Jessica Keller’s time in Lincoln has been fast-paced, but she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Nebraska’s newest women’s basketball assistant coach got to Lincoln on the same day her new team was beginning workouts. She’s been watching team and individual drills, learning about her new players. At the same time, Logan Seiser, the team’s Video and Creative Content Coordinator, has been showing Keller clips of what head coach Amy Williams aims to do offensively and defensively on the court.
“It’s been busy, full days, but so rewarding already,” Keller told ‘Sports Nightly’ last week.
Keller’s hire was announced by the team on June 6. She takes over for former assistant Chuck Love, who, on May 13, announced on social media he parted ways with the program. Love had been suspended with pay since February. Keller joins two other assistants in Tom Goehle and Tandem Mays.
Keller, a native of a small town in Missouri called Belle, comes to Lincoln from Illinois State, where she spent the past five seasons as an assistant coach. She was the associate head coach the last two seasons and a key member of a staff that helped the Redbirds make the NCAA Tournament this past March, the first time that’s happened since 2008.
“We are thrilled to add Jessica Keller to our Husker women’s basketball staff,” Williams said in a statement. “She is an outstanding basketball mind with great teaching skills and she has established herself as a person of high character and integrity. She is a tireless worker that fits perfectly with the culture here at Nebraska, and I am excited to have her pouring into the young women in our program.”
Keller has experience running her own program as well. Before Illinois State, she spent three seasons as head coach of Columbia College in Missouri, an NAIA program, where she went a combined 75-24 overall and 55-17 in conference play. There was even a 19-game winning streak in there, too.
Defense was a trademark of Keller’s program—her final team in 2016-17 set the school record for fewest average points allowed, 56.6, in a season. That also broke the previous record set by Keller’s team the season before.
Making life hard on offenses holds a special place in Keller’s heart. She did it well during her own playing days from 2005-09, too. She’s not only Quincy (Ill.) University’s all-time leader in scoring (1,823), free-throws made (487) and free-throws attempted (652), but also steals (324).
“I don’t know if I was good on the defensive end, I took a lot of risks and I had great teammates behind me that when I didn’t get that steal, they were always picking up for me,” Keller said of her own playing style. “I think I was able to anticipate. I studied the game a lot and I think that really helped me just anticipate sometimes. But like I said, probably a little risky for some of the rewards, but really fortunate to play with unbelievable teammates.”
Keller is joining a program that last season ranked 10th nationally in scoring at 77.8 points per game and 191st defensively, allowing 64.3 points. The team’s top four steal collectors return in Jaz Shelley (56), Sam Haiby (42), Alexis Markowski (26) and Allison Weidner (24) while four of the five players who had 10 or more blocks return as well in Shelley (30), Markowski (21), Isabelle Bourne (15) and Kendall Coley (10).
The returning production excites Keller, who’s anxious to learn about her new team and help develop the players at practice.
“Whatever type of scheming we want to do, again I try to study the other team, the opponent, and try to frustrate them,” Keller said. “A lot of times, it’s a really detailed approach I know coach Williams is huge on, too. So really, really fortunate to get to join that.”
Keller has known Williams for around 10 years—she was an assistant under Williams’ sister, Emilee (Gusso) Thiesse, at Minnesota State before her time at Columbia College. That connection has allowed Keller to keep up with Williams and her staff after they made the transition from South Dakota to Nebraska.
“When there was an opportunity, Coach Williams reached out and we had a really great conversation on the phone, and then I got to come to campus and meet everyone here at the university,” Keller said. “It was a no-brainer when she offered me the job.”
Team culture is a big deal for Williams, who mentioned in her statement that Keller “fits perfectly” in what has been built at Nebraska, especially late last season. Keller knows the importance of everyone being on the same page and doing things the correct way.
“It’s so sound, so strong. I was honored to just jump right in. And they welcomed me right away,” Keller said of the culture. “I feel very fortunate that I’m going to be able to learn from everyone here and hopefully contribute.”
Off the court, Keller brings a certain competitiveness, especially on the recruiting front. She doesn’t want to just identify talent—it needs to be the right kind that fits the system, style and program values. In other words, her recruits will fit the culture.
But relationship-building goes a long way, too. Keller likes that part.
“Making sure the players we identify who could be great Husker women’s players feel like they have a connection with each of us and that we can communicate and obviously empower them, but we’re going to challenge them,” Keller said. “So throughout the recruiting process I try to do my best to get to know not just the player, but their family, their friends, who’s helping make decisions in their lives, who’s important, who their support systems are, and then make sure they’re comfortable enough that when they make a decision they know everything Nebraska can offer.”
Another off-the-court plus that the Huskers are getting with Keller is someone with an eye toward the future, when players’ basketball days are over. Keller was an impressive student-athlete—she was a double-major in accounting and finance at Quincy and graduated with honors while earning the Richard F. Sharf Paragon Award, which combines academics, athletics, leadership and character.
Basketball is important for the players, no doubt about it. But it’s not everything.
“At some point, the ball stops bouncing for everyone and we have to go on and do something else,” Keller said. “So it is really important to me that all of our student-athletes are well-rounded and that we’re prepared for whatever we’re going to do to provide for the society we’re going to be in whenever basketball stops.”
Nebraska’s new assistant coach has a lot going on right now, but that’s the way she likes it.