SKALLA’S SCOUTING SKILLS
By BRANDON HURLEY
A chance encounter opened a window of opportunity for a former Greene County Ram.
Calvin Skalla, a University of Iowa sophomore and a 2017 GCHS graduate, has spent the last several months shaping the success of the Big Ten champion Hawkeye women’s basketball team.
While that may be giving the former Ram and his male cohorts a little too much credit, they at least can somewhat stake a claim in Iowa’s tear through the regular season.
That’s because Skalla is a member of the Iowa scout team, comprised of several male college students who scrimmage the Hawkeyes on almost a daily basis. The partnership has done wonders in preparing Iowa for a stellar winter, as the Hawks piled up 23 regular season wins, a top 10 ranking and are poised to make a deep run in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
The secret to the success is clearly Megan Gustafson and her talented supporting cast, but the scout team has played a pivotal role as well.
–– • ––
Sports are never far from Skalla’s mind.
Neither are the remnants of his high school playing career lining the walls of the Skalla family home in Jefferson.
Which is how University of Iowa director of player development Abby Stamp stumbled upon the program’s newest scout team member last summer.
She was in town this past July seeking shelter from a rainy RAGBRAI stop when she noticed pictures of Skalla in his Rams uniform. Next thing Skalla knew, Stamp was inquiring on his interest on becoming a member of Iowa’s gray, or scout team. The soon-to-be sophomore didn’t take much convincing, the basketball itch had never left, and the chance to square off against top-tier Division I talent was all the hook he needed.
Skalla practices with the Hawkeyes and four to five other male students at least four days a week, running through drills with the women, adhering to coaching demands.
The physicality of women’s Big Ten basketball is what initially caught Skalla off-guard.
“They are more aggressive than I thought,” Skalla said. “They are super competitive. I love it and the (players) love it.”
The fierce competition and how down to earth the Hawkeye athletes are is what Skalla enjoys most.
“They thank us,” he said. “We don’t talk much to them because we don’t want to interfere, but they are super appreciative.”
Running with the scout team has allowed Skalla to really sink his teeth into the strategy of basketball. The athletes aren’t just moving parts for the women to scrimmage against, they’ve become important pawns in Bluder’s daily chess matches. They quickly study and learn new defensive and offensive game plans each week, imitating the likes of Maryland, Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern, among others.
If other Big Ten schools have trouble slowing the Hawkeyes, it’s no wonder the scout team has its hands full every week. The challenge is what takes the experience over the top, Skalla said.
“Most offensives aren’t a struggle, but some of the defenses are challenging,” Skalla said. “They’ll tell us to double team Megan (Gustafson) and then McKenzie Meyer will hit an open three.
I don’t understand why any team would play defense like that,”
As a member of the scout team, staying connected to basketball is of course a benefit, but so is getting an intimate glimpse into one of the top programs in the country.
–– • ––
The unanimous 2018-19 Big Ten Conference player of the year and soon to be consensus All-American leaves Skalla in frequent awe.
Megan Gustafson, Iowa’s all-time leading scorer and the top scorer in the nation at 27 points per game, is a treat to go up against in practice. There are times where the 70-percent shooter, who helped spark Iowa to a Big Ten tournament title with 45 points and 10 rebounds Sunday in Indianapolis, makes it all look so easy.
“It’s unbelievable,” Skalla said. “She has hands as good as (NFL draft prospects and former Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson). She’ll make layups at angles I’ve never seen.
She’s fouled almost every play. I’m catching myself watching and saying ‘wow’ in practice all the time.”
The Port Wing, Wisconsin, native is top-3 nationally in a number of categories. The senior was leading the NCAA in field goal percentage (69.6), points per game (28), total points, and field goals made, while she’s fourth in rebounding (13.3).
While Skalla hasn’t had much time to mingle with Gustafson and the other athletes, it’s not too difficult to see their personalities shine through.
“Megan is really humble. She’s the hardest hustler I’ve ever seen,” Skalla said. “She’s just so humble and really positive.”
Though Skalla averaged under five points per game as a Greene County Ram, he carved a role as one of the team’s enforcers, often picking up momentum-shifting charge calls while defending the opponent’s best player and hauling in key rebounds. His affinity for contact has rolled into his college days, drawn to lesser heralded but equally as talented players that make Iowa’s offensive juggernaut thrive. Skalla often finds himself matched up against Iowa’s starting point guard and Big Ten first-teamer, Kathleen Doyle (12.9ppg). He enjoys her vocal leadership most and her toughness.
“She’s outgoing and she’s a phenomenal point guard,” Skalla said. “She’s really physical and can drive right by me. She has a lot of energy.”
Not only has Skalla drank in the dedication of some of Iowa’s most successful athletes, but he’s also had the chance to analyze the preparation it takes.
–– • ––
Skalla’s peak behind the curtain has kept high level basketball within reach, but it’s also given him a truer appreciation for one of the NCAA’s top coaches in Lisa Bluder. The veteran has piled up more than 700 career victories, one of only 10 coaches in history to reach that plateau. Bluder has the Hawkeyes poised for perhaps their deepest tournament run to date in her 19th year on the Iowa City campus,
Having that weekly glimpse into Iowa’s game day prep has been quite the motivator for an aspiring coach himself, Skalla said. The sophomore is a triple major in statistics, mathematics and sports and recreation management, hoping to one day rise through the college coaching ranks.
“I’ve learned a lot from (her),” he said. “The way she teachers players to get through ball screens. Little things you need to do to make game better like reading the defense.”
Playing the sport isn’t enough for Skalla. Suiting up as a member of the scout team is just the next step. He’s seen first-hand how a big-time Division I program is run. Skalla hopes to expand his knowledge of the game and flip it into a life-altering position.
“I want to start as a recruiter and find a better way to recruit,” the former Ram said. “I realized I want to meet people and communicate.”
Iowa’s offensive execution is the most eye-popping to Skalla. They always seem to find Gustafson in the perfect position on the block or an open shooter beyond the three-point arc. It’s a big reason why the Hawks have four starters shooting over 50 percent.
“They are so smart,” Skalla said. “Everything they do I can’t believe they thought of it. The way the ball moves around, it’s amazing.”
Skalla’s fandom has also taken big leap this winter, as he’s kept close tabs on the women’s success. He’s attended around a third of the home games and has high hopes for the Hawks’ postseason dreams as they embark on the NCAA tournament. The experience has only provided more drive for the future coach while also giving him a sense of pride. The Hawks are in line to host the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament,
“They’ve had tremendous success,” Skalla said. “I pay attention to them a lot more than the men’s team. It’s crazy to believe I’ve been a part of it.”