Despite the historic nature of his accomplishment, the humble Zieja has been undaunted by and perhaps even a little uninterested in his pursuit of the scoring record-Zieja is gunning for a larger goal this season, he wants to help his team bring a national championship to Amherst. “Personally, it may be because I am so caught up in our season now and our main goal is winning a national title, but the scoring record really isn’t that important to me right now,” said Zieja.
“I’ve always maintained that the accomplishment is one that I will probably be able to look back on and take pride in somewhere down the line when my career is over. At the same time, I also think that it is an accomplishment that the whole team can share in, especially [tri-captain Ryan Faulkner ’03], who has been playing point guard alongside me the last few years.”
Humility has become somewhat of a trite term in sports these days, but over the past four years number 34 has proven that his team-first attitude is for real. “If you ask Steve about the record, he will probably tell you that it doesn’t matter that much to him and it is the truth,” said Faulkner. “He does not play the game to score a lot of points but plays to win and the record has just been a result of his desire to win every game.”
Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75 also had praise for Zieja as a team player. “A great thing about [Zieja] is that he sets bigger and better goals for our team than he does for himself.”
It would be a mistake however to confuse Zieja’s current ambivalence towards his scoring record with a lack of respect for the storied history of athletics here at Amherst College. Indeed, Zieja, whose father Stan is the Head Athletic Trainer at Amherst, knows better than most what select company he now finds himself amidst, as he has been around the College and its basketball team for almost his entire life.
“One of the great things about Stephen’s pursuit of the record is that many of the people he has passed, he has seen the past 17 years or so at practice,” said Hixon.
Inevitably, comparisons will now be made to determine how Zieja stacks up against Amherst’s other all-time great ballplayers. “Stephen is at or near the top of every category,” said Hixon. “I don’t think there has been anyone better in terms of competitive edge and heart.”
Zieja, who saw significant playing time as a freshman, moved into Hixon’s starting lineup as a sophomore. Zieja’s been the team’s leading scorer ever since. After earning second-team all-NESCAC honors following his sophomore season, Zieja was named as a tri-captain heading into the 2001-02 campaign. Amherst’s starting power forward responded with another sensational year, averaging 18.2 ppg and 7.1 rpg while leading his team to an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance. Zieja received first-team all-NESCAC, first-team D3hoops.com all-Northeast, and First-Team All-ECAC accolades, among many others in 2002.
Despite Zieja’s impressive accomplishments, there have been a few Amherst graduates who could be considered Zieja’s equal on the hardwood. Hixon thinks that his former teammate, Jim Rehnquist ’77, may be the best player he has seen at Amherst.
Rehnquist, third on the all-time scoring list, managed to score his 1,512 points while playing only three years of Varsity basketball at Amherst due to NCAA restrictions on freshman participation in athletics back in the ’70s. Rehnquist, a solid long-range shooter, also did not have the benefit of the three-point line to boost his scoring totals.
While Zieja has already accomplished a great deal, his career at Amherst is far from over. There is still some unfinished business that the Massachusetts native and his teammates must attend to. If Amherst’s star player can help lead the Lord Jeffs to a third consecutive NESCAC Championship and perhaps even an NCAA Championship, Zieja will surely be in a league of his own.