New staff aims to push star to next level

Assistant coach Fred Chmiel will work closely with Rachel Banham.

Gophers assistant women's basketball coach Fred Chmiel joined Marlene Stollings' coaching staff in late-May. Chmiel will be coaching the guards, including Rachel Banham.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Gophers assistant women’s basketball coach Fred Chmiel joined Marlene Stollings’ coaching staff in late-May. Chmiel will be coaching the guards, including Rachel Banham.

Jack Satzinger

As she took the court to warm up at Penn State last January, Gophers star guard Rachel Banham noticed something odd — there was a short man with a shaved head and goatee following Maggie Lucas, the Lady Lions’ top player, around the court.

“We were like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Banham said. “We thought he was her personal assistant.”

The man, Fred Chmiel, was actually an assistant coach for Penn State, and his attention to detail with Lucas helped incite a 30-point victory over the Gophers.

Now, Chmiel has switched benches. He was hired in late May as an assistant coach and rounds out new head coach Marlene Stollings’ staff, which also includes Niki Dawkins and John Motherwell.

Chmiel, who will be developing guards, said he plans on taking the principles he used with Lucas at Penn State to improve Banham as she heads into her final collegiate season.

“Maggie’s work ethic is incredible, so she was easy to work with,” Chmiel said of Lucas, who finished second in the Big Ten in scoring last season with 21 points per game.

Banham was the only player to score more, at 22.1 points per game. But there could be another level for her.

“It gets me excited knowing he’s been able to help [Lucas],” Banham said. “I know that he’ll be very good.”

One way Chmiel foresees Banham improving is by giving up the ball sometimes — which seems counter-intuitive for a gifted scorer. But last season, Banham was asked to do perhaps, too much for the Gophers offense after starting point guard Shayne Mullaney missed the bulk of Big Ten play due to concussion-like symptoms.

The loss of Mullaney forced Banham to slide over to point guard, where the team relied on her not only to lead in scoring, but also to create scoring chances for others.

The load took a toll on Banham — from a Dec. 5 knee injury to a March 23 foot sprain that nearly caused her to miss an elimination game. 

Banham’s history of lower-body injuries has Stollings and her staff urging the Lakeville, Minn., native to focus on small details this summer that could keep her healthy and playing for a long time — perhaps even in the WNBA.

Stollings said Banham has stopped by her office a few times in between taking summer classes.

“We just talked about her level of commitment,” Stollings said. “‘Do you really want to play pro basketball, and do you want to have an opportunity to be an All-American this year?’”

Banham said they also talked about her health, which she’s trying to bolster by eating right and “getting in top shape,” a process that Chmiel could expedite.

So far, Banham said the pair has only communicated via text messages. But once they get in the gym, odds are Chmiel will hover over Banham and try taking the Big Ten’s leading scorer to another level.

“I’m looking forward to working with her,” Chmiel said. “That’s a great piece to mold for sure.”