Best of Both Worlds

Love of system basketball and high academic ideals motivate senior captain
Denton Ketels

Nick Curta ’17 first heard about Grinnell when his high school basketball coach was thinking about introducing the “System” (the “System,” as in Coach Dave Arseneault and Grinnell College) as a style of play at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill. And because the coach was his dad, Curta got a unique perspective on the rationale behind using it.

“My dad had been coaching probably 15 years when he realized he was doing what everyone else was — playing six or seven guys with the rest sitting on the bench,” says Curta. “They were winning games, but not everyone was having fun. It was kind of a day-in, day-out basketball grind.

Nick Curta jumps to dunk the basketball“When Grinnell played on ESPN, my dad saw that game and it was always in the back of his head,” Curta says. “My sophomore year it was like, if we’re going to have 20 guys on the team, why not have them all play more and have fun with it? So he went to Coach [Arseneault’s] clinics and learned the System.”

Fun worked. Eisenhower won its conference, broke a national record for 3-pointers attempted, and broke the state record for 3-pointers made. “We scored 120 points a couple times,” Curta says. “In eight-minute quarters, that’s pretty unusual. Around the south side of Chicago, it got to where people were saying we had the team to go see. That’s where I fell in love with the System.” 

As he researched colleges as a high school junior, Curta decided Division III athletics was the right move. “I didn’t want to go to a program where I’d be a walk-on,” he says. “I wanted to go to a program where I’d play and be an integral part of the team.” But the National Honor Society president and AP Scholar in high school didn’t choose Grinnell solely because it is the mecca of System basketball.

Academics first

“Academics was first and foremost in my college search,” Curta says. “I’ve been lucky enough to grow to 6 feet 6 inches and have some ability on the basketball court, but the academic environment of Grinnell really attracted me. Everybody here wants to learn, and everyone wants each other to succeed.” 

A double major in economics and political science, Curta has earned academic all-conference status in each of his first three years. His plans are to attend law school after graduation.

On the court, Curta is a force under the basket. He finished 2015–16 as the Pioneers’ leading rebounder (111, 4.8 per game) and tallied 26 blocked shots. While scoring is not his primary role, he converted a healthy 78 percent of the 65 shots he took from the field last season.

“My field-goal percentage has gone up with skill work, but I’m more the grunt guy who likes to get in there and mix it up,” Curta says. “What I look forward to in games is setting screens, getting guys open for different shots. My brother (6-foot-5-inch guard Vinny Curta ’19) has the same mentality, but he’s put it more toward scoring and skill play. I’ve put the focus on getting to the glass, diving on the floor, taking charges, taking pride in the small things.”

Full effort, full commitment

Curta credits his parents — Michael, geography teacher and coach, and Dana, middle school teacher and former Division I volleyball player at DePaul University — for instilling in him a mindset for success. “In a very positive manner, they pushed us to be the best we can both academically and athletically,” Curta says. “And they still do that. If I have a test and they know about it, it’s ‘Good luck on the test, make sure you’re studying.’  

“They’re always at all our games, so before a game it’s a good-luck text, ‘Go out there and play hard.’ They’re very motivational and supportive of everything that we do.

“Growing up in a household where you have two coaches and two athletes, you get that never-quit, get-after-it attitude of full effort and full commitment.” 

Exclamation point(s) on a record day

A lot of Thanksgiving holiday calories were burned off when Greenville College — a team that also employs the System — invaded Darby gym Nov. 29 for a matchup of college basketball’s two highest-scoring teams.  

Grinnell prevailed 151-128 over the previously unbeaten Panthers, who had entered the game with a national-high 140 points-per-game average. Along the way the Pioneers set a Division III record of 54 free throws made, topping the old mark of 53 set in 1988 by University of California-San Diego. 

Grinnell’s final scoring play of the contest was a Vinny Curta dunk on an assist by Nick Curta. 

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