Posted On: 09/9/19 5:09 AM

We talk a lot about height and length and athleticism when we evaluate basketball players. Those things are all important and not difficult to measure. What I am always more interested in, however, are the intangibles, which are a whole lot tougher to quantify. After all there is no measuring stick, no scale, no test yet devised to accurately gauge the one thing that matters most: how badly the player wants it. One thing I can tell you for sure is this: Nobody wants it more than Cambridge-Isanti guard Mikayla Aumer.

There are tons of great players in Minnesota, and dozens of them are putting in the hours necessary to get to the next level. Nobody earns a college basketball scholarship by hanging out at the beach and eating ice cream all summer. But if there is any player who is working harder to get the most out of her God-given talent than Aumer is I would love an introduction.

Mikayla’s routine begins long before the sun rises in her home town of Mora. “I get up at 4 a.m. and eat breakfast and we leave the house by 5,” said the 5’9 sophomore, who played AAU this summer for Minnesota Fury 2022 Yellow. “It takes an hour to get to the gym and the first workout starts at 6.”

The ‘gym’ is The Lab Athletic in Ham Lake where she trains with Damien Lolar of Verve Basketball Academy. Although it varies a little from day to day, Aumer usually does strength and conditioning from 6 to 8 with Verve sports performance trainer Jezelle Jacobs. From 8 to 10 it’s basketball training. From 10-12 there is supposed to be a lunch break but Aumer usually has a quick bite before getting more shots up or working out with the college players. From noon to 3 it’s more training. That’s 9 hours.

“I have practice after that for my boys AAU team,” Lolar said. “She’ll usually stick around and do the pre-practice workout with them and watch film.” Then Aumer drives 45 miles to Fury practice. “Listen, if I didn’t know her I would probably think I was lying!” Lolar said. “I couldn’t make this up. The girl is insane. She is the hardest-working American I know, and she does it all with a smile on her face.”

On a recent Sunday in Minnetonka I watched Aumer bust her tail for more than two hours at North Tartan’s evaluation session. She outworked everyone else on the floor and played very, very well. At 6:30 she was on the court in Bloomington doing the same for the Minnesota Metro Stars in hopes of earning a spot on Coach Tara Starks’ team for next summer. By the end of that workout, when others were fading fast, Aumer was still winning the one-on-one battles, diving for loose balls, battling for every inch. It was remarkable really.

“And think about this,” Lalor said as I shared my recollections. “She worked out here all morning that day. You know most kids would be like, ‘I want to take a break because I have two workouts tonight.’ Nobody told her to do that. I have trained a lot of special girls but her hunger to learn and get better is just amazing.”

“I used to be so bad.”

When I first saw Aumer two years ago she was small and not exceedingly athletic. Her shot – how can I say this politely – needed a lot of attention. But the kid just worked from beginning to end and it made an impression. There was something about her that was different. Not long after that she decided to get serious. Nobody knew Aumer was going to do 12 hours a day, 5 days a week of grind, grind, grind. Now, after thousands and thousands of shots, hours and hours of skill development, day after relentless day, Aumer is a scholarship-level basketball player.

“I used to be so bad,” Aumer said, in reference to her shot. “I have watched old videos on my phone from when I first started training with Damien. I look back at it now and I just see tremendous growth. It’s insane.”

She is quick to credit Lalor for believing in her. “Where do I start?  He has helped me so much and I have gotten so much better. He has helped me a lot mentally, whether it was helping me find my identity as a person or on the court. He has helped me tremendously with my skills. Just everything. Yes, he was a bit intimidating at first but I love it because he always holds us accountable for everything we do.”

The ‘us’ Mikayla refers to are the regulars at the Lab. That would include sophomore Amelia Valentino of Champlin Park, junior Ivane Tensaie of Concordia Academy and Ivane’s older brother Robie, who Aumer says is like her big brother. Sydney White of Andover is there, too, and Lehigh University players Megan Walker and Emma Grothaus worked out all summer. Only Aumer comes every day, all day. “What we have here at Verve is like a community or a family,” she said. “I consider a lot of them to be like my brothers and sisters. That’s huge for me.”

Trainer Damien Lolar works with players of all descriptions at Verve Basketball Academy.

“There are so many things you can do to help your team win”

Aumer has gone from just another face in the crowd to a player whose services are now in demand. She was offered a roster spot by both North Tartan and the Metro Stars and has opted to go with Coach Starks. The team’s roster includes such elite prospects as Amaya Battle, Taylor Woodson and Nunu Agara of Hopkins, so there will be plenty of college coaches watching Aumer do her thing on a much bigger stage.

What they’ll see is a smart basketball player who can handle the ball and score in a variety of ways. They will also see a quality shooter with plenty of range. How much has Aumer improved? “Tremendously!” she said. “Mentally, physically, my handles. Everything collectively in my game has gotten better. Even if I am having a bad day in scoring I am always trying to contribute in other ways, whether it’s defense, getting a big stop, trying to make the right play at both ends of the court. There’s so many things you can do to help your team win.”

Aumer did it all for the Fury this summer. She scored 504 points, 198 more than her next highest-scoring teammate. She led the team in blocks and steals and was second by a hair in rebounds and assists. She shot 31% from three, 41% from two, 71% at the free throw line and was a +54.

When high school season starts Aumer’s routine changes but the grind never stops. After practice they drive to Ham Lake for another workout. On game days she comes to The Lab to shoot beforehand. “Normally I do my homework in the truck while we are driving places, and I get that done as quickly as possible,” said the sophomore, who carries a 4.0 GPA. “Time management is huge for me because of how much I do.”

Despite all of the effort, all of the improvement, all that she now brings to the table, it’s hard to predict what lies ahead this winter for Mikayla. If I was coaching the team she, Sheforgen, Jana Swanson, Kaylee Clement and Jackie Olander would play all the minutes they could handle. When those five are on the court the Bluejackets are a formidable opponent. But the rotation doesn’t seem to work like that at Cambridge-Isanti where everyone plays. A lot.

Regardless. Mikayla will show up, work hard and do whatever is asked of her. She just wants to win.

“They just back their kid’s dream 167 percent”

Whenever we hear a story about a player who trains excessively, the assumption is often made that it is the parents who are pushing the agenda and not the student. I mean, what teenager volunteers for this kind of punishment?

“To be a high-level athlete you’ve either got to hit the parent lottery or have parents like hers,” Lolar said of Jennifer and Jim Aumer. “The biggest thing is it’s not about them. They do not push her. You would think that they are telling her, ‘You’ve got to go to the gym seven days a week’ but they are not like that. They just back their kid’s dream 167 percent. They’ll be in there watching film with her and you can tell that dad is tired and mom is sleepy but they just want their kid to be the best she can be so that she can live the life that she wants to live.”

Their commitment is not lost on Mikayla, an only child who recognizes what her parents are sacrificing. “Honestly I couldn’t be more thankful for what they have given me,” she said. “Anything they can do for me they do it.” I asked her straight up, ‘Do they force you to do this?’ “Absolutely not!” Mikayla replied firmly. “But they will support me in anything I need to achieve my dreams.”

The goal, of course, is a college scholarship. The objective is to play at the highest possible level. The question is can she play Division 1? “Without a doubt!,” Lolar said. “I have watched her go one-on-one with my Division 1 players and she can compete… What she doesn’t have in skill Mikayla makes up for by having the next level in everything else. She’s got all the intangibles.

“If you bring Mikayla into your program she is going to outwork everybody. She is going to uplift your locker room. Whatever the coach says she is going to do. You can never turn your back on somebody who has that kind of work ethic. She’s like a glue piece. If you are in a championship program that’s the kind of player that you want because she is always going to do the things to make her team turn that corner.”

“I just want to get better”

No, Mikayla Aumer is not a normal teenager, but she does have one other interest of note. On the weekends Mikayla is into horses, and her mom is an equine veterinarian. She enters shows and competitions and does it just for fun. “It’s my release I guess,” she said.

Lolar has never met another player with Aumer’s dedication to the game. He was a Division 2 All American at West Texas A&M. He played professional basketball around the world, even scoring 36 points in an NBA D-League game before his career was cut short by injury. Lolar has seen guys work hard to get to that level, but it was different.

“Once you get to the pros people are working hard for their livelihood and the look on their face is a look of fear,” Lolar said. “Mikayla works like they do but her face just says, ‘I love this game.’ It’s a whole different thing. Most people do the things they hate because they don’t want to suck; she is doing because she loves it. ”

Lolar calls Aumer a ‘student of life,’ someone who is eager to listen, eager to learn, eager to impart what she knows to the younger players in the gym. She’s a great leader and a great follower and is oh so driven. That kind of single-minded determination breeds detractors and draws quizzical looks, and Mikayla knows some people think she’s nuts.

“I’ve heard that,” Aumer says with a little grin. “Honestly the haters are my motivators. I don’t care what other people think. I just want to get better. All I have ever done is work and work and work, and it’s paying off.”

Top photo: Mikayla Aumer (center) posed with Alaina Jarnot (left) and Jaclyn Jarnot (right) when she was at the University of North Dakota elite camp.