Coaching stint, dedicated offseason propel Wardynski to set scoring record
IRONWOOD — As a freshman last year, Lori Wardynski was Gogebic Community College’s best player. Yet there were times, she admits, where she would frustrate her coach when she didn’t quite get the message he was trying to send.
Wardynski worked and worked and worked through the offseason, lifting weights, becoming faster and stronger, all while getting into the physical shape she needed to be in to lead the Lady Samsons’ exhausting offense.
This fall, her coach Mark Movrich had an idea for her to take things a step further, a way for her to become a smarter player as well.
He hired her to coach.
Movrich, also the athletic director at Bessemer, asked Wardynski to coach junior high girls basketball there. She was the coach, but, ultimately, she learned as much as she taught.
The results of her offseason dedication have been striking.
She leads the nation (NJCAA Division II) in scoring at 28.7 points per game. She was the National Player of the Week for what wasn’t even her best seven-day stretch of the year.
And against Sisseton Wahpeton College in Thief River Falls, Minn., she became the all-time scoring leader at Gogebic Community College just 18 games into her sophomore season.
Wardynski is lighting up the scoreboard, but she’s more worried about the team winning. She is getting her points within the offense. She also leads the team in assists and she didn’t even tell her teammates that she was approaching 1,000 points last week.
And she’s also become one of the smartest players on the floor.
“I think last year there was a time he would get frustrated and I wasn’t able to see what he meant,” said Wardynski, of Ontonagon where she was an All-U.P. player as a senior. “But me learning — because I tried to do some of the same stuff we do at Gogebic with those girls — and actually seeing it going on and coaching it, it finally clicked in my head: ‘Oh that must be what I’m supposed to do.’ It really happened over and over. I learned so much from it.”
Movrich admitted he had a motive when he asked her to coach.
“I think it forced (her) to see things from the other side, from my side,” Movrich said. “I got so frustrated with (her) sometimes last year. I think that has helped her be a smarter basketball player and being in the right position, more in the right place at the right time versus catching up.”
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Not having to play catch up all the time saves energy. And you need energy to play for Movrich.
The Lady Samsons had a ho-hum start until they decided to settle it once and for all. They’re a pressing team. It seems like a crazy notion with seven players, but while they’re gassed by the end of the game, the opponent is usually absolutely exhausted.
“Even with just the seven girls, we’re pretty athletic. It’s almost like it would be a shame not to utilize it more, and they bought into it,” Movrich said.
The team took off. And so did Wardysnki’s scoring.
“I think a lot of it is she’s in much better physical shape than she was in last year, and she’s probably in much better physical shape than most girls that we’ve played against,” Movrich said. “I think that really has had a big factor in her scoring.”
But there’s still that 15 percent or so of opposing players who are in just as good of shape as she is.
That’s where being smarter helps.
“They’re just as good an athlete and they can guard her,” Movrich said. “I think she learned when that has happened to play, especially more within herself, not try to get to the basket every time she touches the ball.”
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It’s with her scoring that she made GCC history in northern Minnesota on Jan. 5.
She scored 27 points for 1,060 career points, to become the college’s all-time leading scorer, eclipsing Hurley’s Jaclyn Aijala, who scored 1,038 points.
Wardynski doesn’t know Aijala (2007-09). But she plays like her.
“She’s put herself in some pretty lofty company,” Movrich said. “I would probably compare her the most to Jaclyn. I think they both were tremendous athletes. They were both very quick. They were both very fast, they were both very strong. They were both excellent track standouts.”
Movrich has coached three of the top five scorers — Wardynski, Sam Ofstad (Hurley, 1,022) and Maria Wiltzius (Kingsford, 919).
Kristen Ruppe (Ironwood, 822) is fifth.
“I think it’s a big deal,” he said. “There’s a lot of good basketball players on that list … While it’s not the main focus — I think as Lori said the focus is on us getting better and being where we want to be come March — when she has time to look back on it all, it’s going to be a bigger deal than it probably is in the moment.”
Her focus is clear — preparing for the postseason — so she wasn’t quite sure what to say when asked what this looming scoring record meant to her.
“It definitely shows me that all the work I put in this summer and the things off the court, weightlifting and those type of training things are definitely worth it because this physical level has helped me so much,” she said. “I guess I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it. I’ve been trying to think about what it means, I guess I might need a little more time to answer that.”
And Movrich can’t say it enough.
Wardynski isn’t out there looking to score 30 points just to score 30 points, even though she’s scored 30 or more nine times this year. She’s doing what she needs to do to help her team win. She is doing it all in the flow of the offense.
It’s an offense that averages 83.7 points per game, 12th-best in the country, thanks in part to the uptempo, pressing style that GCC plays. The Lady Samsons have three players in the top 10 in the country in scoring, Wardynski on top, Bailey Froberg third (22.7) and Lexi Engler 10th (15.6).
“I think the size of the college court, the shot clock and the style of play, it’s almost like she fell into the perfect storm for her athletic abilities,” he said of Wardynski.
She said, “I try to run our offense and do what we need to do and I think it benefits me in a way. I’ve gotten better even with the other things, defensively and trying to make the right plays and the right passes and be a team player. And that opens you up, too.”
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Her focus on the team hasn’t gone unnoticed by her teammates.
After Wardynski became the third in school history to score 1,000 points, freshman Kacie Lundin of Ironwood asked her why she never mentioned she was getting close to such a big milestone.
“She just said she didn’t want to make it a big thing and she didn’t want us to worry about her making a thousand points. She just wanted us to go out and win our games,” Lundin said. “I thought that was so cool to have a teammate like that. She’s just so humble about it. I’m so happy I get to play with her.
“She just cares about the team and wants the team to be successful. She does what she needs to do for us and we really need her for that.”
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This Gogebic team has a big opportunity ahead of it.
The Lady Samsons host the NJCAA Division II Region 13 championship game, and if they win that, they will host the play-in game to the national tournament.
A chance like that is why Wardynski is focused on her and the team using its final regular-season games to improve in the meantime.
“It’s a huge motivation,” Wardynski said. “I’ve talked to some of our teammates, just before break, we really started to talk about regionals and getting ready for it. We know it’s going to be huge and we’ve just got to win two games to get into the (national) tournament. But we know we have lots of progress to make, too. We all know the biggest thing is just getting better and better each practice and each game to get playing where we want to be by then.”
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Movrich almost struggles to say it. Wardynski, his best player last year, is also his most improved.
From last year. Heck, even from the first day of practice this year.
“This hasn’t happened by accident,” he said. “It’s hours and hours of hard work.”
A fall spent coaching certainly helped, too.
Asked what she learned there, her first answer made her coach laugh.
“That you’ve got to listen to your coach.”
He’ll take it.
“She’s very mentally strong, sometimes stubborn. She’s a natural leader. She works her tail off in practice. So it’s almost like it was infectious to the rest of the team,” Movrich said. “You can’t help but feel good for her for all the work.”