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Heather Hutchins: A Winning Record

Heather Hutchins graduated this year, and she will be missed, because no athlete has worn a Berea College uniform with greater distinction.

Heather Hutchins

At a school which has historically been careful to avoid the corrupting influences that intercollegiate athletic programs can and do exert at other institutions, Hutchins has exemplified the college athlete as we would like her to be: a well-rounded scholar whose thirst for sporting competition forms part, but not all, of a successful collegiate experience.

What made Hutchins a fan favorite? After all, in four years of playing college basketball she never developed what sportswriters call a meal ticket: one special skill at which she excelled. Unimposing at 5-7, Hutchins didn’t brighten the stat sheet with gaudy totals of points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks. Her dribbling and passing were competent but not eye-catching. She wasn’t a deadly shot from any location. She could get up and down the floor, but you wouldn’t describe her as either fast or quick. Her moves weren’t flashy, didn’t dazzle.

Some athletes are naturally blessed with an abundance of God-given ability. Hutchins was not one of these. She didn’t wow onlookers with the graceful body control we term “athleticism.” Neither did you look to Hutchins for fiery emotional displays, and she wasn’t the type of player who scared or intimidated opponents. No opposing coach ever prepared for a game by saying, “If we can stop Hutchins, we can beat Berea.”

What Hutchins brought to the party was that intangible set of traits you can sum up with one word: character. Character isn’t something you can quantify mathematically, but it’s easy to recognize in an athlete even if you’re watching her for the first time. Athletes with character aren’t the ones who look aloof, apathetic, indifferent. Character is alertness. It’s poise. It’s consistency of effort. It’s intelligence, or, in basketball terms, court sense. It’s aggressiveness tempered by a mature control. And it’s sportsmanship, a commitment to competition that is vigorous but clean.

A basketball player displays character in the way she carries herself on the court. But it is when she is away from the scrutiny of the casual fan that she demonstrates how strong her character is. A coach wants a player who is coachable, one who is steady, mature, and mentally tough, and one who will exert a positive effect on team chemistry. Off the court, Hutchins earned full marks.

It’s often said that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. Hutchins brought the virtues of character with her to Berea. These, honed over four seasons of hard work, ultimately propelled her performance above the mediocre, the contingent, the mortal. She arrived without fanfare but grew into stardom. She became the type of player any team would love to have.

Hutchins and her younger brother were raised by her father, Danny Hutchins, in Holy Cross, a small rural community in central Kentucky a few miles northwest of Lebanon. “I’ve played sports since I was six or seven, ever since I can remember,” she recalls. Although she played softball and ran cross country, her passion was basketball. At Marion County High School she was playing for coach Freddie Leathers’ varsity while she was in eighth grade. “I was a flexible player. I played both guard positions or a small forward spot. Coach put me wherever he needed somebody.”

Hutchins wanted to play college basketball and visited several Kentucky schools with her father. “We watched everybody play. After we watched Berea, my dad said this was the team for me to play on. He thought I was a scrappy player who would fit in well with the system Berea was using. And when he started asking around and heard how good Berea college was, how highly respected the people who graduated from Berea were, and how easy it would be for me to get a job when I got out, he really pushed.”

As former Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad remembers it, “Hutch made contact with us during her senior year at Marion County. We tried to find out as much about her as possible. We liked what we saw, and we liked what we heard. People wouldn’t stop singing her praises in regards to what a fine person she was. It seemed like Berea would be a good fit for her. That turned out to be very true!”

In 2005-06 Harkleroad had astonished the basketball world by winning 16 consecutive games on the way to a KIAC championship and Berea’s first trip to the national NAIA-II tournament in Sioux City, Iowa. One of the heroes of that team was senior Ashlee Crump, a modestly talented forward who played a crucial role as a chemistry builder and always managed to dial her game up a notch when the team needed it most. Losing Crump and stellar point guard Crystal Davis to graduation meant that a repeat KIAC title was anything but a sure thing despite the return of scoring stars Rebecca May and Candy Walls.

Hutchins enrolled at Berea in the fall of 2006. De-An Watkins had replaced Davis as Harkleroad’s primary point guard. Watkins didn’t bend under the weight of added responsibility. Instead she stood taller, and Hutchins noticed. “I looked up to De-An,” she says.

“De-An protected the ball, hardly ever had a turnover. She could carry the ball for us and get it to the right person when it needed to be. When the ball went up for grabs, she’d end up with the ball in her hands. De-An might not score a point, but she’d get six or seven assists and nine rebounds, and she did it all without complaining about not getting recognized.”

Team chemistry is critical in the women’s game, and Watkins understood its importance. Hutchins says, “De-An was an all-around good person who was friends with everybody. She didn’t discriminate against anybody and tried to be fair with everybody. I tried to be like her. I wanted to have the good grades that De-An had and be as respected as De-An was off the court as well as on. She set the bar high.”

Hutchins joined a team already noted for a running, gunning attack fueled by an intense pressure defense and mass substitutions. Many players say they like to run and like to shoot, but when given their wings they’re not always comfortable working as hard as Harkleroad asked his players to do. Berea’s famous System was not a fit for every player. But it suited Hutchins.

“I liked to run and play a fast paced game, and we had that kind of player. So as a freshman I was more excited than scared. The best part of The System was, you could give all you had for a minute and a half, then you would get a break. You didn’t have to worry about pacing yourself.”

Hutchins felt some anxiety about being asked to shoot the ball, especially from long range. “When I came to Berea I didn’t know how my career would go because I had never been a shooter before. I assumed I would be one of those players who never saw playing time unless Bunky needed a defensive player. In high school I shot a high percentage of threes, but I didn’t shoot them often. My shooting needed improvement. Under Bunky I shot 100 threes a day. We did a lot of shooting in his practices. My shooting improved, and the main position I played in college turned out to be shooting guard.”

A couple of days before her freshman season opened, Hutchins dove into a wall in practice and broke one of her thumbs. She played with the thumb in a cast, but the cast, unsurprisingly, hampered her shooting, and she averaged just eight minutes a game that year. She continued to work on her shooting, to good effect. She settled into the two-guard position, and by her sophomore year was playing a full shift in Harkleroad’s rotation scheme.

According to Hutchins, “The things I was best at were defense and hustle. I could shoot, but I wasn’t always on. Defense I could control. I took chances, because I was determined that the person I was guarding wasn’t going to beat me. There are no secrets to playing defense. It’s like every coach tells you, you’ve got to get low and stay low. I had played on very strong defensive teams in high school.”

Led by seniors May and Watkins, the Lady Mountaineers won their second consecutive KIAC championship in Hutchins’ freshman year. Interviewed after the KIAC tournament, Hutchins spoke enthusiastically of the team’s camaraderie. “I figured I would be close to the freshmen, but not too close to the upperclassmen. Boy, was I wrong! The whole team is like coach Harkleroad says, ‘A big dysfunctional family.’ We are all like sisters. When we have a problem we don’t worry about not having anyone to talk to because there are 15 other girls waiting with open ears to help you in any way they can. It made the transfer from high school to college a lot easier.

“The most important thing I’ve learned from playing with the Lady Mountaineers is teamwork. Every player on the team has a role to play, from ballhandler to primary scorer to screener for the primary. When everyone comes together as a team and fulfills their roles to the best of their ability, having only the team’s best interest in mind, we are simply unbeatable. I have never been on a team that actually played as a team, but now that I have, I realize that playing as a team can be the difference between having a winning season and a losing season. Quite frankly, I have more fun winning than losing!”

A week after returning from Sioux City, Hutchins, running with a teammate, suffered a stress fracture in her left foot. Later she experienced knee problems that kept her out of preseason workouts for a month and a half. She would suffer stress fractures in her right foot during both her junior and senior seasons.

When Hutchins was asked recently how one plays basketball on a fractured foot, she replied, “It’s mind over matter. After my first fracture, our trainer, Sandy Williams, made me stay off my feet. More recently she let me fight through it, always watching me closely as I took it day by day. She said she didn’t want my feet to get messed up just so I could play ball. The fractures healed.”

Hutchins struggled with another physical problem many athletes would have found incapacitating. This was motion sickness, which made road trips an ordeal. “I tried medication,” she says. “It prevents the nausea, but it makes you drowsy. I’d take it, ride the bus to the opponent’s gym, then it would be halftime before I would be able to contribute. So I decided I’d just tough it out when I got sick at my stomach. I loved to play ball and didn’t want motion sickness to get in the way.”

Harkleroad recalls, “Hutch brought a great work ethic, a great attitude, and a hardnosed mentality to everything she did. She said early on that even if she was injured she’d play ball. I can’t count the times that she played with aches, pains, and distractions. She hid her stressors better than any player I’ve been around. Whether it was time to practice or to play, Hutch was there physically and mentally.”

The content of Hutchins’ character was never in question, and as she gained confidence, she became a more effective player. Although she did not start as a sophomore, she averaged almost 15 minutes per game. Casual fans did not always understand that starting was not an enormously meaningful component of The System. With Harkleroad substituting five for five every 90 seconds, every player on the roster was playing significant minutes, if you define as “significant” minutes that are played when the outcome of the game is in doubt. There was no sharp distinction at Berea between starters and bench players.

All that shooting practice paid off for Hutchins, who improved her two-point, three-point, and free throw shooting as a sophomore. As she gained confidence she began to play with more authority, steadily building a reputation as a clutch performer. If opponents underestimated her, she made them pay. Teams that failed to guard her closely were regularly burned by a clutch steal, pass, basket, or rebound.

Aided by Hutchins’ sophomore contributions, Berea captured its third KIAC championship in 2007-08. The Lady Mountaineers weren’t favored to win the KIAC tournament after stumbling down the stretch, most notably in a February 23 defeat at archrival Indiana University-Southeast, a team they’d beaten by 32 points five weeks previously.

The IUS Grenadiers featured a hulking intimidator at center who was capable of imposing her will on every post player in the conference. She dominated Berea in the February matchup. Late in the game she paraded past the Berea bench, laughing contemptuously while the Lady Mountaineers cast down their eyes in what seemed to be a posture of abject submission.

All was not as it appeared. “We had some high-tempered people on our team,” Hutchins recalled. “We put down our heads not in disgust or shame at losing, but so none of us would be tempted to say something back to her.”

Although the Lady Mountaineers accepted their whipping that day, they would never define themselves as inferior. Six days later Berea and IUS met again in the semifinals of the KIAC tournament. This game, as everyone expected, was furiously contested. For the first 35 minutes neither team was able to gain an advantage.

What followed was surely the most electrifying play of the season and a defining moment of the Harkleroad era at Berea College. The brawny IUS center, who had been controlling the boards once again, seized a missed IUS shot, only to have the ball wrenched out of her hands by Berea’s Heather Hutchins, a player six inches shorter and about 50 pounds lighter. A tenth as mean but ten times as determined, Hutchins rocketed the ball to alert teammate, and Berea converted a fast-break basket. The IUS center, snarling with rage, lost her composure entirely and had to be removed from the game. Berea won by five points, then overwhelmed Midway in the finals to advance to Sioux City once again.

“Bunky always talked about playing hard,” Hutchins recalled two years later. “All we had to do was play hard for the minute and a half we were out there. He emphasized having heart, because it took heart to play The System. That afternoon, I knew if I could get that rebound we were going to nationals. She was big, but there was no way I was letting her get that rebound!” Hutchins’ epic grab in the 2008 KIAC tournament was as stirring as display of heart as any sports fan will ever see.

2008 would be Hutchins’ second and final appearance on the national stage. “The national tournament was bigger than I ever imagined. They treated us like we were royalty from the hotel to the banquet to the basketball court. They gave us gifts. They gave us a wonderful sponsor. And the games were the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had. When I walked on the court, the lights were brighter than I’d ever seen. There were 6,000 people at a game, and I had never played before more than a couple hundred before. I felt such intense energy running through me that my body felt invincible.”

Underdog Berea has lost all three of the games it has played at Sioux City. Hutchins hated losing, but today is philosophical. “Berea doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, so we don’t have the talent or the means to get the talent that our opponents at the nationals have. We went up against girls 6-3 and 6-4, 200 pounds of solid muscle. Berea is lucky to have a 5-11 girl. When we played Morningside in 2008, we hung in for a while, but they were huge. They towered over us. They were the #1 team in the country.”

In the stirring ceremony that begins each year’s NAIA-II women’s basketball tournament, Hutchins was announced as Berea College’s recipient of the NAIA Champion of Character Award. She remarked, “This award means a lot to me. I want younger athletes to look up to me because I’m showing them I can play basketball and get good grades and be a good citizen. I hope to show them what they should be.”

Students admitted to Berea pay no tuition, but all of them must work at college jobs to help defray the costs of their education. No exceptions are made for athletes, who play sports in whatever time is left after they’ve fulfilled their academic and labor obligations. As a freshman Hutchins worked as a Facilities Assistant (i.e. janitor) in Fairchild Hall. After that she moved to the main Facilities Management building. She’s been a mainstay in the storeroom ever since.

It is critical that Berea students learn how to manage their time if they wish to pursue extracurricular activities like sports. “Berea is a tough school academically,” Hutchins asserts. “But I got a good perspective from my dad. He says that when you don’t have a choice, you just do what you have to do, get it done. When I got to college, if a 15-page paper was assigned for two weeks from now, I knew it had to be done, so I just did it.” Time management was a special challenge for the Lady Mountaineers, who needed to make up several days of missed classes after attending the national tournament.

Hutchins felt sufficiently in control of her academic life to attempt another varsity sport, softball, following her second basketball season. She batted .400 in limited duty as a utility player, but decided after the season that she’d play basketball exclusively. “There’s a big emotional difference between basketball and softball,” she explained. “In a basketball game I am excited and full of energy the entire time. I think I have the ability to succeed in softball, but the game is just not intense enough for me.”

Her third season of basketball provided all the intensity Hutchins could handle. With graduations, defections, and injuries robbing Berea of much of its firepower, the Lady Mountaineers no longer ruled the KIAC. The season’s bright spot was the play of senior Candy Walls, now a fully developed scoring and rebounding juggernaut who set many school records en route to KIAC Player of the Year honors. Harkleroad kept Hutchins and Walls, roommates off the court, in the same rotation throughout the season in a successful attempt to squeeze as much as he could from his roster. The result was another winning season, although the team’s three-year streak of national tournament appearances ended with a loss in the KIAC tournament semifinals.

The 2008-2009 season was Harkleroad’s ninth and last. He now coaches at Glenville State College, an NCAA Division II school in West Virginia. Berea hired Terence Brooks to replace him. In contrast to Harkleroad, Brooks favors a deliberately paced halfcourt game.

The transition was rocky at first. Struggling with a demanding nonconference schedule, the Lady Mountaineers won only two of their first 16 games. Once conference play began in January, however, the team rounded nicely into form, posting an 8-5 record that was good for second place. Berea was the only KIAC team to defeat eventual conference champion Indiana University-Southeast.

As a senior Hutchins helped mightily to smooth the passage from Harkleroad to Brooks. She led the team in minutes played, averaging 25 per contest. “I didn’t know I’d do that,” she says. “But I knew I was determined enough not to sit on the bench.”

Hutchins closed out her career leading the Lady Mountaineers in offensive rebounds, total rebounds, and three-point shots attempted and made. She averaged 10 points per game, second on the team.

“By my senior year I had learned to hit a three on the spot,” she says. “When I got the ball I could hit a three if I could see daylight. That’s what Coach Brooks used me for, to shoot threes. He told me I needed to look to score more often. I tried to get everybody involved in the game, but he said, ‘I need you to shoot. Everybody else tends to do better when you do better.’ If I scored, everybody else started scoring.”

When Hutchins went through a three-point shooting slump midway through the season, she began to go to the basket. Despite her stellar 56% percentage from inside the arc, Brooks was convinced she helped the team more as a perimeter threat. With Hutchins embracing the team concept, the Lady Mountaineers began to click in January. The last six weeks of the season were thrill-packed.

On January 23 Berea upset favored Brescia at Seabury Center. “We were going against Brittany Bird, the best point guard in our conference. Late in the game I hit two free throws to put us up by one point. Brescia had five seconds to bring the ball up the court. We were trying to trap Bird, and Tiffany Yates got her going to her right hand side, which she did not like to do. She tried to switch the ball to her left, and when she did I got my fingers on it and tipped it into the hands of Jessica Elston. Jessica’s eyes got real big, and she called out, ‘Hutch, Hutch, Hutch, take it!’ So I got the ball, and the next thing I knew, the buzzer went off.”

In their next game the Lady Mountaineers faced another tough opponent, Alice Lloyd. In a tie game with less than one second to play, Hutchins nailed two free throws to keep a five-game Berea winning streak alive. “They shouldn’t have been my free throws,” she recalls. “Another Berea player was fouled, but as a freshman she got a little nervous and didn’t want a lot of pressure on her. The scorers asked the ref who was fouled. There was a moment of confusion. He looked over, and the girl who was fouled pointed at me. So they put me on the free throw line.”

Hutchins had scored just two points on one-of-ten shooting, and she had attempted no free throws. “That was during my slump when I wasn’t hitting very much. Coach Brooks had been telling me to say ‘Bucket’ every time I shot. So I did, and it worked out when we most needed it!”

At the end, Hutchins wanted fans to know that her senior season was far more successful than its raw numbers would indicate. “This year’s team was the best I’ve played on from a standpoint of chemistry. If there was something wrong with one of us, everybody knew it because we were all talking and trying to help one another.

“It seems unbelievable that my basketball career here at Berea College is already over, because it seems it was just yesterday when I was a freshman. I have gotten much more from my experience than I ever imagined I would, with the friendships alone that I have made on the court. When we huddle after every game we say ‘FAM,’ which stands for Family, and that is exactly what my teammates feel like to me. I love each and every one like they were my sisters, and I know that even though we all will go our separate ways we will always remember each other. Even if we lose contact we will always think of each other as our family.”

Family values loom large in Hutchins’ life. After leaving Berea, she wants to return to Marion County to live and work. After she completes her student teaching in the fall, Hutchins will graduate with a degree in Physical Education with a Health Education minor. “I want to teach for a while or even coach,” she says. “Ultimately I want to work with special needs students, either in a school setting or a physical therapy setting.

“The Physical Education program here is great. The best part is working with people from a broad spectrum of ages: elementary, middle school, and high school students, and the elderly.” Her academic advisor is soon-to-retire Joy Hager, the indefatigable pioneer who carried Berea College women’s athletics into the modern era. “Dr. Hager is a wonderful advisor. She has a lot of knowledge to share.”

Hutchins cites Professor of Child and Family Studies Althea Webb as a significant influence. “She is by no means an easy teacher, but she cares wholeheartedly about the student, who you are and what you are learning. She wants you to complete your work on time, but if you’re having issues she’s open about you coming to talk to her.”

College athletes are their institutions’ most visible representatives in the community. No spectators gather to cheer when these students, or any of their classmates, distinguish themselves in their schoolwork, labor, or community service. The world knows Heather Hutchins through four years of public performance in a Berea College uniform. What is this athlete’s legacy?

Some players leave college with the game they brought. The always-coachable Hutchins improved every year. By the numbers, she averaged 12.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.9 steals, and 2.2 made three-point shots for every 40 minutes she played in her four-year career. Her teams won 57% of their games. Always a positive force in the locker room, she developed into a difference-maker on the floor.

In 2009 Hutchins was honored with Berea’s prestigious Roland Wierwille Award, named for the NAIA Hall of Fame coach who piloted men’s basketball at Berea for 29 seasons. The Wierwille Award recognizes student athletes whose character reflects discipline, dedication, and determination. Hutchins says, “Of the awards I’ve received, that meant the most to me because Coach Wierwille was so highly thought of here. I was surprised and grateful I’d gotten it, and I felt proud that I had shown the characteristics he wanted in his players.”

Contacted recently, Bunky Harkleroad reflected, “Heather Hutchins was not the most skilled player I’ve coached, but she was one of my favorite players. I’m thrilled that she led the Lady Mountaineers in minutes as a senior.

“Hutch realized she had an opportunity to play at Berea and worked to make herself better. When introduced to The System she didn’t complain about how it wasn’t tailor-made for her. Instead she always looked for ways to be a contributor. That’s a great quality to have, because many kids whine and complain rather than valuing the opportunity they’ve been given and figuring out a way to make their team better. I’d describe her as a ‘high energy, low maintenance’ person and player.

“Hutch wasn’t great at any one thing, but she worked to become solid at many things at her position. She became consistent enough to have the green light from beyond the arc, confident enough to put the ball on the ground if need be, and always, always played hard. She wasn’t the player who would take over a game, but she tried harder than anybody to do what was asked of her. Her greatest strengths were definitely her character and her willingness to lead by example.

“We had one tumultuous season with a freshmen guard who was very highly touted but struggled with her grades. We later found out that Hutch was spending hours trying to tutor this student so she could stay eligible and increase our chances for winning. This girl played Hutch’s position and was getting her minutes, yet Hutch was bending over backwards to make sure this girl could stay eligible because she knew we needed her. I could give you many examples of times she did things like that.”

According to Terence Brooks, “Heather Hutchins is a coach’s dream. Heather is a student-athlete who strives for nothing but the best. She was the hardest working young lady on our team, and it showed during practice and especially on game day. Heather's leadership will be missed next year.”

To a degree that is unique among team sports, basketball is about giving, not doing. Football squads break down into sub-units, and baseball players, always widely separated on the field of play, toil as individuals. In basketball, the athlete who is skilled at interpersonal relationships has incalculable value.

Candy Walls played basketball with Hutchins for three seasons and roomed with her for two of them. “Hutch has touched my life in several ways,” she recently observed. “She would deny it, but she helped get me through my college years and was part of helping me become the woman I am today. She has taught me so much about myself and life. Through all my tears, laughs and successes in the past four years Hutch was there with a smile, a hug, or one of her country sayings to set me straight. I have been blessed to have her in my life as a friend, teammate, roommate, and sister!

“I have never been around someone who is so self-driven. From the ball court to the classroom Hutch gives her all. I can remember countless nights when Hutch pulled all-nighters doing anything from homework assignments to counseling our basketball teammates. She is a woman who knows that hard work pays off and honestly is the most humble individual I have had the pleasure of being friends with. I believe that each and every person who has met Hutch has walked away asking themselves if they given enough to themselves or others.”

In the end, sports and character do not exist in separate spheres. You can measure the health of a college’s athletic program by its ability to attract the character-driven athlete. Fans must keep in mind that in the world of college sports, where integrity often seems a dispensable afterthought, moral bankruptcy is neither inevitable nor necessary. Standards still apply. The absence of character disgraces you; the presence of character lifts you, ennobles you.

When asked about character in a recent interview, Hutchins replied, “Character means work ethic, attitude, your actions, the way you treat people. My dad shaped my character, every aspect of my life. He’d come to my games and practices, and whenever I wasn’t trying hard, he’d say, ‘You have a chance to play, and you can either try hard or we can go home.’

“He’s a very hard-working person who believes in honesty and being true to your values, your home life. He shaped my character in every way. I saw him work as hard as he did to raise my younger brother and me. He did a really good job. I never once heard him tell a lie. He believes that honesty is the way things should be. He told us, ‘I don’t like a liar. I don’t lie to you, so don’t lie to me.’

“Now that basketball is over for me, I intend to complete my education and become a good physical education teacher. Berea has done a great job preparing me and giving me the knowledge that I need, and I hope to do them proud when I enter the workforce to represent Berea College.”

Hutchins leaves behind a winning record, on and off the court.

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