Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Basketball team’s innate faith starts with faith in Nate

If senior guard Nate Rohnert were to design a coin commemorating his basketball career at DU, the “heads” side would say “11th All-Time Scorer.” And the legend would read: “In Joe I Trust.”

“When coach [Joe] Scott came in, he sat me down and looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You have to trust me and work hard and everything will work out,’” Rohnert says. “That’s exactly what I did.”

On Saturday night, No. 24 suits up for the regular season finale, Rohnert’s last game in Magness Arena.

Fans looking back should remember one thing: Rohnert’s ride from all-state honors at Chaparral High School in Parker, Colo., to a slew of Sun Belt Conference accolades and the most regular season wins of his DU career has lit up Denver basketball brighter than fireworks on the Fourth of July. Credit hard work on the hardwoods, guidance from coaches, support from Rohnert’s family and a bucketful of basketball talent. No lucky coin toss involved.

“I’ve tried to listen to everything Coach Scott told me and tried to do everything he asked,” Rohnert says. “And, you know, it’s worked out. It’s sad to think I’m not going to be with these guys any more, but I’ve had so many great times. I’ve enjoyed every minute.”

So have fans. Over the past three seasons, the Pioneer faithful have watched Rohnert develop scoring confidence as a sophomore, earn first-team all-conference honors as a junior, and rack up top-10 performances in four key categories — scoring, assists, assist to turnover ratio and defensive rebounds — as a senior. All byproducts of Rohnert’s faith in the Scott coaching system, which Rohnert says, counts on “gym rats who want to work hard and get better, trust their coaches and compete.”

In other words, play DU basketball.

Rohnert’s immersion in the DU style came after the “nightmare” of his freshman year, when the team went 4–25 and had a mid-season coaching change. Scott came on board shortly thereafter and began ripping things up — sometimes at high volume.

“My sophomore year, I’m like, ‘Why is he saying this and why is he saying that?’” Rohnert recalls. “Then it started sinking in. Now I know exactly why he’s been saying all that stuff.”

The idea, the 6-foot-5-inch guard says, is to get the team playing its best basketball in February and March, just in time for the Sun Belt Conference tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.

“It’s like coach says, ‘There’s not one team in this league we can’t beat and there’s not one team that can’t beat us,’” Rohnert points out. “That’s why Scott’s been on us for three years. To make sure we’re tough. Aggressive. Disciplined. That we work hard on offense. Impose our will on the other team. I can really see that now.”

So can Rohnert’s teammates, who rely on his floor leadership to establish the tone.

“A lot of guys look at me to see what I’m feeling,” Rohnert says. “If I’m down or kind of rattled, they’ll be the same. But if I’m positive, staying confident in what we’re doing, then the other guys follow suit.”

Call it innate faith in Nate.

Off the court, Rohnert leads by example, “to show that hard work pays off. Taking care of business in the classroom and not doing anything stupid.

“I don’t have to get after them too much,” he allows. “We don’t have a lot of knuckleheads on this team.”

That quiet, plodding, self-disciplined Rohnert focus goes way back, says his mother Cheryl, her son’s biggest fan in addition to sister Kendra, an elementary school teacher in Denver.

“I would get up in the morning to go to work at 6:30ish and he was already at the high school gym shooting baskets,” she says. “If I couldn’t find him, I’d go to the high school and he’d be in the gym.”

Some of that motivation came from his father, Mark, an accomplished athlete who died when Nate was 11.

“The three of us got very, very close,” Cheryl recalls. Now that Nate is 22, she says, his successes are for himself. Like focusing on the marketing degree he’ll earn in the spring. Possibly taking a run at pro basketball in Europe. Maybe even coaching kids.

“I can see him being a Little League coach or a high school coach,” Cheryl says. “Some sort of teaching environment.”

But that’s someday. Saturday is about the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and the Sun Belt showdown that’s waiting in the wings March 3–8. Back in January, Louisiana-Lafayette beat DU by six points on its turf. Now DU has them at home. At stake is self-confidence, momentum and the best tournament seed possible.

“When I’m playing loose and aggressive, it really does help the team out,” Rohnert says. “I think I bring a lot of energy, make us fast, tough, strong on defense. Rebound, pass, score when I need to. When I’m doing that, the team’s doing well.”

Coach Scott agrees. Rohnert’s success, he says, is a blend of hard work to improve his game and success at fitting his game into DU’s style.

“It was the best recipe for him,” says Scott, noting that even opposing coaches are amazed at how much Nate has blossomed and improved.

“When he’s moving hard and fast, it makes the other team be concerned with him. To have to focus on him,” Scott says. “That’s helping our team.”

Which is good for the Pioneers. And for fans. How about a big helping of that Saturday night, Nate?

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