Pacific Lutheran University basketball uses rowing to improve teamwork, ‘collective responsibility’

Pacific Lutheran University basketball players Brandon Lester, left, and Kyle Sawtell, right, raise their arm in celebration Oct. 7 after beating teammates in a race at American Lake.
Pacific Lutheran University basketball players Brandon Lester, left, and Kyle Sawtell, right, raise their arm in celebration Oct. 7 after beating teammates in a race at American Lake. Staff photographer

Swing is the thing to which rowers aspire. Eight become one and potential becomes reality as the shell glides across the water.

Pacific Lutheran University’s men’s basketball team will be the first to tell you this sensation is something they’ve only read about in books.

In the chilly predawn hours of a recent Wednesday, the Lutes met the school’s women’s crew team on American Lake for a team-bonding exercise.

Boats wobbled as if they might capsize. One rower was knocked backward when he failed to get his blade out of the water. Another had his oar facing the wrong way. And at least one rower’s stroke sometimes missed the water.

But all of that was OK, because basketball coach Steve Dickerson and crew coach Andy Foltz had concocted this little adventure Oct. 7 to teach them something more important than rowing.

“Our big theme … for the last 10 years has been collective responsibility,” Dickerson said. “And in my mind there is no sport that exhibits collective responsibility more than crew because everybody has to be in sync for them to be successful.”

Basketball practice starts Thursday. As far as Dickerson is concerned, collective responsibility practice starts much earlier. And it includes a summer reading assignment followed by a test.

This year’s reading assignment was the 2013 book “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown. The book tells the story of the University of Washington crew team navigating the Great Depression and winning a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics.

Typically, the PLU players would have to pass a test on the book once they returned to school. What happens if they don’t?

“Luckily, that’s never happened,” Dickerson said. The average score during Dickerson’s decade at PLU is 97 percent.

This year, the test was on the water. The Lutes arrived at the Harry Todd Park boathouse shortly before 5 a.m. Foltz put the men on rowing machines and quickly gave them instruction on technique.

Moments later they were carrying four long shells through the darkness to the lake. The players were split among the four boats, which they shared with experienced members of the women’s rowing team.

Dickerson rode in the coach’s boat as Foltz gave instruction through a megaphone.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” junior guard Brandon Lester said and then laughed. “It’s called ‘catching a crab’ when your oar gets way underneath. … That happened to us a lot.”

Center Bryce Miller’s mother, Connie, rowed for PLU in the mid-1980s, and he wore her team jacket for the outing.

“This was an awesome learning experience for all of us,” Miller said. “We work on teamwork and get out of our comfort zone and grow as a team.”

The day ended with a race. Foltz lined the boats up near the southwestern end of the lake. They were going to row roughly the 2,000 meters (1 1/4 miles) of an official race.

Foltz signaled for them to start. Three of the four boats moved.

“I don’t think the far boat got the memo about racing,” Dickerson said.

About half way through the race, Foltz regrouped the boats.

“OK, we don’t usually have a halftime in our sport, but … ,” Foltz said as he passed along a little more motivation and instruction.

They started again, and this time all the boats moved. For a moment the boat that earlier was last was first.

The Lutes hadn’t exactly found their swing, but as the sun came up they’d found a synchronization that impressed and perhaps even surprised those watching from the coach’s boat.

Afterward, as the Lutes stowed the boats and prepared to head to class, Foltz gathered the team to tell them they’d done quite well for first-timers.

“The biggest thing they’ll get from this is that teamwork aspect,” he said. “You’re going to struggle. You’ll have bad days and good days, but at the end the team is what’s most important.

“Getting the team to act together like a machine is what’s going to provide success.”


American Lake Fall Classic Regatta: The Commencement Bay Rowing Club will host the race at Harry Todd Park at 9 a.m. Sunday. More information is at combayrow.net.

PLU Rowing: The women’s crew team will race Saturday and Sunday on American Lake and Oct. 24 in Portland. The season will start March 12. There’s more information at golutes.com.

PLU Basketball: Practice will start Thursday. The season will start Nov. 16 at Portland State University. The women’s team’s first game will be Nov. 20 at a University of Puget Sound tournament. More information at golutes.com.

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