HOOPS: Rebounding: A way of life for Poppens


Photo: Tim Reuter/Iowa State Daily

Forward Chelsea Poppens goes up for a shot during the second half of the game against Northern Arizona on Sunday, Nov. 20. Poppens lead the team in scoring with a total of 18 points during her 27 minutes of game play.

Alex Halsted

The wind howled and the sirens sounded as the black, ominous clouds approached the town of Parkersburg, Iowa.

There were graduation parties for Aplington-Parkersburg High School that day, and it was supposed to be exciting. But as the sirens sounded, Chelsea Poppens and 13 friends hurried to find shelter as a passerby yelled to get inside the nearby car wash. 

Unable to enter the car wash, Poppens and her friends instead crammed into a tight, 4-by-4 area between the two buildings.

“I remember looking out the doors and seeing poles flying and just a black wall, and we all huddled down,” Poppens said.

And then, at 4:56 p.m. — marked by the stopped clocks at the high school — the F5 tornado struck. For 34 seconds, it tore through the small, approximately 1,900-person community with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour.

Poppens — who was at the end of her junior year in high school and attending her friend’s graduation party — emerged from shelter in shock.

“Everything that was there 30 seconds ago wasn’t; it was a completely different place,” Poppens said. “It was like a war zone.”

The storm destroyed 220 homes, and eight people died that day. Watching the devastation on the news, ISU women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly, who had recruited Poppens to play at Iowa State, attempted to call.

Call after call to Poppens went unanswered. The only noise on the other end was a no service message. 

“I remember just panicking like crazy because her phone wasn’t working, and we kept calling it,” Fennelly said. 

Finally, after a couple of hours, Poppens answered. She would require staples on her head but was alive and safe.

Arriving at Iowa State

As Fennelly recruited Poppens to play at Iowa State, what he found was a very raw basketball player.

Poppens scored a school-record 1,484 points in four seasons at Aplington-Parkersburg and averaged 20.7 points and 15.8 rebounds per game as a senior. But as a multi-sport athlete, she was not strictly a basketball player.

“The biggest thing you saw with her is tremendous athlete, tremendous physical strength, extremely competitive,” Fennelly said. “Not a basketball player.”

When Fennelly extended an offer to Poppens to play for his team at Iowa State, his decision was questioned.

“When we signed Pop, I had two Division-III coaches call me and ask me if I was trying to get fired,” Fennelly said. “They said she couldn’t play for them.”

Luckily for Fennelly and the Cyclones, Poppens ended up at Iowa State. Since then, she has made 83 starts in three seasons for three NCAA Tournament teams. 

Becoming a ‘basketball player’

With 166 rebounds during her senior season, Poppens would move to No. 2 all-time in rebounds in ISU women’s basketball history. 

For someone who didn’t know the Mikan drill — a drill for rebounding and under-the-basket scoring — when she arrived at Iowa State, that is a big achievement.

“When she came here, I don’t think anyone would think she’d be where she is today,” Fennelly said. “She literally learned the game from scratch.”

Last season Poppens collected 307 rebounds, becoming just the second Cyclone to surpass the 300-rebound mark in a season. But at 6-foot-2, rebounding has been more about effort than height.

“[Rebounding has] always been a part of my game, and it’s what I value,” Poppens said. “You have to work hard at it; it’s not a given thing. The ball doesn’t just end up in your hands.”

That hard work, Fennelly said, is about will and determination, and not coaching. For Poppens, working hard has extended to other areas of her game, too. 

Fennelly said when Poppens arrived, she “couldn’t make a free throw if her life depended on it.” As a freshman Poppens shot 63-percent from the free-throw line, and last season that number improved to 71 percent.

“That only happens when you stand at the free-throw line almost until your hands bleed because you’ve got to do it,” Fennelly said.

Having to work for the recognition was nothing new for Poppens.

“Coming from a small town you have to work to be seen; you always have to work to get what you want,” Poppens said. “That’s the way our community kind of focuses things.”

Poppens, home rebound

Since those devastating 34 seconds on May 25, 2008 — much like Poppens has done at Iowa State — Parkersburg has rebounded.

In the four-plus years since the tornado, the town has been rebuilt. New homes, new businesses and a new school all line the freshly-constructed community.

“It’s a lot like the community it was before, but it looks like a new housing development,” said Chelsea’s father, Tony Poppens. “I think the basic community is pretty much the same.”

On her way to being a unanimous selection for the All-Big 12 First Team last season, Poppens was the only player in the Big 12 to average a double-double with averages of 14.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

After leading the Cyclones in points, rebounds, steals and free throws during the 2011-12 season, Poppens was named to the Preseason All-Big 12 First Team in October. 

Fennelly believes that is only a start to a special senior year.

“I think she has a chance to be a monster, and she wants to be,” Fennelly said. “Pop knows she’s good and knows she’s been successful — but she’s not satisfied.”

Poppens has seen firsthand — both on the court and in her community — what hard work can do. 

“To her credit, she’s turned herself from great athlete to great basketball player,” Fennelly said. “And that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.”