College Sports

Where’s the love? In Nampa, there’s plenty for the No. 1 women’s team in the nation

There’s a whole lotta love to go around the Northwest Nazarene women’s basketball team.

The Nighthawks are getting the love from the outside — they moved up to No. 1 in the nation Tuesday in the latest D2SIDA poll — and from within. Selflessness, celebrating even the most seemingly minor of positives, that is a big part of an incredible season thus far.

“This year, our one word is love,” senior forward Danielle Jardine said.

Getting along is obviously important for any successful team, and at 16-0 overall in NCAA Division II, the good vibes are plentiful for NNU. But ask just about anyone on the roster, and the relationships are why the team is reaching rare heights.

Jardine, who plays with her twin sister and fellow Nampa High grad Raquel, said the team has a book club, and one of the selections was Jon Gordon’s “The Power of Positive Leadership.” The word “love” appears five times in subchapters in the book.

“Teams always ask us, ‘How do you get your bench so riled up?’ It’s because we love each other,” Raquel Jardine said. “... Our compassion for each other is remarkable.”

The best wins, the players say, are the ones where all 11 Nighthawks can score or get a rebound or an assist. One of the first players mentioned when thinking about team success is the one who plays the least, sophomore forward Zoe Wessels.

“Not one person on this team is selfish,” said senior forward Maya Rodgers, a Rocky Mountain High grad. “... Zoe is amazing, she’s one of our best cheerers, but man, we love her so much. We don’t care if you score (a lot), we love you.”

It’s a culture that was instilled quickly by coach Steve Steele, now in his third season. Danielle Jardine said Steele often has the team over for dinners or film sessions, making them part of his family, furthering the team’s mantra.

Even on the floor, there is little room to be upset — 10 players average between 6.3 and 12.6 points per game and none average more than six rebounds per game. Yet, NNU is No. 3 in the nation with 87.9 ppg, utilizing its numbers for an up-tempo style and tied for 22nd with a plus-8.4 rebounding margin per game.

“Our depth is our biggest strength. ... It’s nice to see our players get excited when a kid goes for a big night, not wishing they had taken more shots or played more minutes. That’s what I’ve been most impressed with,” Steele said. “It’s the culture we’re trying to build, team first, me second.”

Steele and the Nighthawks went 22-5 last season, their most wins since moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II in 2001, and their first conference title since 2000.

Now, NNU is on top of the polls for the first time — twice, the team was ranked as high as No. 3 in its NAIA days. The Nighthawks are on the road this week, playing at Western Washington on Thursday night and Simon Fraser on Saturday.

“It’s a huge compliment, but the downside is a bigger target on our backs than we already have,” Steele said. “Being No. 1 in January doesn’t mean anything. We want to be No. 1 when it’s all said and done.”

The NNU women aren’t the only Canyon County team on a roll, however.

Also in Nampa, the NNU men, led by second-year coach Paul Rush (a Capital High grad), are off to their best start since moving up to Division II with an 11-3 record. Junior guard Adonis Arms is playing at a level to match his name, averaging 22.0 ppg.

As usual, the College of Idaho men are cruising in the NAIA Division II ranks, at 21-3 overall and No. 4 in the latest coaches’ poll. The Yotes, led by first-year coach Colby Blaine (a Boise High grad) are off until a road game Feb. 1 at Evergreen.

Dave Southorn is a 2004 graduate from the University of Colorado. He has covered Boise State athletics since 2005, and worked at the Idaho Statesman since 2013. He’s won multiple Idaho Press Club awards and once won a contest designing a play for the Seattle Seahawks.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.