According to new head women’s basketball coach Lauren Avant Sumski ’14, Division III players are exceptional because they are so well rounded, mostly due to being surrounded by administrations and coaches who challenge them to pursue excellence off the floor, just as much as they challenge them on it. She commends her former coach and mentor Matt Dean for allowing her to take advantage of opportunities for personal and academic development. Now following in his footsteps, she wants to encourage her players to be their best by imparting a set of fundamental values that will last a lifetime.
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to teach and lead these student-athletes, who play the game simply because they love it. There is a certain purity in that,” says Sumski. “Rhodes has also been inexplicably instrumental in shaping me into the person I am today. This is just home, and there is simply no place like it.”
A native Memphian and graduate of Lausanne Collegiate School, Sumski began playing basketball at a very young age, even committing to play for Pat Summit and the University of Tennessee Lady Vols her freshman year of high school. She played for UT her first year of college but decided to return to Memphis after a season of dealing with injuries. Sumski transferred to Rhodes as a biology major in 2011, in hopes of later pursuing medical school. Sumski says Dean advised her to use her time while recovering to “dabble in some new areas.” That’s when she began teaching basketball to male and female athletes, ranging from elementary school to college and professional levels, through individual skill instruction, camps, and various organizations. She also worked with a Memphis-area strength and conditioning program to help athletes develop their physical gifts and abilities. “I found myself with ample amounts of time on my hands that I had not previously enjoyed,” says Sumski. “I had time to figure out what I was really passionate about, and I realized my passion for the game could turn into a career.”
As a Lynx guard, Sumski rewrote the Rhodes record books, setting new highs for points scored in a season, free throws made, and points-per-game average. She helped the women’s basketball team win two Southern Athletic Association championships and earn its first-ever NCAA DIII national ranking, finishing the year in the top 25. She also helped the team advance to their first two National Tournament appearances, where they hosted the first and second rounds in 2013 and 2014. In 2014, she was named D3hoops Southern Region Player of the Year, named a finalist for DIII National Player of the Year, and nominated for the 2014 NCAA Woman of the Year Award. That year, Sumski also graduated from Rhodes with a bachelor’s degree in biology and became the assistant women’s basketball coach at Union University in Jackson, TN. There she went on to earn a master’s degree in education with a sports administration emphasis. In 2015, she married her husband, Chris Sumski, who also is a collegiate coach.
“It is a proud day for me to have Lauren replace me as head women’s coach at Rhodes. I’m thrilled she decided to return home, and I’m excited for our players to have her as a mentor,” says Dean. “Lauren was instrumental in us winning three consecutive SAA titles, and my feeling is that one day she will lead this program to greater heights and hang more banners in Mallory Gymnasium.”
Not only did Sumski build a bond with her coaches, teammates, and faculty members in the Rhodes community, she served as a volunteer for Race for the Cure and Boys & Girls Clubs in both Memphis and Jackson. “My mother instilled very important values in me of loving and caring for others, and that has been my approach in building relationships,” she says. “I think if our purpose as a team is all the same, and we are all working toward the same goal, supporting each other, we’ll have success. There is something special about getting a group together, getting over our individual differences, and just working hard to be the best that we can be for each other.”
“Lauren demonstrated all of the qualities we value in our athletics department while she was a student-athlete at Rhodes. In addition to being an elite athlete, she was a selfless competitor and truly cared about others,” says Jeff Cleanthes, Rhodes’ athletic director. “She has proven herself as a team player on the court and in the professional world with her do-whatever-it-takes mindset. When we discovered she had a passion to continue in the coaching world, we knew she would be an amazing asset for our department, and to lead our women’s basketball team in the future.”
Sumski adds that her liberal arts education has helped develop critical thinking and communication skills that she will use to teach her team members how to play smarter, not just harder, as it pertains to time management and perseverance. “I’m a firm believer that research is important, and I do a ton of it, whether researching everything I can find out about student-athletes to recruit, effective styles of play, or ways to beat opponents.”
Sumski said she remembers professors at Rhodes telling her to use athletics as a platform to serve the community and have a positive impact on others. Now, after working as a coach, she says she sees how the game of basketball can really do that. “Rhodes has instilled in me a determination and a will to do my best in whatever I pursue, and I take pride in representing Rhodes. Our student-athletes can leave their own legacies by getting out of their comfort zones, branching out, and just doing their best in everything that they do, whether it’s in the classroom, the community, or on the court. Rhodes is just a special place that allows you to do all of those things well. ”