DENVER – When Washington State basketball player Robbie Cowgill steps up to the free- throw line, he talks to God.
“That’s probably the most time when you get to sit and think about this shot, and how important this shot is,” Cowgill said. “It’s nice to kind of remind yourself, and talk to God, ‘Here’s who you say I am, whether I miss this or make it.’
“It really takes pressure off yourself at the line.”
Religious faith has been a driving factor behind the Cougars’ successful seasons – last year’s Cinderella NCAA Tournament berth, and this year’s 25-8 season and run into the Big Dance. WSU plays Notre Dame at 3:40 p.m. (PDT) today in the tournament’s second round.
Many players translate their belief in servanthood to God into servanthood to the team. They use faith to remind themselves they’re a part of something bigger.
And that’s where their season-long motto, “In Such a Way,” comes into play.
According to the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 9:24: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.”
For the postseason, the Cougars have been sporting T-shirts with “I.S.A.W.” emblazoned across the front.
“At the start of the year,” said freshman Abe Lodwick, “Coach (Tony Bennett) was sharing with us just about how everything we do this year we need to do ‘in such a way.’ Everything we need to do we need to do with a purpose to win.
“It really struck a nerve with us.”
Bennett, a man of faith himself, has used the phrase to help keep his team on track throughout the season. If the Cougars were sluggish during practice, if they needed motivation to lift weights, if they let the season’s pressures get to their heads, Bennett would remind them to do things in such a way.
In such a way that they may win.
“Kind of not playing for yourself, that’s what it really does mean to me,” said redshirt junior Taylor Rochestie, who wears a silver crucifix whenever he’s not on the court. “You gotta train in such a way to get the team better. Play in such a way – you know, go for the loose balls, do the little things.
“It’s kind of the same way as saying, ‘Do the intangibles.’ “
It means something similar for Cowgill, who has been a team leader this season as a senior. I.S.A.W. is how to go about things, whether it’s at practice, in the weight room or on his own during the off-season, he said. It’s keeping the end goal – winning – in mind.
“When you think that way, it really helps you practice better, do those things better,” Cowgill said. “Because you realize, I’m putting in work, I’m kind of making deposits toward the prize.”
For Cowgill, his relationship with God is the most important thing in his life. When he focuses on himself instead of Jesus Christ, he said, he starts worrying: What do people think of him? What is he doing wrong?
And when he worries, he doesn’t play as well and he doesn’t enjoy basketball as much.
“Because of (faith), I don’t have to worry about how other people view me or if I miss a bunch of shots, what my identity really is,” Cowgill said. “Because I already know I’m secure in who God says I am, and that’s who I am. … I think in basketball that helps me a lot, calms me down a lot.”
Said redshirt junior Daven Harmeling, “Tangibly, I think my faith helps me play with passion. For me, a way to honor (God) is to play as hard as I can.
“And, you know, that doesn’t mean he’s going to guide the ball (into the basket) every time; I don’t think he does any of that,” Harmeling said, laughing. “But it does mean that I can play in a way that I can honor him with what he’s given me.”
Harmeling, whose father is a pastor, said faith builds a deeper bond among many of the Cougars – even among those teammates who aren’t passionate Christians, because they all have a chance to have deep conversations with one another.
The team even has its own unofficial spiritual adviser, a former director of WSU’s Campus Crusade for Christ student group who decided this year to focus on guiding athletes.
Todd Langerveld, a good friend of Bennett’s, has traveled with the team – but not officially – to many road games this season. Lodwick said Langerveld has become “kind of like a surrogate dad” for many players.
“I’m probably just in a friendship, advisory role with some of the players and coaches, really trying to help them grow in a relationship with God,” Langerveld said from the Cougars’ locker room at Pepsi Center. “These guys come (to WSU) and a lot of times their focus is going to be on the physical area of their life, or the intellectual area as students.
“And yet you start to realize there’s a lot going on on the inside of them, too.”
Langerveld is quick to point out that he cares for all the players, no matter their faith background – and that he’s just a Cougars fan like everyone else.
With all the talk of Christianity and the faith-based foundations on which much of the Washington State basketball program was rebuilt, no rifts have formed between the believers and nonbelievers, Lodwick said.
“If anything, (faith is) something that helps keep the team together,” said Lodwick, whose father also is a pastor. “I wouldn’t say it’s a defining characteristic, but it also is. It’s not something that alienates anybody. I think there’s a real healthy balance of it.
“It’s not an issue on the team. Which is good, because as prevalent as it is, there hasn’t been any conflict about it.”