Lindsay Whalen, the veteran Lynx point guard and rookie Gophers women’s basketball coach, had just a few minutes the other day between jobs.
Those few moments, in between scoring 11 points while running a WNBA offense and preparing for her first season as a coach, came two Sundays ago on the Lynx team bus ride back to the Twin Cities from a preseason game in Iowa.
Then she picked up her phone. Game (back) on.
She had logged 18 preseason minutes on the court that day, and now the action was on in a different arena: recruiting.
Gophers assistant coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis called about Stillwater’s star guard Sara Scalia wanting to chat. Whalen sent a text message to Scalia that she’d call shortly.
Once Whalen settled into her seat on the bus, she hooked up with the Ponies junior sharpshooter who recently visited campus. It was good news: Scalia wanted to be a Gopher. Whalen had locked up her first recruit.
“I’d like to scream right now,” said Whalen, according to Scalia’s father, “but I’m on the bus with all of my teammates.”
That’s Whalen’s juggling act, as she builds her program while trying to lead the Lynx to another WNBA title. But Scalia said it was clear that her future coach can do both. Whalen already has a recruiting focus.
“When I was with Lindsay on the visit, she said she wanted to keep a lot of people in her home state and build something here,” Scalia said. “I definitely think we can get some top players in the state now that Lindsay’s here.”
Marlene Stollings, who left to become Texas Tech’s coach last month, didn’t sign a single high school player from Minnesota in her four years, but she offered a scholarship to Scalia last year.
Stillwater coach Willie Taylor, who coached former Gophers Ashley Ellis-Milan and Kiara Buford at St. Paul Central, promoted Scalia, then an eighth-grader, to the Ponies varsity when he took over in 2014.
“I don’t think I’ve coached a better shooter than Sara,” Taylor said. “Sara can shoot with consistency from long range. She can shoot off the dribble and the catch.”
Scalia, who averaged 26.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.8 steals for Stillwater this season, picked up offers from Wisconsin and Marquette. She was leaning toward leaving the state to play college ball if Stollings still was coaching the Gophers.
“Sara felt like she wasn’t building a deep enough relationship with them,” said Scalia’s father and former youth traveling coach, Peter. “Other schools were moving ahead from a relationship standpoint.”
The situation with the home state program changed entirely once Whalen was hired April 12. A few days after taking the job, the former Gophers All-America and four-time WNBA champion watched Scalia play with North Tartan’s Nike club team at the Boo Williams AAU tournament in Virginia.
“It was amazing, because I’ve always watched her with the Lynx and the past championships,” Sara Scalia said. “She went through my AAU coaches during the tournament, and said she liked the way I played. She called me after the tournament and offered me. Then we set up a time to visit [May 2].”
On the visit, Whalen told Scalia “you’re my girl” and one of her top priorities, because the Gophers needed a point guard to help replace All-Big Ten performer Kenisha Bell after next season. On the way home from the U, Scalia already was thinking about committing. Her parents wanted her to take a few days to think it through. They told her don’t just commit because “Lindsay Whalen’s the coach,” her father said. “But we talked about that if you feel Minnesota is right, then let’s do it. Let’s be the first. Let’s be Lindsay’s first recruit.”
Only a few days after Scalia committed to the Gophers, Whalen picked up her second recruit with Utah four-star senior point guard Mercedes Staples signing to play next season.
There were no Lynx games that day and no bus rides. Whalen could get excited and even tweeted about the Gophers women’s basketball family getting bigger, saying “welcome to the fam.”
“I don’t know who could turn down the opportunity to play with Lindsay,” Scalia said. “I think it’s really cool she’s in the WNBA and coaching. I think she’s going to be really successful with the Lynx and coaching, too. I think we’re going to take the Minnesota team to the next level.”