MARYVILLE, Mo. — There were times early in the season when Zach Schneider wondered to himself just what he got himself into.
Schneider, the most prolific 3-point shooter in both Northwest Missouri State and MIAA history, was entering his first year as an assistant coach after serving as a graduate assistant for the Bearcats during the 2017-’18 season.
Northwest had one of its biggest turnovers after graduating the winningest senior class in program history in the spring of 2018. There was a lot of work to do.
“It’s tough when you lose four seniors that coming into their senior year, you really didn’t have to coach them at all,” Schneider said.
Schneider was in line to spend a second year as a graduate assistant. But after former associate head coach Austin Meyer took the position as the head coach of the women’s program, Northwest head coach Ben McCollum had an opening for a full-time assistant coach.
He decided to hire two assistants. Two months in, Bryston Williams accepted a position in the NBA, and Schneider had a lot more added to his workload.
“There’s a lot to do,” McCollum said. “Organize everything. On top of that you have to coach, scout and recruit. It can be a lot especially for someone so young.”
While the team had big shoes to fill in replacing a successful senior class, Schneider also had to step into a major role following the departure of Meyer. He spent his year as a graduate assistant learning from both Meyer and former graduate assistant Christian Phelps.
“I took a lot from last year,” Schneider said. “Just watching Meyer and his demeanor on the bench and how he handles subs and matchups and how he deals with coach (McCollum) and his high-strung energy during the game.”
It was a plunge into the deep end for the first-year assistant.
Schneider was tasked with helping to prepare a young Bearcat team for the new season. The team’s first scrimmage didn’t go well.
McCollum and his new assistant coach went straight to the film room to try to figure out how they would groom this team with four new starters, three of which were underclassmen.
“I think the thing with youthful coaches is a lot of times they can give too much input,” McCollum said. “(Schneider) picks his times to give the right input. That’s very important and shows the wisdom beyond his years.”
The Bearcat head coach saw coaching traits in Schneider during his playing days with the Northwest. The former sharpshooter took on the leadership role for the Bearcat squad that captured the program’s first national championship in 2017.
“He understands what to do, when to say things, he understands his role and he understands what the team needs and he’s obviously done a great job with that,” McCollum said.
The Bearcats figured it out.
Following another Central Region championship, Northwest heads to Evansville, Indiana with a perfect 35-0 record. The win total matches that of Schneider’s senior season when Northwest won a national title.
Schneider’s impact hasn’t gone unnoticed by both his head coach and the current group of Bearcats. Along with breaking down scouting reports, recruiting, running the scout team in practice and making substitutions in games, Schneider has certainly impacted player development.
“He’s done a great job obviously on the floor and off the floor making sure that everything is organized,” McCollum said. “Recruiting, scouting, all those things and he’s had less help than we’ve had in the past.”
During his playing career, the 6-foot-7 power forward mastered his role as a screen-setting big man who was lethal if left open for a 3-pointer. Schneider made 370 triples in his career.
This season, Northwest senior Joey Witthus, who was named MIAA Player of the Year, has done similar things in the Bearcats’ ball-screen offense. While his scoring game might have more versatility than his assistant coach’s did in the past, he’s learned a thing or two from Schneider.
“The type of ball screens that we run, he’s helped me with that,” Witthus said. “He’s obviously won a national championship, so to have that coach on the staff that has also played in the game really helps calm the nerves. He knows what it takes.”
Through his six years at Northwest, four as a player and two now as a coach, Schneider has been a part of six-consecutive MIAA regular season titles.
The upperclassmen on the current roster still remember him as a leader his senior year and not much has changed since he’s transitioned to the coaching side.
“Coming in as a freshman, he taught me a lot about hard work,” Northwest junior Ryan Welty said. “He’s probably the hardest working guy that I know. That’s why he’s in the position that he’s in now. He’s a great coach.”
One difference that the first-year assistant coach did learn was how his relationship with his former teammates changed. He was used to leading as a player but understood that that role had to be filled by someone on the court now.
“You want to communicate along with the team in that aspect and bring an energy, which I do, but we talk a lot that the best teams are player-led teams, not coach-led teams,” Schneider said.
Schneider’s 3-point prowess can still be seen when the coaching staff play pickup basketball everyday, famously dubbed “noon ball” by the athletic faculty at Northwest.
He’s cut down nets and hoisted trophies as both a player and a coach. Even though he traded in his trademark headband for a tie and whistle, he’s still enjoying the ride of another successful season.
“I still wish I was out there playing on the floor, but coaching is definitely the second best option,” Schneider said.
No. 1 Northwest will take on No. 8 Mercyhurst in the Elite Eight at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.