Kent State basketball strength coach critical to program’s success

Alex Cossin

Music and voices echoed up a dim staircase in the M.A.C. Center. Down the stairs, in the basement, is the weight room.

In this weight room, seven-year sports performance coach Rhen Vail trains last year’s Mid-American Conference Champion basketball team.

The program is unique, said Director of Athletic Communications Eugene Canal. A dedicated strength coach is unheard of, Canal said, especially in the MAC — strength coaches are usually shared through multiple sports.

“We’re not building bodybuilders, powerlifters (or) CrossFit athletes. We’re building basketball players,” Vail said. “We want them to be strong at the game.”

Vail’s always wanted to work with basketball, he said, but Kent State was the first opportunity for him to break into this specific part of the industry.

In the basement, Vail appears to be in multiple places at once. He’s spotting junior center Adonis De La Rosa on bench press and in the blink of an eye he’s energizing sophomore forward Danny Pippen, and then he’s coaching sophomore guard Mitch Peterson on his form.

“It’s a huge benefit,” Vail said. “I went from working with 200 to 300 athletes on a daily basis at the field house, where now I work with 30.”

Just how effective is Vail with the MAC Champions? Pippen is up 21 pounds. Peterson is up 10 pounds. De La Rosa has cut weight since last summer and is now packing mass back on.

This summer marks Vail’s first full year as the sports performance coach for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

“I’m at every game. I’m at every practice for both teams. I’m at any events that we go to, team events, whatever we do, I’m (there),” Vail said. “If it’s men’s basketball or women’s basketball, as long as it’s not conflicting, I’m at both.”

De La Rosa believes the program is improving.

“After the win and all the other stuff that’s been going on, all the good and positivity has been coming and going,” De La Rosa said. “The program has been growing, and I believe it’s taking a rise at this point.”

This year is Vail’s seventh at Kent State. He started as a graduate assistant at the football complex. His first major role was soccer, but he later acquired roles in baseball, track and field and football.

“To me, this is a people business,” Vail said. “I don’t do it because I like lifting weights. I could be a lawyer or a dentist. I could be something else and lift weights.”

For Vail, it’s about knowing the players.

“I don’t look at them as just an athlete. I want to know what their major’s are, I want to know their home town, I want to know who their parents are, I want to know what they like to do. I know a good amount on every athlete about their personal lives and what they like to do outside of here,” Vail said. “It’s kind of seeing them grow as men and women.”

The work is worth it for Pippen.

“We put in hard work, so our reward is just as great,” Pippen said. “We work hard, so we win.”

Peterson credits Vail’s work as critical to the team’s success.

“(Vail) knows what he’s doing,” Peterson said. “We’re doing big things down here, and the outcome is we won a MAC Championship, and we’re looking forward to doing it again next year.”

Vail gave himself credit, too.

“I think what we do and the culture we’ve built and the relationships we’ve built helped (us win the MAC Championship),” Vail said. “If i didn’t say I had something to do with (the win), then I’d be selling myself probably a little short.”

Part of the culture, Vail said, is getting to know the players.

“I have 15 to 30 athletes in the day, each one of them ticks different. The way each one of them works and the way each one of them is motivated and what drives them, it’s all different,” Vail said. “I ask each team ‘What’s your why?’ I want to know why you do this and what drives you every single day. I want to get to know that so that i can push those athletes.”  

It’s all about moving forward for Vail.

“As long as we get one percent better, one degree better each and every day, that’s kind of what I look at it as,” Vail said.

Alex Cossin is a sports reporter, contact him at [email protected].