Jaeschke's mission already complete
Whether Northwestern reaches NCAA tournament, Wildcats are much-improved team
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern is not lacking for overachievers. Walk around its quintessential college campus along the shores of Lake Michigan and you'll find any number of students eager to suffer the winter wind chills in hopes of emerging as the next John Paul Stevens, Saul Bellow or perhaps Michael Wilbon, all among the school's long litany of famous alumni.
Still, even amidst such a collection, Amy Jaeschke stands out for reasons beyond her 6-foot-5 frame. Northwestern is a perfect place if you want to follow in the footsteps of greatness, but Jaeschke had bolder, frankly brazen ambitions of blazing a new trail for a part of the college community a little behind the curve on excellence.
"The whole reason I came was I wanted to help change the program around," Jaeschke said.
Almost four full seasons later, she has accomplished at least that much. She led the Wildcats to the third round of the WNIT last season, the program's first postseason victories in more than a decade. The ultimate goal of an NCAA tournament berth is in peril in the wake of a recent four-game losing streak in conference play, but it is fair to think that if 22.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game aren't enough, the task might just be beyond the reach of any single player. Even the most complete center in the country.
"She's hard to stop," Michigan coach Kevin Borseth said. "She's left hand, she's right hand, she's fadeaway, she's pull-up 3[-pointer], she's pass to someone else -- she's got a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Down inside the post, the kid plays and block shots, never gets fouls, never fouls out of a game, gets a lot of rebounds. I'll tell you what, she's as good a post player as this league's ever going to see, in terms of efficiency. The kid's efficient in every aspect of the game."
Programs that win fewer than 20 games in a season rarely have much luck signing the kind of players who make the cut for Team USA, as Jaeschke did for the Under-19 world championship in 2006. Programs that win fewer than 20 games over the cumulative span of two seasons are generally working with lottery odds in such recruiting sweepstakes. But for Jaeschke, whose hometown of Wilmette adjoins Evanston, the combination of geography, academics and sheer competitive challenge steered her to a program that won a total of 35 games in the five seasons immediately preceding her arrival.
The savior's welcome was about as pleasant as the wind off the lake on the way to a midwinter exam. Northwestern won five games Jaeschke's freshman season, three games fewer than the team won the previous season. She suffered a fractured hand in her first college game, missed a total of nine games and shot 42.2 percent from the floor for the season.
That season marked the end of the coaching regime that convinced Jaeschke to be the cornerstone for a building project. Beth Combs resigned as head coach two months after the team's final game, leaving the program Jaeschke came to turn around in limbo, waiting for a new athletic director to hire a new coach. That it turned out to be Joe McKeown -- one of the most successful coaches working in the game during more than two decades at New Mexico State and George Washington -- worked out pretty well for both parties.
McKeown faced more challenges than he could count in taking over a moribund program at a small school with demanding academics in a power conference. But it's not often you walk into that kind of situation and find a 6-5 prep All-American with three years of eligibility remaining.
"That helped," McKeown deadpanned. "That saved some of my sanity."
And it's not often a young player in Jaeschke's position lucks into a coach with McKeown's clout.
"When you come in as a freshman, you have expectations of, 'Oh, I can do college basketball.' And then you get blindsided and it's like, 'Whoa, what is this?'" Jaeschke recalled of her pre-McKeown experience. "But the way he's pushed me has made me such a better player. When I first came in, all I wanted to do was shoot the ball outside; I never wanted to go inside the paint. He wouldn't let me, for the first month-and-a-half of practice, shoot from outside. And if I did, my points wouldn't count in the scrimmage. So I really learned how to battle down low and get points in the paint."
And while she still has that outside touch, hitting 13-of-36 shots from the 3-point line this season, WNBA ears surely won't mind hearing her talk about how much more comfortable she is now getting hit in the paint than she is spotting up for a long-range jumper. Her demeanor off the court might be more Ernie Banks than Dick Butkus, a grin more comfortable than a scowl, but she's perfectly happy adding some purple welts to the standard issue school colors.
Not that it's time just yet to worry about her place at the next level. Jaeschke has at least one more month to finish what she started at this level. With road games remaining at Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State, doing so won't be easy. But if there was once a time when she thought turning around a program would fit that description, it long ago vanished.
Whatever happens, she helped set Northwestern on a path that, with McKeown's help, should eventually lead back to the NCAA tournament.
She would just like to make sure those footsteps others follow lead all the way to the finish line.
"It's a goal my class set out to do," Jaeschke said. "Just to be able to see where we were at our freshman year and see where we've brought our team to senior year -- really, there are no words for it, because you would be so proud of what you've accomplished."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.