Gerard Coury is one of the AAU coaches who has noticed a surging interest in girls' basketball.

Now in his 12th year with North Tartan, an AAU program that practices in the Twin Cities metro area, Coury said there is an increased demand from high school players all over the state to continue playing basketball into the spring and summer.

"Families are spending more time and resources. Kids are putting in more time to make it on these teams," Coury said. "It's getting to a point for some families and kids, the highlight is the AAU season."

Coury coaches the top-level squad that is among the 19 teams in North Tartan's program. Known as the Nike 11th Elite Youth Basketball, the 11th-grade team spent last weekend playing a tournament in Virginia. It will spend the summer as one of 32 teams on the national circuit.

Coury's team is made up mostly of high school juniors from Minnesota, with players from Minnetonka and Hopkins, as well as Moorhead and Sauk Centre.

Kayla Mershon has been with North Tartan since fifth grade and is on Coury's team. Mershon is a junior at Minnetonka and is committed to play at Nebraska.

She said she enjoys playing AAU because it's a step up from high school and because she loves to play year-round.

"All girls are 100 percent committed," said Mershon, who counts among her teammates Raena Suggs, the team's leading scorer who, during the high school season, plays for Lake Conference rival Hopkins. "In high school, you might just play with your friends, but here it's taken a little more seriously."

Another Hopkins star, Paige Bueckers, plays for North Tartan's undefeated ninth-grade team.

There are other girls' AAU programs in Minnesota and the Minneapolis metro area, including the Metro Stars.

"The quality has really improved," said Ellen Wiese, coach of the Metro Stars' 11th-grade team. "We go to these national tournaments and we hear so much more from college coaches saying they recruit more heavily in Minnesota."

Wiese has been involved with the Metro Stars for eight years. She is also an assistant coach at St. Thomas and the former coach at Orono High School.

She said playing AAU is important for players aiming to get a college scholarship. College coaches don't get a chance to recruit as much during their own seasons, but they have the summer to watch top players compete against each other.

"If you really want to be seen by college coaches, you need to play AAU,'' Wiese said.

Kelly Vang, the girls' program director and head coach of the 11th-grade team for the Minnesota Heat, another AAU program, said she's noticed that playing basketball in the summer isn't just for elite players anymore.

"I have noticed there are more girls of average skill set wanting to play and not just elite players … who want to play college basketball," Vang said. "It's not just a market for that."

As the level of play has improved, Coury said, there's been a rise in national attention, with this season's AAU crop looking particular strong.

"This should be a special year," North Tartan director Bill Larson said.

People now have an opportunity to see kids compete at a high level before they go to college, Coury said, with tournaments over the summer at high schools in Minnesota.

Coury said he watches the WNBA draft and remembers the players his teams have gone against.

Most AAU coaches are also high school coaches. Coury is the girls' coach at Stillwater, and Vang is the coach at Blake.

Vang said her AAU teams are more connected because of the time spent traveling and the passion they all share for the sport.

"It's more of a family-type atmosphere," Vang said. "They spend a lot of time together, and these girls stay connected through college."

Mershon said that even with the seriousness that AAU demands, the North Tartan program has been like a family for her.

Carmen Backes, a junior at Chisago Lakes who recently committed to Wisconsin, has been with North Tartan for six years. She won't be playing this season after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in January.

Coming from a small town, Backes enjoyed the high level of competition and cherishes the friendships she's made.

"I've been able to play with all of them and build these awesome relationships," Backes said. "We're going to play at different places in college, but we all have the same background of playing together and spent summer together."

Michael Hendrickson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.