ORANGE CITY, Iowa – Darbi Gustafson can lead.
It is something she has done most of her life and it has often extended onto the basketball court. She led Ethan High School to a South Dakota Class B state title as a senior despite a team that leaned heavily on underclassmen.
“My senior year I was the only senior who played a lot of minutes and I had six girls (including two sisters) that were sophomores and eighth-graders underneath me,” Gustafson said. “I had to be that vocal leader that if things were getting frazzled I had to be that leader.”
The oldest of five children has been asked to take on different roles since coming to college, but each time she finds a way to rise to the challenge. It began her freshman year when she started 28 games for the Red Raiders and averaged 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds.
“We inserted her right away and she is just a great fit for Northwestern College, high-character kid, works hard and that fit real good for our basketball team,” Northwestern Coach Chris Yaw said. “As she has grown she has grown to be a pretty good leader on our team.”
The third-seeded Red Raiders (22-8), who take on No. 6 seed Friends (Kan.) (24-8) in their national tournament opener at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, are a team made up of highly-accomplished players who brought impressive credentials to the college game.
“We are all leaders we just have to know our role as a leader,” Gustafson said. “Some people are more vocal than others where others are more leading by action. We all know what kind of leader each person is, and when those leaderships get called on we step up.”
Gustafson, who said she is a vocal leader, has always taken a working mentality to the basketball court.
“That first year was just a really big learning experience because the pace of the game is so different from high school and you have to value the ball a lot more,” she said. “It was a lot more physical and I know that first year I got pushed around quite a bit.
“In high school I really didn’t lift weights so in college I came in and really enjoyed our weight program. I just bought into that and the program Coach Yaw has in place.”
The hard work began to pay off last season when she was named second-team All-GPAC doubling her scoring average to 12.1 points while finishing second in the conference in rebounding and double-doubles. This season Gustafson continued her upward trajectory increasing her scoring average to 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds.
“I just try to stay as aggressive as possible but patient at the same time and just kind of let the game come to me and not try to do a whole lot,” she said.
That aggression came in part from parents who both played the game and Sunday battles at the gym with her siblings.
“You might come home with a few fights, but in the end we all still love each other,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson is part of a very talented starting five for the Red Raiders that has NAIA assist leader Renee Maneman, first-team All-GPAC forward Kassidy De Jong, senior guard Paige Danner who is third on the team in steals and junior forward Haley Birks who paces the team in blocks.
"It is a lot of fun because I have great teammates that are fun to play with," Gustafson said. "On any given night if you are having an off night someone else is picking up the slack. It is playing with a lot less pressure when you have people that are talented and can score night in and night out."
The Red Raiders also have another key weapon in sophomore Anna Kiel who also plays in the post and added another key cog after transferring from Iowa State last season. It was an adjustment for Gustafson, but one she has taken on willingly.
“I really enjoy playing with Anna,” she said. “Before she was here I kind of mainly played on the inside, but when she came and coach called on me to play more of a three position. It has been a transition but it has been a lot of fun because as post players we know the best way to get each other the ball.”
Gustafson has worked on her shot from farther away from the basket and her motion away from the ball and screen setting.
She will put that to good use as the Red Raiders look to improve on last season’s second round exit from the national tournament.