Culture, fun, and community: CSU embraces “more than basketball” preseason mantra

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Scroll through a typical college basketball team’s social media during the offseason, and you’ll inevitably hit some familiar beats. As the transfer portal opens, they’ll announce some new players. Come July, there will inevitably be graphics with maps showing everyone which AAU megashowcase each of their coaches is attending that weekend. There’s usually an elite camp in there with its related solicitations, and a few snaps from summer practices thrown into the mix.

Finally, the new season’s schedule hits in August (give or take a couple weeks). Then once the number of days until the season opener corresponds with the highest jersey number on the roster, the countdown posts begin and the preseason releases aren’t far behind.

Cleveland State exists in contrast to all of that. Sure, the Vikings’ Twitter and Instagram feeds include all the usual stuff, but their posts also demonstrate a level of engagement with the surrounding world that simply doesn’t exist at most other schools.

One day, the team might be visiting with their elementary-aged pen pals at Campus International School adjacent to the university, then they might be collecting trash at Edgewater Park that weekend or possibly jumping in the pool with the Vikings’ swimming and diving team. Then it’s on to learn about mental toughness from the Blue Angels, help their fellow students on move-in day, and head down to CSU’s art gallery in Playhouse Square.

While there obviously isn’t any formal data on the national leaders in “doing stuff outside of the gym,” the idea that Cleveland State is exceptional in that area is supported by the team’s transfers like senior guard Carmen Villalobos, previously of Hartford, who said that her old school didn’t operate like her current one.

“I think CSU is really, really active and dynamic, everything’s great,” she said.

“Every program talks about mental health and making sure their players have fun, and making sure there’s more to it than basketball,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “I don’t think that every program really shows that that’s how they operate.”

The broad directive comes from Kielsmeier, but keeping the calendar full of team bonding and personal development involves the whole staff and roster. Director of basketball operations Shelby Zoeckler is in charge of community service activities, while assistant coach Frozena Jerro handles leadership and culture building and special assistant to the head coach Hannah Zerr takes care of campus engagement.

“Then we have committees within the team,” Jerro added. “We have a recruiting committee, a community service committee, and a campus engagement committee. We’ve all got to work together with it. It’s something the girls want to do as well, it just kind of fits into the culture that we’re building.”

Senior guard Julia Hintz and junior guard Destiny Leo visited CSU’s new esports team on October 8th

Though it takes place in the gym before practice and not, say, in the Cavs Legion esports facility where Villalobos showed dual-sport athlete potential in early October, one staple is called Funky Friday.

“We do something different every Friday, trying to build the chemistry of the team” the former Spanish national team selection explained. “We do something fun before practice like games, different shirts, and colorful socks.”

One Funky Friday, Zoeckler sprung a dodgeball ambush on the squad. Often though, things are a bit more thrift shop than Globo Gym. One team favorite involved using hydration vessels that weren’t water bottles.

“They had pots, one of the cones…they could bring anything to drink their water out of except a water bottle,” Jerro said. Redshirt freshman forward Faith Burch kept things a bit more practical than most with a comfortable tea mug decorated with a turtle, while senior guard Julia Hintz opted for an upside-down viking helmet, horns and all.

“If you’re in our program and you’re not having fun, I don’t know what else we can do. We always have new and innovative and creative things,” Kielsmeier said.

“I know these things are cliché – ‘nobody’s got it better than us,’ ‘nobody has more fun than us,’ ‘nobody works harder than us.’ Everybody says all those things, but spend some time with this team, and tell me those things aren’t facts here.”

“Watch what we’re doing and tell me this isn’t a place you’d like to play.”

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