Ex-Chaska standout is Gophers’ complete package

Aaron Kirscht

In Chaska, Minn., population 16,000 and change, high school volleyball rules. The Hawks have made trips to the state tournament almost routine, and more often than not, come home with the championship trophy.
In the winter of 1990, however, something else grabbed the attention of more than a few local sports fans. A certain eighth-grader, who just happened to be the coach’s step-daughter, was making the jump to the varsity basketball squad.
That eighth-grader was Mindy Hansen, now a sophomore guard for the Gophers. As her current team practices for a tough weekend at No. 18 Illinois and No. 24 Michigan State, Hansen remembers her first year of high school basketball well.
“It was hard at first,” Hansen said, “because people didn’t think I could do it. But after about halfway through the season, and especially into my freshman year, they saw I could play. I think they felt I belonged there.”
Bob Downs, the coach at Chaska since 1978, knew naysayers in the community would wonder aloud that another player — one who wasn’t related to the coach — might not get the same opportunity.
Still, as Downs put it, “It all came out in the wash.” Hansen, the controversial recruit/step-child, graduated as the all-time leader in scoring, rebounds, steals and assists.
“I’m lucky,” Hansen said. “It didn’t happen very often. Someone was smiling on me, I guess.”
But those first two years were a struggle. Hansen’s always been high-strung, emotional and confident. Stepping into a position where she wasn’t — and couldn’t be — at the head of the flock, Hansen was out of her element.
“She had a tough couple of years because she had to learn to stifle her enthusiasm a bit,” Downs said. “She had to learn her place.”
Hansen was the first player off the bench early in her career, and emerged as the team’s emotional and statistical leader as a junior and senior. But she was never really the focal point of the Hawks offense.
“I was reticent to give her the opportunity to get the ball so much just because of who she was,” Downs said. “I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.
“There were some opportunities that didn’t come to Mindy that might have if we hadn’t been related.”
Even so, Hansen left the program as perhaps Chaska’s best basketball player ever. Hansen was recruited by Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, among others.
“But I didn’t want to go far away,” she said. “Not at all.”
Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald, who had kept an eye on Hansen since she was in ninth grade, was happy to oblige. After Hansen completed her junior year, the Gophers went after her hard.
“She’s a total package,” Hill-MacDonald said. “She has great athleticism, and she brings an energy to the floor.
“Off the court, Mindy exemplifies everything we look for in our student-athletes: integrity, honesty, hard work and commitment. She brings all those things to the table.”
But just as she did at Chaska, where her team averaged more than 16 wins and only 6 losses per season, Hansen had some growing pains. She calls her freshman year — when the Gophers finished 4-23 overall and 0-16 in the Big Ten — the low point of her basketball career.
“Right before the Big Ten tournament,” Hansen said, “everybody was blah, blah, blah. Complaining and everything. I was like, ‘Yuck. Gross. I don’t like this.'”
Hansen had to go back to her roots. Her stepdad said her “childlike enthusiasm” was a factor in turning things around. That and a summer of hard work, trying to improve herself so that she could lead by example.
And again, Hansen has had to work to stifle her enthusiasm — to learn her place.
“She’s learning some humility but she hasn’t accepted (that they’re going to lose some games),” Downs said. “She has this optimism that every time they go out there, she thinks they’re still going to win.”
The wins haven’t come, with last weekend’s dramatic victory over Ohio State the most notable exception. The Gophers are dead last in the Big Ten, with a record of 3-18, 1-10 in the conference.
But Hansen’s we’ll-get-’em-next-time attitude has never let up. And now that the 32-game Big Ten losing streak is over, she said, opponents may have a different, almost fearful outlook on the cellar-dwelling Gophers.
“Nobody wants to play us now because we got that win,” Hansen said. “That really lights a fire under us. We could do some things with that, if we can take advantage of it.”
A new streak?
The Gophers take their one-game winning streak on the road this weekend but will be hard-pressed to keep it going. No. 18 Illinois, Sunday’s opponent, and No. 24 Michigan State, Friday’s opponent, are one-two in the Big Ten.
ù Michigan State (16-4 overall, 8-2) looked ready to blow away the Gophers last month at the Sports Pavilion, until the halftime buzzer sounded. The Spartans looked average in the second half against Minnesota, but managed to hold off a late Gophers run for a 76-65 win.
Michigan State was led by center Nicole Cushing-Adkins, who had 16 points in only 18 minutes.
ù Before beating Ohio State last weekend, Minnesota played its best game of the season against the Illini last month. The Gophers made a late run to send the game to overtime, but stumbled late and lost 89-85.
Illinois (17-4, 9-2) lost its next game to Michigan, but has since won five straight and surged to the Big Ten lead and the No. 18 ranking.