Posted On: 10/8/18 7:37 PM

It’s college basketball season! OK, not quite, but on Sunday in Ames, Iowa I saw more than a dozen Minnesota high school graduates play their first games at the next level. The event was the JUCO Jam, which brings together 20 of the best junior college basketball teams in the Midwest. Technically these are scrimmages but you would never have known it by the intensity of the action and the atmosphere in the gym.  I just wish all of those high school athletes who tell me they have no interest in playing JUCO ball had been there. Chances are, they would have come away with a completely different perspective on their post-high school options.

Autam Mendez of Cretin-Derham Hall is a freshman at NIACC in Mason City, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of StarTribune)

The Jam field included a strong team from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, which started a front court measuring 6’6, 6’4 and 6’3. The always-competitive North Dakota State College of Science was there with a roster that includes 8 Minnesotans. Archrivals Kirkwood (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and North Iowa Area Community College (better known as NIACC) of Mason City, were also on hand.

Some players choose the JUCO route because their game needs work before moving on to a four-year school. Others don’t get the offers they want at a higher level and elect to play a year of JUCO to attract more suitors. Many want to play right away rather than be parked at the end of the bench for year or two somewhere else. Some of the athletes who competed on Sunday are non-qualifiers, kids who didn’t take care of business in the classroom and are therefore not immediately eligible to play at the D1 or D2 level.

Regardless of how they ended up on the court Sunday, there were some really nice players there, including several from Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Remember the name Vanessa Gajdosova. She’s a big guard from Slovakia and John Wood Community College of Illinois whose athleticism had the D1 coaches paying close attention.

These were the top 5 Minnesotans in Ames

With six games being played simultaneously at the All Iowa Attack Fieldhouse and the Iowa State University practice facility next door, we weren’t able to watch every Minnesota player perform. That meant we missed out on the collegiate debut of lightning quick guard Ju Gaston of Kirkwood. Gaston was a mainstay, of course, on Robbinsdale Cooper’s state 3A championship team last winter and played AAU for Tayler Hill Elite. Ju was a top 100 player in the Prep Girls Hoops class of 2018. Here are the top 5 Minnesotans we did see on Sunday.

Autam Mendez, 5’10 freshman guard, NIACC (Cretin-Derham Hall)

Mendez and her Cretin teammate Haley Moore are probably the best 2018 Minnesota graduates playing at the JUCO level. Unfortunately Moore’s Iowa Western team wasn’t involved on Sunday, but Mendez was playing at a very high level. She’s big and strong, can handle the ball and has always been able to knock it down from the outside. Mendez showed all of that and more on Sunday in front of a fair number of D1 and D2 coaches looking on. She may end up as a one-and-done and move up quickly.

Point guard Jolisa Ross of Roseville is a sophomore at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. (Photo courtesy of StarTribune)

Jolisa Ross, 5’4 sophomore guard, ND Science (Roseville)

The little guard from the Raiders was one of the most exciting players in the class of 2017. She’s now in her second season in Wahpeton where she has continued to fly up and down the court, make great decisions and defend as well as any undersized guard you’ll find. I’m not sure there is a more fun player to watch than Ross, who is tough as nails.

Breanna Wendland, 5’9 freshman guard, Iowa Lakes (Richfield)

Wendland spent her high school career in relative anonymity at Richfield, where she put up nearly 20 points a game for the Spartans. They just didn’t have enough pieces to complete the puzzle. The #73 player in Minnesota’s class of 2018 was terrific on Sunday for Ashley Martin’s Iowa Lakes squad, moving the ball, creating her own shot and getting to the basket. I love her confidence and obvious leadership skills. Martin, who coaches the 2021 Minnesota Rise AAU team, was singing Breanna’s praises .

Justyna Butler, 5’7 freshman guard, ND Science (Cretin-Derham Hall)

Justyna’s reasons for playing at the JUCO level this season are pretty obvious. She missed two full high school seasons, one due to a transfer from Bloomington Jefferson to Cretin-Derham Hall and the other because of a torn ACL. It was a long road back but Butler persevered and by the end of last season was once again playing at the high level we had come to expect from her as a high school freshman. Butler is crafty, intelligent and physical. She will be a great asset to the right D2 program.

Jada Buford, 5’7 freshman guard, NIACC (Cooper)

There was no shortage of speed and finesse in Cooper’s state championship lineup last season. The one player who was often overlooked, however, may have been the most important player of all. Jada Buford was a rock for the Hawks. At NIACC  the #62-ranked player in the 2018 class is quickly stepping into the limelight and coach Todd Ciochetto is thrilled with what he has seen so far. We were impressed, too. I’ll be surprised if Buford doesn’t have offers by Thanksgiving to move on to the next level a year from now.

Honorable mentions

Monique Wooten, 5’9 freshman wing, ND Science (Minneapolis North) – Monique is a late bloomer with great athleticism and a natural scoring touch.

Serena Ballard, 5’4 freshman guard, ND Science (Minneapolis North) – The little point guard from the Polars played like a unflappable veteran. She’s got game.

Tera-Nay Lee, 5’8 sophomore forward, ND Science (Minneapolis Southwest) – Lee is super athletic and can shoot it. Her ball handling and defensive intensity has improved a lot.

Emma Ogitchida, 5’9 freshman guard, ND Science (St. Paul Harding) – Emma missed her senior season due to a torn ACL so JUCO ball is a logical step for the #70 player in the class. She was the hardest working player in the gym Sunday, as usual.

Shanice Vaughn, 5’10 freshman forward, Iowa Lakes (Minneapolis Edison) – Shanice has always been a very talented player who knows how to put the ball in the basket. She’ll grow up fast at this level and will likely earn an opportunity to move up.


Top photo: Guard Breanna Wendland was a prolific scorer at Richfield High School. She is currently a freshman at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville. (Photo courtesy of Hometown Source)