Fennelly Wins Gold with USA U19 Team
AMES, Iowa – Bill Fennelly has experienced a great deal of success in his coaching career and for the second consecutive summer he has helped guide a USA Team to a gold medal. Fennelly spent the 2009 summer as an assistant coach for the USA U19 World Championship Team that went 8-1 and captured gold in Bangkok, Thailand.
"As a coach you hear the national anthem all the time, but to hear it with a gold medal around your neck as you see the flag rise to the rafters is truly special," Fennelly said.
Fennelly spent nearly a month with the USA team this summer, between team trials in May, eight days of practice at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a two and a half week stay in Bangkok as the team played 11 games in 13 days.
The Americans won an exhibition game with France and played Australia in a scrimmage setting, before the real action began. In the first game, the USA was humbled quickly, falling 90-86 to Spain. But according to Fennelly, that could have been the turning point for the team.
“I think after it is over, it is easy to say that the best thing that happened to our team was that we got beat in the first game,” Fennelly said. “We didn’t get a chance to scout Spain at all, so you just go out and play. I think the team needed to be humbled and we were. We lost to a good team by four points, but we lost. It was hard to see the way Spain celebrated like they already won the gold medal. Anytime people beat the USA in anything they celebrate. You could tell they were pretty excited.”
The USA bounced back by winning its next two games convincingly over China and Mali to wrap up the first round of pool play. In the second round of pool play, the USA U19 Team went undefeated with wins over Canada, Russia and Japan, putting them in contention for a medal.
“If we weren’t playing, the other assistant coach (Amanda Butler) and the young man that was the manager for our team, we scouted every game,” Fennelly said. “We got to the medal round and we felt six of the eight teams could have won it. We felt like we had as good of a chance as anyone if we played. It was much more balanced than it was in the past and teams had a little bit more of an edge to them.”
The Americans rolled through the medal round defeating France in the quarterfinals, Canada in the semifinals and avenging the first loss of the tournament in the championship game against Spain to win the gold, 87-71.
“Once we got through the second pool and we got into the medal round, the end was in sight,” Fennelly said. “I think at that point we identified our core group of players and the style we were going to have to play to advance. The last two games we couldn’t have played any better. Ironically we beat Spain and we kind of came full circle. The kids handled it really well, which was to their credit.”
Head coach Carol Owens (Northern Illinois) and the staff had to completely shift their style of play midway through the event.
“Early on we were trying to be a real aggressive, pressure, man-to-man defensive team, and we fouled a lot,” Fennelly said. “We didn’t have enough depth in the post, so we ended up going to more zone presses, zone defenses, and based on our team and the way other teams played, that was the best. It certainly allowed us to play a style that fit our kids a little bit better. That’s the way we played in the medal round in all three games, and except for about a 10 minute stretch in the quarterfinal game against France, we were by far the best team there and played that way at the end.”
Fennelly is notorious for making game-time adjustments, so changing the entire playing style of the USA team was just par for the course. Adjusting to the cuisine and culture in Thailand, however, posed a little bigger challenge for ISU’s head coach.
“It’s not a great place,” he said. “The people were very nice, but they definitely have some issues. It’s not the cleanest place I’ve ever been. The food was a little shaky. I lived on bread, French fries and pizza for 18 days. I ate French fries for breakfast.”
The food was not the only thing the team had to adjust to. All 16 teams stayed in the same hotel and ate in the same quarters. It was a lesson in humanity and world politics.
“Carol Callan, the head of USA Women’s Basketball, does a great job of really saying that we have to be so much better, nicer, and really watch what we say and do because most of the world does not have a real affinity of the United States,” Fennelly said. “When you are on an elevator with three Russian players and they are just glaring at you because Russia doesn’t like the United States, it is a little uncomfortable. We talked a lot about the fact that the perception of us going in was bad, so we’ve got to be careful about what we say, how we say it, how we dress, how we look, and how we act, so that their perception of us is different.”
While the conditions weren’t ideal, it became a learning experience for Fennelly and the others. It gave him a greater appreciation for what he has back home in Ames, Iowa.
“It’s not a place I would be anxious to go back to just because it wasn’t very clean and there were things you had to be concerned with,” he said. “There are six million people there. It was people everywhere and traffic. I told our team that it gave me an even greater appreciation for them and our staff. Even though I love living here, doing this was good for me, because it makes you understand how lucky you are to live where you live. That sounds kind of corny, but it’s a fact. Hopefully the players on the team feel the same way because it makes you feel different to be in a place where most people don’t like you.”