Nov. 1, 2011
When Marissa Kastanek showed up in Reynolds Coliseum this week, she got lots of welcome-back hugs and high fives from her NC State teammates.
While the Wolfpack women were sweating through 10 days of official pre-season basketball practices, Kastanek was in Guadalajara munching on Mexican food and proudly playing for USA in the Pan American Games.
On one hand, her absence gave other State players a chance to get more reps and show off their skills. On the other hand, the junior guard’s presence is something the team missed -- and needs.
Pack practices without Kastanek were “a lot quieter,’’ senior Kim Durham said. “She’s very vocal. It helps to have someone who can motivate and push you to get better. She helps the atmosphere...makes the atmosphere more intense.”
Not all coaches would allow a key player to miss the first week and a half of October drills, but State’s Kellie Harper figured the international experience would be beneficial for Kastanek.
A 2010 freshman All-America who struggled in the late stages of her sophomore season, Kastanek believes she ”definitely added a lot” to her game on the Mexico mission. Now the goal is to apply it at State and help the Pack rebound from last year's injury-plagued 14-17 season.
Cast in an uncustomary reserve role at the Pan-Am games, she averaged 5.8 points while playing a little less than 14 minutes per night for the USA squad that placed seventh.
“It was very humbling,’’ Kastanek said of not starting. “I had to play pretty much perfect (when in the game). If you made a mistake there were seven other players who could come in and do it.
“It taught me the value of each possession. You have to be 100 percent focused. I think it will help me further my game here at NC State.”
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Kastanek came to Raleigh with a solid game from football country, Lincoln, Neb. She brought energy, enthusiasm, an eye for the basket and a farm-girl work ethic that also has helped her achieve in the classroom ( All-ACC Academic team two years in a row) as well as success on the court.
In her first season she paced ACC rookies in scoring (10.9 points per game) and ranked ninth overall in three-point shooting (35.7 percent).
Last winter she scored at a 13.9 point-per game pace, shot 34.8 percent behind the arc, increased her assists from 55 to 48 and reduced the turnovers from 109 as a rookie to 83. But along the way there were gut-wrenching, close losses and a few frustrating nights when her shots didn't fall.
Work on your jump shot in the off-season, Harper ordered without worrying about whether Kastanek would obey. The feisty guard is known as a “gym rat” who is as serious as a surgeon about basketball.“
She put a lot of pressure on herself last season; it took an emotional toll on her,’’ Harper said. “I think there will be less pressure this year. She has a little more maturity now.”
With other key veterans returning and several precocious freshmen arriving, Harper has more quality depth than a year ago. Given the longer bench she would prefer playing Kastanek about 28 minutes per game, suggesting that her hustling guard could be “great” and do more by playing less.
Whatever the playing time, Kastanek figures she will draw from her Pan-Am venture and make the most of the minutes.
“It helped me with my composure and my confidence, the International experience,’’ said Kastanek, convinced if she puts her mind to it she can do it, whatever "it" is.
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Kastanek, recruited by the late, legendary Wolfpack coach Kay Yow, knows she has the full support of Harper.
The pair, who arrived at State the same year, enjoy a special, forthright coach-player rapport.
“I love coach Kellie and I’m not saying that for the paper,’’ Kastanek emphasized. “I know she’s got my back and she knows I’ve got her's. We have such a great relationship. That she let me go to Guadalajara in the meat of the (pre-season) says a lot.”
Their passion for basketball and their backgrounds are similar. Kastanek grew up on a farm with corn, beans and milo -- and a basketball goal. Harper was raised in small Sparta, Tenn., not far from the University of Tennessee, where she was a star point guard on three national championship teams.
The player and coach's passion for basketball runs almost equally deep. Both also embrace hard work and make statements like “Jimney Cricket!” and “Jimney Christmas,” which has left some Wolfpack players wondering what they are talking about.
“We have so much in common,’’ said Kastanek.
That includes a common goal -- to put the Wolfpack back on a winning basketball track this season.
NC State plays an exhibition game Sunday afternoon against North Greenville beginning at 2 p.m., at Reynolds Coliseum.
The season begins in earnest the following Friday, Nov. 11 at home against Southeast Missouri State.
The program is an outreach opportunity to teach school-aged children lesson plans like math, nutrition and geography, while using real-world examples from NC State women’s basketball.
“It’s a nice outreach for our program into the community, a link between academics and athletics,” Harper said. “It also gives the kids a taste of NC State.”
By A.J. Carr