Back With USA Basketball, Suzy Merchant Eyes Pan American Medal for USA Women
Any coach selected to lead a USA Basketball team already has a high level of credibility, but those who have championships jumping off the pages of their resumes and a gold medal hanging on the walls of their offices command even more respect.
It has been a decade since Suzy Merchant helped lead a team of American women to gold as an assistant coach for the USA at the 2009 World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia. In the years since, she’s been busy as the head coach at Michigan State University, where she has led the Spartans on a run of success that has included Big Ten titles and regular NCAA tournament appearances. Not to mention, she’s also been raising two kids.
She returned to the campus of the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this week to oversee trials for the 2019 U.S. Pan American Games Women’s Basketball Team.
“It’s really humbling and a tremendous honor,” Merchant said. “I don’t think there is anything that has more value than representing your country. I just feel really blessed and humbled and honored to have an opportunity to be a part of an amazing organization and represent the United States of America.”
The last time Merchant coached for USA Basketball, she had a 2-year-old. She said being away from her son in the summer, in addition to the time she already spent away from him the rest of the year while coaching the Spartans, was difficult. Now that her children are 8 and 12 years old and understand more of what she is doing, leaving home for an extended trip is a different experience.
“When you have small kids, for me as a mom, it makes it a little bit tough to leave again with as much as we have to leave in general,” Merchant said. “So, I struggled with that a little. I think sometimes in life it’s about timing, right? My kids are older now, and they’re into their activities and events. So, I just felt like it was a good opportunity, and it was presented at the right time.”
Merchant and the team that is ultimately will be selected from 35 invitees will have a significant challenge just to earn a medal in the 2019 Pan American Games women’s basketball competition from Aug. 6-10 in Lima, Peru. The U.S. is the all-time leader with seven gold medals, but has won just one since 1987, which came in 2007. The 2011 team finished seventh, and the 2015 team finished with a silver medal.
The young women competing at trials to represent their country come from college programs throughout the nation. There are 10 in the group of 35 who have previously won medals representing USA Basketball and 11 more who have experience at a USA Basketball trials. The remaining 14 are experiencing it all for the first time.
“There is no question we’ll be going against some of the best players in the world,” Merchant said. “I think these kids realize it’s going to be a challenge, but standing on the podium at the end listening to your national anthem with a gold medal around your neck is something that is worth working for, and they recognize every day is going to be a battle and a challenge to earn that.”
Merchant will have plenty of help from assistant coaches Felisha Legette-Jack (University of Buffalo) and Vic Schaefer (Mississippi State University). Merchant said she recognizes she is the head coach, but she sees the staff as more of a collaboration, with each coach having the opportunity to make an impact on individual players and the team.
She said, together, the coaches and the USA Basketball Women’s Junior National Team Committee, which will select the 12 team members, have an idea of the types of players who will help them succeed later this summer.
Those athletes can attack the rim, shoot from a slightly longer 3-point distance, play in space and defend. Not every player has to have all those skills, but each will have at least some of them. Having the mentality to share the ball and make the next pass would likely go over well with a coach who was a three-year captain at Central Michigan University and set the Chippewas program record for all-time assists with 463.
Merchant said she also looks for versatility, such as a guard who can post up or a post player who can threaten opponents from the perimeter. The intangibles are always important, too.
“I think that mental toughness and physical toughness is a big part of winning at any level,” Merchant said. “To really put the work in, to go it together and know that you’re going to face adversity and challenges and to learn to collectively come together and come through that is an important part of the process.
“We’ll try to make everything as competitive and aggressive as we can, so they can handle some of those things when they are faced with them.”