Posted On: 05/30/19 8:22 PM

Maya Nnaji of Hopkins.

When U16 head coach Mark Campbell stood in front of the 146 hopefuls gathered in Colorado Springs last week in search of a spot on Team USA, he threw out some numbers that put the whole thing into perspective. “I’d like you to think about where you are,” he said. “There’s like 450,000 high school basketball players in America. About .000369 percent of you are right here.” Six of those hopefuls were from Minnesota.

“Honestly, that gave me the chills,” said forward Mallory Heyer of Chaska. “Those numbers are crazy. It had never really crossed my mind.” Guard Callin Hake of Chanhassen said it provided perspective on the magnitude of the opportunity. “Until he put it into numbers I don’t think I realized how few girls get to experience what we got to experience,” she said.

Heyer and Hake are members of the Minnesota Fury’s 2022 UAA squad. They were joined by their Fury teammate Ellie Buzzelle of Rogers. Also on hand at the U.S. Olympic Training Center were Fury sophomores Sophie Hart of Farmington and Kaylee Van Eps of Chaska. The 6th Minnesotan in the group was the only one still standing when 18 players moved on to the final week of tryouts: Freshman forward Maya Nnaji of Hopkins and North Tartan 2021 EYBL, whose AAU coach Ruth Sinn of St. Thomas is a Team USA assistant. Unfortunately Nnaji was not available for an interview. **UPDATE** USA Basketball announced the final team selections late Thursday and Nnaji was not among those selected. **

Five players from the Minnesota Fury were at the trials including (L to R) Callin Hake, Kaylee Van Eps, Sophie Hart, Mallory Heyer and Ellie Buzzelle

Just walking onto the grounds at the Olympic Training Center can be a semi-religious experience, even for those of us who have only been there for a tour. Realizing that you are there to compete takes the excitement to a whole other level. “I don’t think it really hit me until we actually got there and they handed me a jersey with USA on the front,” Hake said. “I don’t think I realized until then what a cool opportunity I was being given and I definitely wasn’t going to take it for granted.”

Buzzelle agreed.  “When I first walked on that court, and when I first put on that jersey, to actually be there and realize that I was among the top 146 players in the country really boosted my confidence,” she said. “I was just really grateful to be there,” said Van Eps. “Once we got taking pictures all together that’s when I got excited. I tried not to think about playing right away. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.”

Chanhassen’s Callin Hake.

A different game

The trials started with two full days of grueling workouts, informative seminars and other associated activities. The best of the classes of 2021 and 2022 from across the USA were represented, and the caliber of athletes was obviously very high. It didn’t take long for the Minnesota girls to realize this wasn’t going to be just another weekend in the gym.

“I usually feel pretty tall. Not there,” said Heyer, who measures in north of 6’2. “It was the first time in my life I ever felt short!” said Hart, who is 6’4. “I got to play against some of the best post players and competition out there. It gave me a good idea of where I compare to everybody, and I picked up some new things to put into my game. Overall it was just a cool experience.”

When play began Heyer was immediately moved out to the perimeter and played at the three spot for the first time. Realistically, that’s where she would have to play to make the team. Most likely that’s where she’ll play in college, depending on the program. “It was a good experience for me,” she said. “I need to work on my outside game and work on things more off the dribble.”

Kaylee Van Eps of Chaska

Size was not the only big issue. So was the speed, quickness, strength and overall athleticism of the players. That was a real eye opener, especially for the guards. “It was kind of a different game,” Hake said. “In Minnesota we play against a lot of great basketball players. Out there you are playing against great basketball players and great athletes, so it’s like a double whammy. It was like stepping it up 10 times and it was awesome.”

Unfortunately, Hake got severe food poisoning on Friday and missed the last two sessions. Neither she nor Buzzelle made it past the first cut to 98 players. Van Eps advanced to the 98, Heyer made it to the top 68  and Hart got through to the top 42. “I think we learned that we can compete,” said Buzzelle. “Sometimes you go into a game worried or whatever. Now we know that we can compete against anyone.”

For Heyer the trials offered a preview of what lies ahead in high-level college basketball. “Oh for sure, especially as the cuts went on,” she said. “It just kept getting better and better and girls were really stepping up their game. If I’m going to be up there at the top I’m going to need to do all of these different things. It’s very motivating.”

“The match-ups against the best kids around the U.S. really helped me with my confidence, knowing I can play with them,” said Van Eps. “Personally I think I always try to play good defense against all the kids no matter what, and it created good challenges for me that I could learn from.”

Perhaps the player who gained the most confidence from the experience was Hart, who is one of Minnesota’s most improved players over the past two years. Coming off an outstanding high school season, the trials offered a whole different level of challenge for Sophie, whose expectations going into the event were minimal. “Honestly I was just out there to play as hard as I could,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to expect from the other girls. I knew they would all be very tall, very big. I’d say that I definitely surprised myself. My goal was just to play hard and do everything I possibly could and see where that got me.”

Following final cuts, the 12 rostered players will return to Colorado June 5-13 for training camp before heading to Chile for the FIBA Championship of the Americas. There they will attempt to qualify for next year’s U17 World Cup in Romania. This is a path similar to the one 2020 #1 Paige Bueckers of Hopkins followed on her Team USA journey. She is now competing with the U19s.

There was one more thing these girls experienced for the first time in Colorado, a feeling most of us know all too well. “The reality is none of us had ever been cut from a team,” Hake said. “Having that first experience is definitely humbling. I don’t like it. It definitely didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but that made me want to go to the gym more, to work harder, to run faster, to play better defense. I think it has definitely motivated us and I think it will definitely be for the better.”

Top photo: Hopkins freshman Maya Nnaji of North Tartan 2021 EYBL advanced the farthest among the six Minnesotans at the Team USA U16 trials in Colorado Springs. (Photos courtesy of USA Basketball)