Pinkos steers SNHU in the right direction

By Mike Whaley

If you were to pick someone who epitomizes basketball in New Hampshire at its finest, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Karen Pinkos. She ticks all the boxes. After all, she grew up in Allenstown, went to high school and played three sports at Pembroke Academy, and then walked on as a basketball player at the University of New Hampshire, becoming a two-time captain and an all-conference performer.

A long-time college hoop coach with 30-plus years of experience, Pinkos is beginning her 18th season as the head women’s coach at Southern New Hampshire University. There she has turned SNHU into a winning program having inherited a team that had accumulated 14 consecutive losing seasons when she arrived.

Pinkos worked through three more losing seasons before turning things slowly around. The Penwomen have had five consecutive winning seasons, including the last two in which they went 21-7 and 22-8 to qualify for the NCAA Division II Tournament – the program’s first appearances since 1990.

“I love it here,” said Pinkos, who graduated from Pembroke in 1984 and UNH in 1988. “It’s been a good fit. My family is relatively close to here. It’s home for me. Growing up 10 to 15 minutes away, it’s a cool story. I hope we can continue to be competitive.”

Indeed, when recalling her basketball roots in the state, Pinkos harkens back to Allenstown in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A rock for her was legendary Pembroke hoop coach Rose Galligan. “It was awesome. She was tough,” Pinkos said. “She would do anything for me. She gave me so much opportunity as a kid growing up.”

When Pinkos’ parents divorced, Galligan stepped in to help get the young basketball player rides or help fundraise money to go to camps. “She was just awesome,” Pinkos said. “She’s still in my life. She comes to our games, she comes to our practices.”

Pinkos recalls as a young player that Galligan just wanted her to get better. “I spent time in the gym with her – after practice, before practice,” Pinkos said. “Sundays, she’d open the gym for us – me and my teammates. She was strict, but to me very motivating. She gave me structure that I probably needed.”

Pinkos also played softball and field hockey. UNH came on her radar through their basketball camp that she attended. “I just fell in love with the place,” she said. “I loved the coaches. I loved the players. I wanted to go there, but it was completely out of reach. I was not a Division I athlete or player.”

Pinkos had some smaller schools on her radar, but then decided she didn’t care. “If I can make it as a walk-on, I’ll go there and that’s how it happened,” she said, enrolling at UNH and walking on to the basketball team. She made the team, but didn’t play much – maybe a total of six minutes in six games. It was one of those deals where she’d get a minute here, 10 seconds there. The coach might ask someone to go in at the end of the game for the star player. “Yeah, I’ll go in,” Pinkos recalled saying.

She worked her butt off after that first year. A player got injured during her sophomore year, so she was able to slide into the starting lineup. She never left. She went on to be a two-time captain and made the all-conference first team as a senior.

After college, Pinkos wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She had a summer job in Newmarket directing a summer recreation program. Part of her still wanted to play. She had some friends that were playing overseas, so it was in the back of her mind. By this time it’s August and her options are less than they were. Then one of her UNH assistant coaches approached her and said she was changing careers to be a teacher. Was Pinkos interested in the position?

She was.

Pinkos talked to coach Kathy Sanborn and took the position. “My friends were my teammates,” she remembered. “So for me to be a young assistant coach on staff with people I played with was a little odd.” It was not an issue for Pinkos. She figured since she’d been a two-time captain, she was a leader anyway. She was at UNH for three more seasons as an assistant.

Then she left to play professionally in Germany, something she did for a half a season. She came back and pieced together different jobs to make ends meet – intramural official, substitute teacher. Then she got an assistant job at Boston College, and she was in the coaching game for good. Next she was at Providence College, and then in 1996 she accepted a job as an assistant at Northeastern University, where she stayed for nine years leading up to the SNHU post.

In between she interviewed for quite a few head coaching jobs. She got the New Haven job, but turned it down. “It wasn’t the right fit at the time for me,” Pinkos said. She also applied for the UNH job, but didn’t get it. “It was good for me because I probably wasn’t ready.”

She was also up for jobs at Saint Anselm College and St. Michael’s College, and didn’t get either. “When this job (SNHU) opened up, it felt like it was home because I had grown up in New Hampshire,” Pinkos said.

She met with then athletic director Chip Polak. She had a lot of people call on her behalf. “It became a perfect fit,” she said. “Who knew 18 years later I’d still be here.”

There was certainly work to be done. Not only had there been 14 straight losing seasons, but in the previous 13 the Penmen had never won more than eight games. The culture was not great. “The biggest thing looking back was trying to create a culture,” Pinkos said. “I had to do a lot of convincing to these kids that this is a new way of doing things and that basketball needed to be a priority and not your social life. Even in my first year there were everyday victories.

One of those victories was a nine-win season in 2005-06, four more than the previous season and the most by a SNHU team since the 1991-92 season. “We beat some big teams that first year,” she said. “We did some nice things. The kids kind of got on board. Two seasons later they won double figure games (13) and in 2008-09 they went 18-11, the first winning season in 17 years.

“We got better and better,” Pinkos said. “We did have a couple down years in the middle for whatever reasons. It’s a tough league. The last seven, eight years we’ve been able to have a pretty good program.” SNHU has had six winning seasons in the last seven years. There was no season in 2020-21 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The kids have bought in,” Pinkos said. “It’s not a lot easier, but people will listen now when you call. Because kids want to go to a winning program and it’s a great university.”

One of the big turning points that has propelled the Penmen into a consistent winning program was recruiting Kylie Lorenzen in 2015. She went on to become the program’s leading scorer (1,798 points) and rebounder (932), leading SNHU to three winning seasons in four years.

Pinkos has taken a lot away from the different coaches she has worked with. Bob Foley at Providence gave her insight into Xs and Os, but mostly she learned about recruiting and competitiveness. “Recruiting has a lot to do with it,” she said. “Each year you get better players. The list is so long of really talented players we got here in the program.”

Which is why it has been important to Pinkos to hammer home from day one of building that culture of doing the right thing, being good teammates and good people, and working hard. “And committing to the program and being really selfless,” she said. “Over time that culture is not something I have to teach. It’s now taught by the older players. That was my goal.”

That culture has gotten SNHU to where it is now. The current team is 4-2 and 4-1 in the competitive Northeast-10 Conference, coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.

“The last two years have been unbelievable,” Pinkos said. “These kids are hungry to win.” The two years are particularly striking as they came off the covid year in which there was no season. It was extra tough for SNHU as they were one of the few schools that shut down. Pinkos couldn’t even work out with her players. In fact, she said she went nearly a year and a half without seeing them in person. “We tried to maintain communication with a text, email, a zoom call,” she said. “I went for a walk with a couple kids – just being outdoors.”

The Penmen came back with a vengeance with 2021-22. They went 21-7 to make the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in over 30 years. “I think it was just missing it, putting some pieces together recruiting,” Pinkos said. “We had Meg Knollmeyer as a transfer. We just had some kids who were hungry.”

When the team returned, Pinkos said the Penmen “learned to appreciate each other and the opportunities that each one of us had and not to take it for granted. It just clicked.”

There were still challenges. Covid had not gone away, and still hasn’t. There were practices with just four players due to covid. They had to reschedule five games because of covid. SNHU played seven games in a 14-day span. “Which I think took a toll on our kids,” Pinkos said. “Two kids ended up getting injured in the same game – tore their ACLs. We still managed to finish the season. It was heartbreaking for our players, to this day for Meg Knollmeyer and Gyanna Russell. It was heartbreaking for them to end their careers on torn ACLs after a year of covid. Those are moments you hate as a coach. But it was also the most rewarding year because those two helped put Southern New Hampshire on the map.”

SNHU won the NE-10 regular-season championship and hosted the NCAA Division II East Region Championship, losing to Daemen College, 70-59.

“We did it again. We pushed through last year,” Pinkos said. “We had some pretty good wins. We were able to just take care of business.” SNHU went 22-8 overall, making the NCAA East region Championship at Assumption University in Worcester, Mass. They won the program’s first-ever NCAA tourney game with a 65-44 victory over St. Thomas Aquinas before falling in the semis to Jefferson University, 62-49.

“We’ve got a big, talented team this year,” Pinkos said. “We had a tough loss the other day ( to Post, 57-51). Those things happen. I hope we can get back there. But nothing in life is guaranteed.” SNHU lost its second game to nationally-ranked Bentley on Wednesday, 59-52.

The Post loss was humbling, according to Pinkos. “You’ve got to work for everything. Nothing is easy,” she said. “We didn’t shoot well. We didn’t play our best. We hope to get back there. That’s our goal.”

SNHU should have a good shot of doing just that with some very good veteran players returning to the roster, led by Adrianna Timberlake and Jess Knight, both mainstays on the last two NCAA tournament teams.

“I feel like if we do the things we’re supposed to do, winning will take care of itself,” Pinkos added. It’s proven, so far, to be a successful recipe for SNHU.