Coach Jill Nagel has bigger impact on Bruins than she'll admit

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | 10:06 p.m. CST; updated 12:06 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Rock Bridge girls basketball head coach Jill Nagel speaks to her team during a timeout at a game.

COLUMBIA — Jill Nagel doesn't want this story written.

In typical fashion, the Rock Bridge girls basketball coach prefers to put the focus on her team as it prepares for the Class 5 state playoffs.

First round of Class 5 playoffs

Rock Bridge (21-5) vs. Waynesville (13-13)

WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Camdenton High School

"The players make this program, not me," said Nagel after the Bruins beat rival Hickman last Saturday to claim their fifth Class 5, District 9 championship in six years.

Several members of the Bruins, ranked No. 2 in the state by Maxpreps at 21-5, disagree with their coach.

"She's helped me a lot becoming an all-around good player and, more importantly, an all-around good person," sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham said.

Sophie Cunningham's older sister, Lindsey Cunningham, an all-state member of the Rock Bridge team that won last season's state championship, said that Nagel's careful attention to detail and disciplined coaching enabled Lindsey Cunningham to improve enough to earn a spot on the Missouri women's basketball team.

"Coach Nagel ran practices, and she ran her team like a college program," Lindsey Cunningham said. "That helped make the transition much easier."

Bruins players, past and present, cite the coach's ability to grow a family atmosphere around the team, and a large part of that is Nagel's own family. Her husband, Greg Nagel, serves as the Rock Bridge athletic trainer and is at every home game. Even Nagel's son, Zach, hangs around the team on a regular basis.

Various players have taken turns baby sitting Zach, and the energetic 7-year-old is often seen at Bruins' practices, putting up shots that fall well short of the 10-foot high hoop, making everybody laugh with his antics.

Nagel regularly implements family nights, hosting the team at her house to watch movies and bond with each other during overnight sleepovers. The move has helped the Bruins develop uncommon chemistry and buy in to their coach's notion that the team comes first.

"With coaching, it's a second family," Nagel said. "I tell the parents before the season starts, we're going to spend more waking moments with their kids than they will. That's a special role and I don't take that for granted."

Bruins athletic director Jen Mast doesn't take Nagel or her team's success for granted, either.

Mast was teaching at Rock Bridge when Nagel first arrived in 2005, following her husband to Columbia after he accepted the trainer's job. Mast didn't hold back as she tried to put the importance of Nagel into words.

"There is no comparison," Mast said. "There is Rock Bridge girls basketball before Jill Nagel and Rock Bridge girls basketball after, and they are not the same program.

"We were very mediocre ... until 2008 (when Rock Bridge won its first state title under Nagel), we hadn't won a district title in 26 years."

According to Jefferson City coach Shane Meyer, since Nagel arrived, the Bruins have "built a dynasty" collecting state titles last season and in 2008 to go along with five district crowns in the past six seasons.

After scheduling a number of highly-ranked out-of-state opponents, including No. 1 Bishop O'Dowd (Calif.) High School, Rock Bridge is just four wins away from an elusive repeat.

"We take it game by game," junior Chayla Cheadle said. "She doesn't let us ease up or rest on our laurels."

Part of the reason for Nagel's constant drive stems from her roots.

Growing up in King City, a small farming community in northwest Missouri, Nagel learned the values of effort and hard work.

After playing basketball at then-NAIA member William Jewell College, she remained at the small liberal arts school in Liberty for two years as an assistant coach. From there, Nagel earned her Master's degree while serving as a graduate assistant at Findley University in Ohio before taking an assistant coaching position at Central Michigan University for three years.

"It was a goal of mine to coach at the Division-I level," Nagel said. "It happened a lot faster than I thought it would. It helped shape what we do (at Rock Bridge), and we try and run our program like a college program."

Nagel has been able to send many of her players to Division-I programs since her tenure at Rock Bridge began.

Sophie Cunningham has also committed to Missouri along with Rock Bridge junior standouts Bri and Cierra Porter, who are nieces to Tigers women's basketball coach Robin Pingeton. Cheadle has been heavily recruited by several Division-I teams including MU, while former Bruins' star Katherine Harry signed with DePaul.

"She helps us with the (recruiting) process," Lindsey Cunningham said. "I'm very close to coach (Nagel) and Missouri was there because of coach Nagel and the way she ran her program."

Other coaches around the state have taken notice of what Nagel has done and some have tried to emulate her success.

"I've picked her brain about some things," said Meyer after the Bruins beat his team for a third time this season last week. "She does things the right way, and I've definitely tried to do some of the things she's done there."

After falling short to the Bruins in last year's state title game, Blue Springs coach Mark Spigarelli praised Nagel, admitting that Rock Bridge "was the team to beat the next two years."

At a recent practice, Nagel stood at center court, yelling out instructions to her players, her son clinging to her side.

"Hustle! Let's go, come on girls!"

Nagel has made a point of reminding her team that it must stay in the moment. Without effort and hard work, there will be no third state title, she insists.

After a couple sets, the team huddled up in a circle around Nagel, focusing on her message.

"This is your time to shine," she said with a smile. "Let's play smart and stay hungry."

Her son grabbed her hand as the circle tightened.

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