How a Positive Thinker Took Swarthmore From Nowhere to No. 1

Written by on March 6, 2020

SWARTHMORE, Pa. — A handwritten letter from Landry Kosmalski, the Swarthmore Faculty males’s basketball coach, has been framed and hanging in Nate Shafer’s bed room at his household’s house in McLean, Va., since he acquired it in highschool.

In forceful language, the coach wrote that Swarthmore — although it had not gained a convention title since 1951, had by no means reached the nationwide championship event and had simply ended a streak of 18 dropping seasons — would quickly develop into one of many nation’s finest Division III packages and that Shafer could be a giant a part of it.

“I’d say it’s come true,” Shafer, a senior co-captain on the staff, mentioned of the letter.

Certainly, Swarthmore is heading into the 64-team Division III N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, which begins Friday, as the highest seed. The Garnet reached the championship sport final season, and had been 26-Zero this season earlier than being a surprising loss to eighth-ranked Johns Hopkins within the Centennial Convention event remaining on Saturday.

Credit score…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Occasions
Credit score…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Occasions

Swarthmore’s ascendance has been each methodical and out of nowhere. The faculty sits about 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia, whose wealthy basketball heritage by no means trickled right down to the idyllic campus. Athletics had lengthy been checked out as a dalliance right here, one which, if pursued too vigorously, may diminish a nice tutorial popularity. Twenty years in the past, the school dropped football. That season, the basketball staff was 4-20.Swarthmore did churn out nice tennis groups, although.

Into this atmosphere, Kosmalski, beforehand an assistant at Davidson Faculty, arrived eight years in the past with a imaginative and prescient that his letter to Shafer exemplified — by the message, actually, but in addition by the medium.

In an age of immediacy, dominated by emails, texts and Slack channels, Kosmalski establishes relationships with recruits and lays out his program’s values utilizing what’s for a lot of a misplaced artwork: the handwritten be aware. It conveys a private contact, however additionally it is a logo of the inspiration of Swarthmore’s success: consideration to element in each side of this system.

Gamers dash from the movie room, the place they sit in the identical seat every session, to the fitness center for follow, lining up their water bottles facet by facet. (“In alphabetical order,” an assistant joked.) A current 1-hour-40-minute follow was scripted with 21 durations and two 45-second water breaks and run with the punctuality of a Swiss practice.

“Freshmen coming in actually must be reprogrammed and nearly must be taught to play basketball once more,” Shafer mentioned, nodding to Vinny DeAngelo, a freshman, who concurred.

“Coach would tape elements of the ground,” DeAngelo mentioned. “As some extent guard, that’s the place I needed to get to, and if I used to be a foot off, it will be, ‘Vinny, get to the stretch spot.’”

The Garnet do play with aptitude: Ryan Ingram, a junior guard, has a pleasant Eurostep, and DeAngelo’s opposite-hand finishes on the rim would draw nods on any North Philly playground. However they’re personified by Shafer, a 6-foot-6 ahead with artful publish strikes lifted from a Kevin McHale combine tape.

In a sport that prizes quickness, Shafer operates at three speeds — deliberate, plodding and glacial — and later than sooner exploits his defender’s impatience to create area for a leap hook, a drop step or an up-and-under.

“We’re not essentially the most athletic individuals,” Ingram mentioned. “We’re good and we get to our spots, and we execute correctly as a result of we work on these issues each single day.”

Kosmalski inherited a 3-22 staff when he arrived in 2012, and one of many first issues he did was briefly bench this system’s profession main scorer. Different gamers had been lower. The Garnet gained seven video games in his first season, eight in his second and 11 in his third.

“We had aspirations, however nothing was tangible,” mentioned Cam Wiley, who graduated final yr after changing into this system’s first all-American. “It was all hopes and desires.”

Swarthmore gained 22 video games in Wiley’s first season and 23 the subsequent, successful the convention championship and reaching the spherical of 16 in its first N.C.A.A. event. Two years in the past, Swarthmore reached a regional remaining and final yr it obtained to the title sport, the place it was overwhelmed by Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

By now, the tradition of this system is established. Final summer season, when the staff traveled to Sweden and Denmark, the gamers wrote 80 postcards from every nation to alumni, acknowledging their assist. On the finish of a follow, the staff gathers to situation put-ups — “the other of put-downs,” Kosmalski mentioned — the place gamers level out one thing a teammate or coach did nicely that day. When the staff huddles in a timeout, gamers calmly grasp the shorts of the gamers subsequent to them — a reminder to remain linked.

Credit score…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Occasions
Credit score…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Occasions

The rituals are supposed to foster bonds at a spot the place the lecturers are rigorous and the place there are not any scholarships to tether athletes to their groups.

In addition they assist to clarify why, at a current follow, the participant with the largest smile was Alec White, a junior who has performed 18 minutes this season.

“After I performed rising up, my dad would say, “Did you have got enjoyable?’” mentioned White, who research environmental research and chemistry and loves being part of the staff. “And I’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And he’d say, ‘Then why aren’t you smiling?’ That’s one of many issues he’s commented on each time he comes and visits — that I at all times have a giant smile on my face.”

That’s no accident. Kosmalski re-examines his program within the low season and searches for tactics to enhance it. He got here throughout a TED Speak by Shawn Achor, whose ebook “The Happiness Benefit” lays out how positivity can result in a extra productive work atmosphere.

“The old-school mentality is you grind it out and you work it out,” mentioned Kosmalski, whose gamers write out weekly follow objectives. “After some time, you say there’s obtained to be a greater means. It doesn’t imply you’re going to win each sport. It doesn’t imply every single day goes to be nice. However it’s a extra optimistic outlook.”

For the convention event remaining, a handwritten “Bought Out” signal hung on the entrance to the 1,278-seat fitness center — though admission was free. The scholar part was full greater than an hour earlier than tipoff, and college students stood for the whole sport.

“They’re the usual for the athletic division,” mentioned Ben Jackson, a catcher on the baseball staff, which stuffed the primary two rows of the scholar part. “Our coaches say: ‘Watch them. They do it proper.’”

Throughout the court docket, Megan Smith sat behind the bench. A volleyball participant who graduated in 1996, she is now a lawyer for the Division of Schooling. She marveled on the ambiance. “I’ve seen extra Swat spirit tonight than I did within the 4 years I used to be right here,” she mentioned. “Again then, athletes felt marginalized — like they weren’t as good as everybody else.”

That was not the case final month on senior evening, when the staff’s two seniors — Zac O’Dell and Shafer — had been honored. Each are all-conference gamers. It was a really Swarthmore second.

O’Dell was lauded for the 2 printed chemistry papers he helped write — his favourite is “Bovine Serum Albumin Enhances Silver Nanoparticle Dissolution Kinetics in a Size- and Concentration-Dependent Manner.” And dozens of scholars from an elementary faculty the place Shafer volunteers got here to the sport carrying his uniform quantity.

The sport in opposition to Johns Hopkins was nicely performed and taut all through. With the rating tied within the remaining seconds, Johns Hopkins guard Conner Delaney shook free and rattled in a jumper — the final of his career-high-tying 32 factors — because the buzzer sounded. The Swarthmore gamers retreated to their bench, shocked that the entire element and togetherness may very well be undone by a terrific participant.

“Clearly we’re in a troublesome spot,” Shafer mentioned after the league title and a possibility for an ideal season vanished. However he was sure that when Swarthmore discovered its first-round opponent within the Division III event — it turned out it will host Brooklyn Faculty on Friday evening — its focus would return to the duty at hand, simply because it had all season.

“We will’t dwell on this,” Shafer mentioned, as if reciting the handwriting on the wall.

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