It's arguable that Minnesota high school basketball has never been better.
The state is brimming with talent from top to bottom. College basketball’s elite coaches are flocking to the state to find their next stars. Minnesota is home to the Class of 2021’s top-rated prospect, Minnehaha Academy’s Chet Holmgren.
But the Twin Cities aren't the only place where talent is developing. Southeastern Minnesota has really blossomed into one of the most underrated basketball hotbeds. John Marshall produced Michael Hurt (Minnesota) and Matthew Hurt (Duke). Austin’s Both Gach had two productive seasons at Utah before announcing his intentions to transfer back home and play for Minnesota in 2020-21. Gabe and Mason Madsen were three-year standouts at Rochester Mayo and will lace it up for the University of Cincinnati next year.
Recent Lake City graduate Nate Heise is headed to Northern Iowa. Stewartville senior Will Tschetter just committed to Michigan, and Class of 2022 guard Eli King is one of the fastest-rising prospects in the country. The Caledonia superstar has multiple Big Ten offers to play either football or basketball.
The reality is that there are just not enough spots at Power 5 colleges for everybody. And so there are plenty of uber-talented prospects in southeastern Minnesota who won’t play Power 5 basketball. But their loss will be someone else’s gain. Byron’s Jake Braaten, Kasson-Mantorville’s Jace Bigelow, Mayo’s Mo Hammadelniel, Hayfield’s Ethan Slaathaug and Grand Meadow’s Colt Landers are just a few Class of 2021 prospects who are turning heads.
But the reason why basketball has erupted throughout the state has to do with the development of the AAU programs. The Minnesota Lightning –– an AAU program based out of Rochester –– has grown from two teams in 2013 to 11 teams in 2020. There are two teams for each age group from 13-and-under all the way up to 17-and-under.
“We’re kind of going into just about almost every school that’s within 40 or 50 miles from here,” director and 16U coach Todd Ellerbusch told the Post Bulletin. “We have kids from 45 different high schools.”
There can be a stereotype about AAU basketball, that games can turn ugly as players focus more on showing off their own individual game rather than trying to play together as one unit.
“AAU has evolved now,” Ellerbusch said. “It used to get a really bad rap but there are a lot of good coaches and good programs that are trying to do it the right way. One of my philosophies is, ‘How am I going to make this kid better so he can go back to his school team and excel?’”
Plainview-Elgin-Millville coach Jason Herber is coaching one of the Lightning’s 17U teams. His son, Blake, is one of the standout point guards. But it’s filled with area talent like Austin Klug and Andrew Kunelius from Caledonia. Landers and Chatfield’s Reid Johnson are on the squad. Along with John Marshall’s Ty Tuckner, Austin’s Okey Okey and a few others.
Stewartville’s Nolan Stier and Rochester Lourdes’ Peyton Dunham lead the other 17U squad. Stier and Dunham had big weekends at the Summer Slam in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They finished the weekend 3-1.
Former Riverland player Nate Emge led the Lightning’s 15U squad to a 4-0 weekend in Sioux Falls. They were crowned Summer Slam champions.
Lyle-Pacelli’s Buay Koak, Austin’s Cham Okey, Kasson-Mantorville’s Jake Hallstrom, Byron’s Isaac Dearborn and Chatfield’s Cole Johnson are just a few of the local talent that starred for the Lightning.
“A lot of these kids are the best player on their high school team and now they have to learn to share the ball and if you look at the makeup of some of our teams and they’re bitter rivals and they step on the court and they’re teammates,” Ellerbusch said. “That’s kind of the message that we send from our coaches to our players.”
Recruiting during a pandemic has never been done before, so everything is different this year. Ellerbusch and the rest of the Lightning coaches knew they had to be proactive to help their players get some exposure even though the early-season AAU tournaments were canceled.
So, they made a huge spreadsheet with all the information for all of their players on the five 16U and 17U teams.
“We asked for their highlight videos,” Ellerbusch said. “Most had one. There were a few that didn’t, so we helped them put it together. We gathered the player’s information, contact information, highlights, address, academic information, their ACT scores and we put it on a spreadsheet and we sent it to over 200 college coaches. The college coaches were like, ‘Woah this is great. Hopefully, we’ll see you on the court some time.’"
Highlight videos can be a little deceiving, sometimes, but they’re absolutely vital. It’s still a way for coaches to see if a player could be a good fit.
“Every coach will say lights-out, 3-point shooter because everyone shoots 100 percent on highlight videos,” Riverland head basketball coach Derek Hahn said. “So one is going to miss a shot in a highlight video. I think what highlight videos are good for is to spark initial interest. We have some pretty athletic kids, guys who play above the rim and who are physical. You can see that on highlight film.”
And that type of information is the same stuff that Ellerbusch is relaying to his guys when they make their own highlight videos.
“You don’t wanna throw false things out there, but you have to make them flashy,” Ellerbusch said. “This is a terrible thing to say, but if you can dunk it, your first three highlights should probably be a dunk. Because college coaches are looking for athletes. Yeah, they want good basketball players and good people, but they’re really looking for athletes. if they can see that you’re athletic enough to play at the next level, then they’re going to make the determination on the other things too.”
The Lightning’s ability to be proactive and detail-oriented will go a long way in helping their talent get recruited and play at the next level.
“In the last five or six years, there is a lot of Division I talent and just a lot of players that can play at the next level,” Ellerbusch said. “Typically, we’ve had two 17U teams for the last four years or so. This year, every kid wants to play college basketball and I’m pretty sure all of them could play too. So it’s exciting.”
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible for a recruit to only play high school basketball. All the college coaches are in-season when recruiting isn't as high of a priority. The summer is the time to be seen. AAU programs like the Lightning help guide players through the process of recruiting.
Ellerbusch and his staff have produced dozens of next-level players. They know the drill. They have connections to the coaches. And they can be huge resources for their players.
“It’s been a little tougher with COVID-19, but before all of this happened, I was very hands-on,” Ellerbusch said. “I’m at their practices, usually pulling kids aside, and talking them through the process. When I’m at a tournament, I can talk to coaches. I don’t like to give too much advice, but subtly I do. Like if I get a bad vibe from coaches. They’re going to tell you what you want to hear. I try to tell my guys, ‘I know you’re on your phone all the time, so make sure you respond to coaches.’ Some people will get a text and wait a few days to respond. Those couple of days could be the difference because it’s so competitive.”