The story of Kansas’ Holly Kersgieter and her unapologetic, unrelenting game
photo by: Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics
Maybe you’ve watched her play and seen her lead the Jayhawks in scoring and make tough baskets at crucial moments.
Maybe you’ve seen her competitiveness wash away every emotion from her face so there’s nothing left but a steely glare of intensity.
Maybe you’ve seen her laugh with her teammates but didn’t know why. Maybe you’ve seen her seething while others smiled and didn’t get that, either.
Regardless of what you know about Kansas guard Holly Kersgieter, the most important thing to understand is that everything she does is 100% her and 100% genuine.
“Holly will be the first to tell you she was never recruited to be the savior of KU women’s basketball,” her father, Chuck Kersgieter, told the Journal-World this past week. “And that’s not the role she’s played. But she’s committed herself to KU fully, and that’s been great for her and the team.”
A preseason all-Big 12 selection entering her senior year, Kersgieter is starting to get the kind of attention generally reserved for the best players in the conference.
She’s one of those. Her dad tells her that from time to time, but only as long as the praise does not prevent him from pushing her.
Kersgieter credits father for helping shape her basketball dream. His wisdom about investing in the game fueled her through middle school and high school, and she carries it with her to this day.
After rough practices, she said, Chuck always told her to focus on what she did well.
“I would go to practice and get my butt kicked and I would do like one good thing the whole practice,” Kersgieter said. “And my dad would tell me, ‘You at least did one good thing. Now work on something else.'”
So she did just that, working on tighter handles, better defense and being willing to shoot.
On the flip side, after good practices, Chuck usually focused on what Kersgieter could have done better.
“He was the perfect dad for the perfect child,” said Brian Morgan, Kersgieter’s AAU coach. “Even when things went great, he could pick out the smallest thing and she would listen to that and try to get better at that. She cared about that way more than anything she did well.”
• • •
To truly appreciate Kersgieter’s game, you have to look back to her early days, when she was overmatched and undersized but never blinked.
Born in Edmond, Oklahoma, she moved with her family to Augusta, Kansas, at age 4. It was there that she first picked up a basketball.
“It was a mess,” she said. “Total chaos because we were like 5. But I just remember that I knew I loved it.”
Her passion for the game was not a love of convenience.
“One day, it was straight-up winter, she was about 4 years old and she was out there in the driveway throwing the ball in the hoop,” Chuck recalled.
“It was icy and cold and I couldn’t find her,” her mother, Missy, said. “She was always outside playing.”
That was the family’s first hint that Kersgieter might be cut out for the basketball life.
“We knew something was up,” Chuck said. “Her hand-eye coordination as a 5-year-old was incredible; she was doing things 8-year-old boys couldn’t do.”
Kersgieter’s first big break came at age 7, when the family moved from Augusta to Sand Springs, Oklahoma.
“We got a much bigger driveway,” Kersgieter said. “We had a slanted driveway in Kansas and it wasn’t great to play on. The flat driveway was perfect.”
The Kersgieters did more than paint lines to make it look like a basketball court, though. Chuck, who played college ball at Central Oklahoma, actually took out part of the lawn and added concrete to make the court bigger.
Every inch of that concrete, new and old, taught Kersgieter something about the game. But the biggest lesson she learned was to never back down.
The youngest of three siblings, Kersgieter used to beg her older sister, Erin, to let her play with her friends.
“She would get beat up, talked down to and told to go sit in the corner and wait her turn,” Chuck recalled. “But when they’d leave, you’d see Holly out there throwing the ball up at the basket.”
Her older brother, Landon, who is closer to her in age, also helped educate her in the school of hard knocks on the family’s driveway. The Kersgieters played countless games of “33,” a version of “21” where it’s every player for themselves. The rules were simple, because there weren’t any.
No out of bounds. No fouls. Nothing. First one to 33 wins.
“I took the liberty of showing her what no fouls really meant a few times,” Landon told the Journal-World. “And I’ll admit that some of those fouls went a little too far on my little sister. But when nobody’s going to feel bad for you or give you a foul in the driveway, you’re going to learn to get over it pretty quick.”
Said Kersgieter: “I wasn’t super skilled; I was just always willing to play with toughness.”
• • •
Even after arriving at KU, Kersgieter had to wait for her game to develop.
As a freshman, she made a name for herself by shooting 41% from 3-point range in 29 games. She then started 53 games during her sophomore and junior seasons.
It wasn’t all good, though. Kansas coach Brandon Schneider said he used to have to run Kersgieter in practice and yank her from games because she refused to shoot.
“We knew that she was going to be a scorer,” Schneider told the Journal-World. “But she didn’t have a scorer’s mentality yet.”
After Kersgieter’s freshman year, many people in Kersgieter’s corner told her it was time to become a three-level scorer. So, she did.
It paid off the next season. She averaged a team-best 17 points, shot 85% at the free throw line and led the team in 3-point makes and rebounds per game. She also ranked second in steals and assists.
None of it surprised those who knew her, including Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self, who played high school ball with Kersgieter’s father.
Former KU women’s assistant Larry Tidwell used to tell Self all the time that Kersgieter was going to be great. True to form, Kersgieter’s dad told Self that Kersgieter could play but often lacked an aggressive edge.
“She belongs, though,” Self said. “She’s terrific. The thing I like about her game as much as anything is that she’s a complete player. She can pass, she can handle it, she can drive, she can shoot, she understands the game and she can play multiple spots. She’s a good basketball player.”
photo by: Chance Parker
• • •
Long before she figured it out at Kansas and became a breakout star in the Big 12, Kersgieter put in the kind of work that made her AAU coach believe in everything about her.
One of the keys in her development from scrawny little sister to all-Big 12 killer was the trust she had in the people who helped her. Morgan was one of them, and Kersgieter said his practices with the Tulsa-based Playing With Purpose AAU squad were the hardest she’d ever been through.
They were fast-paced, all about skills and full of Morgan lighting a fire and then putting it out.
“He always told you how it was,” Kersgieter said. “And he was such a good coach. His way was just so effective. That was how I got better.”
It was also how she learned to exist in the moment. One minute, Morgan would tear into her for a miscue during a drill. The next, he would ask her where they were going to eat, thinking nothing of what happened seconds earlier.
“That is me,” she said. “And that’s totally where I get it.”
Morgan credits Kersgieter for accepting his style.
“Her demeanor, like she says, that’s me,” Morgan said. “She’s my perfect type of player. And I was a good fit for her and what she needed. But she did the work. She has that mentality of, ‘I want to be great.'”
The AAU coach said he held Kersgieter to such high standards because he knew she could take it.
“There were times where people might’ve thought, ‘Wow, he’s being so hard on her,’ and she was just a ninth grader. But I knew her foundation was so strong that I could be as hard on her as I wanted to be,” Morgan said. “That’s why she’s where she’s at. Not because of me. But because she could handle that.”
“She could’ve played for Bobby Knight,” said Morgan, referencing the notoriously intense former Indiana Hoosiers coach.
• • •
Kersgieter arrived at Kansas with a vision that looked a lot like the reality she’s living today.
The steps she took weren’t always easy or enjoyable. The losing was hard. The frustration was real. And the challenges seemed to stack up.
None of it really fazed her.
“We had time,” she said. “We still have time. We knew this wasn’t going to be perfect right off the bat.”
It certainly wasn’t.
Often underestimated because of her skinny frame and physique, Kersgieter admitted it bothered her when opponents fought over who got to guard her.
She said she never talked to anyone about it and instead stored up her anger to use as motivation down the road.
“Honestly, it sucked,” she said. “It hurt. No one wants to hear that. But I just knew I had to get better.”
“There will always be people who underestimate you or look at you and see something else,” she added. “But life isn’t about how others see you; it’s just about how you see yourself. I never worried about being skinny or the smallest or last on the bench. I just worried about getting better however I could.”
To do that, Kersgieter has always broken her days into sections.
The strategic communications major said she loves school as much as she loves basketball, and she devotes the hours between 8 a.m. and noon to academics.
From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., it’s all basketball.
What happens after 5 p.m.?
“That’s Holly time,” she said, smiling. “Six to whenever.”
It’s during those evening hours that she allows time for balance. “Holly time” usually includes watching TV, reading a book, relaxing and being comfortable doing nothing.
She likes Beyoncé, Kevin Durant and rap because her teammates do. And it’s the reading, writing, photography and creative side of her that led her to her major.
Kersgieter’s organized but not obsessive about it. Her room, car and locker are clean unless they’re cluttered by boxes of new shoes. And she considers herself anti-social, but not because she doesn’t like people.
She’s OK being alone, like she often was as a kid, and she has a dry sense of humor and likes to lead with brutal honesty. Both of those traits go hand in hand with who she is at her core. Her teammates call it “nonchalant.” Kersgieter likes that.
• • •
There were moments during her first two seasons at KU when the losing bothered her so much that she would sit at practice and think, ‘What’s it all for?”
Schneider helped her remember.
“No matter what, he always had the best energy and the best attitude,” Kersgieter said. “I just remember thinking, ‘If he can do it, we can do it.’ We always trusted Brandon.”
Said Schneider: “You build relationships with players that you hope last a lifetime, and her sticking with me when it probably wasn’t easy to do is something I’m extremely grateful for. I think it really benefited Holly, too.”
“I just remember thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be fun. This is probably one of the biggest moments of my career,'” Kersgieter recalled. “In the huddle on the court before overtime started, that was one of the most locked-in moments our team had the whole year.”
Four days after that win, Kersgieter and the Jayhawks suffered a loss she called “the (crappiest) loss I’ve ever had in my life.”
Kansas had perennial power Baylor on the ropes. But late miscues allowed Baylor to steal the win. Afterward, Kersgieter was so crushed she couldn’t eat or even leave the gym.
“It wasn’t just that we lost,” she said. “But it had this tiny feeling of being the old KU, the feeling I had my freshman and sophomore year. I was just like, ‘We can’t do this.'”
They didn’t. Instead, KU finished 9-5 down the stretch and earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament and the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in nearly a decade.
photo by: Damon Young/Kansas Athletics
• • •
All of that brings us to today, when KU has higher expectations than ever and already is receiving votes in the preseason polls.
Kersgieter’s a preseason all-Big 12 pick, and she’s surrounded by teammates who are just as hungry as she is to prove they belong.
“It’s great,” she said. “It’s fun. Every day you wake up just a little more motivated. You’re doing the same thing — it’s the same routine — but it just helps your overall mental state and makes you want to keep going.”
How far she’ll go is anyone’s guess. And there aren’t many people who will put a limit on it.
Kersgieter said Schneider has told her she could be picked in the WNBA draft. She hasn’t allowed herself to go there yet.
“I never really even saw myself excelling this far,” she said. “But the way our team is going right now, I want that first. I just want to win and celebrate and enjoy that.”
It’s words like those that remind her parents, her AAU coach and Schneider how lucky they are to be a part of Kersgieter’s journey.
Morgan, her AAU coach, said she belongs on the list of the best players to ever come through KU, men or women.
“She’s that special,” he said. “Not just how she plays and what she’s accomplished, but her demeanor, how she carries herself, her work ethic, all of those things.”
Schneider believes it’s possible that Kersgieter one day will be mentioned among KU’s greats, and her family is already well versed in that line of thinking.
“Even though she’s younger than me, I definitely look up to her,” sister Erin said. “I can’t even imagine the pressure that’s on her and all that goes into just being her, and yet she handles it so well. I’m so impressed by everything about her.”
photo by: Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics