When Alaska native Fred Chmiel won his first national title as an assistant coach on the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team in 2017, it was before the COVID-19 pandemic and felt surreal.
The Gamecocks capped off their dominant 2022 season Sunday with a commanding 64-49 championship win over powerhouse University of Connecticut and Chmiel was simultaneously happy and worn out.
“The first was kind of euphoric but this one was more like finishing a marathon,” Chmiel said. “It was elation and exhaustion all at once. I was really happy for the players, especially some of our seniors and junior leaders that worked so hard for that moment.”
Chmiel is a 1989 graduate of Palmer High School who played a pair of seasons at UAF. He’s has coached at nearly every level from men’s and women’s college to WNBA and everywhere from California to Minnesota.
While he believes that the 2017 title-winning team had more experience, he said that the upperclassmen on this year’s team had to endure and overcome more adversity on their journey to becoming champions dating back to their freshmen and sophomore years due to COVID.
“The kind of trials and tribulations they had to get through to get to this point with the cancellation of freshmen year, the COVID tournament last year, and this was really the first time they got to experience what a Final Four is like,” Chmiel said.
Despite feeling like they got ‘shortchanged’ by circumstance, Chmiel was glad to witness their resiliency and tireless efforts pay major dividends.
“It was good to see them enjoy that on that stage and reap the rewards of their hard work,” Chmiel said.
The individual players have changed but the pedigree of talent remained the same thanks to the coaching staff’s ability to bring in strong recruiting classes in recent years.
“The sales pitch is ‘You’re going to come here and win championships, you’re going to prepare yourself to be a professional and you’re going to compete at the highest level in front of the largest group of fans for the last eight years and play for a hall of fame coach in Dawn Staley,’ ” Chmiel said.
Staley and Chmiel’s bond stretches back nearly two decades and started during her WBNA playing days when he was an assistant coach for the Charlotte Sting in 2005. He first coached under her as an assistant at Temple University before joining her staff at South Carolina in 2015. Two years later, they won their first national title together and the first of his coaching career.
Since then, the two have helped usher in a new era of prominence for Gamecocks basketball and are well on their way to establishing themselves as one of the next great dynasty programs.
In toppling a team like the Huskies, who have been the gold standard program for the better part of the last two decades, South Carolina has established itself among the elite.
“Anytime you can beat a team that has had the success that UConn has had, it is a pretty great accomplishment,” Chmiel said. “We’re just trying to etch our names in the dynasties of women’s college basketball. They are already there of course but we’re well on our way.”
Sunday’s game wasn’t even the first time the two teams faced off this season. The Gamecocks soundly beat UConn 73-57 back in November in the final round of the Bad Boy Mowers Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. At 34-2 heading into the national title game, they earned their No. 1 ranking in the standings and proved they were unemphatically the best with their convincing triumph.
“It wasn’t like we overachieved,” Chmiel said. “We stayed No. 1 for the entire season and just completed the mission.”
Chmiel believes that South Carolina could’ve been back-to-back champions had they not fallen to the eventual champion Stanford Cardinals 66-65 in the 2021 Final Four semifinal.
“We missed it by two points last year,” Chmiel said. “I think we would’ve beat Arizona handedly.”
He believes that the team’s defensive dominance is what separated them from the rest of pack.
“The whole season people were talking about how we didn’t score a lot of points and we go through dry stretches but our defense has always been there,” Chmiel said. “It has always been the catalyst for our offense, it’s always been something we hang our hat on and make sure that other teams struggle to score as well.”
The key contributors in their ability to assert their will on defense is the incredibly imposing play and presence of the post players that Chmiel works with closely.
“We go through certain situations where we tell them that we’re the pillar of who we are,” Chmiel said. “We rebound, we defend, we do all the dirty work, we grind it out but that is the essence of our team.”
He has coached renowned post players such as Victaria Saxton and A’ja Wilson. He’s currently coaching junior Aliyah Boston, who is a two-time Lisa Leslie Award winner, which is given to the country’s best center. She led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding this year and was named Most Outstanding Player for the tournament.
Chmiel loves his job and the life he has built for himself in South Carolina and cherishes all that he has accomplished during his time with the Gamecocks. He said he likely wouldn’t move on to a head coaching job unless it is a perfect fit.
“I wouldn’t say I’m not looking but I’m looking for the right situation,” Chmiel said. “I have a great situation here. I work for the best team in the country, I work for the best boss in the country, and the best university in the country so it’s going to be hard to move me.”
Chmiel still has family that resides in Alaska and will be forever grateful for his humble beginnings and the time he spent growing up there as a son of a commercial fisherman and a high school librarian.
“I have fond memories of Alaska, some of the best moments of my life were spent there,” Chmiel said. “It’s always good and a proud moment when you can represent.”
His legacy as one of the greatest success stories to come out of the state means a lot to him and he still believes Alaska gets overlooked on the recruiting front.
“A lot of people don’t know the athletes that Alaska has,” Chmiel said. “There’s not a lot of recruiting going on up there and these players are going unseen and have to venture down to the Lower 48 to get exposure so it’s good to shine a light on Alaska and let them know that we have some athletes and some sport loving people up there that can contribute to the rest of the U.S.”