The Wolfpack women’s basketball players took their exams this week, so as part of our ongoing series “A Coach’s First Season,” we spoke with assistant coach Stephanie McCormick on Thursday. She’s the recruiting coordinator for NC State and works with the post players.
A High Point native, she was a four-year starter at Catawba College, where she was the school’s first player to finish her career with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Before joining Kellie Harper’s staff at Western Carolina in 2004, she was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington.
She spoke with us about the season so far, her background and Coach Harper.
Also, check back in tomorrow when we’ll post comments from her about NC State’s game against South Carolina in Columbia on Sunday at 2 p.m. We’ll also have comments from Debbie Antonelli, a former Wolfpack player and a basketball analyst who will be covering the game, which will air on Fox Sports South.
The team and season so far
On her assessment of the season so far
I think [the players] are gaining confidence with each game and they are starting to gain a little momentum and starting to understand more of what we want them to do. Take Lucy [Ellison, senior forward]. Even her mom called and said, “The old Lucy is back. She’s got so much confidence.” We are hoping to get that confidence among all of the players.
On building confidence in Lucy Ellison
The first two weeks of practice, we probably got on Lucy about not shooting the ball when she gets it in the paint and under the basket about 50 times. Every time she would kick the ball out, one of the coaches would go up to her and tell her, “Lucy, shoot the ball. Lucy, shoot the ball.” And she would give us those looks like, “Oh, OK.” It was like a light went on. I think she’s always wanted to do it. Now, she feels like she’s got it. . . . She wants to be good, she wants this team to be good, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes.
On dealing with losses
I hate to lose, but I’ve been at this long enough that I also have things in perspective. Every loss is tough, but I’ve learned to put each game — whether it’s a win or a loss — into context and just reflect back on that game. For instance, our game against Northwestern State, we won that game, but it was horrible. We didn’t execute anything. And for my post players, it should have been a lot better of a game for us. And though I never take a win for granted, and I will always celebrate and appreciate every win, it was kind of a letdown. But after the Vanderbilt loss, I didn’t feel as bad. Even though we started the game off bad and got into a 15-point hole, I saw something in those kids I hadn’t seen before. And I thought that that was something we could build on and find success with down the road. . . . I told them, “I hadn’t seen that in you guys and the fact that you stuck your chests out down 15 points and beat Vanderbilt 18 minutes the first half and 20 minutes the second half, showed me a lot.” So with losses, yeah, I struggle. But you’ve got to take the positive out of any situation. There are some losses where good things that may come out of it.
On the slow starts
Where we have got to get better is starting games. We just start so slow. We’ve got to do better to come out and just get on top of the team. . . . It’s almost like the players have to get a feel for the other team first and then they can follow through with the scouting report and game plan. They can’t process it only on what we tell them and show them on film. They have to see during the game, “Oh, Coach was right.” It really is just settling in and executing the game plan. . . . It’s still early in the season. Hopefully, they’ll adjust to the whole game-day routine and figure out a way to start the game betters. It’s ironic, because I think for the TCU game, I bet the entire coaching staff was thinking, “Well, this isn’t too bad. We’ll be alright.” We never got into panic mode, like “This is terrible.” It’s almost like we’re getting adjusted to them, which we don’t want to necessarily do, but we do have confidence that when they settle in, we can start getting some things accomplished.
On what she wants people to know about the team
That we are getting there. We are not where we started, but we are nowhere near where we are going to be as a program. And the players are working hard, trying to get it. We’re asking them to respect what they’re trying to do. We’re asking them to step outside everything that they’ve learned and put it all on the line. . . . And they’re doing it with a positive approach. I have yet to hear a negative thing from them. And they will get it. It may look really ugly at times, and it may look really nice at times. Kellie talked to the girls after the TCU win, and she said, “We’ll get a good win, and then we’ll come down, and then we’ll get a good win. When we can be in a constant uphill, then that’s when you know something special has happened.”
On what will make this season special and successful
That we overcame the odds and that we shocked some people. I want to have shocked some people. That 6-point loss to Vanderbilt — by the end of the season I want us to be winning those games and shocking the Carolinas of the world.
On her favorite moments with the team so far
When practices first started, the coaching staff was all excited because we were starting practices with a new team, and we’re jumping into drills and trying to show them exactly what we want and we’re very active on the floor. The girls are working with that and getting into it. [Assistant coach Richard Barron] was out there one day, and he got nailed to the floor. The very next day, Kellie was out there doing a drill and she gets taken out and is down. Katie Anderson, one of the student managers, and Stephanie Aronson (the athletic trainer) have a bet to see who is the next one to take the plunge and get nailed between [assistant coach Jon Harper] and me. During the practice at the tip-off for the season-ticket holders at the beginning of the season, Lucy nailed me, and I hit the floor. And I hear Stephanie at the table, screaming Ah!” because she lost the bet. I hear her, and I’m laying on the floor and just start cracking up. That was pretty humorous. . . . Also, our win at ODU was pretty exciting for the girls and for me to hear them come into the locker room after the game and talk about how excited to win their first game on the road. They were elated; I’m not saying it was the biggest win of the year or a huge win. . . . But it was as if a big heavy weight had been lifted off their shoulders.
On emphasizing taking charges, not blocking shots
They fought with us a little bit on it; actually, they fought more with us on that than on anything else. And of all the things we’ve changed, that’s the thing that has been the toughest for them. I told them we will not put another blocked shot on the highlight video. The highlight tape from last year was full of blocked shots. . . . They can’t tell us why, but they will argue us up and down that blocks are better. But, most of the time, if you’re going for a block, you’re out of position defensively. If you get a charge, you’re in the right place at the right time. Two, when you get the block, most of the time you don’t get the ball back. Either they get it back and unfortunately score on the second opportunity because you’re out of position or the ball goes out of bounds on you and they get an in-bounds play – and that doesn’t help us. And three, if you get a charge, you can get the other team in foul trouble. . . . We’re urging the players to get into position. If you’re going for the block, you can get it from any position – from the back, from the side, it doesn’t matter. But if you’re really trying to get the charge, you’ve got to be moving and you’ve got to get into position defense, and that’s what we’re all about. They’re starting to get it.
Her job responsibilities
On her role as an assistant coach and approach with the players
I’ve definitely evolved over the 15 years I’ve been doing this. I have learned the support-cast role. I’ve worked with a lot of really good coaches, so I feel like I have a good foundation of the Xs and Os,. . . . These girls, this team, wants to please us, so they look to us for a lot of direction on the floor. That’s not really the way we like to coach – the way Kellie likes to coach. We’ve given them a foundation now, so we’re trying to wing them off of it so they don’t look at us for so much direction and that they trust their instincts a little more. . . . I try to be as supportive of Kellie and of the players as I can possibly be. There are moments where [Kellie and I] disagree, but as an assistant, you have to understand that your name is not on the win-loss column and you have to know that she has the final say. But I find that it’s crucial that no matter where those discrepancies are, I try real hard to not let the girls see that. I support Kellie 110 percent, and that’s what I want the players to see. . . . And as far as the girls are concerned, I try to be there for them. I think they need a lot of feedback – both positive and negative. I try to just not be just “rah rah.” I’m just going to be honest. And I think kids respect that, when you’re just not blowing smoke – and to let them know exactly where they stand and what they have to offer. At the same time, when I know they’ve struggled with something, and it finally clicks and they see positive results from it, then I’m going to let them know that with as much energy and excitement as I possibly can so they can understand that they did something special. . . . I try to be as high energy as I can because this team needs high energy. And, Kellie is very high energy. But at the same time, she can get drained, too. So I try to offer up that, and I try to be positive.
On what her typical week is like during the season
Two to three days a week I’m on the road recruiting and then we have about two games each week and the practices in between. It’s a grind. And this is the toughest time as a coach, especially as an assistant. In addition to the games and practices and recruiting, you’ve got your academic teams and making sure you’re meeting with your kids and making sure they’re getting it done in the classroom and are OK in their daily lives. And you’re talking to coaches on the phone. You’re writing kids, sending e-mails. And this December and January, you’re really trying to get out and see a lot of high school games. The schedule – that’s probably one of the biggest differences from being at Western and being here in the ACC. It used to be if I was recruiting that day, I would get up in the morning, go to the office, get in the car and go drive to the game and drive home and get a good night’s rest. Then, I’d get up in the morning and go to practice and get ready for the game. Now it’s get home from the game, pack your bags, hop on a plane the next day, make the most of your flight. You’re there for a couple of days and then get up for a 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock flight to make it back in time for a 2 o’clock game that day. After our [TCU] game, Kellie got up the next morning, went to California and watched a game, stayed the night and saw some more games and just left last night [Wednesday], catching a 10 o’clock red-eye flight and is now just getting in this morning. That’s a little different. Our base has expanded, and our preps for our game – we’ve got to be a lot more deliberate, even with the terminology we put on the scouting report. Different coaches do things differently, so it takes a little longer because you’re a little more detailed to just eliminate the gray areas.
On how her playing days impacted her approach to coaching
As a player, I learned what being a teammate is being all about. And I think that type of experience and getting it straight on is crucial and helps you being a coach. When I played, I was looked on as a leader. I took ownership in my school, and I took ownership in the program, and I had the utmost pride in everything we stood for and I held my teammates accountable for that. So I really enjoyed my four years of basketball as a player. And they weren’t the four most successful years — I had ups and I had downs. But those four years, as a whole, I really enjoyed it. And I will tell the kids that I recruit and kids that we bring in that if there is one thing I want from anyone is that they will enjoy their experience over the four years as much as I did. The reasons kids enjoys something are different. It may be that a kid has to score 20 points a night for them to feel like she had a positive experience playing basketball. But I would like to think it’s a more rounded than that — that the way you interact with your coaches will affect that, that the way you interact with the other players will affect that, the way you’re looked upon on the campus, your academics. There are so many factors that come into play with that. And I feel like I have the experience of being able to handle all of that because I’ve been there.
On how she’ll spend the upcoming holiday
I’ve got three days. Dec. 24-26 are dead periods for recruiting. So I’ll be at home with my family and my little girl here [her dog Jordan, a pit bull mix]. I’ll be in High Point enjoying the ham and all the fixin’s and nieces and mom and dad and cousins and my grandmamma. I will spend that time relaxing with family.
Coach McCormick and her background
On how she started playing basketball
There was a rec center behind my house where I grew up. Outside the rec center was the blacktop with run-of-the-mill, rundown basketball courts. That’s what kids just did—go out to the courts and play a little. I did that. And then my eighth grade year, I went out for the team and didn’t have a positive experience, so I didn’t play anymore. And then I got to high school; I didn’t play my freshman year, but I had a friend who was playing and who I played on the courts out behind the house. She begged and pleaded with me to play, so I went out for the team my sophomore year. . . . It gave me a release from everyday life. Playing basketball was my getaway zone. It was how I dealt with life, really.
On how she got into coaching
I had no intention really. My senior year, the coach that recruited to me to Catawba left to go to Western Carolina; and mid-way through my senior year, he called me and said he needed a graduate assistant and wanted me to come and help him out. Well, I really couldn’t afford that and moving that far away from home. But I did want to get my master’s. We went back and forth, and he was able to work it out and make me a full-time assistant and allowed me to take some graduate courses.
On when she knew she wanted to be a coach
It was probably the day I stepped foot on the court as a coach. The players there [at Western] didn’t know me as a player; they had no clue who I was. So they treated me as a coach. When they interacted with me and asked questions, it was, “Oh, let me get back to you on that.” I realized I had to learn real quick to be a coach because you’ve got these young ladies looking up to you and wanting direction. I wanted to be able to give so much more, and that drew me in — that they wanted more from me made me want to give more. . . . And I’ve always loved basketball and I’ve always given everything I had to basketball, and when I realized I could possibly do that for the rest of my life, it was, “Whoa!” What a great feeling to have something a part of your life that you love so much and that you put so much into and that you’re able to make a career out of it and support yourself.
On what she learned during her time as an assistant before joining Coach Harper’s staff
The bulk of the experiences at all those schools and under different coaches has taught me to appreciate the people around me and how to work with and be a good colleague. I feel that three or four years before I got to Western and [joined Coach Harper’s staff], I wouldn’t have known how to appreciate Kellie for who she is, and I probably would have missed out on a really good thing. God had a path for me, and He knew where he wanted me to be, but He wanted me to be ready for it.
Working with Coach Harper
On how she came to join Coach Harper’s staff at Western Carolina
Kellie worked with one of my best friends in the business [Angela Crosby, now an assistant coach at Virginia Tech] at Chattanooga. I was at Georgia Tech at the time, and Angela told her about me and said you might should give her a call. Kellie called me. It was really the luck of the draw. I thank Crosby every day and that Kellie put this opportunity in front of me to join her staff because I know it doesn’t get much better and it doesn’t get much better than Kellie. . . . She understands people and she cares about people. She cares about who you are as a person as much as she cares about who you are as an assistant or as a player or as an administrative assistant. That’s who she is. She’s just a good ol’ country girl.
On the similarities between her and Coach Harper
Our personalities are similar. . . . We’re high energy and enthusiastic and we get really fired up about certain things, and we probably get the same lows about things. Though we come from two totally different backgrounds and have developed different styles, we’re kind of the same and we get each other. It’s really odd. I can so totally know what’s she’s about to say and vice versa. That’s probably another reason why I’ve been with her for so long and don’t plan to go anywhere: we get each other. . . . It didn’t help that we took a personality test when we got here to help us out with being in a new atmosphere and how to do we recruit here and make the most of who we are. We ended up in the exact same spot. Jon [Harper, Coach Harper’s husband and assistant coach], looked at us and said, “I hope you didn’t think it was going to be any different.” [Editor’s note: Coach Harper and Coach McCormick took a Recruiting Skills Assessment Personality Test and the categories their personalities fell under were “enthusiasm and influence” and “action and good-humored relationships.”]
On what makes it work for assistant coach Jon Harper and Coach Harper, who are married
I think that they truly respect each other. They respect each other’s differences; they respect each other’s strength; and I think they even respect each other’s weaknesses. At the same time, they have their own thing. . . . They’re not the typical couple that feels like they have to be a certain way and do these things together. And maybe that’s the way you have to be to work in this atmosphere together and live together under the same roof. They are atypical.
On why she has stayed with Coach Harper and followed her to NC State
In a lot of situations, the head coach barely knows the managers’ names. They’ll call the managers anything but their name. It’s not to be mean, it’s just that they’re so busy and they see you as such a small part of their plan. . . . Kellie, on the other hand, has managers’ parents e-mailing her and thanking her for what she does for their kids. And it’s not because it’s her program and the kids are working in the program, it’s deeper than that. It’s because she has molded that kid, that manager. Maybe the manager has expressed to her that she wants to be a coach someday; maybe the manager has expressed to her that she’s not really into coaching, but she feels like this will help her get into the business world and develop contacts. Whatever it is, Kellie knows and helps them. . . . We’ve had a manager that has some medical issues, and Kellie has put in a lot of time — texting, calling — checking up on her. While many coaches wouldn’t even notice she wasn’t at practice, Kellie is adjusting things for a manger. Talk about adjusting practice times for a player, she’d adjust things for a manager! And that gives you an example of the type of person Kellie is and shows you that it’s not about who is the top person on the totem pole and what someone can do for you. And as far as assistant coaches go, she really puts effort into trying to understand where we come from instead of doing the head coaching thing and saying, “No, this is the way I want it done.” Now, sometimes she has to put her foot down and say I want it this way, and that’s fine. But you get that one time out of 15 times. . . . She doesn’t feel like she’s bigger than the program.