2 and fell in a district final to Elgin Public/Pope John. Of course, I didn't think it was all just outstanding athleticism, I was sure their program had expectations. Just looking at the short history of Maywood-Hayes Center and their co-op, the girls have had a ton of success.
A co-op that the schools and the communities have embraced.
Let's fast forward to October 2023. I was looking at their roster, and who they would have coming back, and began making some projections. I didn't think this team would struggle, but I didn't think they'd be 19-2 in February. These are situations when being wrong is awesome. With that being said, we were intrigued by this team. So, to better understand the 19-2 record and the success the Wolves are having this season, we wanted to do an in-depth look at the program and its culture.
Needless to say, we were impressed.
We had a chance to visit with a handful of players and a couple of coaches to get a general perspective of how things work within the program and why they work so well.
Maywood-Hayes Center is under the direction of Kim Stengel who has over 20 years of coaching experience. She has been at the helm of the Wolves program since the co-op in 2015. Her intensity and ability to get kids to work together and work hard is apparent and resonates throughout her team.
This is a young team. One senior on the squad, Ellie Broz. We asked her if there has been any pressure being the only senior on the team and being someone they look to, to provide leadership. "Everybody has the opportunity to be a leader on our team. Everyone has their own leadership role. Whether it's on JV, on Varsity, or on the bench, somebody is leading whether they are a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior. I don't feel that much pressure being the only senior and having to lead." Ellie also mentioned that the juniors do a great job helping her out as a leader.
This is a program that includes everyone. And Ellie explained more about how they do just that. "At the beginning of the week, we have this thing, we have our goals and gratitudes... and then we say how can I serve my team? Before going into conference play one of our coaches said, really put some thought into this, how can you serve your team so everyone has their best game?"
Ellie is one of those players whose stats don't jump off of the sheet. But when you watch the Wolves, her impact is massive, especially on the defensive side.
"I thought about my role and the role of my teammates like Kesli (Cox), she is a three-point shooter. Drive and kick out, that's how I can serve my team." Ellie went on to describe how she can box out so her teammates can get rebounds and how she can provide ball pressure so her team can force a turnover.
"I think the biggest thing with leadership is putting yourself aside and doing what's going to make your teammates confident and help as a team win," added Ellie.
Aubrey Broz is a junior on this team and we asked her about this squad and what is a phrase that could go along with the culture for this season. "Unfinished business. I think us having the mindset of unfinished business has really helped us to get where we are at this point and continue forward."
It's inevitable in a long season. Even when teams are playing well, there will be hardships. Kesli Cox is a junior and is the second-leading scorer on this team at 10 points per game. "We try to lift each other up as much as we can. If a person makes a mistake, we tell them to put it out of their mind and move to the next play so we can come back better from it."
Fellow junior Kassidy Hatfield echos lifting up teammates when things get tough, and sticking together. "We are just very upbeat. We can tell when somebody's off. We just tell them hey you're good, just move on. That's another thing that is about our coaches, they are very good at saying just it's fine, you're good, it's fine don't even worry about it. That was the last quarter or last play we don't even remember that. I think our teammates are very forgiving. We just have to know everyone makes mistakes." Hatfield also mentioned that they are constantly giving each other high fives and positive reinforcement in practice and games.
Another junior, Reagan Stengel who is the daughter of Coach Stengel, and her sister Karissa, a sophomore who is a key contributor, also mentioned how this team has handled the ups and downs of a long season. "We are always out there giving each other high fives and saying you got the next play. That keeps everyone in a positive mindset and ready to go."
The culture goes much deeper than just lifting each other up, it's about mindset too. This team also does a word of the day and Reagan says it helps set the tone. "We look up a word every day. And it starts off our practice on a good note. Every day I look at a word on my phone and think this is how my day is going to go."
All of these things are instilled by the coaching staff but carried out by the players.
What's the common theme from each of the items players mentioned? They are controlling the things they can control.
And Head Coach Kim Stengel said that has been something they have keyed on this season. Coach Stengel also highlighted the other things they can control on the court too."We talk about controlling the things we can control. We can always control our hustle and whatever we can do on defense to stop them.... we focus on those things because there's a lot outside of our control."
And to no surprise, Coach Stengel said serving each other has been huge. "This year we talked a lot about continuing to perpetuate service within our program too and the girls serving each other. How can I serve my teammate and how can I help my teammate have her best game?"
Coach Stengel, and the coaching staff, always try to keep things positive, but when the team is struggling in practice or not focused, they will do a random team builder during practice. They don't take much time out of practice, but they have been effective for the Wolves to get back on track. Stengel also added that the coaching staff wants practice to be the best part of their day.
As we mentioned earlier in the post, goals and gratitude are key components of the culture at Maywood-Hayes Center. Coach Stengel said she is a "quotes junkie" and when she finds something she likes, she saves it and put it in the team books each season. "We have pages of our gratitudes. So we talk about the things we are grateful for and they can never repeat themselves. So every Monday we sit down after practice and we do our gratitudes and goals for the week, and how they plan to achieve those. And this year we added a little service piece, how are you going to serve your team this week?"
The team books started a couple of years into Stengel's coaching career.
This is a team built on togetherness.
"I feel like everyone is geared towards that ultimate goal of making the state tournament and getting to that final game. With each small step, it feels like everybody's in it together. And we always say that at every breakdown of the huddle is "together." And I think that the morale of we have to have everybody, we need everyone, every small piece. The practice player that's making us better. And I think that goes to contribute to these girls this year, they were our practice team last year and they had to go against those six seniors last year," said Assistant Coach Olivia McCain.
And based on what we heard from the coaches and the players, part of the culture is being ready to go and work hard which starts from day one.
"Day one four years ago, when I started coaching with Kim, we were starting out with pressing and press breaking day one. It was just a change in culture for me in the fact that we are not starting in the basics... the things they are learning and doing are high-level basketball and basketball you want to see."
To no surprise, this team has lofty goals for the remainder of the season. And with a culture like theirs, why wouldn’t you?