A Coach’s First Season: Q&A With Nikitta Gartrell; Introducing Our New Guest Blogger

November 20, 2009
By Cherry Crayton
Nikitta Gartrell, left, and Coach Kellie Harper. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Nikitta Gartrell, left, and Coach Kellie Harper, during a prayer before the Wolfpack women's basketball team's first game of the season on Nov. 13. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Kellie Harper will go for her 100th career win as a coach Friday at 7 p.m. when the Wolfpack women’s basketball team faces Davidson in Reynolds. (Tonight’s promo: Bring two canned goods and get $3 off the ticket price.) As part of our continuing coverage of the team, we’ve got two features heading into tonight’s game: an interview with senior guard Nikitta Gartrell and the first entry from our guest blogger, Patrick Kinas. Patrick has been the play-by-play voice of the Wolfpack women’s basketball radio network for nearly a decade and has been around sports his entire life. He has a perspective and knowledge that very few people share. In his debut entry, he writes about what he’s learned about Coach Harper over the past several months:

Kellie Harper hates to lose.  I’m convinced that her loathing-for-losing quotient is significantly higher than her affinity for winning. . . . Kellie doesn’t seem driven to win with the thought of growing her victory column.  To me, Kellie seems driven to win simply to siphon the air out of the L column.  But make no mistake.  The wins will come.  They’ll just come as a by-product of Kellie’s obsession to not to lose.

Read his entire, insightful debut entry after the jump, and look for weekly entries in the future.

First is our Q&A with Nikitta. The 5-foot-9 three-year starter averaged 10.9 points last year and is averaging 8.7 points during the first three games of this season. She talks with us about the season so far, her teammates, and her goals.

Q&A With Senior Guard Nikitta Gartrell

You’ve got three games under your belt, going 2-1. What’s your assessment of the season so far?
It seems like the season has jumped off fairly quick. I feel that things are going good. We’re still in the learning process, and we still have got a lot to learn, plays and stuff, that Coach Kellie has designed for us to use this season.

How did Coach Harper deal with the 52-47 loss to Vermont and talk about  it with the team?
First loss. Wow. Like any other coach, she breaks down the stats and went over what we did and did not do, and we knew the things we should have done that we didn’t do. She didn’t yell or chew us out or jump on us. The next practice we worked on the things we didn’t do in the game—like, our zone offense and boxing out.

In the loss to Vermont, your team struggled offensively against a zone defense. What specifically has the team been doing since then to improve in that area?
We know that a lot of zone will be thrown at us this year. Right now in practice we’re working on a lot of zone offenses. Last year, I think we saw a lot of zone defenses toward the end of the season because we had a short amount of guards in terms of shooting percentage. But this year we’re doing a lot more shooting, and Coach Kellie has set up a lot of plays for us to run against the zone as well as man-to-man.

Even before the first game of the season, Coach Harper talked about being concerned about fouls. Sophomore Bonae Holston fouled out with about 4 minutes left in the loss to Vermont, and three starters, including you, picked up two fouls within the first 10 minutes of the game Tuesday against Florida Atlantic. How is the team addressing the fouls?
Foul trouble is one of those things that you just have to play smart. Coach Kellie tells us all the time to play smart. You know you only get five fouls. Even in the game Tuesday night, when I picked up two fouls early in the first half, I just wasn’t thinking. Play smart and know the referees are doing their job. . . .We have to stay humbled about the situation but still come out with a lot of intensity without fouling. And Coach Kellie wants us to have high energy because that’s what fans like to see. We’re trying to get more fans by playing hard and diving after loose balls–or little things like that will also get us to the next level. Our intensity level right now is pretty high, but we can’t relax. We tend to build a good lead on somebody, but then we relax. Coach Kellie—she does not like that.

Nikitta Gartrell (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Nikitta Gartrell (Photo by Peyton Williams)

A word all of you—you, Coach Harper, the other coaches and the other players—say a lot is energy. Is energy the word—the mantra—for the team this year?
Yeah! Energy and up-tempo play. Times have changed; walking the ball up the court was fun back in the day, but now it’s up and down and up and down. [Bringing energy to the games] starts in practice. Every practice we’ve had has been intense: running, getting up and down, up-tempo, high energy. If we don’t have it in practice, it’ll show in the game. And every player brings something different to the table to build energy. For me, to get myself going, I have to motivate my teammates. I have to stay energized by speaking, talking loud, that type of thing. And Coach Kellie, she’s an up-tempo person. There’s never a dull moment with her, and that keeps us motivated.

By talking to other players and watching the team play, it seems like you all have really bought into the new coaching staff’s system and philosophy. How was the team able to buy into that system and philosophy pretty quickly?
When [Coach Harper] got here, the first time she met us, when she introduced herself and she introduced her coaching staff, the first thing that came out of her mouth was that she loves to win. When we heard that, that’s all that we needed. Years have past, and NC State hasn’t been on top of women’s basketball, but that’s because of all the things we had to deal with—to take breaks and to not go to practice some days because of the illness of Coach [Kay] Yow. We were just dealing with a lot. And right now, it’s a whole lot of weight off our shoulders. And when Coach Kellie said winning—that’s what we, my teammates and I, want to do. And to hear that coming from someone who has won three national championships at her college, there’s no way we can’t buy into her system.

What do hope your teammates see in you?
I want to lead by example. I can’t say that in these three games so far that I’ve played my best basketball, but the time will come when the team needs me. So I’m just trying to step up and get better every day in practice. I have to get myself together to be a better leader, not necessarily to be a high scorer, but to do the things that will make the team and my teammates better. Right now, I’m not doing enough shooting on the off-days. I need to get in the gym and shoot. And I think I have to be more aggressive. It’s my senior year, and I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Coach Harper is a great example. She helps me day-in and day-out and lets me know what I need to do to be successful for this team. That’s my goal: to get better for this team. And I want to help lead this team to a place we’ve never been before—like, something past the Sweet Sixteen [in the NCAA Tournament].

What do you enjoy about being part of this team?
The personalities. It’s fun to be around these types of girls—and there are all kinds of personalities. For example, [senior forward] Sharnise Beal is really laid back, but she speaks her mind. [Junior forward] Brittany Strachan is everywhere—laughing, joking, silly dancing, things like that. And then you have [senior forward] Lucy Ellison. She’s the serious one and the team mom. She’s always there for you to listen and to talk to; she gives great advice.

What are your favorite moments with this team so far?
Getting the first win for Coach Harper. She was just so happy, and it was good to see our coach smiling.

How did you get introduced to basketball?
I started when I was 9. I followed my big brother to the court. My brother was a man short and needed another player, and he decided to pick his sister. I had never picked up a ball until that day, and I never watched games on TV. I played, and I didn’t even realize that I could play.  When I was in the seventh grade, I tried out for the [middle-school team]. I had been playing with my brother some, and I thought I might be good enough  to make the team. I ended up being one of two seventh graders to make the eighth-grade team. I started getting serious about basketball in the ninth grade. I love it: the competition, the drive for the game, the hard work that everybody has to put in to become a great player.

When did you know that you had the talent and the skill to play in the ACC?
My freshman year [in high school], when my high school coaches gave me the opportunity to start as a freshman [on the varsity team]. And, then I led my team [Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mays High School] to its first state championship in school history [in 2004], and I thought, “Man, this is big. I might as well stick with it.”

Why did you decide to attend NC State?
I have to say that on my visit I fell in love with the campus and with the coaching staff at the time. The team that we had then welcomed me with open arms; it was a family atmosphere. And Coach Yow was a wonderful person; playing for her was a blessing. [She taught me] perseverance—and to push through any little thing. There are a lot of people who want to be in our shoes, and if you take it for granted, then later on in life you’ll regret it.

What would you like to do after graduation?
I would like to try to play in the WNBA for several years or play overseas, if need be. But most of all, I want to be a police officer. That’s been my goal since the 10th grade. I’m always watching Cops, watching Law & Order: SUV. If it’s on, I’m watching it, no matter what I’m doing. There’s something about being a cop that I’ve always wanted to do, and I think I have the personality for it. I’m willing to do the little things to get to that goal and the big assignments. My aunt, Danielle Livingston, has always pushed me to do the little things to make a big difference. Nothing in life is too small to do, and nothing in life is too hard to get. You just have to chip away at the little things, and you’ll be successful. That’s what she always tells me.

Patrick Kinas: “For the record, it’s Eastern Kentucky, and the date was Nov. 22, 2004.”

Editor’s note: Immediately after each game, Coach Harper sits down for a short interview with play-by-play announcer Patrick Kinas for the radio broadcast. On Tuesday night, after the 84-70 win over Florida Atlantic, Patrick asked Coach Harper about being one game shy of career victory No. 100. Patrick was surprised by Coach Harper’s response. See it in the video below, and then read his take on it.


For the record, it’s Eastern Kentucky, and the date was Nov. 22, 2004.

As I was ruminating how to start my debut blog for redandwhiteforlife.com, obviously wanting to make a splash for the dedicated readers to the alumni magazine and the loyal followers to Cherry Crayton’s outstanding behind-the-scenes, all-access eyeball of Kellie Harper’s first season as the new head coach of the women’s basketball team, I was racking my brain on what special gold bars I could unearth.  Little did I know that after those endless moments throughout the past few days, that it would be the head coach herself who would give me the lead I was spending futile time trying to arrive at the opening.

It happened during the post-game radio interview I conducted with Kellie following Tuesday’s victory over Florida Atlantic.  Thankfully I always seem to ask about six “one final questions” during my interviews, and it was the final-final question after I had congratulated Kellie on her 99th career victory.  Living my life surrounded by sports where successes are measured in wins, losses, stats and feats, if you watch the interview on YouTube, Kellie was completely dumbfounded that she was on the precipice of her 100th career win this upcoming Friday against Davidson.  Her reaction couldn’t have been more real, genuine and precious.  I’ve dealt with many managers, coaches, players and the like who know their personal stats better than the broadcasters.  These guys commonly know when the official stat companies missed adding a stolen base to their total.  They know when they had an extra earned run on their line.  They know.  They probably pay way too much attention to it, but they know.  So when Kellie was oblivious to her being on the verge of her landmark 100th win, the word “refreshing” zoomed to mind.  But it was my obvious follow-up question that really struck a chord.

Generally, media members are always schooled to know the answer to the questions we ask.  However, in this case, I figured Kellie would be able to bail me out when I asked against which school she recorded her first-ever head coaching win.  I mean, who doesn’t know the answers to some of their life’s historic firsts?  First kiss?  (Janet)  First job?  (Detassling corn.  Up at 4:30 a.m. to walk through cornfields.  Yeah, I don’t recommend it.)  First car? (Chevy Impala.  At least I didn’t have to drive this to go detassle.)  First pet? (Shadow)  First time watching your brother use a blow torch to melt 4-inch thick ice on the windshield of a car so he could go out on a date?  (Rob.  Yes, this really happened!  And this guy is a big-time lawyer.  Somebody must’ve taken the LSAT for him!)  Who doesn’t remember firsts?

Back to Kellie.  She had a moment of panic and after a few seconds of brain cultivating hoping to till the answer, but the land was barren.  Finally, she asked me who it was!  “Was it Eastern Kentucky?”  Sorry Kellie, but this wasn’t a pop quiz!!   Besides, I didn’t know the answer either!!  It was truly an endearing moment.  Particularly on the heels of her next comment, saying she knew who her first loss was against.  Clemson.  This answer came to her as rapid as the name of her best friend.

As I’ve gotten to know Kellie over the past several months, this unscripted moment struck me as a microcosm of her existence.  If you haven’t had the chance to meet her, hopefully this will serve as a slight crack in the windowpane to her state of mind, and what made her the type of player who was beyond critical to three of Pat Summitt’s national championships at Tennessee.  Kellie Harper hates to lose.  I’m convinced that her loathing-for-losing quotient is significantly higher than her affinity for winning.

She has quickly joined a short list of mine of the most competitive people I know.  I’m pretty sure that Kellie won’t recall many details of her 18 wins during her maiden season as the head coach at Western Carolina.  However, I’m stone certain that Kellie would be able to tell you every excruciating detail from her first loss in her career-opener against Clemson, her overtime loss to rival Elon later that same season or the other 64 defeats she has suffered during her six-year head coaching career.

That seems to be the personal mantra of the Kellie.  Kellie doesn’t seem driven to win with the thought of growing her victory column.  To me, Kellie seems driven to win simply to siphon the air out of the L column.  But make no mistake.  The wins will come.  They’ll just come as a by-product of Kellie’s obsession not to lose.

So while she may very well win her 100th game on Friday night at Reynolds Coliseum, I’m surmising Kellie will be more proud that she was able to keep the deadbolt on the vault buried in her back yard for another game.  Because inside that vault is loss number 67.  So is her first, the loss to the Tigers on Nov. 19, 2004 — a loss she internally is certainly hoping to avenge at Littlejohn Coliseum on Jan. 31 — Patrick Kinas

Patrick Kinas, left, interviews Coach Kellie Harper after the first game of the season on Nov. 13 as senior forward Lucy Ellison looks on. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Patrick Kinas, left, interviews Coach Kellie Harper after the first game of the season on Nov. 13 as senior forward Lucy Ellison looks on. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

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One Response to “A Coach’s First Season: Q&A With Nikitta Gartrell; Introducing Our New Guest Blogger”

  1. Cindy says:

    Thanks for doing this wonderful “A Coach’s First Season” series. NC State has obviously been blessed with a treasure in the young Kellie Harper, and I’m glad it didn’t take long for players, fans and sideline reporters to embrace her.

    I’m sure Coach Yow would be very pleased with the way Coach Harper will continue the proud legacy of Wolfpack women’s basketball.

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