By Kyle Koso
When the Colorado State women’s basketball program was in full-throttle struggle during the early 2000s, coaches and players filtered through the system with no real solution ever really blossoming.
So a transplant was in order, and you can’t swap out roots any more aggressively than by pulling in players who grew up 5,000 miles away.
The ability to attract high-achieving athletes from the Nordic Region came in very handy when Ryun Williams took over the Rams’ head coach position in 2012, and the regeneration at CSU was almost immediate. After an 11-19 transition year, Colorado State has won three consecutive Mountain West Conference championships (going 79-18 in that span) and displayed an ability to get players from different cultures to play selfless, efficient basketball.
A substantial postseason run to put the Rams’ recipe in front of a broader audience hasn’t happened yet, but the initial mini-miracle of returning CSU to an elevated state in the game is an accomplishment all its own. From its heyday in the Becky Hammon-Katie Cronin era of the late 1990s, Colorado State had tumbled as far down as a 4-28 campaign, and the hard times seemed to take on a stubborn quality.
“It was about 10 years of a ragged state; (looking internationally) was something we felt we needed to do,” said Williams, who had coached four years at South Dakota before coming to CSU. “How could we be different? How could we elevate our program at a quicker pace? We thought the international route was the way to go. We signed the right couple of kids, and they were connected, and it just kind of snowballed.
“Now, we just love the food over there and go over all the time. We like to eat first, and if we find a player, we find a player.”
While that was said in jest, there’s no denying the serious skill level the CSU Import Division seems to uncover. The current group of eight international players is led by senior Ellen Nystrom, who hails from Sweden and was named MWC Player of the Year for 2015-16; club teammate Elin Gustavsson, also a senior, returns after starting all 33 games last season and averaging better than 10 points per contest.
The program just recently said goodbye to Denmark native Gritt Ryder, co-MWC Player of the Year two seasons ago who had transferred from Alaska-Anchorage (where current CSU assistant coach Tim Moser had coached). Take a look at the CSU roster today, and you’ll see five Swedes and one player each from Norway, Denmark and Latvia.
With eight time zones standing between Colorado and Sweden, you might think the basketball would feel worlds apart for the international athletes. It does at times, but team-building seems to have enough power to shrink the distance.
“Fort Collins as a city and Colorado together, it’s pretty similar to Sweden. It feels like home to us. It’s a cultural difference, but everybody was so welcoming, it wasn’t a big deal,” said Nystrom, who filled box scores last season with her all-around play, finishing in the league’s top 20 in eight key categories. “They wanted to bring in people who came from a winning culture, and I think we helped bring that in.”
“I don’t think it’s any different. You might have a player from Broomfield (suburban Denver), and one from Sacramento … a kid from Sweden and a kid from Fort Collins, Colorado,” Williams said. “They understand the importance of teamwork, and that they need each other. We’re a basketball team, and we need to mesh and have relationships on the floor and off the floor. The international style is maybe a little more team-based than the American style, so we do like that.
“If anything, we have to teach them to be a little more selfish. A player like Elin Nystrom, who’s got a wonderful game she holds in a lot, we are asking her to be a little more selfish and force the offense, which is hard for her. For our team to elevate, she’ll have to do that this year.”
Gustavsson and Nystrom were part of Williams’ first wave, so they didn’t have many people to turn to for insight on their big move. Besides, eight holdover players were gone from CSU’s roster after Williams’ first year, so the newcomers could almost define their own transition.
“It’s a huge difference between this basketball world and back home; I didn’t know a whole lot before I got here," Gustavsson said. “I was so excited to try something new. I was living in the moment and not worrying about what the team was before or what it might be now. If you think too much, sometimes it’s not going to turn out good.
“My advice (to current foreign players) is to take everything in. You learn so much on and off the court; we can order whatever food we want, we get gear … enjoy and appreciate and have fun.”
For the Rams to enjoy the upcoming season, a few important things have to break the right way. First – don’t get caught up in remembering and repeating the highs of last year (winning 31 games) or the lows (a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament). While the scoring burden was shared in 2015-16, the top two point producers are gone, so roles have to be remodeled.
CSU’s lone exhibition game (a 56-48 win against CSU-Pueblo) pointed to some of Williams’ work ahead, as the Rams shot just 33 percent from the field and was a gnarly 4-of-22 from 3-point range. But if there’s a brand of athletes he trusts to find a solution, it’s this one.
“This group has some versatility defensively; that will need to be our identity early on as we get some traction offensively. We lost some really good offensive pieces,” Williams said. “I think we can be equally as tough defensively, and in some areas even better. We can be a little more athletic on the ball, put more pressure on full-court with our personnel. We’re still figuring out who can shoulder some of the responsibility of the kids we lost.”