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Prep stars no longer, freshmen learn from adversity

A year ago, Sari Noga and Kionna Kellogg were high school standouts on top teams; this year, they’re freshmen on an inconsistent Gophers squad.
Prep stars no longer, freshmen learn from adversity
Image by Daily File Photo

Coming off a 2009-10 season in which their high school teams made the state tournament, Kionna Kellogg and Sari Noga have had to fill new roles while enduring a challenging year as freshmen on the womenâÄôs basketball team.

Both 2010 McDonaldâÄôs All-American nominees, the pair has had to adjust to again being among the youngest players on the court.

But even though they are no longer able to dominate a game the way they did just a season ago, and though they play for a significantly less-dominant team, neither player has been discouraged by the growing pains thus far at Minnesota.

Making the transition

âÄúIâÄôve always wanted to be a Gopher,âÄù Noga said. âÄúItâÄôs everything I ever wanted to do, to play college basketball.âÄù

Noga played her high school ball about 150 miles northwest of the University of Minnesota at Parkers Prairie High School in Parkers Prairie, Minn. In six years playing with the varsity team, she finished third on the all-time state scoring list and set the Minnesota high school record for career rebounds with 1,701. Last year she helped her team capture third in the state tournament and was voted the Minnesota Associated Press player of the year. This year with the Gophers, however, sheâÄôs averaging 3.3 points and 13 minutes per game.

âÄúObviously IâÄôm not going to go out there and just score 20 points,âÄù Noga said. Aware of the quicker pace of the college game, sheâÄôs realized that she first needs to figure out her role on the team and maximize that instead of trying to do too much in a college game sheâÄôs not yet accustomed to.

Kellogg has similar feelings about the game at the college level, saying that the strength and intensity of opponents can cause an initial shock. She added that, as a freshman, most other players on the floor âÄúhave something on us,âÄù which makes it an uphill battle in terms of skill and size.

Kellogg also came to Minnesota after an exceptional high school career in Ames, Iowa. Her team placed second in the state in 2009, and she was named player of the year for the Central Iowa Metropolitan League last season. Ames High School, where Kellogg played, has churned out some serious basketball talent in the past, with notable alumni including ex-Timberwolves player Fred Hoiberg and Scout.comâÄôs 2010 No. 1 recruit Harrison Barnes, who attended school with Kellogg.

While she was eager to finally play Division I with the Gophers, Kellogg admitted that her excitement got in the way of her play early this year. âÄúI wasnâÄôt patient with myself at the beginning,âÄù she said. She began to guess at how much time it would take to make the adjustment, which only led to frustration.

She credited assistant coach Curtis Lloyd, whoâÄôs also in his first year with Minnesota, in helping her set goals and push her season in the right direction. After a slow beginning, Kellogg has started the last three games, all wins. She became the first Gophers player in more than a year to record back-to-back games with 10 or more rebounds and was named Big Ten freshman of the week at the end of January.

Dealing with losing

Not far removed from all their success in high school, Kellogg and Noga found themselves in mid-January on a team that had lost seven games in a row.

Naturally, Noga admitted that itâÄôs been pretty different than âÄúbeing on a team that basically won every game.âÄù However, while her competitive juices are always flowing, she said that the opportunity to be at Minnesota was such an honor that she didnâÄôt take the losing streak too hard and was confident that the team would be a winning program sooner or later.

Kellogg agreed that she always wanted to win but didnâÄôt feel the demoralizing effects of losing she said happen to other teams in losing streaks. âÄúIt didnâÄôt feel like we were losing,âÄù Kellogg said. âÄúWe stuck together as a team.âÄù

For both freshmen to have such an optimistic attitude in the face of early adversity is an encouraging sign for the programâÄôs future, as well as a testament to the veteran leadership on the team.

Role models

After acting as leaders on their high school teams just a year ago, Noga and Kellogg have once again had to fill the role of student with the Gophers. Both players said theyâÄôve gotten plenty of advice from upperclassmen on the team.

Captains China Antoine, Kiara Buford and Kristen Dockery were all mentioned as mentors who have worked with the freshmen on their skills and approach to the college game.

This leadership has rubbed off on Noga and Kellogg, who both said they are now looking forward to the next class of freshmen coming in so they can assist their games in a similar way.

Noga specifically said that assistant coach Kelly Roysland has been an inspiration, given that she used to play for the Gophers and now works specifically with Sari as the teamâÄôs guard coach.

Going forward

Overall, Noga and Kellogg seem to have made a solid transition from high school to college and are both getting time on the floor this year, a goal they shared going into the season. While the easier wins and gaudy statistics of high school may be long gone, the challenge of Division I basketball has tapped into their competitive nature and has them excited for the future.

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