For a two-week span this season, the Stephens College basketball team wore unique jerseys at practice.
Coach Dane Pavlovich gave his team white T-shirts and told them to design their own practice uniforms.
Players cut off the sleeves and used them as armbands, while others put the names of their teammates on the T-shirt.
“I read about a coach in Maine who had done this with their team,” Pavlovich said. “It sounded like it fit the special circumstances of our team.”
With nine of the 10 players on Stephens’ roster new to the program this season, Pavlovich has used several techniques to bring his team together.
“We’ve done a lot of things to try to build unity and try to build chemistry and togetherness,” Pavlovich said. “I think we get better at it every day. We’ve done all kinds of things to try to combat that fact that we have so many new players.”
Stephens is in its first season of competition in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Last April, the Stars’ officially moved from NCAA Division III to the NAIA.
Pavlovich said Stephens first considered moving out of Division III when Stephens President Wendy Libby joined the school.
From an athletic standpoint, Pavlovich said Stephens fits better in the NAIA.
Division III schools are told which sports they must offer, but the NAIA doesn’t have such restrictions. Also, the Stars can now offer scholarships, whereas they could not in Division III.
The change also gave Stephens the chance to join a conference in the future.
“The first year in the NAIA is the probationary year,” Pavlovich said. “We could be in a conference but we couldn’t qualify for the postseason. We’re going to make our decision to enter a conference based on when it is the right fit for us and it also has to be the right fit for the conference. There are two avenues to cross. We have to feel that it’s a good geographic and competitive fit but at the same time, they have to be interested in growing and expanding.”
Stephens’ new era posed obstacles. Only senior Eva Smody returned from last year’s team.
“(Last year’s players) had a choice (to come back) and a lot of them didn’t feel like they wanted to be a part of that for a variety of reasons,” Pavlovich said. “The group of student-athletes that we were able to bring in really caught a glimpse of the vision that we had. It was a new vision.”
Stephens’ new additions have made an impact. The Stars’ have improved from 1-18 last year to a 4-17 record with five games left to go this season.
Another noticeable difference from last year’s squad is its competitive play. Last season, Stephens lost to Avila University by 66, but on Jan. 31, a late rally fell short as the Stars fell by only 12 points.
“These girls always play hard,” Pavlovich said. “Always, always, always play hard. Unfortunately, when we’ve lost more than anybody probably wants to lose, it’s really tough to keep fighting back and keep going but you have to give these kids credit for doing that every single time out.”
Pavlovich is also the athletic recruiter on campus and much of his time in the past year went towards bringing in the school’s first NAIA class.
“We’re trying to get our programs to grow with better quality student-athletes that would not only help us in the field of competition but at the same time benefit our classrooms,” Pavlovich said.
The basketball program’s new life has brought positive feelings to its players and coach.
“There was a lot of excitement because for the first time in a long time there was a buzz about athletics,” Pavlovich said. “People were interested to see what we were going to do on the floor. It was exciting to have the players that I worked so hard to get here to see them in a Stephens’ uniform.”
“I was just happy because we had a totally new team and a totally new atmosphere,” Smody said. “We were just really excited to have new, fresh people coming in that could play ball. It could help with the morale of Stephens’ sports.”
Until Stephens finds a good conference fit for its team, the Stars must go on the road to find NAIA competition. They have traveled to Madison, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, this year.
“We wanted to get more NAIA’s on our schedule so we had to go on the road,” Pavlovich said.
The Stars last road trip of the season takes them to Tennessee this week. They play Tuesday at Division III Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and Bethel College, a NAIA school in McKenzie, Tenn., Wednesday.
Stephens must play without its starting point guard Amy Burklund for the rest of the season. Burklund injured her right thumb Wednesday in the Stars’ loss to Robert Morris.
“Anytime you lose your point guard, your floor general and captain, it’s going to be tough,” Pavlovich said. “We have to make up for her leadership. Statistically, we have to make up for her passing. She sees the floor so well.”
The Stars will finish their season with home games on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Pavlovich is optimistic about the future of his club.
“This is a program which is going to get nothing but better,” Pavlovich said. “We’re very close on several (recruits) that we think can really fill some spots that we need. We’ll have a team next year that will be senior laden, experience laden. We will have a core group that has been together for a year.”
If Stephens has a not-so-great practice or if the team’s chemistry isn’t there in the future, Pavlovich said he wouldn’t hesitate to use team building activities similar to those he used with his inaugural NAIA basketball team.
“I can definitely see myself using it (again) but it depends where my team is at,” Pavlovich said. “We had good practices in the stretch in which we wore (the jerseys) and we definitely made strides of coming together in that time period. You want it to be something special.”