During the last week of his senior year at Waverly-Shell Rock Senior High School, Daniel Stensland was preparing a meal in his food prep class when he felt the faint vibration of his phone. Reaching into his pocket, he saw the number and knew exactly who it was. Without hesitation, Stensland rushed out of the classroom into the hall.
On the line was ISU men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, who invited Stensland to walk on as a member of the Cyclones’ basketball team. It was Stensland’s lifelong dream.
“When he called me, it was one of the coolest days of my life,” Stensland said.
The dream started out small, but it started early in Daniel’s life. Rob and Jamie Stensland raised a Cyclone, taking little Daniel to ISU football and basketball games since he was one month old. They both graduated from Iowa State and watched basketball stars like Jamaal Tinsley and Jake Sullivan run the wood of Hilton Coliseum.
Sports always came naturally to Daniel, and basketball was like a sixth sense, Rob said. A third-grade Daniel would dribble down the court, looking to his left, then to his right before passing the ball behind his back -- or sometimes between his legs -- because that was how Tinsley did it.
“He always had a ball in his hand,” Jamie said. “He was a go-getter; he was fearless. He wanted to try everything and wasn’t afraid to do it.”
The intensity at which Daniel followed Iowa State basketball increased in his high school days. During the semifinal game of the state tournament last year, Daniel and his mother signaled back and forth by hand as she relayed information about the Cyclones’ Big 12 tournament run, which was being played at the same time.
Daniel rejected offers from Division II and Division III schools, where he could have been a starting guard, because he wanted to play Division I ball at Iowa State.
“It’s a proud moment as a father when a son says, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be part of this, and I want to somehow figure out how to make it’,” Rob said.
A flood of emotions erupted when Daniel gave his parents the news that he would be squeaking his sneakers across the wooden floorboards of Hilton Coliseum. A disbelief that a dream Daniel had worked so hard for was finally coming true mixed with excitement for his son, Rob said.
“To see that happen, and when we got the phone call that Coach Hoiberg contacted him and asked him to be one of the walk-ons, his excitement was beyond our wildest dreams,” Rob said.
It has been a learning opportunity for the Stensland family, Rob said. In high school, Daniel was a star player. He was the go-to point guard in his senior season of high school basketball as well as Amateur Athletic Union basketball.
But now, Daniel is taking a step in a different direction toward a different goal, and that has been an extensive transformation for Daniel. But what he learned from his father and his high school coaches has helped.
“Early on, it was instilled in him that you’re only as good as your last guy on your bench,” Rob said. “So for him, it’s a little of a learning experience because he’s now the last guy on the bench.”
Jamie looks at the bigger picture. Daniel has the opportunity to make what he wants of this experience, but it goes beyond playing basketball, she said. The life lessons he’s learning will be unmatched as he develops as a person and a player.
During ISU men’s basketball media day, everyone wants to talk with Georges Niang. In the southeast corner of the gym, Jameel McKay has his eagle-like wingspan flourished for photographers. In the northeast corner, TV crews wait in line for Hoiberg and their one-on-one opportunities with him. In the northwest corner, Cyclones.tv is doing an interview with Naz Long.
And in the northeast corner, Daniel Stensland spends his time shooting layups with Greek transfer student and Daniel’s roommate Georgios Tsalmpouris. It isn’t competitive; it’s a free shoot. Tsalmpouris, who at 7-foot-1-inch is the tallest player on the team, sits in a chair and could easily reject any of Daniel’s shots.
“I’m 5-10, and that’s with shoes on,” Daniel said, glancing down at his feet.
The freshman guard from Waverly, Iowa, doesn’t have any physical advantage against the rest of the team. He’s the smallest player on the roster, two inches shorter than freshman guard Clayton Cluster. In a game of inches, height can be valuable. But Daniel doesn’t let the size disadvantage affect the way he plays.
The other day Stensland was guarding Bryce Dejean-Jones, who can knock down a 3-pointer without jumping. He went up to Dejean-Jones and did his absolute best to disrupt his shot. He didn’t succeed. But that doesn’t stop him from trying -- and learning. To keep up with Dejean-Jones, Daniel has to focus constantly so he knows exactly where the opposing players are.
The transition hasn’t been easy for Daniel. In high school, he could get away with throwing a wayward pass to a teammate. But the athleticism he encounters every day during the Cyclones’ practices forces him to strive to be perfect in every aspect. He doesn’t expect to play much in his first year. But he sees himself in an extremely important role.
“When the coaches tell me to do something, I do it. When someone gets hurt in practice, I’m the guy to go in there and take the reps,” Daniel said. “I just do whatever I can to help the team out. That’s the goal.”
Every other day, junior guard Naz Long and Daniel sit next to each other in Philosophy 230, and every other day Daniel comes in exhausted. Long said he doesn’t see just fatigue, but the molding of the team player Daniel is trying to be.
“He comes here, he works his tail off,” Long said. “He’s here busting his butt, and no one can take anything away from Daniel.”
As members of the media question Hoiberg on logistics of the upcoming season, who his key players will be and what adversity the team might have to overcome, there is something behind the name Daniel Stensland that gives Hoiberg a chuckle and a smile.
“The thing I see out of Dan is how hard he works,” Hoiberg said. “He doesn’t care if he plays one minute since he’s been here. He’s going to be everything it takes to be a great walk-on.”
Daniel agreed, saying he didn’t care if he plays in one game this year or in one game his entire career, because he’s at Iowa State with a dream and a purpose.
When Daniel dons his No. 10 jersey in front of Cyclone Alley, the feelings won’t be foreign to him. He pictures the moment a lot like the first time he suited up for a high school varsity game. He’ll have some small butterflies, but he’ll quickly focus in.
“It was always my dream to play in Hilton Coliseum,” Daniel said. “I’ve still got that little kid in my mind.
“But after the first 10, 30 seconds, it’s just playing basketball.”