ASHLAND — When David Sturner decided to quit basketball following his second season at Oregon State, he had no plans to return to the sport he once dominated as a mobile big man at Philomath High School.
The truth was, he liked his new laid back, sports-less lifestyle in Corvallis, and leaving that comfort zone didn't sound all that appealing, even after Southern Oregon University came calling the following winter with promises of a fresh start and an opportunity to play — a lot — right away.
But SOU assistant coach Chris Schmerbach, who remembered coaching against the 6-foot-8 Sturner while at Marist, was persistent, and after about a month and a half of failed attempts fired off one last Hail Mary text message in late February of 2012.
"(The text) was like, 'We need a decision soon,'" Sturner recalls.
The Valco League's all-time leading rebounder — he averaged 19.8 points, 15.5 boards and three blocks a game as a senior at Philomath — still wasn't keen on the idea of turning his life upside down, but decided to give Schmerbach a chance.
"I called him and said, 'Let's make a visit — I'll come with my mom,'" Sturner said. "So I came down three or four days later that next weekend. I met the guys, liked the guys a lot. Saw Ashland, liked Ashland. And my mom loved it, she felt really good about it. And if she feels good about something, then I should do it."
Three days later Sturner got back to Schmerbach to ask what steps would have to be taken if he did decide to transfer to SOU. Schmerbach took that as a "yes" and arrived in Corvallis the following day with a stack of papers and a pen.
"Well, we were really happy," said SOU head coach Brian McDermott, whose team, thanks in part to Sturner's arrival, ascended as high as No. 12 in the NAIA Division II men's basketball rankings this season before the current three-game slide dropped the Raiders out of the Top 25. "Even though we hadn't seen him for a while, we knew he was a really good player. We needed someone right away, and that filled the bill."
Now barely a year after that fateful text, it's easy to see why the Raiders' coaches thought so highly of Sturner.
Starting alongside Cascade Conference preseason player of the year Eric Thompson, Sturner has proven to be a perfect fit for the Raiders (15-7, 7-4 CCC), who host sixth-ranked Warner Pacific (18-4, 9-1) tonight in a crucial clash between two teams whose sights are set on a trip to the national tournament in early March. He's averaging 13.6 points while shooting a solid 51 percent from the floor and a team-best 8.4 rebounds, which ranks fourth in the conference despite the fact that he's averaging only 26.5 minutes per game — the league's leading rebounder, Warner Pacific's Stephen Harris (10.8 rpg) averages 32.3 minutes.
Sturner's season highlights already include a backboard-hogging 23-rebound effort at Oregon Tech on Jan. 5, a 21-point, 14-rebound performance against Warner Pacific on Dec. 22 and a 19-12 job against Concordia on Dec. 21.
Sturner, who is in his junior year of eligibility, didn't dominate right out of the gate. In fact, he didn't have his first double-digit rebounding game until a month into the season, Dec. 1 against Corban. He's grown more comfortable since, and is averaging 10.9 rebounds in SOU's last eight games.
"At the start of the season," Sturner said, "I was trying to prove myself a little too much on the offensive end. The first couple games I was taking shots that I shouldn't necessarily take and I was not passing the ball as much as I usually would. And then as the season has gone on I've found my role a lot better. At Oregon State I was the 3-point shooter, that's all I did. Nobody here really knows that because I don't really do that here."
Playing the role of wing sniper, Sturner rarely saw action after walking on at Oregon State in 2008. He played in eight games in a sickness-shortened freshman campaign which went down as a redshirt year, then played in five games the following season.
McDermott says SOU will look for ways to take advantage of Sturner's outside shooting ability down the road. For now, Sturner's job is to utilize his size to punish opponents in the paint, a strength which has helped turn the Raiders into the most efficient offensive team in the conference — they currently rank first in field goal percentage (.483) and second in scoring offense (79.5).
That's fine by Sturner, who has proven to be a dedicated team player, defying the stereotype regarding big-school transfers.
"He fit from Day 1, because he just doesn't have the ego about the game at all," McDermott said. "Numbers don't bother him. He just wants to play and have fun. I don't think he had a lot of fun in his last year or two up there (in Corvallis), and he wanted to have some fun, wanted to play and he wanted to have a chance to be good, and I think that's sort of his nature anyway.
"He's not a selfish guy. He's a guy that works for the good of the order. For (Division I) guys, you've got to be careful with how you put them out in the system and how they work. He's not like that, not even close."