They live all over the Twin Cities, but last summer they would text each other and find a court at a public park, or in someone's driveway. The six Minnesotans who chose to play basketball at Lehigh, a small school in Pennsylvania, weren't going to let a pandemic keep them from inventing their own team-building exercises.
That's one reason those six are sitting in a hotel in San Antonio this morning, awaiting a first-round NCAA tournament game that is the result of a particularly difficult and rewarding season.
The Lehigh women's basketball program hadn't qualified for the NCAA tourney since 2010. This year, they won the Patriot League tournament to earn a berth, thanks largely to Minnesotans like Frannie Hottinger of Cretin-Derham Hall, their leading scorer, and league tournament MVP Emma Grothaus of Mahtomedi.
A 13 seed, they'll face fourth-seeded West Virginia on Sunday night in San Antonio. The game is at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
Lehigh (enrollment: about 7,000) is located near Allentown, Pa., and describes itself as a premier research university. There has been one Division I women's basketball program in Minnesota — the University of Minnesota. If you're a standout prep basketball player and the Gophers don't recruit you, and you want to play in Division I at a strong academic school, you've had to look out of state.
"The Minnesota connection here made me feel more comfortable," Hottinger said. "I guess what really made me pick Lehigh was that it had D-I athletics with good and competitive academics. This is the perfect balance. And if I was going to go away to school, I wanted it to feel like family."
Lehigh's Minnesotans are Hottinger, Grothaus, Mariah Sexe of East Ridge, Mackenzie Kramer of St. Michael-Albertville, Megan Walker of Minnetonka and Anna Harvey of Lakeville South.
Their connection? "We all played AAU together at North Tartan," Hottinger said.
Their friendships helped them during last year's COVID shutdown. They would meet at public parks around the Twin Cities, or in any driveway where a hoop hung, to play basketball and stay in touch.
Their closeness helped them navigate a season filled with uncertainty and sadness.
"Our kids have endured a lot," Lehigh coach Sue Troyan said. "We had a number of positive COVID tests and shutdowns in the fall. We had four freshmen in four different quarantines. And at Lehigh, that meant that they were shut down completely for 14 days. We had three players lose family members during the season.
"Emma lost her mom, and that was really heart-wrenching. The Minnesota contingent has been strong for us, with Mariah providing exceptional leadership as a senior captain. She lost her mom two years ago, also in the middle of the season, so she had some perspective and could offer phenomenal leadership for Emma."
Grothaus could have opted out of the season after her mother's death, or after suffering an injury to her nose that will require surgery after the season.
"Had she decided not to come back, we likely aren't winning a championship this year," Troyan said.
That also might be true if Troyan hadn't recruited Hannah Hedstrom from Minnetonka. Hedstrom graduated from Lehigh last year after three seasons as an academic All-Patriot League selection, having served as a senior co-captain.
"Her Dad was involved in AAU and she was an AP scholar coming out of high school, looking for strong academics and basketball. We got her, and we found that when we talked to Minnesota kids that they have strong prep basketball programs and strong academic backgrounds, and a lot of them were looking for a rigorous academic school.
"A lot of D-I schools won't allow kids to take difficult majors and play a sport that requires so much travel. My philosophy is, pick any major you want, we'll make sure it works for you. Our team GPA is 3.65."
The team has required emotional intelligence this season, while dealing with shutdowns, bubbles, canceled games and personal strife.
"There were rough stretches in this season, but that's what makes this championship and being in San Antonio even better," Hottinger said.
"I love my teammates so much and that's another reason why I chose Lehigh," Grothaus said. "My teammates are my best friends and they get me through anything. I'm excited to go win a game in the NCAA tournament."
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. email@example.com