November 22, 2003

Niesen Looking To Provide Toughness To Broncos

Nov. 22, 2003

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    Besides the obvious traits a good basketball team requires - like scoring, rebounding and defense - is an element of toughness and grit that can't be measured by statistics. Perhaps it's sealing off your man to allow a teammate to get a rebound, diving for a loose ball or setting a bone-jarring screen while playing on the edge.

    This year's team may have a guy like that in sophomore forward Travis Niesen, slated to begin the year as the starting power forward. However, he's got a long way to go to pull even with "The Master" - Drew Zurek.

    There were bigger names during his time. Of course, Steve Nash and Marlon Garnett were the ones that received the lion's share of the attention. Kevin Dunne and Jason Sedlock were the kind of players coaches dream of with their intelligence, decision-making and team play. But Zurek gave them something else besides a willingness to do the little things; a fire that opponents despised and teammates admired.

    "Ultimately, if you look at the overall situation, that's how my role fit in and that was good," said Zurek, now a Portland, Ore. resident. "It was something that was a benefit to the team. It's hard because it's difficult to make someone like that. I think about it and can't figure it out. It probably just evolved more than anything because we had guys that could score and go 20 on any given night. We had people that could rebound and do things, so we needed someone to set screens and do stuff like that. That's pretty much how I found my way into the position. When I wanted to get playing time, the coaching staff told me what they needed and I was willing to do it."

    It wasn't just what he did, but how he did it. There was a mean streak that would often play on the minds of the opponents. During a Bronco blowout at Fresno State, former teammate Todd Wuschnig recalls that Zurek had been battling a center who had transferred to Fresno from Villanova. Late in the game, Zurek took his opportunity at rubbing it in by telling the unnamed post player, "You never got your @#$ kicked like this in the Big East!"

    Zurek has very little recollection of this event and many others that were witnessed by his teammates. Critics would say this in an example of rage blackout or denial.

    "It's kind of like a fish story," said Zurek. "You catch a fish and it's 12 inches. 3 years later, that fish is 2 feet long. A lot of these things expand over time. It's not say everything isn't accurate that people are saying. Just some of the things are blown up a little bit.

    "Looking back at it, I MAY have been (a jerk) back then. But ultimately, that's the role I kind of took on the team. We needed something like that. We were a group of nice guys and somebody had to stir things up a little bit to make things interesting and exciting around practice or the games."

    Zurek was a component of three teams that made the NCAA tournament before passing on the tricks of the trade to Wuschnig, an athletic forward from Monte Vista High.

    "I don't think you can have enough of those people," says Wuschnig. "They are great for the team, especially when they know their role because it allows the people on the other team to be distracted from the main focus of our team. If they are good at it, they can get under the skin of the other team, the other fans. I love those players, obviously. I tried to emulate Zurek because we never sat down and discussed the ways we wanted to pains in the rear. That's just how we were raised in basketball where the more physical it got, the more comfortable we felt. I'm a huge Warriors fan and love a guy like Brian Cardinal, who doesn't have the greatest skill, who does the small things and does them right."

    "The best part about Zurek was when you were sitting on the bench you could just see his blood pressure rising", said Wuschnig. "I would say to myself, 'Here comes a technical foul or a huge illegal screen.' It was so easy to predict but so fun."

    The two became friends because of their similar personalities and it translated to similar play on the court. It's not something I can ethically teach my fourth graders in CYO. But when they're in the fifth grade, maybe...

    Explains Zurek: "Wuschnig's team had guys who could put up big numbers like Brian Jones, Nathan Fast and Lloyd Pierce. His attitude was similar by saying, 'What can I do to make team better?' That's why we got along because we're both same kind of competitive guys in nature and became good friends. He saw what I was and did some of the similar things."

    Here are a few more memorable things that will never be forgotten by their former teammates as well as SCU opponents. Former Bronco Randy Winn, now with the Seattle Mariners, was working out at an East Bay gym and ran into someone who played at Saint Mary's. He asked Winn if he kept in touch with the guys from Santa Clara and Randy responded that he DID keep in touch with guys like Dunne, Sedlock, Nash...and Zurek. The last name caused the former Gael's eyes to bulge before responding with, "Zurek! We hated that guy. He must have been a total (jerk) off the court." Winn explained that he was completely different off the court and a great guy. A guy you want on your team but despise as an opponent. Reviled to the point where a different Saint Mary's player attempted to manually sterilize Zurek during a heated conference game.

    "It's a fine line between taking that too far. I think sometimes I might have pushed that and if you ask Coach Davey, he'll tell you the same thing."

    He did.

    A couple years ago, a player at rival school was suspended for fighting with a teammate. That prompted me to ask assistant Steve Seandel if that has ever been an issue around here. His response: "Not since Zurek left".

    The reincarnation of the nasty four-man may be Niesen, who relishes the role of being the villain. He says his goal is to simply get the "W," listen to their silence and walk away. That's a trait his coach sees in common with the original.

    "You can make some comparisons between him and Drew," explains Davey. "He's surely more offensive oriented than Drew was and he's a little more physical in terms of pure strength. Drew was a tough, nasty guy who was real smart and knew what teams would do and take things away from them in that way. Travis does it with his energy and his effort, not as scientific in his approach. The aggression is good but there has to be an implementation of intelligence along with it. "

    When asked, Niesen confessed to knowing little about the history but feels the Broncos benefit from his approach. Even borrowing a couple videos wouldn't do justice in conveying what "The Master" brought to Santa Clara. They are lessons that can be learned only between the lines. Just roll the ball near Niesen and get out of the way.