NAU assistant coach Ojanen has key role in hoops turnaround

The most important recruit Shane Burcor added to the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball program when he took it over last year might not have been a player.  A good argument could be made that that distinction should belong to Tyler Ojanen, an assistant coach.

Ojanen (pictured above) has been included on the list of the nation’s 50 Impactful Low-Major Assistant Coaches.  Only those who have not been a head coach are considered for the list, which was prepared by Silver Waves Media (SWM).

But, as anyone can tell you, without a staff of top assistants, head coaches don’t last long.  The SWM list serves to shine a spotlight on their value.

Burcor, who just completed his first season running the program, is quick to point out that, “Coach Ojanen is a huge part of our success.”  Burcor calls the one-time Arizona high school coach a “grinder” and says Ojanen “has a great eye for identifying winners who will help NAU Basketball contend for championships in the Big Sky Conference.”

Burcor stepped up from his assistant-coach role to take over the team for last season on an interim basis.  When his predecessor, Jack Murphy, announced he was leaving Flagstaff to return to the University of Arizona program as its associate head coach, Burcor was named interim head coach on June 2 of last summer.

It took him just two weeks to convince Ojanen to leave his position as assistant athletic director for men’s basketball at St. Mary’s College (Calif.) to join him at NAU.

Together, they led the Lumberjacks to a 16-14 overall record and a 10-10 finish in the Big Sky Conference.  The 16 wins were more than the combined total from the previous two seasons.

Burcor and Ojanen both have a background in local sports.  Ojanen played two years at Phoenix College and was a JV coach at Cortez High School in Phoenix, while Burcor was a head coach at Mesa High School, where he led the Jackrabbits to the 6-A state title in 2016.

They will be joined on the bench by Gaellan Bewernick, a two-year team captain when he played for NAU, who was elevated prior to the 2019-20 season from his role as graduate assistant to a full-time assistant.

Burcor’s performance during his season auditioning for the head-coaching role was good enough to earn the title.  The ‘interim’ tag was dropped in late March, and Burcor and his trusted sidekick began looking ahead to the 2020-21 season.

The good news: They will have their top scorer, junior guard Cameron Shelton, back in the fold.  His 14.8 points per game helped the ‘Jacks to a scoring average of 71 points a game last season.

The bad news:  Shelton is the only one out of the top five scorers returning.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)