Holly’s dad, Wally Akervik, had a scholarship to play football at Minnesota, but ultimately played hockey at Minnesota Duluth. Her brother, Andrew Akervik, played hockey at Wisconsin and was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques when he was 17. Her maternal grandfather and great uncle both played basketball, the former on a traveling team in the 1920s and the latter for UMD. John’s grandfather, Ellwood Roosa, was a speed skater and his uncle, Jeff Ellenson, played professional basketball in Australia. After John graduated, he joined a professional team in France.
It was after John’s first and only year overseas that he met Holly at a basketball camp back in the states. She was coaching women’s basketball at Northland College at the time, and instead of returning to France, John followed her to Ashland, Wis., to take an assistant job on her staff — and then marry her only two months later. When her father died in 1994, Holly took a job at Rice Lake High School, where she is still, working as a physical education teacher and a track coach.
At the end of Wally’s eighth-grade year, the family moved to Eau Claire, Wis., when John took a job as a guidance counselor at an elementary school. But a series of incidents at Memorial High School in Wally’s freshman year led the Ellensons to sue the school for failing to protect him from bullying. Ultimately the suit was dropped, but at the end of the year, the family returned to Rice Lake.
John still possessed the Big Rivers Conference high jump record, a mark he set at Menomonie High in 1986. After Wally found he could dunk a basketball in middle school, he took up high jumping as well, with plenty of advice from his father. A year later, in his freshman season at Memorial, he broke John’s league record by an inch.
“He had better coaching,” John jokes.
His gray USA T-shirt already damp from the day’s high-jump practice on the high school track, Wally heads inside the gym and eases himself against the collapsed blue bleachers, swapping his jumping shoes for high-tops. The home of the Warriors, hung with state champion banners and trimmed with blue and gold, remains Wally’s favorite place.
“It was always my first love,” he says of basketball.
On this Saturday, Wally lifts his shirt to his brow to wipe away the sweat, then bounces up, grabs a ball and starts running, stride for stride, with Ella. The reverberating trill of their laughter mixes with the squeaks of sneakers. The 6-1 Ella goes to the hoop, getting enough lift to shovel the ball through the basket as Holly explodes with “Oooh, Ella!” from behind the baseline. Wally has made dunking a big part of his game — and now Ella wants to learn, too.
Later, as the Ellensons gorge on tacos and fajitas at Casa Mexicana, the family’s favorite restaurant in downtown Rice Lake, Ella grins and acknowledges that having three older brothers is “awesome.”
“You better say it is,” Wally says.
Holly laughs, interjecting. “She learns a lot from them.”
“Like, never to get a boyfriend,” Ellwood says.
Ella — who also high jumps and plays tennis — knows by now that such treatment is par for the course. At one recent occasion, one of her basketball coaches asked her if her brothers often teased her.
“Yeah,” Ella replied. “But no one else does.”
Four kids with such athletic talent has meant a whirlwind of interest from colleges. John is occasionally mystified at how much has changed since he was recruited, how much the business of college sports has grown. And with Wally coming into a high-profile situation at a Big Ten school, Holly has learned to filter the negativity, just like she’s always encouraged her kids to do.
“Sometimes I think I’m learning, too,” she says. “I used to read everything and be obsessed with it. Now I don’t read as much. … When you’re in the spotlight, people will have an opinion of you.”
In Rice Lake, though, the Ellensons are a household unbent by the chaos inherent in raising four potential collegiate athletes. They are vibrant and energetic, yet also close-knit and protective.