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  • Writer's pictureAdam Glatczak

NAIA Star Building on Freshman Success

(Photos courtesy of NWC Athletics Communications.)

When it was time for Alex Van Kalsbeek to pick a college to continue his education and basketball career, it undoubtedly surprised few on the NAIA basketball scene when the Sheldon, Iowa native chose Northwestern College in Iowa.


Logistically, Van Kalsbeek grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa just 20 miles from the Orange City, Iowa campus. He also attended high school in Orange City, and his basketball career at MOC-Floyd Valley High School, just a few miles from the Northwestern campus, certainly would’ve put him on the Raiders’ radar under any circumstances.


Personally, Van Kalsbeek has been tied to Northwestern for most of his life. Alex’s two older brothers, Daniel and Justin, also attended Northwestern - a Christian school with roots to the Dutch Reformed Church, and now affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Both played for the Raiders under head coach Kris Korver, the uncle of former Creighton great and longtime NBA sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Alex did his due diligence when selecting a school, but he chose to become the third Van Kalsbeek to play for the Raiders.


“A few other schools offered me and I went on some visits,” said Van Kalsbeek. “But because I’ve been around Northwestern basketball my whole life, I’ve built relationships and connections with the coaches that made me feel like Northwestern would allow me to become the best player and person I can be.”


Oldest brother Daniel played for the Raiders from 2009-13, and Justin followed at NWC from 2013-17. From age seven until he was almost old enough to drive, Alex watched his brothers play for the Raiders, following them at home and on the road in the tough Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC). Daniel was a three-time NAIA honorable mention All-American and scored more than 1,700 career points, and Justin had a solid career, starting as a senior on a team that won 27 games and advanced to the second round of the NAIA Division II tournament.


Daniel and Justin made a combined four trips to the NAIA tourney in their time at Northwestern. In just over a year, Alex has already begun adding to that family legacy.


The 6-foot-6 post authored a monster season in 2020-21, establishing himself as not just the premier freshman in NAIA hoops but one of the top players, period.


Van Kalsbeek averaged 20.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and posted hyper-efficient shooting numbers in leading Northwestern to a 23-6 record, a Great Plains Athletic Conference Tournament title, and a trip to the NAIA National Championship tournament. The individual honors rolled in too, as he was named the GPAC Freshman of the Year, a first team all-conference pick and capped the season being named a third team NAIA All-American.


His successful first season at Northwestern only continued to display his growing skill on the court. At MOC-Floyd Valley High School, he averaged better than 17 points per game as a junior and over 18 points as a senior. He was one of the top scorers in the state in Iowa Class 3A, a two-time first team all-Siouxland Conference selection and also crossed the state line to play for the South Dakota Attack AAU program.


After graduation, the Van Kalsbeek family connection and proximity weren’t the only alluring qualities Northwestern had to offer. Korver, a highly successful coach in his own right, is in his 22nd year at Northwestern and is nearing 500 wins at the school. He also boasts two NAIA Division II national titles, won in 2001 and 2003.


“We knew Alex was going to be a good college player from the time he was young,” said Korver. “We just tried to encourage him and bless him as much as possible while he was growing up.”


“(Assistant) coach Miller played with his older brother, Daniel. (Assistant) Coach (Colton) Kooima played with his older brother, Justin. We appreciate their family and we feel blessed to have the opportunity to invest in these young men while they play basketball at Northwestern.”


Despite the excitement after joining the Raiders, there was the matter of how he would mesh with a veteran team that had a productive season the year before. Northwestern went 20-12 in 2019-20 and qualified for the NAIA Division II tournament, falling to top-ranked College of Idaho in one of ten games played before the rest of the tourney was canceled due to the burgeoning COVID-19 virus.


“The seniors took me in with open arms and as a group we were willing to do whatever it took to win,” said Van Kalsbeek. “Every game was different in regards to whose night it was going to be. We had such good chemistry and trust in each other to find the hot hand and play unselfishly.”


Five starters returned from that team, all seniors. Adding a talented freshman could’ve been a sticky dynamic, but Van Kalsbeek fit in seamlessly. He started from day one, scoring 20 points in just 24 minutes in a win over Viterbo (WI), and was nearly automatic scoring in double figures 28 times in 29 games, with only Mount Marty (SD) limiting him to five points in a game in early January.


“We knew he would gel right away,” said Korver. “He fit in well immediately. He is quiet, positive, fun to be around and unselfish. The guys on the team enjoy him as a person.”


Van Kalsbeek was as consistent as can be scoring and rebounding, but most notable was that he was incredibly efficient. In the analytic age of the sport he’s a dream, having shot an incredible 72.9 percent from the field as a frosh. Thirteen times he converted better than 80 percent of his attempts in a game, and these weren’t small sample sizes, as he shot at least ten times in 11 of those games. Van Kalsbeek also made 78.7 percent of his shots from the foul line.


“College basketball is obviously different than high school but because of hard work in the weight room, I was strong enough to compete with others and adjust to the different play style,” said Van Kalsbeek. “(Having) connections with the program for many years before coming here allowed me to come in comfortable and play to the best of my ability. I came in hungry and ready to play.”


Northwestern was solid last year through its first 15 games, winning ten, blemished only by five losses, all by five points or less or in overtime. The Raiders were just warming up, though, and after a January 2 overtime loss to Concordia (NE), they won 13 straight to close the season.


Northwestern rallied to finish second in the GPAC behind only regular season champion Morningside (IA). The Raiders then won a pair of nail biters in the GPAC Tournament to advance to the championship game, where they handled Cinderella No. 8 seed Mount Marty to take the GPAC’s second automatic berth in the NAIA Tournament, with Morningside claiming the first.


The winning streak and season came to a sudden end with a 76-69 loss to Bethel (KS) in the NAIA Championship opening round, as the Raiders’ rally from 14 down to within one late fell just short. Still, Northwestern finished the season ranked 22nd in the final NAIA top 25 poll, and Van Kalsbeek and the team received plenty of honors, including five players receiving all-GPAC recognition. The capper was Van Kalsbeek being named a third team All-American, and while the NAIA doesn’t recognize an official national freshman of the year, there was little doubt of who it would’ve been as Van Kalsbeek was the lone frosh named to any of the top three All-American teams.


“Alex makes the game easier for others,” said Korver in March after Van Kalsbeek received all-GPAC recognition. “He makes the people around him better and has grown a ton as a defender this year. As he (became) more familiar with our system and schemes, he has just gotten better and better.”


Van Kalsbeek is more than just a near sure-thing bucket getter whenever he shoots. He also is a nifty passer from the post who averaged more than three assists per game in 2020-21 and had 12 games with four or more assists, nine coming during the Raiders’ winning streak. He also blocked 31 shots during the year.


“He is a great teammate, a hard worker and is fun to coach,” said Korver in the spring. “His basketball I.Q. is high. He is such a willing passer and he is such an unselfish player. We often have to tell him that it is OK to just score the ball.”


About the only knock one could’ve made against Van Kalsbeek last year was that he was fairly one-dimensional offensively, doing much of his work from the post. He intends to continue working on expanding his game in his sophomore year, and in particular said he’s spent a lot of time on a post fadeaway. His coach also believes he is fully capable of doing more.


“We hope to see his game continue to evolve,” said Korver. “He is so efficient around the basket but he has the skill set to be more than just a post player. He worked hard this offseason and we expect him to do more than just play around the rim.”


This year is a new challenge, and Van Kalsbeek is even more prominent for Northwestern as one of just two returning starters. Fellow first team all-GPAC selection Trent Hilbrands chose to use his “COVID year” and is back for one more senior season, but the other four seniors finished their careers. This year’s Northwestern team is considerably less experienced, was picked fourth in the GPAC’s preseason poll. They also did not receive a vote in the NAIA national top 25 poll.


Still, the goals will remain high. Northwestern has been a frequent visitor to the NAIA national tourneys with 23 trips all-time, including 20 since 1992, a stretch that covers a number of years in NAIA Division II under a two-division format. The NAIA moved back to a single division again starting last year.


Van Kalsbeek said he enjoyed his first taste of the NAIA tourney, but feels he and his team have unfinished business.


“It was a great time with my teammates,” he said. “But losing in the first round has stuck with me and will motivate me and my teammates to get back and finish what we started. My expectations and goals are simply to win. We are going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”

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