“Family” feel, new coaching philosophy behind Sac State’s turnaround under Campbell

Mark Campbell, assistant coaches Minyon Moore and Nyara Sabally rejoice with the bench during a game. Sacramento State Athletics photo.

Anyone doing a double-take at the Big Sky Conference standings in early league play can be forgiven.

In third place is Sacramento State, which has spent the better part of the last decade as one of the bottom-feeders of the conference. Their 1-0 record is just one win behind the 2-0 slates of Idaho and Idaho State, but overall, the Hornets have the best record by far. The Bengals are 7-6, the Vandals are 6-7, and Sacramento state is 10-2.

It is the second-best start in program history through 12 games, topping the 11-1 mark of nine years ago. This week the Hornets were ranked No. 24 in the College Insider mid-major poll – the first time since Feb. 2014 that they’ve been in the poll.

The fire was ignited in the spring of 2021, when longtime Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell took the reins of the beleaguered program. With a vision, a staff of “family” and a reconstructed roster, Campbell aims to take Sacramento State to new heights.

“He teaches us that it is not necessary to be a great player in all categories, but it is necessary to find directions that we will develop to near perfection, which will help our team one step closer to victory,” junior center Isnelle Natabou said. “We are a unit full of imperfections as individuals, but only if we work together as one mind – the sky is the limit.”

Campbell arrived after seven years in Eugene helping head coach Kelly Graves rebuild the Duck program into Final Four arrivals in 2019. Campbell worked with guards and helped develop the defense. He was also the lead recruiter, scouting on multiple continents, and helped Oregon sign the No. 3 class in 2016, which included eventual program all-time leader scorer Sabrina Ionescu and two other 2021 WNBA top draft picks in Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard. He was a major force in the team’s top recruiting class of 2020.

The Hornets had struggled in the last years of former coach Bunky Harkleroad’s eight-year tenure, going 3-22 in his last season. Campbell said he was attracted to the opportunity because of its potential.

“The first thing that led me to Sac State was our athletic director Mark Orr and his leadership,” Campbell said. “I trusted him and his vision for what could be accomplished here. I saw what the football and baseball teams were accomplishing and thought we could build something similar.”

In constructing his staff, Campbell didn’t look far. He brought along assistant Xavier Lopez, who worked side-by-side with him the entire time at Oregon, and two former Ducks: Minyon Moore and Nyara Sabally – the younger sister of Satou.

“Building a program is all about the people, Campbell said. “Getting the right people is the first step, and then getting them all aligned and pulling in the right direction is the next step. It truly takes a village, which is what makes it so fun and rewarding.”

Campbell said “building a (Duck) program from scratch” is what bonded Lopez and himself.

“I believe Xavi is the best international recruiter in college basketball, and he is also in charge of our spread pick-and-roll offense,” Campbell said. “Our secret weapon is our director of operations, Megan Lopez. She had the same position when we were at the University of Oregon, and she does an amazing job keeping our program organized and moving in the right direction.”

Top scorer Kahlaijah Dean heads toward the basket. Sacramento State Athletics photo.

Lopez said making the move with Campbell was a no-brainer.

“Oregon was a great learning experience, Lopez said. “After helping build one of the premier programs in college basketball, it was time for a new challenge and a new opportunity. I believe in Mark and his vision, and am excited to build another special program alongside him.”

Moore said she was excited to come aboard at Sacramento State.

“I joined coach Campbell’s staff because of the relationship we had my senior year at the University of Oregon,” Moore said. “He believed in me not only as a player, but as a person during one of the hardest years of my life and for that the decision was easy. I always knew one day he’d make an incredible head coach.”

Sabally was drafted into the WNBA last year, but had to sit out the season with injury. Campbell contacted her about coaching for him.

“He asked if I had any interest in joining the coaching staff during my off season,” Sabally said. “He knew that I was not going to be able to play due to my injury so he suggested that I spend the time gaining coaching experience and helping the team/players from my perspective being fresh out of college. Prior to that call I did not even necessarily think about coaching but knowing Mark, Xavi and Minyon, it was a pretty easy decision for me.”

Lopez said it means a lot to the players of their team to have former players as their leaders.

“Having your former players on staff is like hiring family,” he said.” We got to coach them and be in the trenches with them, so we truly know what they are all about. They are both having a huge impact on the team.”

Campbell was pleased to find that the team he took over was eager to learn and adapt to the new system.

“We inherited a group of seniors that were great leaders and very hard-working,” he said. “Sarah Abney, Summer Menke, Emily Enochs, and Jazzy Carrasco all bought in, and played a huge role in turning the program around and laying the foundation for future success.” 

Campbell also signed a group he called “some very special players.”

“Lianna Tillman was the first piece we added and she ended up being the Big Sky Conference’s MVP. Then, we were able to bring in center Isnelle Natabou, who was named the league’s Newcomer of the Year and is now developing into one of the top centers in college basketball,” Campbell said.

“In addition, forward Katie Peneueta was a perfect “stretch four” that complimented both of them and ended up setting the school’s single-season record for three-point percentage.”

With Lopez’s guidance, the Hornets’ reach for recruits extended worldwide. Natabou is from the Czech Republic; freshman Benthe Versteeg hails from Holland; and freshman Irune Orio comes from Spain.

“We have worked really hard to recruit great kids, Lopez said. “We try to have a blend of internationals and Americans. It is fun bringing players from all over the world to build a team and a program.”

Isnelle Natabou goes over the defense to score. Sacramento State Athletics photo.

Natabou, who is averaging 17.1 points and a team-high 10.4 rebounds per game on 68 percent shooting, has been named Big Sky player of the week twice. She said she is glad she came to California.

“I chose Sacramento because coach Campbell offered me something that no other coach could: a place where I will not only develop as a player, but also learn how to develop my mind,” Natabou said.

Sacramento State improved to 14-16 in Campbell’s first season. This year, their defense is holding opponents to 58.1 points per game, 39 percent shooting overall and 31 percent from three. Moore said her motto for their defense is “heart, energy and fight.”

“I try to stress to our team that sometimes your shots won’t fall,” she said. “Your offense could be off, but being locked in and focused on the defensive end is controllable. It might sound cliche, but defense really does win games.”

On the other side of the ball, the Hornets run a pick-and-roll offense that gives athletes the freedom to make plays, while playing to their strengths.

“We play a very unselfish brand of basketball,” Campbell said. “This group is really balanced, with a true post presence, multiple shooters that stretch the court, and some very good playmakers.”

The Hornets average 65.5 points and 12.3 assists per game.

“We try to find skilled and selfless players that are versatile and fit into our spread pick-and-roll offense, Lopez added. ” We want to play fast but really value taking care of the ball and value getting a good shot each possession.”

Kahlajah Dean is the team’s leading scorer, at 18.8 points per outing, while Peneueta adds 9.4 points per game and shoots 40 percent from three. That gives Natabou room to work in the post.

“Being tough and patient is the most important aspect of my basketball role,” Natabou said. “I keep myself mentally and physically resilient during the game and that’s how I try to stay in control regardless of what’s going on around me.”

If Sacramento State beats Idaho at home tonight, it would be just the second time in program history that they opened conference play 2-0. The game begins at 7 p.m.

Coach Mark Campbell watches the offense in play. Sacramento State Athletics photo.