Joel Awich: a Man on a Mission
“I was scared.”
With five seconds left in the Big West Tournament title game, Joel Awich closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to watch. When the buzzer sounded, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team was going to the Big Dance.
“It was one of those moments that you see on TV as a kid. It was a dream come true. It was amazing,” Awich said about the Mustangs’ 2013-14 NCAA Tournament berth.
With a stellar start to this season, the senior forward and team captain is trying to steal that incredible feeling back.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Awich had an unconventional childhood.
After his mother moved away early in his life, Awich’s uncle stepped in to raise him and his younger sister, Audrey.
“It was a very interesting experience. I wasn’t technically an orphan, but I was raised by multiple people in my family besides my parents,” Awich said. “I’m happy my uncle was there for us.”
At an early age, Awich learned the value of discipline and solemnity.
“I went to a private elementary school, top-notch education, Catholic-style,” Awich said. “In kindergarten, all of us were praying as the nuns were passing out the food. I opened up my eyes and started making jokes during the prayer. The nuns took me aside and beat my knuckles with keys.”
After living in Kenya for eight years, Awich and his sister moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he lived for five years with his grandmother. While there, Awich’s mother visited him and bought him a gift that would change his life: a basketball.
Before the start of eighth grade, Awich found himself on the move again — this time to the United States. His mother Lynette, a former player on the Kenyan Women’s National Basketball Team, brought her children over to the U.S. and began teaching Joel the fundamentals of the game.
“She’s been a pivotal part of my development throughout the years because she’s always on me, always supporting me, always giving me pointers on things I can do to improve my game on and off the court,” Awich said about his mother.
Then 5-foot-11, Awich was a man among boys at Cleveland Middle School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Still, he had to hit the gym almost every day with his mom, focusing on the simple things: layups, footwork and his mom’s favorite, free throws.
“She loves free throws. Every time I miss a free throw, even now, she calls me about it and says I need to get back to the gym,” Awich said about his mother.
As the next four years of high school went by, Awich progressed steadily. He won the Most Improved Player award three times while playing for Tartan High School near his home in Maplewood, Minnesota.
Only a two-star recruit, Awich’s college basketball outlook looked dim. Then Cal Poly took a chance on him.
His progression has been incredible, with his points and rebounds per game averages rising steadily over the course of his career. Awich still credits his success to his mother, the woman who, as he says, taught him everything about the sport he now loves.
“As teens, (my sister and I) thought we knew everything. I’m so happy my mother dealt with us,” Awich said. “She always had our best interest in her heart.”
As a freshman for the Mustangs, Awich struggled. The 6-foot-7, 190-pound youngster wasn’t ready for the physicality of Division I college basketball, and spent the season limited to practices as a redshirt.
“I was basically a punching bag,” Awich said about his freshman experience.
Awich worked to get stronger as he redshirted his freshman year. He focused on gaining weight and staying disciplined with his nutrition.
Strength training combined with the difficulty of Cal Poly academics led to a year of learning for Awich. He fell behind and struggled.
“I’m thankful for that year. I’m thankful that I learned how to manage my time,” Awich said.
Awich credits his mentors, teammates Chris Eversley, Will Taylor and David Hanson, for helping him survive this difficult transition.
“I’m forever grateful. They abused me my freshman year, but it was worth it, because it has shaped me into the man I am today. Everything they’ve taught me, I try to teach to the younger guys,” Awich said.
Evolving as a player
Awich learned much in the next three years at Cal Poly. He played in the Big West Tournament, experienced the sweet taste of a conference championship and slowly became an integral part of the Mustangs’ rotation.
Awich played more important minutes as his progression continued, putting his hard work to the test. He has faced some of the country’s most skilled players on teams such as UCLA, Gonzaga and Arizona.
While his physical strength has surely increased, so has his mental strength on and off the court.
“Joel just is respected by his teammates,” head coach Joe Callero said. “He takes care of his schoolwork, gets along with everyone on the team, and is emotionally steady. He’s a quiet leader.”
He preaches the importance of constant focus, especially in games against ranked opponents. A lapse in focus can lead to a big deficit and a lost opportunity, as Awich knows from experience.
“If you aren’t ready in the game, it will just go right by you. You will be stuck. You have to be mentally ready,” Awich said.
The result of his hard work: progress and recognition that is well deserved. Awich was named one of the Mustangs’ three captains alongside senior guard Reese Morgan and junior guard Ridge Shipley.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it, but coach wants me to just pick my moments,” Awich said about his captain’s responsibilities. “I’ve been in the program for five years, so I’ve been through it all. He looks to my experience to help the younger guys on and off the floor.”
Morgan, who roomed with Awich in Muir Residence Hall when the two were freshmen, said the forward mainly leads by example.
“When he says something, people listen,” Morgan said. “This year, a lot of our success rides on him playing the way he can.”
In his farewell season, Awich is averaging 10.5 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field through the first 14 games.
The forward has also emerged as a defensive presence in the paint. His 15 blocks on the year are by far the most from any Mustang, with senior forward Zach Gordon’s six rejections the next-highest.
His stats have only risen as his minutes continue to increase as well. Awich’s dedication to self-improvement has led to a boom in almost all statistical categories, making him even think about the possibility of basketball after college.
“Sure, I’ve thought about it. If someone wants me, I’ll go for it,” said Awich on playing in the NBA or overseas. “Who wouldn’t? It’s every kid’s dream.”
Far improved and motivated as always, Awich is leading the Mustangs in points and rebounds as they try to recapture the magic that led them to March Madness in 2013-14.
Only time will tell if Awich can lead the Mustangs to where they want to go: a March date with a big school in the promised land.
Joel Awich is a man on a mission.