The "MIAC D.I.G. Equality Series" will put a spotlight on the areas of diversity, inclusion and gender equity each month. The series acknowledges outstanding diversity projects, initiatives, honors and stories. The MIAC is devoted to create inclusive opportunities that allow all student-athletes, coaches and administrators to succeed in all facets of their experience. These monthly features highlight holistic and prosperous opportunities that the MIAC and its 13 campuses provide.
By Sheridan Blanford, MIAC Assistant Director
ARDEN HILLS, Minn. – Collegiate sports – basketball, in particular – are so competitive that coaches and teams always look for ways to gain any possible advantage. In the current era, innovation and a willingness to explore new ideas can pay huge dividends, and the Bethel University men's basketball team is currently reaping the benefits resulting from its willingness to think outside the box.
One look at Bethel's bench reveals what makes the Royals different – Assistant Coach Alisha Hvistendahl.
The men's basketball coaching ranks have long been an exclusive fraternity for men, but teams like Bethel and the NBA's San Antonio Spurs (with Assistant Coach Becky Hammon) are ditching that "boys only" approach in favor of finding the most qualified person for the job, regardless of gender. Hvistendahl earned her opportunity at Bethel thanks to her outstanding work ethic and basketball acumen, and her contributions to the team are certainly tangible. The team is currently 11-2 overall and 7-1 in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), alone in first place as the season's midpoint nears.
Bethel Head Coach Doug Novak is in his fourth season with the Royals after several Division I stops, and inherited Hvistendahl as the team's athletic trainer, who also had women's basketball coaching experience and worked with both the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and WNBA's Minnesota Lynx. Hvistendahl's loyalty, hard work, inquisitive nature, passion and dedication led Novak to realize she could contribute to his program on the court, as well as in the training room, and her qualifications were much more important than her gender.
"The only challenge of having a woman on staff would be if she wasn't good," said Bethel Head Coach, Doug Novak. "Her responsibilities and roles did not grow because she is a woman. They grew because of her work ethic and her ability to teach and relate with athletes.
"I didn't hire her for equality. I hired her for quality."
Hvistendahl, who graduated from Bethel, is a Royal at heart. Upon her graduation, she moved just up Snelling Ave. for an assistant athletic trainer position at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul. She also took on the responsibility to help coach the women's basketball program. At the time, even with a lot on her plate, she enjoyed the hustle and bustle of being both a coach and an athletic trainer.
The summer after her first year at Northwestern, she was given the opportunity to work at the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball academy for kids. She loved teaching leadership and character building skills to help the athletes succeed in all areas of their lives while helping them develop into better basketball players.
The connections that she made through that organization laid the foundation for the years to follow. A year later, she was asked to intern with the brand new WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx, and be a part of the Timberwolves and Lynx Organization. Shortly after this transition, she was promoted to a full-time assistant athletic training position. After three years in that role, she was promoted to head athletic trainer, a position she held for five years.
To keep herself occupied during the Lynx's offseason, Hvistendahl worked as the athletic trainer for the Bethel women's basketball team. This side-job ended up having immense benefits, as it got her foot back in the door at her alma mater, a door that eventually opened up the opportunity for her to stay.
Hvistendahl made it a priority to build strong relationships with coaches, players and even opposing teams, in both her college and professional roles. While fulfilling her duties as an athletic trainer, she was always eager to learn more about the game from a coaching perspective.
"My favorite thing about being a part of the WNBA was being around the visiting teams," said Hvistendahl. "Being in their practices, comparing scouting reports, watching adjustments and execution during games and listening to the philosophy of each coach that I came into contact with was really important for my growth and development in this field."
She had a front row seat to some of the top coaches in nation, including former Timberwolves Head Coach Flip Saunders, Former University of Tennessee Women's Basketball Coach Pat Summit, and Stanford University Head Women's Basketball Coach Tara VanDerveer. She was also up-close with some of the Minnesota Lynx's stars, who were among the best players in the world, including Seimone Augustus, Katie Smith and Teresa Edwards.
"I'm an observer," said Hvistendahl. "I learn all I know from watching players and coaches adjust and adapt."
This experience created a wonderful opportunity to work at one of the highest levels of sport all while staying close to home at Bethel. Her combined roles gave Hvistendahl the ability to shape her well-rounded, unique philosophy of the game of basketball.
In April of 2007, she had her first child and decided to leave the Lynx, but remained in her position at Bethel. She also added volleyball to her athletic training plate, as she worked with both teams year-round. After some staffing changes and nine years of working with the women's basketball team, she was asked to transition and take on men's basketball as her primary sport. From the start, she knew that she had to align with Novak's mission: to add value to the program.
She already had all her athletic trainer responsibilities, but took it upon herself to help Novak in any way she could, including strength and conditioning, scheduling, travel logistics, and more, all while growing her knowledge for the game.
"What surprised me the most was how many in-depth questions she would ask after practice ... why we do what we do," said Novak. "Her inquisitive nature allowed her to see our big picture, but more importantly she was able to see what our needs as a program were and quietly take care of them. Noticing and helping with small jobs around the gym, taking care of details off the court, they started adding up and made our practice time more efficient. Gradually I saw what an asset she was to the program on and off the floor."
After a few short months, Novak promoted Hvistendahl to director of basketball operations. At the time, she didn't have the coaching title, but was contributing in ways that the team's coaches and players already viewed her as one.
As the 2016-17 began, the Royals were among the favorites to challenge for the MIAC crown. Bethel's assistant coach, Joe Barrer, left for another opportunity, creating a vacancy on the coaching staff. Without batting an eye, Novak immediately turned to Hvistendahl to fill the vacancy.
"I feel she should get the attention she deserves now that she holds an assistant coach title, but the title is the only difference," said Bethel junior guard Bridgeport Tusler. "It isn't like she woke up to a promotion and started to work, she has been busting her tail since the day I met her, and that is the most impressive characteristic that I admire most about Alisha."
What makes Hvistendahl's emergence in the season all the more spectacular is her uncanny ability to build and foster relationships, all while staying on top of her athletic training, basketball operations, and coaching responsibilities. "Her strength as a coach is her ability to teach and relate with people," said Novak. "Her background in athletic training gives her another dimension with functional movement and in teaching the fundamentals of the game."
Her players admire her work ethic, resilience, organization and demeanor, and feel she has played a big part in their success so far in 2016-17.
"Coach Hvistendahl doesn't care about getting any credit for how hard she works and how well she helps our organization run," said Bethel senior guard Trevor Hall. "She is one of the best in the MIAC."
"There is not a harder worker, let alone men's basketball assistant coach that is capable of what she does," added Tusler.
As the Royals continue their pursuit for the MIAC title, Hvistendahl is making it a point to keep her players focused and humble. "Every day is about growing," she said. "We cannot get overly excited about where we are now because every day is a new day. We have to continue to come together to get better."
Hvistendahl is committed to Bethel and loves her role. She's too busy living in the moment to consider where her coaching career might go from here. "I cannot look past this year," she said, "because I am having a blast with everything that I am doing."
Regardless of what the future holds, Hvistendahl has proven herself to be an inspiration to many. Her journey of hard work, dedication, and thoughtfulness to get to where she is has paid off and led to her being a men's basketball trailblazer in the MIAC and throughout NCAA Division III. But if you ask her players, they don't see her as a woman breaking the glass ceiling into the men's basketball coaching ranks. They simply see an assistant coach – one they greatly value both on and off the court.
"Overall she is the best assistant coach that Bethel could ever ask for," said Tusler, "and I could have said all of this last year when she didn't have the title as a coach. That is what makes her 100 percent more special than any coaches' hand I will ever shake."