‘Joy in the journey.’ The science behind Kentucky’s only unbeaten college basketball team.

Transylvania women’s basketball coach Dr. Juli Fulks has an office filled with memorabilia, her players’ dreams and — if you’re lucky — a small dog named Chugs.

Now in her ninth season with the Pioneers after 10 seasons with Lewis & Clark College, Fulks has built an NCAA Division III powerhouse in Lexington on the unconventional athletic foundations of science and grace.

During her tenure at Transylvania, she has amassed an overall record of 197-38 (125-18 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference). Transylvania also owns the longest current home conference winning streak — 41 games and counting — of any team, in any sport, at any level, regardless of gender in the NCAA.

The Pioneers have not dropped a home conference game since Dec. 9, 2017, when Transylvania fell 69-58 to Rose-Hulman. For those looking for exact figures, as is only appropriate when discussing Fulks’ program, it’s been 1,879 days.

This season, Transylvania is 19-0 overall (12-0 HCAC) and is ranked No. 2 in the nation in Division III.

So what’s the secret?

The rules Transy lives by

Fulks, who holds an undergraduate degree in biology and a minor in psychology from Capital University, a Master of Arts in education from Defiance College and, as of May 2022, a doctorate in leadership studies from the University of the Cumberlands, worked at the Columbus (Ohio) Health Department in vector control before transitioning to life as a coach.

Her path began with a passion for problem solving.

“It really came about as a communication piece when I first started,” Fulks said. “Of getting our athletes to be better at whoever they needed to talk to. So, whether they needed to talk to their professors, or whether they needed to talk to recruits or their parents. That was clearly a deficit I was seeing. It much more started there, on learning how to be a better communicator and creating this strategy for them, that we’ve now used for probably 15 years.”

Her true passion is neuroscience, she explained while petting the dog, who was named “Chugs” due to the thinking that he was half-Chihuahua and half-pug (he’s actually one-third pit bull, one-third Alaskan snow dog and one-third Chihuahua, but that ship had sailed by the time the truth was uncovered).

In combining neuroscience with the desire to help players with their communication skills, Fulks found a method that worked.

“The real project was using communication efficacy and leadership studies in helping them learn how to be more confident in their communication skills from a leadership perspective, and then adding math and science to all the science parts I had learned. But none of that probably existed 15 years ago when I started this. The neuroscience piece is now, in the last three or four years, really taken off on what things actually matter to your brain in terms of leadership and trust. That’s where that came out of.”

The Pioneers have built rules into the way they run the program based on this research. For example, the coaching staff encourages what’s called ‘positive touches,’ physical interactions that may include a high-five as a player subs out, or making contact with a shooter in between their free-throw attempts.

“Touch-bonded teams win at a higher level,” Fulks said. “And there’s lots of studies, so we have those rules built into every drill, every team scenario. When we’re watching film we’re counting those things, too. There’s different parts of it that are always brought in.”

The nerd factor

Transylvania’s program expectations are not limited to the players. The coaching staff must stay present in interactions with players. For example, at every practice, coaches speak with the players and call them by name, taking an active interest in players’ lives both in and out of basketball.

Fulks’ staff is made up of like-minded individuals who believe in the power of this method, though their specific areas of expertise vary.

Assistant Hannah Varel, in her third season at Transylvania, earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Accountancy from the University of Missouri.

After a few years at an accounting firm, Varel decided to pursue her passion for basketball.

“She’s actually a faculty member for our accounting department,” Fulks said, laughing. “And so, I laugh all the time, ‘You actually teach real classes.’ It’s really cool because we’ve just always had a staff that I think, we’ll say, leans nerdy.”

The Pioneers operate using an algorithm created by Tim Whitesel, the team’s director of statistical analytics. Whitesel, who’s worked with Fulks since her days at Lewis & Clark in Oregon, has not only a B.S. in Biology and a B.A. in Philosophy from State University of New York at Fredonia, but also holds an M.S. in Zoology and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Rhode Island.

And while many coaches will tell you that basketball cannot be summed up in a box score and statistical analysis, Fulks and Whitesel have built a pretty convincing argument to the contrary.

“There’s multiple problems to running the numbers,” Fulks said. “One part is knowing the numbers. The other part, that is the most important part, is what do you do with them. And can you actually make them matter to your players? Tim, he created this algorithm a long time ago. ... And he laughs because sometimes he’ll be like, ‘No, I won’t give you that number because I know you’re not doing anything with it.’ And my response will be, ‘It’s just not what we do.’”

Juli Fulks is 197-38 overall and 125-18 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference in her nine seasons as head women’s basketball coach at Transylvania University.
Juli Fulks is 197-38 overall and 125-18 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference in her nine seasons as head women’s basketball coach at Transylvania University.

The effect on the court

There are certain characteristics that Fulks says her team simply does not have.

“The numbers could say, ‘Hey, you need to press them and turn them over,’” Fulks said. “And that’s just not who we are. We can’t win that way, so we’re going to have to find a different way to win.”

One way the Pioneers have found to win is to send every player on the court after offensive rebounds every single time.

“If, at best, teams shoot 40% on a good night,” Fulks explained. “That still means 60% of every possession, both offense and defense, is a rebound. We are trying to skew everything we do to the most predictable things that happen. We start with rebounding because of that.”

This season, Transylvania averages 44.5 rebounds per game to its opponents’ 32.3.

The algorithm has benefited the program defensively, as well.

“Defensively, our strategies are based on what can we do to make sure we are always going to rebound and not foul,” Fulks said. “And so, we are always top-five in the country in not fouling and top-two or -three in the country in not sending people to the free-throw line.”

The Pioneers have limited opponents to 6.9 free throws per game this season.

“... The highest point per possession is a free throw,” Fulks said. “We would much rather you make a layup, or these other things, and we never send you to the free-throw line. We’ve probably only had three, maybe four quarters this year where we’ve gotten to the double bonus and somebody’s gotten to shoot two free throws. ... We are very adamant about that not happening.”

Kennedi Stacy, a senior from Salyersville, was a first-team all-conference performer last season and is second on the team in scoring in 2022-23.
Kennedi Stacy, a senior from Salyersville, was a first-team all-conference performer last season and is second on the team in scoring in 2022-23.

Great mentors, great stories

Unsurprisingly, Transylvania players are provided many opportunities to gain additional knowledge. It’s important to Fulks that the team’s learning extends far beyond the Clive M. Beck Center.

The Pioneers host guest coaches for home and away games. These guests are accomplished women with stories to tell about their experiences as professionals who’ve found success despite adversity. Guests have included Susan Elkington, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky, and financial consultant Sherry Holley of Gratz Park Private Wealth.

Guest coaches sit on the bench during games, and often attend practices in the days before.

“Historically, we’ve cut practice short a half-hour, which the players, of course, don’t hate,” Fulks said, laughing. “And we’ll go up there in one of our team rooms and they’ll sit and talk to the players. To get to those levels, they have great stories. One of the parts I always ask them to talk about is ‘what is it like being at your level, in what is most likely a male-dominated world?’ And trying to get them to understand — not pitting one gender against the other — that there are going to be challenges being a female in the world and having each other’s backs. Getting them to understand what that can be like, that part’s been great.”

Each month, Transylvania presents an administrator, faculty or staff member the Essential Piece Award. Fulks was the January 2023 recipient. Beloved by her peers, players and school, it’s not difficult to find advocates for the coach.

“Coach Fulks not only can coach the game of basketball as seen by her team’s record each year,” Transylvania Athletics Director Holly Sheilley said, “but she cares deeply about making sure the student-athletes learn life lessons during their four years with her. She has embodied that she is more than a coach and that she is an educator of young people. Her support and mentorship is felt within our department as she genuinely cares about other people and helping them succeed.”

Under the leadership of Fulks, beating the Pioneers is a tall task for those around the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Transylvania not only wins consistently, it wins big. The Pioneers are outscoring opponents by an average of almost 26 points per game this season.

Fulks’ 16-player roster includes 12 players from Kentucky, two from Ohio, one from West Virginia and one from Georgia. Madison Kellione, a senior from Harrison County, leads four players who average double-figure scoring at 13.9 points per game. The 5-foot-4 guard also averages a team-best 4.6 assists. Kennedi Stacy (Magoffin County) averages 13.5 points, Laken Bell 11.7 and Desia Thornton 11.7 points and a team-leading 9.1 rebounds per game.

“From a coaching standpoint, her team’s gonna be very well-prepared,” said Hanover College Coach John Jones, one of Fulks’ rivals in the HCAC. “No one in the Heartland has had any type of national success that Transy’s had. And they’ve had more of it since she’s been there than anybody else. I would also say that she is an advocate for women’s basketball players.”

Madison Kellione, a senior guard from Cynthiana, leads Transylvania in scoring and assists this season. She was named Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Female Athlete of the Year in 2022.
Madison Kellione, a senior guard from Cynthiana, leads Transylvania in scoring and assists this season. She was named Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Female Athlete of the Year in 2022.

‘The different parts’

The players say that the Transylvania program has a “try-again culture.” According to Fulks, giving grace when mistakes are made, or failure happens, allows for growth.

“What we’re really trying to teach them to do is to take judgment off themselves when things go wrong,” Fulks said. “And that ends up applying to them as students, and them as just people. I think a lot of that is, we collectively have everybody’s back, but when you leave, we want you to leave knowing that you’ve grown a lot. In every way. And, hopefully, you also have the skill sets and the confidence to go do what you want to do in life. And the games are fun, but the games are only 60 hours of what we do. If we’re lucky to play 30 games, that’s 60 hours. And so, that can’t be the only part of the experience we’re judging this on. It needs to be all of the different parts.”

The back of Fulks’ office door is covered in note cards listing the handwritten dreams and goals of each of her players. The “Dream Door,” as it’s known, serves as a reminder of what the players said they wanted to work toward at the start of the year.

The note cards are bulleted with points like ‘keep good grades,’ ‘get an internship,’ ‘find a charity I’m passionate about,’ and ‘pass accounting.’

But the most common dream on the door? ‘Win a national championship.’

“It’s kind of the first year I’ve actually really let people put ‘national championship’ up there,” Fulks said. “Having that be a real dream and goal has to really align with ‘have you done the things to have that be real?’ We can all dream about it, but there’s a reality. We can’t just all dream collectively really hard about being national champions. And, not always be in the gym all the time and that still be (up there). There’s a skill and athletic piece. But they have it. And they know it.”

After six more regular-season games, the Pioneers begin their postseason journey with the HCAC Tournament followed, assuredly, by the Division III NCAA Tournament. Transylvania went 27-0 before falling one game short of the national semifinals last season and has not been defeated since then.

Amid all the winning, though, success has never been defined only by basketball at Transylvania.

What matters is the patience and work to overcome what’s hard.

“From that dream door, what we actually talk about every day is having joy in the journey,” Fulks said. “Because, if that one goal is what they judge this entire six-month process on, I have not done my job. That’s a big goal, but we’re together way too often to have that be the only thing that decides whether this has been good or bad.”