Kirsten Tilleman Toils for Gauchos
By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Kirsten Tilleman does all the dirty work for the UCSB women's basketball team, but trash talk might as well be a foreign language.
The Gauchos' resident genius is more likely to baffle you about something environmentally scientific.
"A lot of times in our conversations, all I can say to her is, 'Yeah? Wow! Really?'" UCSB coach Carlene Mitchell said. "I use a lot of wows when I talk to her."
She said director of athletics Mark Massari put it another way: "She sucks the brain right out of me."
Tilleman, only 21, is already a masters candidate in environmental science and management even though she's still in only her junior year of college basketball.
She transfered from Oregon State to UCSB this year for academic reasons, although she does consider basketball an important extra-curricular activity. She'll lead the Gauchos into today's 3 p.m. game at Cal State Fullerton.
"UCSB's Bren School was a program that my thesis mentor back at OSU actually suggested," Tilleman said. "I really liked it when I looked more into it, and it was a win-win because the basketball program here has such a history of excellence."
Tilleman has been helping Mitchell write a new chapter, leading the Gauchos with a rebound average of 8.3 per game — fourth best in the Big West Conference — and field-goal percentage of .529. But it's her penchant for taking charges, diving for loose balls and setting hard screens that has caught the attention of both coaches and trainers alike.
She wears her many bruises like badges of courage.
"People comment on that a lot," Tilleman said with shrug. "I guess my thought is I am OK with putting myself in the position to take a hit whether it's for a charge or to batter around those bigger players if it means I'm going to help contribute to the team.
"I'll put myself out there and do what I can."
When Mitchell took the job at UCSB, she asked an acquaintance what she knew about Tilleman.
"The quote I got was, 'She'll run through a wall for you,'" she said.
And without a crash helmet. Tilleman has even resisted her coach's suggestions of wearing arm sleeves or knee pads.
"She takes pride in being a warrior," Mitchell said. "She's proud of her blacks and blues. To her, those are signs of toughness."
As an undersized post player, the 6-foot-1 Tilleman has had to get by on attitude and intelligence, anyway. She pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game among the trees of the Pac-10 during her sophomore season at Oregon State.
"Her basketball IQ, and her willingness to do all the little things, are what's allowed her to find time on the floor," Mitchell said. "All you have to do is tell her something once and she gets it.
"Some players will have to make a mistake three times before that happens, but she takes information and can make her adjustments on the fly."
Tilleman's decision to adjust her place of study was also a matter of environmental science: Oregon State was no longer a nurturing habitat.
"There are different dynamics for everything, and how they piece together, and the main issue I had with Oregon State's program — and not with this year's coach, he's great, but the woman I played for — was just how she approached people," Tilleman said. "It was very manipulative and not an environment that people could really thrive in.
"We had a lot of talent but we were not able to reach our full potential as players and as a team because we were, essentially, playing against our own coach."
Tilleman, one of eight Beavers who wound up transferring, has found a different environment at UCSB.
"I'm really excited about coach Mitch because she pushes us hard, she knows her stuff, she really emphasizes defense ... but she is also very encouraging," she said. "She's someone I want to play for.
"She can even crack a joke every once in awhile."
Tilleman, who won Montana's Gatorade High School Player of the Year honor in both basketball and soccer, is a product of her environment. She even wrote a thesis about it entitled: "Our Natural Family: A Study Of How Young Children Connect With Nature."
"We spent years outdoors, just playing in the summer, and skiing and building snow forts in the winter, and that really fostered this connection with the natural world and me," she said. "My mother is also a preschool teacher and so it was always part of our understanding that a lasting education starts young, and it doesn't necessarily mean you sit down and you have those textbooks, but just start ..."
She could tell that she was losing me with the way I kept saying "Yeah ... wow... really?" and so Tilleman took a different tact.
"Rachel Carson has this wonderful quote that I love," she began. "It's about how the early childhood years are the times you start preparing the soil for the seeds that you will plant for knowledge and wisdom in the future."
It's the dirty work Tilleman relishes every time she takes the court.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org