Soderberg Building New Foundation for Millikin Basketball

Caleb Buehrle

The 2020-21 season was not kind to the Millikin men’s basketball team. A 1-11 regular season was followed by a 1-and-done ousting in the conference tournament.

Less than a week later, the program began searching for its next head coach after the departure of Mark Scherer, who manned the helm since the 2017-18 season. 

As it turned out, the answer was already under the roof of the Griswold Center, and had been since 2015, as Kramer Soderberg was named Head Coach of the Millikin basketball program on April 13th. 

Although this is his first time running his own program, Soderberg has coaching in his DNA. His father Brad is at the University of Virginia, after stints as a head coach most notably at South Dakota State, Saint Louis University, and Lindenwood University before moving on to become an assistant at Virginia in 2015, and recently switching roles to Director of Scouting this year. Soderberg notes his father as a huge influence for him. 

“From a cultural standpoint, the pillars I’m trying to build here, the virtues I want my players to have, the type of foundation I’m trying to build, that all comes from my dad and growing up watching him coach,” he said. “He’s been a huge influence on me and still is. I go to him for advice often.”

Soderberg has an infectious energy about him- he is a leader that draws people in with the confidence he exudes. That confidence, however, isn’t something one would expect given Millikin’s recent track record. Soderberg aims to change that, and ambitiously. 

”What I see is, when we play at the peak of our potential, we’re a top 25 team, and I think we proved that at Wash U,” said Soderberg of his group that was a mere 6 seconds and a 30-foot Hail Mary shot not falling from knocking off 18th ranked Washington University (St. Louis) on the road this past Wednesday. 

Soderberg plans on instilling his own confidence in a team that ranked near or at the bottom of nearly every offensive and defensive category, “Confidence comes from the daily grind that you put in, and the daily improvements you make as an individual and as a team,” he said. “My confidence can rub off on them, but I don’t think it just happens. Confidence must be earned.”

Through 3 straight road games to open the season, his team is 2-1, with 4 remaining games left before they open up conference play on December 4th. This is where the true test of this team will be. The CCIW has a case to be called the best conference in the country for Division III men’s basketball, with 3 teams (Illinois Wesleyan (4), Wheaton (6), and Elmhurst (10)- ranked inside the top 10 in the nation according to d3hoops.com, and North Central also receiving votes. The conference isn’t without its share of stellar individual players, too: Matthew Leritz of Illinois Wesleyan, Wheaton’s Nyameye Adom, and Jake Rhode of Elmhurst were all named preseason All-Americans. To say the road ahead is daunting would be an understatement. 

Soderberg has an unwavering belief, though. When facing such a tough schedule ahead, the program will rely on what he calls Millikin’s 5 Pillars of Success: Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood, and Thankfulness. They are the building blocks on which Soderberg plans on raising his program, and they are the foundation- beyond X’s and O’s- of what will make Millikin successful. “In my opinion, if you can be great at those 5 things, everything else will fall in line,” he said. 

Soderberg did make some changes in scheme, too. “Offensively, we’re pretty much completely different,” he said, citing the 2 new systems he implemented this year. One is a motion style system, the other, a more modern spread out style he found success in during his playing days. The transition has been smooth, thanks in large part to the players, says Soderberg. “We have high IQ players who understand the game, which allows me to put in a lot of stuff and have them execute at a high level.”

Defensively, the system hasn’t changed much. What has changed, however, is the team’s mentality. “I think from a defensive perspective, the system is always important, but it doesn’t matter how good your system is if you’re not playing with a level of passion, intensity, and focus,” he said. “What’s different is, if you watch our players this year, is we have a level of focus and a level of intensity that maybe wasn’t there in the last 3-5 years, and that’s what I’m hoping gets us to the next level is our defensive mentality.”

So far, the early returns have been impressive. Through 3 games, opponents are averaging over 20 fewer points per game than last season. Their shooting percentage is down by about 7 percentage points, and they are forcing a 14.7/7.7 turnover/assist ratio compared to last season, when teams did so at a 12.7/11.2 rate. 

Turning a program around is not easy, and there is still a long way to go in the climb from the basement of the CCIW to the top. But Soderberg and his team are excited for the challenge ahead, and look forward to getting better every day. “We’re excited to compete in the CCIW, and I think we’re confident that we can compete with top 10, top 20 teams,” he said. “Now it’s just putting in that daily process of earning that confidence, then going out there and performing.”