Small towns come up big for Minn.

As some local talent goes elsewhere, Gophers draw recruits outside Metro.

by Aleutian Calabay

The rural Minnesota cities of Hinckley, Princeton, Becker and Elgin all have a couple of things in common: They have populations of about 4,000 or fewer and have produced current players on the Minnesota women’s basketball team. Meanwhile, the state as a whole continues to produce womenâÄôs basketball talent all across the country, especially in the Big Ten, where all but three teams have a native Minnesotan on their roster. Nine of the 12 Minnesotans playing for a Big Ten team other than the Gophers have come from the Twin Cities area. The exceptions are IowaâÄôs Kamille Wahlin (Crookston) and Hannah Draxten (Fergus Falls) and Penn StateâÄôs Janessa Wolff (Park Rapids). But the Gophers have only two Metro-area players: Kiara Buford and Ashley Ellis-Milan, both from St. Paul âÄúIt really doesn’t matter where they’re from,âÄù Minnesota head coach Pam Borton said. âÄúWe want to recruit the student-athletes that are going to be successful here, both academically and athletically.âÄù With two local players, the Gophers have fewer Twin Cities products than Wisconsin, which features Alyssa Karel (Saint Paul), Emily Neal (Minneapolis) and Tara Steinbauer (Bloomington). The best explanation is also the most simple: Players from the Twin Cities have already been here and done that. Like many to-be college students, they were ready for a change after graduating from high school. âÄúIt’s kind of a matter of getting away,âÄù Minneapolis native and current Iowa junior Kachine Alexander said . âÄúI had been there all of my life, but I did want to stay around and go to a Big Ten school, so I could visit back to Minnesota.âÄù The reasons for leaving the Twin Cities are different for each player, but the departures have caused the Gophers to miss out on some talented athletes. Jenna Smith (Bloomington), the 2006 Minnesota Ms. Basketball , has had a stellar career at Illinois. The last two seasons, she has earned a unanimous first-team Big Ten selection, along with a plethora of other awards. Most recently, Minnesota watched Taylor Hill, the stateâÄôs all-team leading scorer in both boys and girls basketball, depart for Ohio State in 2009. After the BuckeyesâÄô win at Williams Arena on Feb. 14, Hill didnâÄôt trumpet her allegiance to the state of Minnesota when she was asked about her scoring record being certified by the Minnesota State High School League. âÄúI’m out of Minnesota; I’m done with Minnesota,âÄù she said. I’m at Ohio State; now I’m focused on our program.âÄù The Buckeyes, who recently clinched their sixth consecutive conference title, are perhaps the only Big Ten team that can use consistent winning in the last decade as a recruiting tool. Although Minnesota (13-14 overall, 6-10 Big Ten) may not be able to boast like Ohio State, the Gophers have a respectable 165-87 record in seven-plus seasons under Borton. âÄúI think our tradition is a huge selling point,âÄù Borton said. âÄúWe’ve been here and consistently won, so for local talent, it provides a chance for them to achieve their goals right here in their backyard, wearing the Minnesota jersey.âÄù While some local talent grows up looking to move on from Twin Cities life, other players have followed Gophers athletics as fans. For those who reach the level of being recruited by Big Ten schools, the University of Minnesota is already sold to them. âÄúI got a lot of letters, but I never really gave consideration to any other schools because I committed early to Minnesota,âÄù Gophers freshman Katie Loberg (Princeton) said. âÄúIt’s my home state, and I grew up a Gophers fan, and just to play for my home state was something I always wanted to do.âÄù Besides Gophers sports grabbing the attention of young athletes, the Twin Cities campus makes for another recruiting tool. âÄúWe sell the diversity of our campus, and we sell the city,âÄù Borton said. âÄúA lot of schools have very good educations and great campus environments, but we have something here in the Twin Cities that other Big Ten schools don’t have. We have Fortune 500 companies, and there’s a lot for them here other than just basketball.âÄù The big-city life certainly doesnâÄôt appeal to everyone. The HawkeyesâÄô Alexander said her choice included the fact that Iowa City has a college-town atmosphere. Yet for some Gophers, the opportunities presented by the Twin Cities campus was an important reason they came. âÄúI think I’ve had a good experience at the U of M,âÄù Gophers senior Katie Ohm (Elgin) said. âÄúI love the University, I love the campus and being in the big city.âÄù Although OhmâÄôs college basketball career will end in a few weeks, she has already been accepted to the Mayo School of Health SciencesâÄô Physical Therapy program , making her an example of what student-athletes can accomplish outside of playing a sport. While many high school athletes hope to play for a big university, those from more rural areas face a variety of obstacles to getting noticed on a national level. But talented athletes at smaller high schools can also play an important role at an earlier age. In OhmâÄôs case, she began playing on the varsity team at Elgin-Milville High School as a seventh grader and went on to set to set the state career scoring record at the time. At the same time, though, the lack of high-level opponents means there are few college scouts in attendance. Playing in Amateur Athletic Union leagues then becomes an important way for small-school players to be recognized. âÄúA lot of times they can get exposed in club ball,âÄù Borton said. âÄúThey may not play some of the best competition through their high school, but when they play on an AAU team, playing 40-50 games against some of the best players in the country, that’s where we can see how they develop.âÄù With the exception of this season, the Gophers have continued to find ways to win by recruiting from a variety of places, even internationally in the case of Zoe Harper from Lemming, Australia . But perhaps more so than any other place, rural Minnesota towns continue to feed Gophers womenâÄôs basketball. That trend continued when Minnesota already signed Parkers Prairie High School senior Sari Noga to join the program. âÄúIt really doesn’t matter where we go to get a kid,âÄù Borton said. âÄúIt has to be someone who we feel is going to be a good kid, a good student and someone who is going to have a good attitude that is going to fit into our team-first philosophy.âÄù