Posted On: 08/30/19 8:37 PM

It’s Labor Day Weekend, the official end of summer in my books. It also marks the end of a month’s worth of post-AAU recaps where we select the Prep Girls Hoops summer All Star Teams and hand out a variety of individual awards. It has been a great season, the best since I have been spending my summers in the gym watching the elite of Minnesota girls basketball. Congratulations to Paige Bueckers, Alyssa Ustby, Sophie Hart, Marqus McGlothan and all of the others who earned their accolades.

Here are some random thoughts, semi-poignant observations and hazy recollections from the 2019 AAU season.

BIGGEST STORY

There’s no question it was the Minnesota Fury’s clean sweep of the AAU state championships in May. What a day it was for the club. What a year, really. The Fury defeated three strong North Tartan teams as well as one from the Minnesota Stars to take home all of the high school hardware that day. Those four Fury teams are formidable units, loaded with star talent, led by quality coaches all operating within a winning culture. Let’s hope the Fury enjoyed their moment in the sun because you can be sure the opposition will be gunning for the girls in black, blue and yellow when play resumes next spring.

The other notable news in the club department was the resurgence of the Minnesota Metro Stars. Obviously that trend was jump-started when Tara Starks brought a good number of her star players over from North Tartan. What’s encouraging though is the quality of Ellen Wiese’s 2023s and the sheer number of fine players who are expected to move to the club in 2019. It was not that long ago that the Metro Stars were a power in Minnesota AAU basketball, when big names like Miss Basketball Leslie Knight (Minnesota) and her fellow standouts Jamie Broback (Minnesota), Courtney Boylan (Michigan), Nia Coffey (Northwestern & WNBA) and the like wore the green and black.

BEST GAME

In our mid-season report card we talked about the first meeting between North Tartan 2020 EYBL and  Metro Stars 2020 Starks, an epic battle in which Mallory Brake of Hastings won it 55-53 for North Tartan on a last-second basket. It was a terrific contest. We also mentioned UVA 2021 Coley’s three-overtime win against Minnesota Comets 2021 Elite at the Prelims, a game in which Frankie Vascellaro of Holy Angels (UVA) and Julia Bengston of Becker (Comets) were outstanding.

For me, though, the finest game of the season was Fury 2023 UAA against Tree of Hope from Seattle at the Summer Jam. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the aforementioned encounters, but it was one of the most well-played games you will ever see in AAU, especially between two teams of kids who had yet to enter high school. At half time one of the referees came over to me and asked, ‘Who the heck are these kids? This is amazing. I didn’t see one reach in the whole half!’ That’s high-praise from a well-seasoned official not known for handing out pleasantries. The game was a joy to watch.

Lauren Jensen (left) and Paige Bueckers (right) were a pleasure to watch these past few summers. (Photo courtesy of Crissha Walton)

MEMORABLE MOMENT

Paige Bueckers and Lauren Jensen were an incredible 1-2 combination over the years with North Tartan, enjoying a run of success that will be hard to match. This year, of course, the pair was split up by a series of off-court events that led to the creation of Metro Stars Starks. The first meeting of the two superstars did not disappoint, and it was one of the more physical battles you will ever see. Jensen was being hammered at every opportunity, but the Lakeville North guard kept getting up off the mat for more.

In the second half Jensen went down particularly hard but somehow managed to slowly make it back onto her feet, shake off the cobwebs and line up next to her friend for the resumption of play. I was only feet away from the pair on the baseline when Paige looked at Lauren and whispered, ‘Are you OK?’ Jensen replied ‘I’m good.’ It was one of those special instances in sports where two standout athletes demonstrate mutual respect before returning to war. It is a moment I will never forget. Watching Paige and Lauren the past few summers has been a privilege.

10 KIDS WHO GOT WAY BETTER THIS SUMMER

Some people think AAU teams play too many games and do too little skill development. They may be right, but it doesn’t mean that kids don’t improve from April through July. They do, and some improve a whole lot more than the rest. Most of these players have already been recognized in August but it never hurts to repeat good news. In alphabetical order, here are 10 kids who got way better this summer.

  • Ashley Schuelke – 2023, guard/forward, Fury 2023 UAA (Chaska)
  • Ava Cusciotta – 2022, guard/forward, 43 Hoops (Rockford)
  • Jessica Heir – 2022, center, Minnesota Basketball Academy (Chaska)
  • Kelsey Willems – 2021 guard, 43 Hoops (Chaska)
  • Lily Fandre – 2022, forward, Stars Bjorgaard (Eagan)
  • Mary Fultz – 2020, forward, Stars DeSart (Stillwater)
  • Mikaelah Counce – 2022, guard, Metro Stars 2022/UVA Ware (Champlin Park)
  • Mikayla Aumer – 2022, guard, Fury 2022 Yellow (Cambridge-Isanti)
  • Morgan Kelly – 2021, forward, Minnesota Rise Wolfe (St. Peter)
  • Tayah Leenderts – 2022, forward, Stars Nilsen (Rosemount)
The Check Me Out showcase in September promises to be a great event again in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Prospects Nation)

WHAT LIES AHEAD

I can’t tell you how many times over the past month someone has said to me, “I’m sure you are happy to get some time off now that the season is over.” I just laugh because basketball never really stops around here. I did actually take a few days off last week to visit family and vegetate next to a lake but there are too many stories to be told to sit idly by. If the kids are in the gym working their tails off to get better then the least we can do is be there to serve witness.

August was all about the awards and making the rounds of various AAU tryouts and open gyms. In September we will be covering the Check Me Out Showcase led by Chris Hansen of Seattle, who does an outstanding job of showing kids what it takes to play at the next level. We’ll be taking in numerous high school open gyms with the college coaches, sharing information and gathering their perspectives on Minnesota’s top prospects. And we’ll be at the final round of AAU tryouts, as well.

In October it’s more of the same, plus Breakdown Fall League will be underway where we’ll do our best to see as many new players as possible, especially those who don’t participate in summer ball. And, of course, we will be updating the individual player rankings. That includes releasing the first ranking of the Class of 2023 and what a class it is. Most years there are about 30 teams per grade that enter the AAU state tournament. This year there were 52 teams of 2023s. The class is deep, it is talented and it is going to be difficult to keep up with all of them.

This year we also have the first installment of the Prep Girls Hoops Top 250 Expo on Oct. 5 in Burnsville, an event that will provide unprecedented coverage of Minnesota prospects. This offers players a new opportunity to make a great impression just before the rankings update. We know volleyball and other fall sports will get in the way for some kids. If you can make it this is an event you don’t want to miss.

A WORD OF THANKS

Thanks to all of the AAU club directors, coaches, officials and volunteers for making summer ball a reality again in 2019. Minnesota’s AAU circuit is truly outstanding, and coaches from around the country tell us on a regular basis how deep the talent pool is here. We don’t take that for granted and we appreciate what you do for the kids and the game.

Thanks also to everyone across the state who helps us do what we do, from the evaluators who participate in the rankings process to the various observers who send us information, story ideas and tips on new players to watch. We appreciate your assistance!

I also want to take a moment to recognize the many great parents I have met this summer. Yes, there are some of you who I would rather not spend time with… but not very many. For every bozo who rants in my ear about how their kid is ranked too low and how it is part of a vast conspiracy, there are dozens of moms and dads who are doing the right stuff to help their kids achieve the dream of playing college basketball. I always have time for families who understand the big picture and are seeking honest answers about their child’s abilities. I look forward to meeting more of you in the months ahead.

In the meantime I’m off to a private workout to gather info for a story about Minnesota’s hardest working player – the kid’s routine is incredible – and it’s going to be another great day in the gym.

Top photo: The Minnesota Fury had an incredible summer with plenty to celebrate. What better way to do that than with some tasty treats! (Photo via Twitter courtesy of Minnesota Fury)