by Steve Levy, Director of Athletic Communications (revised May, 2015)
Original interview contributed by Paul Mittermeier for Q1370, February 2015
Coaching at the NCAA Division I level can be extremely stressful. Your livelihood is determined by 18-to-22 year old young men and women and how they perform on and off the playing courts and fields.
And, sometimes the rewards of coaching are not seen in the win column of a team. One of UMBC head coach Aki Thomas' highs of the 2014-15 season was the presence and the development of "The Big Swede," freshman Jakob Stenhede.
"This is really why I love my job," said Thomas, as he spoke with Paul Mittermeier about Jakob on the Retriever mentor's weekly radio show in February. "I get to watch people transform right in front of my eyes. (Jakob) He works hard and he's a winner."
Stenhede was a big unknown when he arrived at UMBC to begin his first semester. Thomas and his staff usually have multiple opportunities to see prospective student-athletes play and practice and can also interact with their families and coaches. But Stenhede had very limited exposure in the states, having only come to this country to participate in a single basketball camp. Moreover, his native Sweden is more known for ice hockey superstars and other athletes than basketball players.
Stenhede actually comes from a musical family. His mother, Pia, is a flute teacher, his father, Magnus, plays the bass and his sister, Ellen, plays the violin. Jakob himself has a singing background and also played the piano. But, given his size, Jakob decided to give basketball a try and joined a local club team. He enjoyed it, and over time, became more serious about the sport and the possibilities it could present for him.
"I wanted to study and play basketball at the same time," said Stenhede. "In the USA, there is this great system where you can do that. We don't have that in Sweden. Either you go to a university or you play with a club team. That's when I started looking to play college basketball."
That attitude sharply contrasts with the attitude of many Americans – students, parents, and coaches alike – that feel entitled to playing a sport at a university in the states.
"It's a breath of fresh air," said Thomas. "It's great to hear (Jakob) say that. This is a tremendous opportunity, not only for Jakob, but for any young person who is in a position to receive athletic scholarships. "
In an ideal world, Stenhede would have been red-shirted this past season. He came off the plane in August at 6'10", but weighing only 198 pounds. So the Retriever mentor turned Jakob over to Strength and Conditioning Coach Casey Cathrall.
In a sport where most players lose weight during the season, Stenhede gained nearly 30 pounds and has transformed his body dramatically. "Credit Casey, who works with him every day and pretty much tortures him," joked Thomas.
Of course, much of the credit also goes to Stenhede, who seems to always be studying, eating, working out and eating some more.
"I am getting stronger on the court," said Stenhede, back in February. "I can see it in practice. I couldn't push anyone around at the beginning. Now I can actually stand up to them."
After seeing action in just three of the first six games, Stenhede played 18 minutes against the Iowa Hawkeyes before over 13,000 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He hit 3-of-6 shots in a six-point, four-rebound effort.
In a victory at Maine, he made all six shots he attempted – two from the field and four from the charity stripe. He also produced a pair of seven-carom games and started contests at New Hampshire and Vermont.
"The game is a little bit fast for any freshman coming in and Jakob is a big guy and big guys take longer to develop," said Coach Thomas. "He is really doing much better with the speed of the game and how physical it is down low."
"I am learning all the time, whether it's Cody (Joyce) or a player on the opposite team," said Stenhede. "I try to learn as much as possible. I'm trying to find my own style, my own go-to move."
Stenhede has been helped by the support he has received both on campus and from his family. UMBC tennis standout Melker Svard, from Gothenburg, Sweden, reached out to Jakob via Facebook when he learned that his countryman would be coming to UMBC. Hanna Victorsson is also a freshman from Sweden, who competes on the tennis team and track team member Victor Ivarsson, a former neighbor of Stenhede's, has become a good friend.
There is a six-hour time difference between Baltimore and Göteburg, so Jakob's family watched the afternoon games and sends e-mails of encouragement the next day. "My parents always have been very supportive, even though they don't know this world that well," said Stenhede.
"A year like this year, he has been able to get some quality minutes," said Coach Thomas. "He has been able to get his nails dirty, get some rebounds, change some shots. He's done that and I'm really proud to have him with the Retrievers. He's a great addition to the program.
"Jakob has done a tremendous job ever since he stepped off the plane and onto this campus. I see nothing but great things ahead for him."
Coach Thomas' words back in February were actually quite prophetic . Stenhede continued to work after the season ended and has added a total of 36 pounds in nine months, now tipping the scales at 234 pounds. Moreover, he has increased his bench press from 115 to 190 pounds, and, despite the weight gain, has added two inches to his vertical leap.
Officials in Sweden continued to monitor Stenhede's progress and Jakob stayed in touch with his coaches as well. He got the word in late April that he had been added to the U20 national team, which will compete the in European Championships (Division B) in Hungary beginning on July 7.
"I feel blessed to have been given this opportunity," Stenhede said recently as the team prepared for several warm-up competitions in Austria. "It gives me the chance to prove myself and get some recognition for all the work I have put in throughout the semester. I also believe that this is going to benefit me personally when the team (UMBC) season starts."
"All of the credit goes to Jakob, Coach Cathrall and his staff for all of their hard work and dedication," said Coach Thomas. "By playing for the Swedish national team this summer, I can see Jakob adding depth to our front line and working his way into a productive role for us in the near future."