Coach makes game fun again

Head Coach Lisa Carlsen attempts to motivate her team in a Jan. 18 game against Akron University in the Convocation Center. Carlsen is in her second season at NIU and has the Huskies off to their best start in school history (15-5, 8-1 MAC).

By Eddie Garcia

DeKALB — When athletic director Sean Frazier began his search for a new women’s basketball head coach, he had one thing on his mind: experience. 

The team was in dire need of an experienced leader who would lead the Huskies toward a winning mentality.

Frazier found the experienced leader he was looking for, Lisa Carlsen, Nov. 8, 2014 in an exhibition game against a Divisional II opponent, the Lewis University Flyers.

Carlsen, former Lewis and current Head Coach, led the Flyers to victory over the Huskies, and Frazier said he was impressed by her leadership and experience, two huge components that factored into his search.

“[Carlsen] came in on our floor with the Lewis team that was very composed,” Frazier said. “I believe she won by 21 [points], and it was just one of those things where I saw her energy, and I saw her connection to Chicagoland, along with her leadership to her team and how much her kids love playing for her. Those things were key components as I was looking for the next coach.”

NIU had six consecutive losing seasons with a combined record of 68-181 prior to the 2015-16 season. The last winning Huskies team had been during the 2008-09 season when they held a 16-15 overall record.

Carlsen said she was not in search of another job at the time NIU offered her the head coaching position and was enjoying her time at Lewis with the team she had built there. Carlsen said, ultimately, her decision to leave the organization was made by more than just her as it had to be the right fit for her family.

“Obviously, an opportunity to coach at the next level is always intriguing for somebody who is at the Division II level,” Carlsen said. “NIU just made a lot of sense for all the right reasons. Most of the time when those opportunities present themselves, you kind of have to jump on them if you get a chance.”

As Head Coach of Lewis for eight seasons, Carlsen led her team to a 148-89 record and four NCAA Division II tournament appearances, including an elite eight berth in her final season.

Carlsen has more than 25 years of basketball experience dating back to her time as a player at Northwest Missouri State University where she was a four-time all-conference basketball honoree, along with receiving all-conference and all-region honors as a softball player. Carlsen was named the Champion NCAA Female Athlete of the Year in 1992 and has carried the same winning mentality throughout her 20 years of coaching experience.

Carlsen has integrated her fun, high-energy and motivational basketball style of coaching into her time at NIU. Her leadership immediately struck the players as she was able to bring senior forward Cassidy Glenn back to the game of basketball. Glenn had appeared in just six games during the 2014-2015 season before leaving the team.

“Something that is going to stick with me was the day I decided to come back,” Glenn said. “I went in to talk to [Carlsen], and I obviously didn’t know her that well… didn’t have a relationship with her…but I [could] tell just from the 20 minutes I talked to her that she genuinely cares.”

Glenn said Carlsen brought the fun back to basketball as she would encourage the team to always smile and remember why they play the game.  

Senior guard Ally Lehman said she thought about leaving the game of basketball prior to Carlsen’s arrival as well. Lehman said Carlsen turned the team in a completely different direction.

“She doesn’t ruin your confidence—she gives us confidence,” Lehman said. “It is always the next play mentality, and there is just nothing fake about her. She is upfront with you [with] what she expects, but she also doesn’t mind patting you on the back every now and then.”

Lehman said she and Carlsen are very similar and described Carlsen as a mother figure because of her ability to understand the team so well.

The Huskies appeared to have responded to Carlsen’s coaching strategies quite well as they are ranked third in the NCAA in scoring with an average of 88.2 points per game and have found themselves in a two-way tie for first place in the Mid-American Conference West division with Ball State University (14-5, 7-1).

“This is a fun group to coach,” Carlsen said. “They are in it for the right reasons, they play for each other, they are unselfish and they come to work every day really wanting to get better. That is really all you can ask from a group, when you are trying to do some things on the court, is that they show up ready to work.”