katie_hempen

Closed door scrimmages, long a staple of the college basketball preseason, are notorious for being top-secret stuff. In this instance, however, Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne was willing to make an exception.

“Katie Hempen took four charges in our first scrimmage,” Turner Thorne says on the phone, a week and a half away from the Sun Devils’ opener. She can’t help but marvel at the statistic—and this from a coach known for telling reporters that Hempen, a sweet-shooting 5-9 junior guard, is just as likely to sink a three as she is to sacrifice her body by stepping in front of a driving offensive player.

In 2013-14, Hempen’s first season with ASU, she didn’t lead the team in scoring. (Well, she did finish tied for second, with 8.3 points.) Most of her statistical contributions don’t pop off the page. But you can’t chart sheer force of will, the desire that can help change a program. Hempen is the type of player who fully embodies Turner Thorne’s vision for re-establishing Arizona State among the nation’s elite.

Turner Thorne spoke recently with Jim Pitman, who doubles as executive vice president of the Phoenix Suns and general manager of the Mercury. Through the course of conversation, they came to Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi, perhaps the greatest women’s basketball player of all time. “There are players who hate losing more than they love to win,” says Turner Thorne. “Diana Taurasi is one of those people. Katie is, too. She’s very joyful, but she also has this great competitiveness.”

This is Turner Thorne’s 18th season in charge of ASU—and the third since a sabbatical that spanned the 2011-12 season. When she came back, she felt refreshed and refocused, ready to re-ignite a program that had made two Elite Eight appearances in the late aughts. Waiting for her was this hard-charging guard, who’d just transferred. It didn’t take long for Hempen to have an effect on her new head coach.

“Katie is really, really huge to our team,” Turner Thorne says. “I’ve never seen her not compete. She brings it every day.”

***

Growing up in Highland, IL, Hempen’s parents were a reservoir of positivity and support. Her father, Troy, would find the bright side of any performance. Lisa, her mom, who’d taken statistics of hoops teams when she was in high school, provided priceless analytical nous. But let’s start with the older brothers. Hempen began playing basketball with Mark and Eric when she was in the third or fourth grade. “Honestly,” she says now, “they were the ones that made me the way I am.”

Cut to endless games on the blacktop in Highland, with little to no mercy shown on little sis. “They’d steal the ball from me when I dribbled, they’d block all my shots,” says Hempen.

Rather than stalk off frustrated, Hempen approached these games with analytical bent. She noticed that she could get past Mark, the eldest, off the dribble, only to be taken out by Eric, a football player, before she could get to the rim. So Hempen developed a 15-foot pull-up jumper. Swish.

Her brothers quickly made note of this savvy. When the three siblings would play against other kids in games of five-on-five, Mark and Eric always picked Katie for their team.

Like so many siblings as they grow, the three Hempens have become inseparable. When she calls home now, Mark and Eric give her…let’s say, “constructive criticism”—older-brother style. “To say a positive about us, there’s never a dull moment,” Hempen says, chuckling.

Hempen began playing basketball competitively in middle school, and she credits a coach during those years with not only teaching her the fundamentals, but also how to channel her boundless reserves of energy.” And when I got to high school,” Hempen says, “I was pushed. [Matt Elledge] knew how good I could be. Even though I was playing varsity as a freshman, he didn’t coach me as a freshman. He really tested my mentality and the way I played the game, and I loved that. I love a challenge.”

There are markers for the future, one of which is revealed when Hempen, asked about her path through basketball, says, “Honestly, I’ve been extremely blessed to be around great coaches all my life.”

***

They were both Illinois natives, fearless when it came to the court.

Amanda Levens was named the head coach at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 2008. “They took a chance on me,” Levens has said of the hire. Ahead of that 2008-09 season, SIU-E was transitioning into Division I. Talk about welcoming a challenge.

Under Levens, SIU-E improved each season. Yet when she began recruiting this do-everything guard from Highland High, Levens encountered resistance—at first. “Amanda was one of the last ones I actually looked to go to,” Hempen says.

Hempen felt that SIU-E, some 20 miles away, was too close to home. Her mom worked there, and Hempen felt certain for a long time that her future lay elsewhere. But Levens hung in. While evaluating Hempen, she couldn’t get enough of this kid taking charges at every occasion—especially during AAU games. She marveled at the work ethic shown in practice. “She competed in every drill like it was the biggest game of the year,” says Levens. “You want to recruit that.”

A self-professed “stubborn kid,” in reference of where she was looking for college, Hempen finally met with Levens. “And she laid it all out, flat,” Hempen says. She soon realized there was nowhere else she’d rather go than Edwardsville. Turning a program into a winner, testing herself to the limit, just seemed like too much fun.

When Hempen signed, Levens called her a “winner.” “Her skill set is very good,” Levens said in a release on SIU-E’s website. “She can play point guard and off-guard, and score from both positions. She is tough and competitive. She will do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s setting the screen, making the pass, or making the shot. She just wants to win.”

Hempen’s freshman season coincided with SIU-E entering the Ohio Valley Conference. They were picked to finish eighth, and finished third. Levens was named OVC Coach of the Year; after four conference freshman of the week honors, Hempen was named Frosh of the Year.

Hempen revels in the camaraderie of the team that season, of the way that everything Levens had promised on the recruiting trail turned out to be true. There was then-senior Raven Berry, the SIU-E’s leader. “She taught me how to talk the way I talk now on and off the court,” says Hempen.

There was a press conference toward the end of that 2011-12 season when Levens told reporters that she could think of only five bad practices from the team. She said that defense is a reflection of how mentally tuned in a player is to the game. Hempen factored fully into both those assessments.

***

Levens ranks as one of the best players in Arizona State women’s basketball history. Or, as Hempen puts it, Levens was “absolutely amazing” during her time in Tempe.

A two-time member of the (then) Pac-10 First-Team, Levens took the Sun Devils to consecutive NCAA tournament berths, and helped capture the inaugural conference tournament championship, in 2002. She also set the program’s single-season mark for three-pointers, with 60.

After that 2011-12 season, Levens decided to join Turner Thorne’s staff as the associate head coach. Turner Thorne had just returned from her sabbatical. She’d spent the year away with her family, first unwinding and then re-charging. She came back with five notebooks filled with ideas, concerning leadership and the ways in which she could re-define the culture within the program. Her return just so happened to coincide with the arrival of a certain combo guard. When Turner Thorne had first taken the ASU job, in 1996, she’d moved on from Northern Arizona, and she vividly remembers then-Sun Devils athletic director Kevin White asking her not to bring players with her. Levens followed the same advice in her switch from Edwardsville.

But Hempen’s mom had left her job at SIU-E, and Hempen began thinking about a move of her own. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made,” she says. “I loved my teammates at SIU-E. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates. They had my back; we were a true family.”

Hempen finally decided to go for the challenge. She wanted to prove herself at the Pac-12 level, and she decided to transfer to ASU. Upon signing, Turner Thorne echoed Levens’s old assessment. “Katie Hempen is tough,” she said in a release. When she arrived in Tempe, Hempen marveled at the way the team took her in. “It was the same culture I’d seen at SIU-E,” Hempen says. “Levens had brought the ASU culture there. We made a huge impact in my first year at SIU-E, and we both got the opportunity to come to ASU and make another big impact,” Hempen says.

She’d met Turner Thorne, but quickly got to know her better. In Hempen’s first practice at ASU, she’d sprained her ankle. Turner Thorne was in attendance, “and she couldn’t even see me play,” Hempen says. But after she’d packed on ice and returned to the stands, she had the chance to speak at length with her new head coach. “I’m talking to her, and I’m just like, My goodness gracious, you’re just like coach Levens,” Hempen says, laughing. “You could see they bring that same positive vibe. They have the same values, and that’s made a huge impact on me. I’m so in love with the culture of who we are, and what we do at ASU.”

“She’s pretty easy to get to know,” Turner Thorne says of Hempen. “She’s just very personable.”

***

Hempen makes no bones about her redshirt season in 2012-13, mandated by the NCAA after a transfer to another DI program. A year away from games ain’t never easy.

But she had the perfect teacher to help her.

Levens had begun her own collegiate career at Old Dominion, and upon transferring to Arizona State after her sophomore year had served a redshirt of her own. “I had a unique perspective of how to use that year,” Levens says.

Asked about how she used her own redshirt season, Hempen quips and flips the question: “What didn’t I do. I did it all, man.”

Levens and Hempen worked together every day. When Hempen risked hitting the proverbial wall, Levens would remind her of a mantra. Blink, and your redshirt season’s over. Hempen would always come back and work even harder. She hoisted jumpers from deep. Then, she’d change it up, adding in mid-range jumpers and runners, finishing at the rim. Levens wanted Hempen to develop a diverse skill set. When opponents tried to take away her long-range shot, how could she remain effective?

After work on the court was complete, Hempen would concentrate on footwork and quickness, making that first step razor-sharp.

At least four times a week, she’d dissect film. Of practice. She’d keep asking herself, What can I do to help this team out, to make it better? She could do that through working as hard as she could during practice. In addition to her perimeter pyrotechnics, Levens was known as a tremendous defensive player.

“She did the little things,” Hempen says, “and on defense, every little thing matters. She understands that, and I’m a lot like that, too.” As they watched film, Hempen would figure out when and where she could stop an offensive player. She kept finding additional ways she could take charges. Turner Thorne would check in, sometimes having to ask Hempen to ease up. She’d tell people she’d never seen a redshirt player work harder. “I was just, go, go, go, go, go,” Hempen says.

Hempen took more charges during practice that season than the entire team did during games. She was named the team’s most improved player.

“Credit Katie,” Levens says. “She did all the work.”

“It was tough,” says Hempen. “Not gonna lie, it was one of the harder things I’ve been through. But I pushed through. You find the right grind, and you keep going.”

***

Levens had spoken with Hempen at length about the rigors of a transition to BCS basketball. Longer defenders, more athleticism, more physicality. Gaps closing quickly.

When she took the court to start ’13-14, Hempen got off to a slow start. “She was a little bit rusty,” says Levens, “but we knew her preparation. We knew it was just a matter of time.”

Turner Thorne remembers the turn coming in conference. “I think she hit four threes in the second Pac-12 game, against Washington,” Turner Thorne says. (Hempen finished 4-6 from deep.) “From then on, she relaxed. And then, she peaked in the postseason.”

Levens and Turner Thorne knew there would come a game when Hempen would go off. During film, they’d tell the team, “When Katie shoots, go rebound!”

She did just that at the most opportune time. In the span of two games, a narrow Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal loss to USC and an NCAA tournament Round of 64 win over Vanderbilt, Hempen scored a combined 28 points on 8-11 shooting from deep. The Tournament win was vintage ASU. Speaking afterward, Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb addressed the Sun Devils’ smothering approach thusly: “When you’re pressured and work so hard on offense, you end up paying for that on defense.”

“It’s always been a part of our program to ‘control the controllables,'” says Turner Thorne. “You can control how hard you work. We’ve won a lot of basketball games where we haven’t shot the ball well, because we battled and battled and found a way. Last year’s team did that; it was reminiscent of the culture we’d had for a number of years.”

When Levens had played at Arizona State, she’d felt pride in knowing she was part of something bigger. Tradition. Pageantry. “It was a privilege to play for ASU,” Levens says. “When Charli came back to the program, she wanted to re-identify that culture, to where we wanted it to be.

Says Turner Thorne, “Katie helped re-identify that culture. And that helped with how quickly we were able to turn the program around. She did it from a statistical standpoint, but also with stuff you can’t measure—all the practices and conditioning, who’s in there talking on the court.

“She really is special. She brings so much toughness and winning energy, and that’s a huge part of who we are.” Levens remembers speaking with coaching colleagues this past spring, how they couldn’t help but remark on the progress they’d seen. They’d watched Turner Thorne tell reporters, about ’13-14, “I was not happy with our defense. It was not championship caliber.”

They know the Sun Devils are back.

***

When diagnosing the Sun Devils’ chances this season, most people have pointed to the three players lost. Deja Mann, Adrienne Thomas and Joy Burke.

“We don’t have that much height, but we have quickness, and our team is gonna be strong,” says Hempen. “We’re going to be one of the toughest teams to beat. Most teams worry about that team that never gives up, the one that gets down 20 points, and still doesn’t give up. That’s us. And that’s going to be scary to other people.

“You won’t break us down, no matter what you do. We’re going to keep pushing back, keep punching back. I think that’s what’s most exciting. We have that grit and guts.” It’s with this short monologue in mind that you remember something Turner Thorne said. “There’s a lot of ‘coach’ in Katie.”

Hempen has it right about talent in the fold. Hempen included, Arizona State’s backcourt will be a force this season. The frontcourt is bolstered by standout sophomores Kelsey Moos, Quinn Dornstauder and Sophie Brunner. Four talented newcomers will play key roles.

There’s one more thing you should know about Hempen. As usual, it’s the response to the question that resonates.

One of the first things people notice about Hempen is the long sleeve compression shirt she wears underneath her jersey. It’s there for a reason.

In her sophomore year of high school, Hempen began experiencing strange symptoms. No matter how much she slept, she still felt tired. No matter how much she ate, she still felt hungry. She shrugged it off, telling herself, You play basketball for school and AAU, you run track (the 4×400 and 4×800 meter relays). Of course you’re tired.

But the fatigue and hunger didn’t abate. Seeking answers, Hempen went to her family physician, who soon discovered that Hempen’s thyroid, an endocrine gland which controls how quickly we use energy and process protein, was higher than normal.

The physician prescribed medication, which helped Hempen feel better. She learned to monitor her diet, making sure she ate the right amount and got the right ingredients. “It’s definitely not a struggle, by any means,” Hempen says. “It’s just part of the game. It’s what I have to do. I’m used to it now.”

When she plays, Hempen’s hands become “hard-to-move cold,” she says—a result of the thyroid condition. The long sleeves help with circulation, and when Hempen heads to the bench, she’ll thrust her hands into a towel in an effort to warm them. “It’s just something to help,” she says, before adding, “Maybe I’ll use a heating pad this season.”

At ASU, she has a great team of doctors who help regulate her thyroid. “I’m so blessed to have them,” she says. Then, she offers, “I might not wear the long sleeves this year.”

Levens first recruited Hempen because of her toughness, because when she watched this player work, she saw someone who could push a program over the top. It came from her upbringing—in the Hempen family, if you wanted something, you had to work hard for it. “She’s had great people in her life that have showed her what it takes to be successful,” Levens says.

It takes a village to make a great individual. To bring a program to prominence, it takes great players. No, more than that. It takes Katie Hempens.