Posted On: 12/30/19 2:31 PM
The newspapers pay attention to girls basketball in Minnesota for four months of the year. On television you’ll see perhaps a half dozen stories about girls basketball over a 12-month period. At Prep Girls Hoops, however, we are hopelessly addicted to the game which is why we’ve got you covered 12 months of the year. In 2018 I wrote 198 stories here. This is my 211th article of 2019 with one more to come. That’s more than 250,000 words on the sport we all love. In honor of year’s end, here’s a look back at the top story in each of the 12 months. We have provided a link in the headline to the original article for your re-reading pleasure!
We kicked off 2019 with some risky prognostications – we’ll have the 2020 version of bold predictions on the 1st of January – for class 3A and 4A. Some of them even materialized, including Hopkins winning the state championship and Stillwater emerging as the surprise team of 4A. Como Park wasn’t quite a Cinderella story and Sara Scalia didn’t win Miss Basketball (she was close!), but Minnesota’s 8th and 9th grade classes certainly made a big splash.
When last season opened we figured Becker was an up-and-coming squad. By February it was clear they were more than that. By the time the season ended the Bulldogs had come oh so close to capturing the state class 3A title. During the season we chronicled the rise of Julia Bengtson, Courtney Nuest, Megan Gamble, Adeline Kent, Dani Nuest, Ayla Brown and most recently Maren Westin, who has emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.
Much was made last winter about the fact that Paige Bueckers had accomplished everything there was to accomplish in high school with one exception: a state championship. Bueckers erased that asterisk in March as Hopkins stormed back from a first-half deficit against the Stillwater Ponies to dominate when it mattered most. Bueckers had her state title, and so did Dlayla Chakolis, Amaya Battle, KK Adams, Maya Nnaji, Taylor Woodson and rest of the Royals.
It’s official: Paige Bueckers has committed to UCONN
Where will Paige sign? That was a question I was asked an awful lot over the past two or three seasons. Early on it seemed that Notre Dame and UCONN were in the driver’s seat when it came to acquiring the services of the best player in America in the class of 2020. Other top programs came and went. With the arrival of the legendary Lindsay Whalen as coach at the University of Minnesota, however, the equation changed and Paige gave the Gophers more than due consideration. In the end she did what most of the best prospects in America have done for the past decade: She chose UCONN.
Over the years we have seen Nick Storm and his leadership team build a very good program with the Minnesota Fury to challenge the undisputed excellence of North Tartan. The AAU club has attracted a tremendous number of high-quality players and sent a ton of kids on to college basketball. The younger Fury teams were particularly strong in 2019, but nothing could have prepared us for what happened in May as the Fury made a clean sweep of the four high school-aged classes at the AAU state championship. Everything came together at once and it was a fun day of basketball.
Representing your country on the international stage is one of the greatest honors any athlete can achieve. Thanks to Paige Bueckers incredible accomplishments for Team USA we have seen this play out in spades. In late May Mallory Heyer, Kaylee Van Eps, Callin Hake, Ellie Buzzelle, Maya Nnaji and Sophie Hart went to the national U16 trials in Colorado Springs and acquitted themselves rather well. Hart thrust herself into the national recruiting conversation and Nnaji made the final 18 prospects at the camp. Minnesota girls basketball has come a long way and this group made that abundantly clear.
July is all about the viewing period. It is the most crucial month of the year when it comes to making a positive impression for college coaches. It is particularly important for the incoming juniors as they position themselves for opportunities at the next level. We chronicled the performance of multiple juniors who made the most of their opportunity, including Gianna Kneepkens, Caela Tighe, Jenna Guyer, Julia Bengtson, Jodi Anderson, Lilli Mackley, Anna Miller, Morgan Krumwiede and Ivory Finley.
August is awards season, and we handed out a lot of them: Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Breakout Player of the Year, as well as all-star teams for each of the four classes. It was the 2023 squad that epitomized the trend we had seen all summer – every class of youngsters that enters high school seems to be deeper and more skilled that the one before. Among the stars of 2023 who made the grade were Taylor Woodson, Nunu Agara, Kennedy Sanders, Molly Lenz and Shania Van Nett. Second-teamers included Ashley Schuelke, Brynn Beffert, Priyanka Satish, Maren Westin and Kennedy Klick.
September is all about getting ready for the season. AAU is over, fall league looms and the most-committed players put in a ton of work on their own to prepare. Nobody did more this year in that regard than 2022 guard Mikayla Aumer of Cambridge-Isanti. We told the story of Aumer’s remarkable routine and over-the-top work ethic that has transformed her from an average prospect to one of the rising stars of the sophomore class.
October was a milestone month for Prep Girls Hoops, and nothing has been the same since. I’ll admit I was a little uncertain about how the first PGH Top 250 Expo would go. It went well – very, very well – and the event has catapulted our platform to a new level of interest. The subscriber base has grown exponentially, and the number of college coaches seeking input on players has spiked dramatically. Most importantly, the event has raised the profile of athletes like Samara Buchanan, Lexi Schermann, Kylie Lacey, Adi Brown and Emily Crandall.
The season starts in November and this year it began at the Breakdown Tipoff Classic at Hopkins’ Lindbergh Center. This is always a great event, but this year’s addition of Friday night games and some terrific contests made it even better than ever. The multi-overtime match-up between Mia Curtis (42 points) and Minnehaha Academy vs Tori Peschel (35 points) and Sauk Centre was epic as Minnehaha scored an 89-86 win. The chance to see Taya Hakamaki and Cromwell-Wright do battle with Abby Hennen and Minneota was great as Minnesota scored a 49-47 victory. The point guard duel between Albany’s Paige Meyer (31 points) and Stewartville’s Lily Welch (28 points) in a one-point Albany win was worth the price of admission.
We’ve written thousands and thousands of words about Paige Bueckers over the past few years, and there is no sign that this will stop at any time in the near future. Paige is a transcendent talent, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who has firmly cemented herself as one of – if not the – greatest Minnesota girls high school players ever. Nothing epitomizes Bueckers’ impact better than her selection as USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year. The list of previous winners is a who’s who of womens basketball, from hall of famers to current WNBA stars. It was a truly incredible honor, one that I don’t think people around here have fully grasped. A routine highlight video of Paige can now draw 750,000 views and her videos play on the WNBA website. It’s a privilege to watch Paige play and we’re looking forward to seeing more in 2020.
Top photo: The Becker Bulldogs had plenty to celebrate in 2019. (Photo courtesy of StarTribune)