TERRE HAUTE —
Winning basketball teams need glue players, the term sometimes used when referring to someone who helps hold it all together.
In some cases, that means getting the ball in the right place at the right time. Or having a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
It’s more often than not coming away with a loose ball on the court. It’s deflecting so many passes that you become the player that most annoys the opponent.
For Indiana State, that’s Natasha Zurek. The junior athletic training major was inserted into the starting lineup for the past two games.
Zurek leads the Sycamores with 16 steals through six games, which isn’t surprising to anyone on the team.
“It’s always been a strength. I just kind of know where to be at sometimes; sometimes it’s just a happy coincidence that I’m in the right spot at the right time,” Zurek said.
Zurek had four assists and three steals — both team highs — in the Sycamores’ last home game, a 57-54 loss to Indiana more than three weeks ago.
ISU went 1-2 in three road games since. Zurek posted six points, five assists and four steals in the loss at Stetson. She had four more steals in a one-point win at Marshall.
“What she does for us doesn’t typically show up in the stat sheets because she’s so sound defensively,” coach Teri Moren said. “Just doesn’t get beat, understands our coverages, will come out and make plays on the defensive end. But I think she’s gained confidence in her offensive game as well.
“She’s probably our best perimeter defender. That’s what sets her apart.”
Tightening up the defense
The Sycamores, picked to win the Missouri Valley Conference, are still a work in progress this season. The Sycamores were a top-notch defense in the MVC last season, but they haven’t shown the ability to dominate at that end yet this fall. They’ve been out-rebounded on average and opponents are shooting a solid 43.5 percent and averaging 65 points.
“It starts with everybody hustling, nobody taking a back seat, everyone going after the ball, making those hustle plays,” Zurek said. “We have to start winning those 50-50 battles. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in going after the ball, playing the hardest that I can.”
Moren liked the idea of Zurek being one of the first players off the bench, but she decided her audacious style was best served accompanying the starters.
“What she’s done is found herself in the lineup. Personally, I liked her coming off the bench, but we just felt like we were in a situation where she was playing so well. She was playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. We felt we needed her to play starter minutes,” Moren said.
Zurek is averaging just 3.2 points, but her teammates can trust her to make the right decisions for the team most of the time. Moren has seen the junior guard become more aggressive.
“We’ve seen her put it on the floor more, attack the glass. She’s driving the ball to the glass. She’s been less hesitant to shoot an open jumper,” Moren said.
Zurek said the Sycamores are understanding the importance of improving through practice repetition as they blend in a handful of new players this year.
The Sycamores (3-3) outscored LSU in the second half of Tuesday’s 83-66 loss. ISU has been upbeat in practice since.
“We are getting closer together as a team. We had a good practice today,” Zurek said Friday. “Just keep building on good practices that we have.”
Losing Monday at home to IUPUI would certainly be a disappointing turn, falling under .500 with a second loss in Hulman Center to an in-state rival.
“This is a big game for us. Definitely looking for revenge against them. We need a win here because they are an in-state rival and because we need to keep pushing forward to help us build toward conference season,” Zurek said.
Balancing busy academic demands
Athletic training, part of the College of Nursing, is a demanding major for any student at ISU. Add in the demands of being a Division I athlete and the result for Zurek is a weekly calendar without much open availability.
Zurek kept busy at Memorial Stadium at ISU football practices and scrimmages early in the school year.
“I was assigned to football so I was there every day in August,” Zurek said.
She assists with coach Tammy Schaffer’s cheer team, attending practices and ISU men’s basketball home games.
“For this semester, I’m working with cheer and dance, which is exciting because I’ve got to know the cheerleaders a lot better. They’re my biggest fans. At the block party, they came up and started a chant with my name. It was crazy,” Zurek said.
The athletic training students are required to get in 200 hours of clinical time per semester. When future employers see she played basketball in college, she thinks it could give her an edge.
“I think it will help with getting jobs in the future, seeing how you were an athlete. This major requires so much time management, you have all the clinical hours and I have to get to practice and all that,” Zurek said.
A common bond
ISU soccer player Katrine Baker is currently assisting women’s basketball trainer Jeff Pierce, so she can identify with Zurek’s challenge.
“I’d practice from 1 to 3 [for soccer] then get changed and come here really quick for practice that had already started at 2:30 [for women’s basketball],” Baker said. “I’ve learned a lot. Having to do hours since my freshman year, time management has helped me a ton.”
The time spent in their own sport provides applicable observation for Baker and Zurek. Baker said she tends to listen in on the conversations between the trainer and her teammates.
“I listen to what they have to say. I try to help diagnose even when I shouldn’t. It’s good to learn and learn the history of the injuries,” said Baker, who also enjoys the chance to help out her friends on the women’s basketball team, whether it’s preparing ice for after practice or taping an ankle before the workout.
“I know a lot of them so it’s kind of cool to work with your friends. It’s a comfortable experience,” Baker said.
Pierce, who is finishing up work on his master’s degree, is in his second year working with women’s basketball.
“Natasha’s nice to work with. I’ll see her every once in a while in the training room. If something feels wrong, she’s easy to talk to,” Pierce said. “A lot of times, trying to get athletes to talk about their injury, they’re not able to explain what they’re feeling. She knows how to describe injuries so it better helps us diagnose her.”
Overall, it’s been a rewarding experience to gain more respect for all her fellow Sycamore student-athletes, Zurek said.
“It’s been interesting to get to know the different athletes at ISU, working with football and track and field a little bit then cheer and dance. Next semester, I’ll be with baseball. It’s been interesting to see all the aspects of different sports around here,” Zurek said.