After a North Tartan girls AAU team practice this fall, North Tartan co-director and founder Bill Larson looked over and saw Nia Holloway and her mom and Mara Braun and her dad talking over by the bleachers.
This was, coincidentally, the day Holloway — the Eden Prairie star — had verbally committed to the Gophers.
Larson took a picture, then sent it to Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen. "Here we go," he said.
Whalen's 2022 recruiting class picked up another big name with Braun's announcement Thursday afternoon that she has committed to the Gophers. Rated by most as a top-two in-state recruit, Braun — a guard who has led Wayzata to a 46-6 regular-season record the past two seasons — announced her decision on social media.
"I was going to wait a little longer to make a decision," Braun said in a phone interview. "But with COVID-19 happening, I wasn't able to visit some other schools. Ultimately it got down to knowing where I wanted to go. It was time to call coach [Whalen] and commit. I saw an opportunity to stay home and play in front of friends."
This is a trend. Whalen's 2021 class already includes Roseau guard Katie Borowicz and Watertown-Mayer guard Maggie Czinano. The 2022 class includes Minnesotans Holloway and Chaska star Mallory Heyer.
Braun is a long, lean, very athletic 5-11 guard who can play with and off the ball. She has played with Holloway with North Tartan and against Heyer in both AAU and in high school. There is mutual respect there, and the momentum to keep top in-state kids home is now apparent. Indeed, Chris Braun, Mara's dad, said both Heyer and Holloway were texting with Mara this week, pushing the Gophers.
"She will make a splash in the Big Ten," Larson said. "And it's something we'll be watching, here in the state of Minnesota. We'll be able to watch her play for four years. And it will be a draw. Other kids will be influenced by her decision to stay home."
For a good indication of how well-regarded she is, consider Braun's final top-six list: Minnesota, Arizona State, Michigan, Oregon State, Maryland and Iowa.
"I told Lindsay that Mara was upstairs saying no to the 14th-, 15th- and 19th-ranked teams in the country," Chris Braun said of a conversation with Whalen. "Coach Whalen is awesome. And the staff, they're good people. It's going to be great."
Braun averaged 15.5 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals last season.
Braun has played well against top competition. Many noted her ability to go toe-to-toe with Hopkins star and current Connecticut freshman Paige Bueckers. They faced each other three times last year when Bueckers was as senior, Braun a sophomore. Braun scored 78 points in those three games, while Bueckers had 87.
"She's not afraid," Wayzata coach Mike Schumacher said. "She has big moments in big games. This is a huge moment, both for the Gophers and for Mara."
Braun said she developed a strong relationship with Whalen and her staff right away. Shortly after being hired in April 2018, Whalen went to watch Braun in at an AAU tournament in Virginia. That December, the day after watching the freshman play a high school game, Whalen offered Braun a scholarship.
She was a toddler when Whalen and the Gophers made it to the Final Four. She was there, sitting on her dad's lap. She has been going to Gophers and Lynx games for years, including Game 5 of the WNBA Finals in 2017 at Williams Arena.
"They had a bunch of Minnesota kids," Braun said of Whalen's Final Four team. "I want to be a part of that, of Minnesota girls coming here. That's an experience I want to be a part of."