Countdown to 2015–16: Ellen Nystrom is a tour de force for Colorado State

Photos courtesy of Colorado State women’s basketball

In her freshman season at Colorado State, Ellen Nystrom posted the first triple-double in program history (in just 27 minutes, to boot), and helped the Rams to their first Mountain West Conference regular season title in 12 years.

As debuts go, this was emphatic. In fact, the only hiccup Nystrom seemed to encounter came from trying to cope in Fort Collins, Colo. without her favorite orange chocolate crisps. (When you’ve grown up in Sweden with the world-famous Marabou Apelsin krokant — think, chocolate squares infused with orange — Hershey’s just doesn’t cut it.)

In fact, Nystrom had never planned to leave Sweden to play Division I basketball. Several schools had come calling about the 6–1 wing, but Nystrom always politely declined. She liked playing for Luleå Gymnasieskola, in her hometown on Sweden’s northern coast. She liked the idea of pursuing professional basketball close to her family.

Then her recruitment took a turn that, as Nystrom puts it, “was kind of funny.”

Nystrom got a call from Elin Gustavsson, a 6–3 forward from Angelholm. The two had become fast friends while playing for Swedish youth national teams.

Gustavsson had been talking with the new coaching staff at Colorado State, and she’d been asked if there were any players she’d like to call ‘teammate’ at CSU. Nystrom recalls now, “Ellie told me, ‘I said you’.”

Gustavson convinced Nystrom to take a recruiting trip to Fort Collins. Nystrom obliged: might as well see what it’s like and make an informed decision. Before the trip, Nystrom had felt “50–50” about playing for CSU. Within hours of arriving on campus, she’d decided she had to go here.

The athletic facilities were superb, a passion for basketball embedded. Nystrom could combine being a student with playing high-level hoops. “It was all positives,” Nystrom says. “Everyone was so nice, so kind. I loved it right away.”

This is something that Ryun Williams has prided himself upon since taking the CSU job in 2012. “We treat international players the right way,” he says.

In Nystrom, he was getting a blue-chipper, who came from blue-blood stock. Both Nystrom’s parents hooped in Sweden’s highest division — dad even getting run for the national team — and her brother and sister played, too. (Her sister now coaches.)

After going 11–19 in ‘12–13, his first season at CSU, Williams wanted to infuse his program with “instant maturity.” He set out to fill his first recruiting class with the stuff.

Nystrom was the perfect fit: supreme talent, special drive. “She was a winner,” Williams says. “To turn around a program, you have to find kids that want to be champions, that have an unmatched competitive spirit.”

Williams had never seen such a good defensive rebounder. “She can do so many different things on the court, but the biggest thing she brings is a relentless mentality,” he says. “She’ll guard anyone, and that’s why you need her on the floor.”

And the kicker, from Williams, about the eight newcomers for that ‘13–14 season, Nystrom included: “They wanted to create that next big-time program.”

In ‘14–15, while helping lead CSU to a second straight Mountain West regular season title, Nystrom was named to the all-conference, all-defensive and all-academic teams. (She is majoring in business marketing.) In addition to posting 9.2 points, she led the Rams in rebounds (6.8) and finished second in assists (3.6) and steals (1.1).

The Rams share the wealth — last season, eight players averaged between 6.0 and the team-leading 10.7 points — but Williams has seen enough glimpses of Nystrom’s take-over-ability to place some increased expectations upon the rising junior. At times, he jokes, she’s just a bit too unselfish for the team’s good.

As a soph, there were the 20 rebounds Nystrom corralled against San Jose State, or the double-double of assists and rebounds she posted against San Diego State — the first of its ilk in program history.

Though Colorado State finished 23–8 in ‘14–15, they faltered late, losing as the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, and then in the WNIT’s opening round. Forty-eight wins in two seasons, soured by a couple of WNIT first-round losses.

Photos courtesy of Colorado State women’s basketball

So — remember, fierce competitor here — Nystrom wants more.

Defense and versatility are her self-proclaimed strengths, but Nystrom has noticed that defenders sag off her when she has the ball on the perimeter. (She went 9-of-29 from three in ‘14–15.) So, she spent the summer working on her shooting.

While featuring for Sweden’s national team at the Summer Universiade, in South Korea, she played point guard. “I’m not limited to a spot on the court,” she says. “If I need to play any position, I can.”

Williams wants to see Nystrom become the Rams’ next leader. “She needs to have a stronger voice,” he says. “You want your leader to be your hardest worker and most trusted player — Ellen can be that.”

The goal for the past two seasons has been the NCAA tournament. Same goes for ‘15–16. “Now,” says Nystrom, “this team feels really good. We have a depth we didn’t have before.”

Williams sees a team with many different parts. “The thing I like most,” says Williams, “is that these kids really want to compete. And a lot of that has to be attributed to what Ellen is providing in her new leadership role.”

An overseas tour of Norway, Sweden and Denmark in August seems the perfect place to kick off what could be a special season. The parents of international players — there are nine on this season’s roster — rarely get to see their kids play in person. This tour provided that opportunity, and allowed Nystrom and her seven fellow Scandanavian teammates (plus Gritt Ryder, a Dane who graduated this past spring) to show just how special ‘home’ is.

It was particularly poignant for Nystrom. She got to enjoy those orange chocolate crisps, which her teammates agreed were “pretty good.”

She admits that it was weird at first walking through a hometown she knew so well — this time with teammates in tow. “But it was nice to show people what we’ve been talking about,” she says. “How we eat, how we dress — stuff we tell them, but they can’t really understand until they see it. Now, they could experience it themselves. It was so much fun.”

Her parents were one of the host families for the tour. “Probably the neatest people I’ve met,” says Williams. “Ellen was so proud to show us her home. That experience, in itself, was remarkable. We got to see where she grew up; how she got to be ‘Ellen’.”

The summer was a blur. Before the overseas trip, Nystrom had played at those Summer Universiade games. Within weeks of returning to Fort Collins, she was headed on the overseas trip. A rush of travel that could be taxing.

But in the three weeks since Nystrom returned to campus with the Rams, she’s only called home once. (OK, maybe twice.) This is what happens when you find new families, which is exactly what CSU means to her now.

“It wasn’t hard,” Nystrom says of the peripatetic summer. “It was fun — and that’s always how it is when you’re traveling with a team you like.”

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops