Hopes for the hometown basketball heroes, meaning the Minnesota Gophers, whatever gender, usually begin with a nucleus of home state talent. You gotta protect your borders, you know! Well, surely, that's true. But just as surely, there's long been a chorus of "you can't win with Minnesota talent." So, two questions: How has the caliber of Minnesota talent affected the fortunes of the Minnesota Gophers women's program since its founding some 40 years ago now? And how has the Gophers' success in "protecting the borders" played into team success, or not? It's a complicated question ill suited to a quick answer. So bear with me.
Minnesota Ms. Basketball
First, let's use Minnesota Ms. Basketball winners as a stand-in for the larger cohorts of D1 prospects over the years. Who has been Minnesota Ms. Basketball? Where have they gone to college? Are there patterns and trends in whether they've come to the U of M or gone elsewhere? You bet. After Laura Gardner in 1978, no Minnesota Ms. Basketball played ball at the U of M until Carol Ann Shudlick in 1990!
1978--Laura Gardner, Bloomington Jefferson, Minnesota
Gardner started for the U as a freshman, averaging 15 points and 8 boards, and was named "all-American" for her play in the post-season AIAW tournament (this was before the NCAA gave a #$%^ about women's ball). But she blew out her knee the following summer and was never quite the same.
1979--Jean Tierney, St. Paul Central, ?
I cannot find any record of Jean playing college ball, but I do know that she went on to become Joe Mauer's mom.
1980--Janet Karvonen, New York Mills, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech
1981--Kelly Skalicky, Albany, Louisiana State
1982--Annie Adamczak, Moose Lake, Nebraska volleyball
These were 3 of the greatest high school athletes of their day. Karvonen wanted to play for a big-time program, and started at Old Dominion, which had won the national title in 1979 and 1980. She then transferred to Louisiana Tech, which won the national title in 1981 and 1982. Each won a 3rd title before the decade of the '80s was out. They were the Connecticut and Tennessee of their day.
Skalicky, meanwhile, was never offered by the U and so we have no idea whether she would have stayed at home or not. Minnesota had a superb point guard in Debbie Hunter (Cloquet, 1979) and coach Ellen Mosher, right or wrong, saw Skalicky as someone who would not be happy playing off the bench.
Adamczak was a 3-sport star, but volleyball was her best sport so there was never any question of her playing hoops at Minnesota or anywhere else.
So the loss of these 3 superstars was not taken to be a black mark against the Gopher program which was, in any event, thriving, winning 24 games in 1978 and 28 games and the Big 10 title in 1981. In coach Mosher's 1st 6 years on the job, her Gophers won 125 games and lost 61, a winning percentage of ..672.
The Long Decline
As the 1980s wore on, it became clear that Minnesota girls basketball talent was not strong, and the Minnesota Gophers and coach Mosher paid the price. From 1983 through 1987, Mosher's Gophers won 47 games while losing 64, for a winning percentage of .425. After 6 years with an average record of 21-10, Minnesota suffered through 4 years at 12-16. Despite her early success, 4 down years were enough to doom coach Mosher, who was replaced by LaRue Fields in 1987.
1983--Angela Kuehn, Minnesota Deaf, ?
1985A--Kristi Kremer, Wheaton, North Dakota State
1985AA--Denise Holm, Duluth East, Minnesota-Duluth
1986A--Laurie Decker, Rochester Lourdes, Iowa State
1986AA--Amy Davidson, St. Louis Park, Kansas State
1987A--Laurie Decker, Rochester Lourdes
1987AA--Mya Whitmore, Hill-Murray, Northwestern
1988A--Mary Jo Miller, Tracy-Milroy, Kansas State
1988AA--Carolyn Frisk, Stillwater, Minnesota-Duluth
1989A--Yoli Murphy, Christ's Household of Faith
1989AA--Jessica Fiebelkorn, Osseo, Notre Dame volleyball
This is not to say that some Minnesotans didn't find D1 success. Mary Jo Miller at Kansas State, in particular, was for many years the Wildcats' career assists leader, while also scoring 10 ppg over 4 years. Mya Whitmore started at Northwestern. Amy Davidson lettered 4 times at Kansas State, scoring 4 ppg over 4 years. I have no idea if the Gophers offered any of these and/or why they didn't go to the U.
But during this period, several Minnesota Ms. Basketballs didn't even go D1, playing at places like North Dakota State (then D2) and UMD. In fact, going forward, from 1990 to 1999, NDSU under coach Amy Ruley and UND under Gene Roebuck won 8 of 9 NCAA D2 titles with rosters littered with Minnesota girls like Rhonda Birch and Ms. Basketball winners Kremer and Morlock at NDSU and Teresa LeCuyer and Kierah Kimbrough at UND, among many others. Morlock was in fact chosen to the NCAA D2 "all-time" (25 year) all-star team a few years ago.
Gopher stars of this era included Molly Tadich (Bloomington Jefferson) and Carol Peterka (St. Cloud Tech) as well as Wisconsin native Laura Coenen, but they could not keep the program from a steep decline with rosters made up mostly of Minnesota girls. From 1987 to 1990 the struggles became even worse than in Mosher's final years. Fields left after just 3 years and only 24 wins (24-60, .286 and 12-42, .222 in the Big 10).
The Shudlick Era: Just An Anomoly
1990--Carol Ann Shudlick, Apple Valley, Minnesota
1991--Shannon Loeblein, St. Paul Harding, Minnesota
1992--Stacy Fields, Mounds View, Minnesota
Thing started to turn around with the arrival of Linda Hill-McDonald and (perhaps more to the point) Carol Ann Shudlick in 1990. Minnesota high school ball generally was probably no better than before, but Shudlick (and also Shannon Loeblein from the following class) was a diamond in the rough. Fortunately, big time programs were not prowling the Minnesota prairies and so Shudlick and Loeblein were mostly ignored by other D1 programs. Minnesota won only 14 games in 1990-1991 and 1991-1992, but as Shudlick and Loeblein matured, the Gophers had their 1st winning season in 8 years at 14-12 in 1992-1993. Then came a magical year in 1993-1994 as Minnesota went 18-11 and shocked Notre Dame 81-76 at South Bend in the NCAA tournament. Shudlick was named national player of the year.
But new hopes for the program proved to be false ones as the Gophers slumped to 20-62 the next 3 years without Shudlick. And now they would be without coach Hill-McDonald, who was replaced in 1997.
1993--Casey Morlock, Stewartville, North Dakota State
1994--Kjersten Miller, Bloomington Jefferson, ?
1995--Linda Shudlick, Apple Valley, Minnesota volleyball
1996--Sue Fiero, Goodhue, Minnesota-Duluth
For the 1st half of the 1990s, Minnesota's best basketball talent was still not in demand by D1 colleges. Shudlick and Loeblein had been anomalies. So Minnesota hired Cheryl Littlejohn from Alabama, and it was hoped that she could recruit some southern talent. It didn't work out quite that way.
The Birth of the Modern Era
The MSHSL had long had one of America's strictest policies limiting play by high school boys and girls outside of their school seasons. But those rules were relaxed around 1988-1990 and the clubs--most notably among the girls was North Tartan--began to spring up. It would be some time before enough Minnesota girls would get enough court time at an early enough age to gain much notoriety on the national stage. But it happened, and it was indeed North Tartan and the class of 1997 that made it so.
In 1991 Tartan's under-13s finished 2nd at the national AAU tournament. Kinesha Davis (Blake, Western Illinois, UNLV), Jenny Hoffner (Brooklyn Center, North Dakota) and Megan Taylor (Roseau, Iowa State) earned all-America honors. The next year another group of 13-and-unders, led by Coco and Kelly Miller and Maren Walseth (Jefferson, Penn State), led Tartan to a national title. They followed that with a 3rd, a 9th, another title as 16s, a 4th (as 17-year-olds playing up in the 18-year bracket) and then a 3rd national title as 18s. Kelly Miller won all-America honors 5 times, Coco 4 times and Walseth several times as well.
It was a new day for Minnesota high school talent, but not yet for the Minnesota Gophers. During the 6-year run-up to 1997, as the high school girls gained national attention, the Gophers won 60 games while losing 104. There was little question that the Megan Taylors and Millers and Maren Walseths and Tamara Moores of the world would choose to play at the U, and in fact they did not.
1997--Coco and Kelly Miller, Rochester Mayo, Georgia
1998--Tamara Moore, Mpls. North, Wisconsin
1999--Mauri Horton, Mpls. North, Rutgers
2000--Susan King, Holy Angels, Stanford
During Littlejohn's ill-fated 4 years as Gopher coach (1997-2001), Minnesota won 33 games, and an embarrassing 7 Big 10 games, while losing 81 (and 55). Imagine that. 7-55 in the Big 10 over 4 years (.113)! Littlejohn was replaced by Brenda Oldfield in 2001. And yet Littlejohn left her mark on Minnesota Gopher basketball, to be sure, in the form of recruits Lindsay Whalen and then Janelle McCarville, plus a supporting cast of Khadidja Anderson, Kim Prince, Lindsay Leiser and others.
Luckily, Whalen had been overshadowed by Susan King in her own conference. Coaches nationwide knew that Minnesota now harbored some worthy basketball talent. But they had overlooked the guard from Hutchinson who had never played in the state tournament. And in Wisconsin a year later Misty Bass and Janelle McCarville were the #1 and #2 posts, but nobody doubted that Bass was the big catch, and so they forgot about the rotund post from Stevens Point. Littlejohn snuck the 2 of them onto the U of M campus largely because they hardly had another D1 offer. Whalen was said to have chosen Minnesota over Iowa State because she would be better able to follow her beloved Vikings from the U than from the hinterlands to the south.
And this brings us to the modern era of Minnesota high school basketball and of the Minnesota Gophers. But let's not miss the lessons of the past. Minnesota high school basketball has as often as not existed outside the mainstream of the national view, a backwater whose best talent was suited to D2 and D3, not the big time. In geological time, it's not that long that Minnesota has enjoyed the spotlight. And one still hears that the Gophers can't win with Minnesota talent.
Second, the Gophers themselves have enjoyed only sporadic success, ever. Karvonen bailed because Minnesota had been a weakling up to her time. Only during Karvonen's college career in the early '80s, thanks to coach Mosher, Debbie Hunter, Laura Gardner and Linda Roberts, among others; and later during the Shudlick era; and finally thanks to Whalen and McCarville; only during those 3 short periods (6 years under Mosher, then just 2 years with Shudlick, then 4-5 years around Whalen's time here) have the Gophers been consistently above .500. Over a period of 30-some years, now, Minnesota has won barely 40 percent of its Big 10 games, or about 200 wins versus well over 300 losses.
The Whalen Era: Just Another Anomoly?
And so the period from 2001 through 2006 is a shining beacon for Gopher basketball fans--recent enough to seem attainable again. Some seem to see it as a birthright, that of course that is where the Gophers should be. It's just a matter of getting the right coach, somebody who can recruit like Littlejohn and game-coach like, I dunno, Brenda Oldfield? Well, maybe, but you cannot appeal to history to to come to the conclusion that the Gophers should be playing at that level all the time. Nor, I think, to the caliber of in-state talent.
2001--April Calhoun, Robbinsdale Armstrong, Iowa, Minnesota
2002--Shannon Bolden, Marshall, Minnesota
2003--Liz Podominick, Lakeville, Minnesota
2004--Leslie Knight, Hopkins, Minnesota
2005--Katie Ohm, Elgin-Milville, Minnesota
Still, long about 2005-2006 in fact one used to hear it said, a little gloatingly, that the Gophers had not 1, not 3, but 5 Minnesota Ms. Basketballs on its roster. In fact, April Calhoun had started her career in Iowa but when Gopher fortunes turned around, she beat it back up I-35 to Minneapolis to finish her career at the U, and to join Shannon Bolden, Liz Podominick, Leslie Knight and Katie Ohm on a Final Four/top-10 Gopher squad.
Of course, none of them was really a star. Whalen and McCarville (from Wisconsin) were the stars. And after them, Emily Fox from Colorado, and then Kelly Roysland of Fosston, who had been passed over, reasonably enough, as Ms. Basketball in 2003 in favor of Podominick. Podominick led Lakeville to back-to-back state titles and along with Tayler Hill is the only other Minnesotan to play in the McDonald's all-America game.
Still, we thought, surely the Gophers can continue to contend for whatever honors with Minnesota girls! But, hey, the "best" Minnesota girls after Whalen were not stars. Even if you get the best Minnesota girls, you better get a Natasha Williams and an Emmy Fox, too, but, unfortunately, neither of those things would continue to happen.
2006--Jenna Smith, Bloomington Kennedy, Illinois
2007--Angel Robinson, St. Paul Central, Marquette
2008--Courtney Boylan, Chaska, Michigan
2009--Tayler Hill, Minneapolis South, Ohio State
2010--Cassie Rochel, Lakeville North, Wisconsin
2011--Rachel Banham, Lakeville North, Minnesota
2012--Marissa Janning, Watertown-Mayer, Creighton
2013--probably Rebekah Dahlman, Braham, Vanderbilt
At one time the Gophers had 5 Ms. Basketballs on their roster. More recently the number has been 0 or 1. What up wit' dat?
(And while out-of-state talent once looked like McCarville and Emmy Fox, more recently it looks like Kay Sylva, China Antoine and Leah Cotton, but that's another story.)
A person could certainly date the slide from 2006. You all know what happened in 2006, as 6 women, including Minnesotans Podominick and Jamie Broback, left the program. The recruiting slide dates to 2006, too, and to the loss of Ms. Basketball winner Jenna Smith. I've heard it said that the Gophers did not offer Smith but that, hey, they had Podominick and Natasha Williams and Lauren Lacy in the post. They didn't need Jenna Smith. But on the other hand, they recruited Ashley Ellis-Milan from St. Paul Central, also from the class of 2006, who ended up as the Gophers' starting post for 3 years. Being as nice as possible, Ellis-Milan was a shadow of the athlete that Jenna Smith was. So I don't much care about the circumstances. That was the biggest whiff since Coco and Kelly Miller.
Then came Angel Robinson, point guard extraordinare of the best team in Minnesota girls basketball history. I've been told that Robinson was lost because coach Pam Borton approached her late, then disappeared, then finally came back with an offer that was considered to be too little and too late. Robinson went to Marquette where she started and averaged in double figures for 4 years.
Courtney Boylan was not considered to be a big loss as Kiara Buford, Briana Mastey and Jackie Voigt were regarded as a top 20 national recruiting class. Their careers turned out to be a big disappointment, but that too is another story.
Tayler Hill was the big whiff of the past decade, the top scoring girl ever, the 2nd Minnesota girl ever to play in the McDonald's game, a game-changer. Borton recruited her to the bitter end, when it became apparent that Tayler Hill never had any intention of being a Gopher. And having put all her eggs in Tayler Hill's basket, coach ended up without a consolation prize in 2009. By the time Hill pulled the trigger it was too late to get the other great guards of 2009, Brittney Chambers or Theiarra Taylor.
Collectively, of course, the misses in 2007-2008 and 2009 meant that between Lindsay Whalen in 2000 and Rachel Banham in 2010 the Gophers had failed to recruit a single Minnesota guard who was a BCS caliber ball-handler. Not that they weren't out there. Along with Angel, you had Kamille Wahlin of Crookston and Alyssa Karel of Cretin, each of whom became a starting point guard in the Big 10. And while coach Borton was forced to bring Kay Sylva and China Antoine and Leah Cotton to provide a little depth at the guard spot, Wahlin was starting at Iowa before her freshman year was out and won all-Big 10 honors 3 times.
In 2010, Cassie Rochel followed Tayler Hill's example, wanting nothing to do with the Gophers. There were no huge lamentations at this, but the fact is she is starting at Wisconsin now in her junior year. In 2011 the Gophers got Rochel's teammate, Rachel Banham, thank goodness. The fragility of the Gopher program is easily illustrated just by asking the question of where they would be if Banham had followed Hill and Rochel and Theiarra Taylor out of town.
Nobody seems to know if Minnesota recruited Marissa Janning, 2012 Ms. Basketball. But while I'm a big admirer of Shayne Mullaney, it was pretty obvious when Creighton played the Gophers at the Barn early this year that Janning is a special player and way ahead of Mullaney in their respective freshman years.
Similarly the Gophers whiffed on the 2013 Ms. Basketball. I mean, we don't know who it will be, but it won't be Gopher recruit Joanna Hedstrom. The top choices would seem to be Rebekah Dahlman, Braham and Vanderbilt; Nia Coffey, Hopkins and Northwestern; Tyseanna Johnson, DeLaSalle and Iowa State; Jade Martin, Kennedy and Georgetown; and Jessica January, Richfield and DePaul. This is widely regarded as the best recruiting class ever in Minnesota, and the Gophers basically whiffed on the top 5-6-8 players.
But fortunately they've got the likely 2014 Ms. Basketball in Carlie Wagner of New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva--only the 2nd such recruit in the past 9 years!
What Up Wit' Dat?
Recruiting high school kids has to be one of the toughest, most frustrating pursuits known to mankind. I mean, kids don't know what they want until they see it, right? And for the Minnesota Gophers coaches there's a unique set of challenges. Why, in short, might a Minnesota kid want to play basketball somewhere else? Let me count the ways.
1. Kids who have the opportunity to do so are more likely than not going to want to play for the best program possible, like Janet Karvonen going to Old Dominion and then Louisiana Tech or, to borrow from the boys/men's side of the equation, like Cole Aldrich of Jefferson going to Kansas or Adam Boone going to North Carolina or Nick Horvath to Duke. This is a fairly rare thing, however, which tells you that maybe Minnesota ball isn't quite as tough as we think. I dunno.
2. Minnesota is the only Big 10 school located in the state's largest metropolitan area. There are no such schools in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Here, more than half the state's population is within 25 or 30 miles of the U of M campus. The problem with this is that a lot of college kids, athletes or not, want to "go away" to school. They want to get away from mom and dad, or they want to go somewhere exotic and mysterious. For most Minnesota kids--and certainly for the half of them that grew up in the Twin Cities--that ain't the U. Maybe that's why Tayler Hill and Cassie Rochel and Angel Robinson and Rebekah Dahlman said no thanks. Maybe it's not. But it hurts Gopher recruiting at least some.
3. Then there's the fact that the U and the black communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a long history of estrangement. Again, this is not specifically about athletics. But if you're not aware of this fact, you don't understand the Gophers recruiting situation very well. When the U closed the General College a few years ago, it was seen as a particular affront to the black community. Now, is this why Tamara Moore and Tayler Hill and Angel Robinson and Theiarra Taylor didn't go to the U? Who knows. Maybe they wanted to "go away." But whatever the reason, it came against a backdrop of estrangement between the U and their local communities. Was anybody whispering in their ear that the U would be a great choice? Look at the Gophers recruits from Minnesota of the past several years and looking ahead:
2008--Kiara Buford, Briana Mastey, Jackie Voigt
2011--Rachel Banham, Kayla Hirt
2012--Shayne Mullaney, Mikayla Bailey
2014--Carlie Wagner, Grace Coughlin
Since Kiara Buford, not a single African-American Minnesota girl.
Meanwhile the out-of-town recruits for the same period include the aforementioned Sylva, Antoine and Cotton; Brittany McCoy, Korinne Campbell, Micaela Riche and Kionna Kellogg; and going forward Stabresa McDaniel.
I mean, seriously, maybe someone can explain this to me...but I'm not gonna hold my breath. But WTF is going on, it surely complicates the recruiting landscape for the Gopher coach, whoever s/he is.
So, anyway, take the big whiffs of recent years. Tayler Hill seems to have wanted a more prestigious program than the U. If Connecticut or Tennessee had come calling, Ohio State might not have been the winner. The Gophers never had a chance.
Surely some other girls wanted to "go away" to college, though I don't know of a specific example.
But at least 2 athletes I know of (according to people who know them) rejected Minnesota because coach came calling long after other coaches had started banging on the door and not only that but then she disappeared for a period of time before finally coming back with an offer. By that time the kids had decided that Minnesota didn't really want them very badly and in fact that they had been disrespected. One told coach that "it would be really lame to play for the University of Minnesota." These are both kids who might have played at the U if they had been courted with some sense of commitment.
Jenna Smith and Kamille Wahlin, further, seem not to have been offered. Those misses too are on the Gophers.
The Future and the Summary Judgement
Next year Joanna Hedstrom from Minnetonka, and Stabresa McDaniel from Texas will be freshmen, as will Amanda Zahui from Sweden in terms of eligibility, having redshirted this year.
Then in 2014 you've got Carlie Wagner and Grace Coughlin plus Terra Stapleton and Josie Buckingham, a couple of big posts from Ohio.
It's been a long time since the Gophers had more recruits coming from outside of Minnesota than inside (4 of 7 the next 2 years). Once upon a time I would have been unhappy about that. But right now it seems to be a necessity (as long as McDaniel, Stapleton and Buckingham don't turn out to be bigger versions of Sylva, Antoine and Cotton). The program will be better off because of it.
And the fact is that the talent in (and coming into) the Minnesota Gopher women's program is probably the best it's been since that fateful year of 2006.
Centers--Riche (class of 2014), Zahui (2017), Stapleton (2018), Buckingham (2018)
Forwards--Kellogg (2014), Noga (2014), Hirt (2016), McDaniel (2017)
Guards--Banham (2015), Mullaney (2016), Bailey (2016), Hedstrom (2017), Wagner (2018), Coughlin (2018)
No, not all of these kids will be in the program at the same time. Riche, Kellogg and Noga will never play with Carlie Wagner or the Ohio posts. And hopefully the mix isn't as unbalanced as it looks--i.e. one of the posts can play the 4 because the depth at the post seems totally redundant, while the quality at forward is a little bit suspect. And after Banham and Wagner, the quality at guard is a little suspect, too, though I really do think Mullaney is going to be a solid player.
But this roster says that coach Borton is doing a better job of recruiting of late. Maybe she's written off certain segments of players where the results just haven't been happening and focused her attention on "markets" where some of the negatives don't apply. If so, we can wish all we want that it wasn't so, but it's not going to change anything. It's just prudent on her part.
So other than the implosion of 2006, which is tangentially a recruiting problem, and the lack of guard depth around the time of Tayler Hill, frankly, coach Borton's recruiting record ain't that bad.
And yet, the results have been disappointing. Pretty much every year now from 2006 to the present, the Gophers have shown flashes of potential, only to fade down the stretch. The post-season recap for almost any of the past 8 years could just as well be "A once promising season ended in disappointment." If it's not the recruiting, what's going on?
The bigger concern is her ability to help players to improve during their 4 years at the U, and her ability to get the best performance possible out of the talent that she's got on game day. There's also pretty compelling evidence of real problems along those lines. But having given some thought to her record as a recruiter and to the whole milieu in which she has to work, I've probably been too hard on her for that. But the other thing, I don't know that I've been hard enough.
Last year, coach Borton said that if Kayla Hirt hadn't been, er, hurt, the Gophers might have been a Sweet 16 team. Well, now they've got Hirt. And next year, Zahui. If coach says this team has that kind of talent, I take her at her word. The recruiting has, again, been pretty good in recent years, even with the big whiff on the 2013s. But if Banham finishes her 4 years at the U without an NCAA tournament bid, for example (and we're now very likely half way to that outcome), will it not be time to admit that coach Borton is in over her head as an actual coach?