Jamie Ruden, a Rochester John Marshall forward and the school’s all-time leading girls’ scorer, was long interested in playing basketball for the Gophers.
The Gophers seemed to have interest in her, too — at least for a time.
As a ninth-grader, Ruden went to the school’s elite camp, was in contact with then-coach Pam Borton and took an unofficial visit to the campus.
After the school fired Borton and hired Marlene Stollings in April 2014, Ruden’s situation changed.
JM coach Phil Schroeder said he fell out of contact with Gophers coaches. Ruden, the nation’s No. 39 girls’ basketball recruit who is averaging 20 points per game this season, ended up committing to Arizona State.
“The interest was lukewarm toward me, and I wanted to go to a program where there was a really high level of interest in me,” Ruden said. “That’s what I found at Arizona State.”
Ruden’s story is part of a larger trend in the state of Minnesota. Last fall four Minnesota players ranked in the ESPN HoopGurlz Top 100 signed with schools across the nation, but not a single in-state prospect will play for the Gophers.
Stollings, though, has explanations.
By the time her staff took over, most players were already far along in the recruiting process. She also shifted the Gophers to a faster-paced style that calls for lengthy, athletic scorers. Not everyone fits that mold.
“We’re going after players that will help us be a top-25 program,” Stollings said. “I think that’s something that gets misconstrued a little bit. We’re headed in a certain direction, and we want elite players to stay home and represent the state, but that doesn’t open it up for everybody that is a Division I-caliber player.”
Not for everyone
Hopkins guard Nia Hollie was the closest the Gophers came to signing a 2016 Minnesota prep prospect.
Hollie, ESPN’s No. 73 recruit known for her versatile scoring ability, announced her decision to choose Michigan State over Minnesota live on KSTP’s Aug. 20 broadcast — far from a football star holding an extravagant news conference, but maybe the Minnesota girls’ basketball equivalent.
“The Gophers are an absolutely amazing school,” Hollie said on the air. “They have great coaches. They’ve done amazing things over the course of the past year. They recruited me really, really hard. It was really hard to say no.”
The Star Tribune’s preseason metro dream team featured five Division I signees, but Hollie and Shakopee’s Taylor Koenen — an athletic 6-1 guard — were the only players to draw serious interest from Minnesota.
In girls’ basketball, the recruiting game often takes place in summer AAU tournaments more than it does high school play. In Koenen’s case, Minnesota Fury AAU director Nick Storm said Minnesota didn’t offer Koenen until June 2014. She committed to North Carolina later that month.
Kasson-Mantorville’s Kristin Scott, one of the top-ranked players in the 2017 class, already has committed to Iowa State. Storm said he made it clear to the Minnesota staff that Scott was close to committing with an out-of-state school, but his plea didn’t create more interest from the Gophers.
So far, though, it’s tough to argue with Stollings’ methodology. In her first year as coach, Stollings took the Gophers to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons. This season the Gophers are 16-7 overall and 8-4 in conference play, with Minnesota native Rachel Banham playing the starring role in her senior year.
But some area coaches still hope for more communication.
Orono’s Ellen Weise coaches Meghan Mandel, a Marquette signee, and Danielle Jorgenson, a Cornell signee. Tori Andrew is also a junior at Orono and is among the best players in the 2017 crop. Weise said she has had minimal communication with the Minnesota staff and said the Gophers have not recruited any of her players.
“I don’t know where the disconnect is,” Weise said. “I’ve not been approached by them. I haven’t talked to anybody on their staff. I can’t figure out or comment on the radio silence. I really don’t know.”
Even Brian Cosgriff, who coaches Hollie at Hopkins, said he only had one detailed conversation with Minnesota coaches and knows little about their philosophies.
“We just haven’t had too many conversations,” Cosgriff said. “Maybe she likes dealing with AAU coaches, and that’s fine. There’s a process in this whole thing, and she’s early on in it.”
Despite evidence of a communication drought with high school coaches, Stollings seemingly has positive relationships with the state’s top AAU directors. Mark Smith of the Minnesota Stars and Bill Larson of North Tartan both said they are satisfied in their relationships with Stollings and her staff.
“I know any time I can pick up the phone and she’ll talk to me and go to a game and visit,” said Smith, who has coached Hollie and several other top players.
Stollings also makes another point: Relationships work both ways.
“A lot of times it’s looked at as one-sided,” Stollings said. “We’re very inviting, our practices are always open. We want [coaches] to be a part of what we’re doing, our camps, you name it. … It’s a little bit of work on both ends in building those relationships, but certainly with time, I know we’ll get there.”
The day Stollings took over, she made her commitment to recruiting clear.
“Without giving away all of our secrets, I will tell you that it’s about relationships, connecting with people, building a rapport and making sure that you massage that over time,” Stollings said in her introductory news conference. “Our staff will be committed to doing so.”
Stollings and her staff faced an uphill battle in recruiting, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota will always be an untapped resource.
“With girls in particular, we like to say girls fall in love early in the recruiting process,” Stollings said. “We’ve been there a year-and-a-half, and relationship-building takes time.”
In Hollie’s case, the Gophers made a late pitch despite the fact Michigan State had been recruiting her for at least three years. Now, the Gophers already are seriously recruiting Minnesota underclassmen such as Holy Angels freshman Destinee Oberg.
As for the 2016 recruiting class, the Gophers’ have four signees in Virginia guard Gadiva Hubbard, Michigan twin forwards Kehinde and Taiye Bello and New York guard Jasmine Brunson. Hubbard and Taiye Bello are both four-star prospects.
Three Minnesota natives also have transferred to the Gophers from other schools since Stollings took over — Allina Starr, Kenisha Bell and Bryanna Fernstrom, who recently announced her transfer from Iowa State. Fernstrom will be eligible to play for the U next winter, and along with Carlie Wagner and Starr, the Gophers could have three Minnesotans starting.
“I think you’re seeing players that have gone away previous to our arrival wanting to come back and play for us because they’ve seen our system and they believe in it and want to be a part of it,” Stollings said. “So we’re confident in future years our in-state talent will be playing for the Gophers.”