It was nearly a year ago that Steele Venters – and many of his Eastern Washington teammates – had a decision to make.
Does he stay or does he go?
Shantay Legans left the Eagles’ men’s basketball program shortly after the team’s NCAA Tournament appearance last March. When he accepted the head coaching job with the Portland Pilots, many of his former players either joined him or opted to transfer elsewhere.
At first, Venters didn’t know what to do, he said this week. He thought about going to Portland. He didn’t have a ton of game film to offer other programs, considering he had played just 163 total minutes last season and scored just 61 points.
He also liked then-associate head coach David Riley, who had recruited Venters and lobbied last season for the guard to play more than he was.
Venters waited to make a decision. When Riley was promoted to head coach, as Venters suspected might happen, his decision was made easier.
“I just put a lot of trust in Dave,” Venters said.
His decision to stay has worked out quite well for all parties involved. Starting and playing the majority of minutes for the first time in his college career, Venters is proving his worth. He leads the Eagles in scoring at 16.7 points per game, and his 3-point shooting percentage (44.9%) ranks first in the Big Sky Conference.
Venters’ performance is a significant reason why the Eagles are hopeful about the rest of this season, which continues Thursday night at home against first-place Montana State.
The Eagles are 13-12 overall and 7-7 in Big Sky games, sitting sixth in the 11-team conference. But they’ve said all season that if they just play a complete game, they can beat anyone. That’s something they demonstrated in a victory over Weber State on Feb. 10, which finally gave them a victory over one of the five teams ahead of them in the standings.
Beating Montana State would be another significant achievement: The Bobcats have won 11 games in a row and are 20-5 overall, 12-2 in conference play. That stretch includes a 69-65 victory over Eastern Washington on Jan. 27 in Bozeman.
“We’re feeling really good,” Venters said. “I think we’re feeling a lot more confident, and I think we feel like a whole different team.”
On a team that likes to spread around its scoring, Venters is the sharpshooter, the player who is a threat to make a 3-pointer even if he is 4 feet beyond the arc. It’s a role he’s been familiar with since he was a kid.
“He was always outside our front yard,” said Erin Venters, his mother. “He was always shooting out there, constantly.”
Erin and Wade Venters attended last week’s home games at Reese Court in Cheney, as they almost always do.
Wade Venters, who played basketball professionally overseas, noticed early that his son was going to be tall and lean.
“I did not want to put him in the post,” Wade said of his now 6-foot-7 son. “I always played with my back to the basket all the time, so I wanted him to be a guard. Ever since he was small, I was always trying to get his form right. I’ve rebounded a bazillion times for him, just like every dad does.”
Steele Venters still maintains his own shooting regimen, though he has graduated it from his family’s Ellensburg home to the Eagles’ gym – about 200 shots on his own, rotating depths and positions around the court.
“I think shooting in general is just muscle memory, no matter how far or how close you are,” Venters said. “Just putting the reps up.”
Casson Rouse, a redshirt sophomore who was already in Cheney when Venters arrived, said not playing last year motivated Venters – as did seeing so many Eagles’ players leave the program when Legans did.
Now, Rouse sees Venters working on his form and footwork to a degree he didn’t a couple of years ago.
“All the little details matter a lot more to him,” Rouse said.
Venters has also elevated himself as a leader, Rouse said.
“He’s quite cool and laid back,” Rouse said, “but seeing him over the last three years, when he first came here, he wouldn’t say a word in practice. Now he’s directing guys and showing guys where they need to be at. It’s cool to see. That’s just not his natural personality, so it’s nice to see him doing that.”
Rouse had a similar decision to make when Legans left, and there was no question he was going to stay: The Eagles were Rouse’s only offer coming out of high school, and he said he has always had a good connection with Riley.
Rouse, though, hasn’t played since the second game of the season when he suffered a knee injury. Surgery followed, and he won’t play again until next year.
For now, he is doing what he can to lead in other ways, and he said he has embraced the role of helping his teammates where he can, limping along the sidelines and doing whatever he can to help.
Along with redshirt sophomore Ellis Magnuson, Rouse and Venters are part of a core that remained from last season, and they have been leaders even amid a number of older, experienced transfers like Linton Acliese III, Rylan Bergersen and Angelo Allegri.
“It was good we had a couple guys who’ve played before in this system, who know the offense and know the defense and what coach Dave (Riley) wants,” Rouse said.
“And the new guys who have experience, it was nice to get their experience with our experience, their mindset with our mindset.”
As one of those returners, Venters gleaned much from his former teammates who, though they are gone now, taught him a lot about how to carry themselves and also how to play well at the college level.
“Last year, I learned that you have to stay with the process, and that it’s a long season,” Venters said. “You just have to stay consistent with everything you do.”
In some sense, it’s a different form of muscle memory: trusting the cycle of a basketball program and that his time to start would come.
“I think it was the best decision I made, for sure,” Venters said. ‘I’ve been able to thrive here.”
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