Michaela VanderKlugt ’22, a biology major who minored in pre-nursing, has become the first Concordia player to score 2,000 points and collect 1,000 rebounds in the program’s NCAA DII era. She was named the DIICCA West Region Player of the Year and the PacWest Conference Player of the Year. This fall, she begins her professional basketball career in Europe, playing for the BC Pharmaserv Marburg Blue Dolphins.
“She’s a once-in-a-very-blue-moon type of player that a coach gets,” says Concordia women’s basketball coach Christine Collins-Kiernan, a former DI assistant coach. “She’s the PacWest rebound leader, and Concordia’s rebound leader. I don’t know if anybody will ever touch those numbers.”
All this after VanderKlugt was written off by many college coaches who scouted her in high school after she suffered two ACL tears by the time she was 16.
“Coming back, my body wasn’t the same,” she says. “I had to learn to move differently. I had knee braces. After my injuries, coaches kind of ruled me out.”
It was a “very discouraging” time, she says. “I knew my potential and what I was willing to do, and I just needed someone who was willing to take a chance on me.”
She was close to giving up sports when Collins-Kiernan, who saw her game film, invited her to visit Concordia’s campus.
“We started talking, and a lot of it wasn’t basketball,” VanderKlugt remembers. “She wanted to know me as a person and to know my family more than my physical capabilities.”
Collins-Kiernan told her, “I love the way your mind competes. You have goals and dreams, and so do I. We’ll do this together. I promise if you buy into me and give me your four years, I will make you freshman of the year and All-American.”
“I was like, ’Wow, she sees this in me? I don’t even see this in myself,’” VanderKlugt says.
Collins-Kiernan has a proven knack for seeing undeveloped talent and identifying players who haven’t hit their ceiling yet.
“With Michaela, there was room for development,” the coach says. “She was an undersized player at about six feet tall, and that’s how people were viewing her. I saw a kid who could shoot the ball, was strong and a great rebounder. But the greatest thing I saw was an ultra-competitive kid out to prove something, who had tangible goals written down that she wanted to accomplish.”
VanderKlugt took the offer, and Collins-Kiernan challenged her to set goals for one year, three years, and four years out, then work steadily toward all of them. Her freshman year, VanderKlugt started every game and averaged double digits in points in every game—“which is crazy hard,” says Collins-Kiernan—and was indeed named conference freshman of the year.
The team outperformed expectations, too, qualifying for the conference tournament in its first year of DII eligibility and finishing third against the pre-season consensus that they would finish ninth.
“Every year, she leveled up with skills,” Collins-Kiernan says of VanderKlugt. “At the end of the year, we do a plan for each player. She always followed that plan off-season and came back better. She’s never dipped. She’s been better every single year.” VanderKlugt says her coach was strict with her, but knew how to get the best out of her.
VanderKlugt has an innate feel for good footwork and the ability to step around people without traveling, using ball fakes and head fakes to create enough space to get a shot off. She also learned to see passing lanes developing before they appeared.
“She has two superpowers,” says Collins-Kiernan. “First is her growth mindset. She has a strong desire to be a lifelong learner and is never satisfied with what she’s currently accomplished. The other thing is her work ethic and consistency. She doesn’t have bad days. She shows up every day and gets something out of that practice.”
In five years as an Eagle, VanderKlugt never missed a game or a practice. She played multiple positions, primarily post. Over the years she fought through injuries big and small, gave leadership to the team, and even lived in the dorms on campus during the summer to work out with other players and receive private training.
Every year, she leveled up with skills.
She set the school record and PacWest Conference record for career rebounds. She now ranks second all-time at Concordia in career points. She was named PacWest Player of the Week a league-record 14 times. She averaged a double-double during her final season, and shot nearly 50 percent from the field and 36 percent on 3-pointers.
In her senior year, she achieved her final individual goal: to be named a first-team All-American, one of just five female players in DII in the nation to make the first team.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of as an athlete, is my All-American,” she says. “But the thing I’m most proud of is I left a great legacy as an athlete and a person. I built relationships with professors, with students, with other athletes. I think I embraced the whole experience of a student-athlete to the fullest in my five years here. I took pride in my grades.”
Her next step is playing professional women’s basketball in Europe, fulfilling another dream she has nurtured since grade school. In May, she signed a pro contract to play for a German team, BC Pharmaserv Marburg, known as the Blue Dolphins. It is the first time in Concordia’s NCAA DII era that a women’s basketball alum will play professionally overseas.
“I knew from a young age I wanted to become a pro and would do anything to get there,” VanderKlugt says. “It’s something I love and am passionate about.”
She hopes to play several seasons, then perhaps coach in the Women’s National Basketball Association or go into nursing. She will earn her Master’s in Coaching and Athletics Administration from Concordia this fall.