In Play with Craig Mattick: Steph Schueler

She was one of the top girls hoops players of her generation. Steph Schueler of Sioux Falls Lincoln is a former Gatorade Player of the Year, and a three-time first team all-state team honoree in girls basketball. She’s also the first four year letter winner in Sioux Falls history for girls or boys hoops.

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Are you still surprised you still have one of those state tournament records? It was most points in a semi-final game. You put up 43.

Yeah. You know what? I didn’t even know until you just mentioned that, that I still had that, but I think the reason I scored so many points, I think we went to a couple overtime. So that gave me a little extra time.

Was that against Brookings or Yankton that year? I think it was 1985.

It was against Yankton. I think Sarah Manis was one of their stars. Was that Bob Winter was the coach. I believe?

Yes, he was.

Oh yeah. We were playing… I think the state tournament was in Watertown, but it went to at least one or two overtime. So yeah, that was pretty exciting game

Lincoln had made it to the state basketball tournament all four years of your high school career. Pierre and Yankton, Brookings, they were all the top teams those years that you were playing, but that state tournament, what was it like that freshman year at Lincoln? You know, something that you had never experienced before?

Well, I was a little overwhelming, quite a few people there. I think it was in Watertown my freshman year, but, I was coming off the bench my freshman year with Michelle Welder, Darla Wing, Kathy Bates, Cathy and Char Bates were kind of my mentors. So I was super exciting and just kind of gave me a little experience leading into my sophomore through my senior year.

Well Brookings and Sioux Falls, Lincoln had a pretty good rivalry during your high school career. Brookings of course had Amy Mickelson, of Renae Sallquist, the twin towers. They were both 6’3. You had Paula Kenefick as well. And of course you were a sophomore in ’84. What was the buildup for that state championship game that year? The first time that Lincoln had been in that title game against Brookings?

Yeah. It was a big rivalry through the year. I know we played, I believe at Lincoln the regular season that year. I’m not sure though, but I think they did beat us. But, you know, just the big rivalry, big hype. I think it was in Mitchell that year. I think it was a great game. Obviously, they beat us and the twin towers were a dominant factor in girls high school, basketball with their size. Not many close players at any high school in the states, along South Dakota across the country where that size, and now you see point guards that are six feet. You don’t see many point guards that are 5’3 in college anymore. So their size was definitely a dominant factor that we couldn’t overcome in high school.

Yeah. How did you match up with them? What was the strategy going up against the twin towers?

Well, you know what that was, how many years ago? Stay out of the paint probably because they block our shots, probably our strategy. And we didn’t have the three point ball then, so try to double team and make them kick it out of the paint and hit our outside shots and we’re managed to keep the game close, but having two of them, it was just too difficult overall.

You know that following year it’s 1985, you’re back at the state tournament. You’re a junior and that’s what you scored 43 points in that semi-final game. Brookings was ranked number three in the USA Today National Basketball poll that year. Well, there was some pretty dominant teams in that tournament back in 1985.

Yeah, there was. There were some high school girls basketball players with Kenefick didn’t go to Dartmouth? I believe, or somewhere in the Ivy League. And then- Yale that’s right. I knew it was Ivy League. Yeah. And then Amy Washington. But, there was a lot of talent that year and I remember even when I went to college at University of Iowa, I think it was my sophomore junior year. We were hosting the second round of the NCAA tournament and guess who came into Carver-Hawkeye Arena? Vanderbilt and Renea. 

I was thinking okay, maybe we’ll get her this year and they ended up upsetting us, which was obviously disappointing. But no, it was great. There was a lot of great talent and overall it just makes everybody else’s talent rise when you compete with such great athletes, against great athletes.

Was it a disappointment for you being at the state tournament as a freshman and a sophomore and as a junior and you really couldn’t get the title?

Yeah, it was especially my senior year. When we lost to Yankton and we were up by, I don’t even know, 5, 10 points at halftime and just couldn’t close the deal, it was very disappointing and I apologized to coach Luther that we couldn’t get it done. But I know there was more basketball to come in college and the track season and we kind of… I wanted say championship and track so it was kind of bittersweet so at least we got one there for Lincoln.

Yeah. Your senior year, you lose by five to the Gazelles. Lisa Van Goor I think was on that team, wasn’t she?

That’s right. Yep. Another great player. Yep.

What was that? It was Brookings and Yankton getting in the way for the Sioux Falls Lincoln girls basketball.

I know. We couldn’t get past them, but you know what, it gave the crowd some good basketball that’s for sure.

Was everything surrounding Steph Schueler. Did Bill Luther make that offense around you or, what made it tick?

I tried not to. I mean, I don’t think… It’s not an individual sport. I mean, I’m not going to win a basketball game for our team if you don’t take the other four as well. So I think it was a well balanced group and that’s what took us to the next level.

Tell me about Coach Luther and what he meant for Lincoln girls basketball.

He was great. He was like my second dad. He was strict, he was disciplined. He knew the Xs and Os but yet he was compassionate to all the girls in there for him when they needed anything and stuff. He was just a great coach, great mentor and I couldn’t ask for a better high school coach.

Yeah. You coached your dad, Oren was the men’s basketball coach at the University of Sioux falls back in the ’80s. I’m assuming since your season was in the fall, we have to remember that, you played in the fall. Did your dad have more opportunities to see you play since the seasons was in the fall before his season really got started?

Yeah. Yeah. Back then it was Sioux Falls College that he was coaching. You know what, I think he missed some games because of the fall season, but I know he made it too, but there’s a few times at the state tournament that he’d try to catch it on the radio when he was coming back from his games, but he would try to balance it and do the best he could.

But, when I went to college in Iowa city, it was six and a half hours from Sioux Falls, and we played on Friday and Sunday in the big 10 so they would try to come down for the games, especially on Sunday and try to get as many home games as they could and that’s one reason that I chose Iowa. It came down to Iowa and Louisiana Tech back when Louisiana Tech was coached by Barmore a powerhouse then. But, I was just like, Louisiana Tech is too far for my family to come down and watch and stuff. So I kind of wanted to stay closer to Sioux Falls, but go to a well established Division I program, which Iowa was at the time under coach Stringer who’s now currently at Rutgers.

I imagine that I would love to be a little fly in the corner at the dinner table at the Schueler household when dad who’s of course a basketball coach and his daughter is a big time basketball player. What were some of those dinners like?

He would talk about it when I wanted to too, but he wouldn’t push the issue. But all the home visits that we had when I was in high school was interesting and kind of narrowing it down to the final five visits and stuff. And he just left it up to me. He would give me his 2 cents worth, but he’s like, “This is your decision. This is where you’re going to spend four years of your life. You need to go where you’re going to be comfortable. He’s like, “This isn’t my decision. I can tell you where I would want you to go, but that’s not going to make you happy.” He was great. He was a coach, but he was also my dad and he knew the balance. When push came to shove, then obviously… He’s like, he chose the right one, because that’s where he ultimately wanted me to go.

Were you the kind of kid shooting hoops out in the driveway at night as a kid with the cars lights shining on the driveway, always playing basketball as a kid?

Yeah. We’d play horse all the time. And then my dad, we would go after church on Sundays, up to Sioux Falls College and he’d open the gym and we’d shoot and toss the football around and play some hoops and stuff. But when I was even younger than that, since I went to Renberg School, I think it was my kindergarten or first year and I’d be out in the driveway and we didn’t have a basketball hoop. So I would just go out there and dribble and then throw it up on the roof and catch it and throw it up on the roof, that would be my basketball hoop back in the day. So, there’s no excuse. You can still work on your fundamentals. You don’t even need a basketball hoop.

What was the biggest impact of your life when you’re playing college basketball in Iowa? It’s like you said, much bigger crowds watching you than here in South Dakota.

Just quite an experience. It was just to stay grounded and stay focused. Because, as being a point guard, the team is an extension of you. You need to stay, ice water in your veins, that’s was always my motto. Because they’re going to feed off what I do so I always tried to stay focused on what was going on, make sure everybody was on the same page offensively, defensively and make sure that I was just grounded and kind of in control of the situation and that kept everybody else in control.

You finished third in Iowa history in assists and steels, not necessarily the point scoring score that you were in high school. Was that something you had to adjust to?

It was at first just because everybody there was a McDonald’s all American. It was different. It wasn’t high school at all. Everybody came from their state and were superstars. So everybody kind of had to feel their role and kind of work their way to the lineup. So it definitely took a while. It was hard coming from averaging 20 some points to playing 10 minutes a game my freshman year. But I knew if I put the hard work in which I did, my time would come and to stay focused, but to ultimately know that I was there for my education first. Because basketball, you couldn’t obviously do that forever. Especially back then. They didn’t have the WNBA.

No, no. But, you had a chance to go play professionally, but you had to go to what Luxembourg, play in Belgium. How did you make that decision?

Yeah, I played over there in Belgium, in Luxembourg City for four years until I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. And then I came back and did treatment and did that and then started coaching. I always think God has a plan and I looked at it, the glass has always been half full for me. So I looked at that as, okay, God’s ready for me to come back to the states, closer to my family and start pursuing my coaching career, that my playing career was coming to an end.

So yeah, it was quite a story. And that was back in 1996 when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November and I quit the team early and came back and had thyroidectomy neck dissection, seven hour surgery, three radioactive I treatments, external radiation, the whole nine yards. So it just keeps everything in perspective when you go through something that’s serious with your health, that’s not always about basketball, it’s about your family and just doing the right thing, being kind and putting God first. And I was 28 years old. When you’re in your 20s, you think you’re invincible. I was like, “I’m not sick, I’m just out of shape.” So I would train more, I’d run more. I’d be like, “Why am I so tired?” I didn’t know my body was fighting off cancer. So it just keeps things in perspective and just keeps you grounded when you go through something that serious.

Yeah. When did you first notice that something was wrong before you found out you had thyroid cancer?

I probably had it for good six to eight months. And then I went back overseas and played. I’m like, It’s nothing, I’m fine.” I’m 27 at the time, almost 28 and just kept going. And then finally I was just extremely tired and chilled and cold, I’m like something’s going on. So they ran a few tests over in Belgium and they just said that you need to go back to the United States and get this taken care of, but they tell me what it was. Quit the team, flew home, did tests all day, found out what was going on and then I had a seven hour, like I said, thyroidectomy neck dissection. This all happened within six days. It was up in Minneapolis so it was kind of a whirlwind situation. But I think having my health and being so young, because it was almost Stage 4 that helped me survive the cancer quite honestly.

You were pretty determined as a player. Were you determined, not only to beat cancer, but to go back and play basketball?

You know what, at that time then I was done after that and then I started coaching at the University of Missouri, it was my first job, but I would tell myself when I was laying up in the hospital, up in the cancer ward going through treatment, I’m like, if I can handle coach Stringer’s practices, I can handle anything. She was one of the toughest ladies I’ve ever met and so inspirational and inspiring that I’m like, “There’s no way that this is going to take me down.” And I think just being an athlete and what I went through at Iowa and even Lincoln and track and everything helped me with the experience to fight this cancer.

The toughness, was it more mental or was it more physical?

I think it was both, They always say what, basketball is 80, 90% mental. So yeah, honestly I think you have that positive attitude and that fighting attitude and determination like you do as an athlete, which I did, then, when the cancer’s that far along, if you’re not going to have that type of attitude, it’s hard to beat it. I think sports really helped me thrive and beat the cancer. And you know, twenty what, five years later here I am.

One of the note about your profession basketball career, any players that you played with or against in the big 10 that also played with or against you in Belgium or Luxembourg?

Actually, no, it’s just different players that I met when I was over there. Because in Belgium and Luxembourg, you could have one professional player on the team from another country. So I just met other players, one from American university and gosh, it was so long ago, but no, nobody that I had played against when I was at Iowa, that I played against overseas.

So you’re done with your professional basketball career, you have beaten thyroid cancer and by golly, here comes coaching into your life. How did that job as an assistant at Missouri come about?

You know, I was just starting to look for different jobs and I contacted coach Stringer and asked if she… She had so many different connections and Joann Rutherford was the head coach at Mizzou then and she knew her and got me an interview and that’s where I started. And then my connections just rolled from there. Leslie Crane was our recruiting coordinator at Missouri and then Joann retired and then Leslie got the head job at Western Illinois and asked me to come along and be an assistant. And then the connections you just keep building over the years.

It’s almost kind of like a military lifestyle is the college coaching. You don’t win and you’re out three years later or five years later. So it’s hard to have a family with the coaching and all the traveling, not only for the games, but the recruiting. And that’s one reason that I didn’t go back now when the twins were born. I just didn’t want to have them go from school to school and that’s one reason that I did get out of the coaching world too.

It’s Western Illinois, then it’s Buffalo, you got Stetson, you got Southern Miss. and then air force, my goodness, that’s a lot of moving. What were those connections like in all those locations?

Yeah. There was different connections all over. And like you said, you have to go somewhere where the job takes you. So yeah, you just build the connections and people know you and they get jobs and they ask you to come in for an interview or offer you the assistant job. It’s been great, but like I said, it’s just a lot of time, a lot of time on the phone, summer’s July recruiting, fall recruiting now home visits, traveling during your season. It’s just a lot of time away from the family, so you have to kind of prioritize and everybody’s different and they’re going to prioritize in their specific way for what they want. But as far as for me, I would rather have my kids know my name than be out recruiting all the time.

What did your dad the coach say when you were going to be a coach?

I think he always knew that because I told him when I was at Iowa that I wanted to coach. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was little, so I think he was excited. Because then he would always come to some of the games and try to talk to me about, “What you guys running? What’s the game plan for Boise State?” So he was still involved with it and he always is like, “Well, if you guys have an assistant job open, I could come over there and help you all out.”

Air force, Andrea Williams, is there, what is the relationship between you two at Air Force for that time?

Yeah, she was the head coach here. She’s actually at, I believe Fort Wayne state now down in Georgia. She was an assistant at University of South Florida when I was at University of Southern Mississippi. I didn’t really know of her, but she knew of my playing days at Iowa and she contacted me when she had an assistant job open. And my brother went to the Air Force Academy so I had been out here before, so I knew what a beautiful city it was and what a gorgeous campus and everything that it was. So yeah, I came out here and I think it was 2010 or ’11 somewhere around there and been out here ever since. But yeah, Andrea, we still keep in touch. She’s a good friend of mine and it was great working for her.

You stopped coaching in 2015 to become a mother of twins. Were you concerned once you found out that you were pregnant with twins, knowing that you had beaten thyroid cancer?

Not really. No. No, it’s just kind of something I always wanted to do too besides coach basketball and play professionally and play Division I and also be a mom. So kind of fill in the bucket list now.

Is there twins in the family or is this the first in the Schueler line of having twins?

No, it’s the first. Yep. No, there’s nobody else. So yeah. It’s been another adventure in my life is raising these two.

So one’s a boy and one’s a girl. Are they’re seven now. Are they going to be basketball players?

They’re actually in the basketball league right now and I went to their game yesterday and it was killing me. Because my daughter just runs around and plays mirror tag with one of the other girls on the team and doesn’t have a clue. And then my son is aggressive, but I need to work on his shooting a little bit. But I don’t know, I’m just trying to open the doors and have them experience some different things and then they can decide what they want to do when they get older.

So what keeps you busy today?

My twins.

You’re not coaching right now?

No, no coaching, just taking care of them and bringing them to their swimming lessons and doing all that and keeping the house together and stuff. It’s just a different aspect of my life and something different. I’m enjoying it and love it and miss basketball, yes, but, I also love being a mom.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Title IX, how interesting would it have been Steph without Title IX? You probably would only have had track and field to be busy with. You were of course a two time state champ in the 100, the 200, the 400 meter dash. Were there other offers to compete in tracking college and did you consider doing track instead of basketball?

No. I never considered that and I actually never considered doing both, but there were some Division II schools, Augustana and some of other schools that were talking to me about track and Iowa talked to me about walking on and stuff. But at that level, the sports at the Division I level is just so demanding when you just do one, I just didn’t want to go through doing two sports and balancing academics and all that so I just decided to stick with the basketball. And I never ever thought about doing track instead of basketball. Basketball’s always been my first love.

So as a person who loved the game of basketball in South Dakota, we played in the fall when you played, what was your summers like preparing for the season? Was it intense?

I actually played softball in the summer. I played for state for window and [inaudible 00:26:55], short stop, third base, second base. So I did that and then obviously I got ready in the summer too, went to open gyms and worked on my basketball game too. But yeah, I also played softball, but they didn’t have it in the schools. So it was busy, very busy.

But you didn’t play volleyball in the winter?

No, I just didn’t really get into volleyball. I don’t know why. Everybody’s like, “why don’t you go up for volleyball?” I was like, eh. Need a little break sometimes.

It’s crazy with this story here. Of course, when you graduated from Lincoln, you’re the all time leader in scoring plus the assists and steals, but it was just what five years ago, the daughter of Brookings, Amy Mickelson, who you played against so many years, preventing you from getting a state title at Lincoln, Amy’s daughter, Anna Breck broke your all time scoring record at Sioux Falls, Lincoln. You knew it was about to happen sooner later, sometime didn’t you Steph? Took 31 years to break it.

You know, records are meant to be broken and someone’s eventually going to break her record someday too. And someone will break my 43 points state tournament record too. You know that’s just the way the world works and you just congratulate the person that does that. I’m so happy for the Title IX and the opportunities that has given women in sports and the women that have paved the way even before I started. Everybody just paved the way for each other, no matter what year it is, what I did people before me and now the people that are there now. So I’m just really fortunate that the girls and the women have the opportunity in sports that they do.

Who had the biggest influence on you during your basketball career from high school through college, to the professional ranks?

I’d say my dad. Just him coaching and being so knowledgeable with the game and helping me so much with the recruiting process and just the overall everything with the game. And just his calmness and that’s the way he was as a coach and that’s how I was as a point guard, a player. He didn’t get overly anxious or overly uptight about situations. You’ve got to stay calm in tight situations. And that’s the way my dad was on and off the court all the time. He definitely was the biggest influence for me.

How many of those girls who played in South Dakota during your basketball career would’ve wound up in the WNBA?

That’s a good question. I would’ve loved to find out and I would’ve loved the opportunity to possibly play in there or try at least. Well definitely Renae, Amy, a lot of those girls would’ve made it and I hope I would’ve made it too and had that opportunity, but I’m so glad that the girls now have an opportunity to play professionally here in the United States.

You’re busy handling seven year old twins, but what is next? Do you eventually want to get back into coaching? And if it is, is it going to be in the high school or the college, or even maybe in the WNBA like a Becky Hammond?

No, I think I’m done with the coaching. You know, being 53 and kind of… Maybe if I was a little bit younger, but I’m just going to raise the kids and be the best mom that I can for them and help them grow and learn the important lessons in life and being kind and doing the right thing and this and that. That’s my goal right now is my kids.

When it comes to basketball for your twins, what’s the most important aspect of the game do you talk about with them?

Having fun. I mean, they’re not even seven yet. I want them to have than enjoy themselves and be good sports. You know, you don’t have to be the best athlete out there, but you need to be fine. You need to be a good sport. You need to be kind to your teammates and your opponents and that’s what I teach them in life. That’s the most important thing. Obviously, we love to win, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is being respectful, being courteous and being a good sport.

Is one of your twins going to wear your number from Lincoln or from Iowa on their jersey?

I don’t even know if they’re going to play basketball. Brody wants to play football. My daughter wants to dance, so that’s probably what we’re looking at. I maybe cringing a little bit going some of these dancing recitals, but whatever they want to do, it’s just fine with me. I’ll support them.

Sure. And when you think about, you and I have talked a little bit now about your days at Lincoln High, what do you remember the most right now, when we talk about Lincoln High School girls’ basketball, playing in the fall and all the scoring you did and the wins that you got and getting to the state to four years in a row?

I guess I don’t think about that. I just think about my teammates and my friends that I’ve made and what a great time that I had. I don’t know if you’ve ever got asked a question of, if you had to go back in life, what age would you want to go back as? And mine would definitely be high school. I loved high school. I loved the time there. I loved my teachers, the coaches, teammates, friends, just the whole nine yards. I don’t think of scoring titles or the state tournaments, I just think about the relationships that I’ve made and the friendships.