Farmington junior center Sophie Hart is a work in progress. So is the Minnesota women’s basketball program on the state’s recruiting front.
The Gophers, guided by Minnesota native and school alum Lindsay Whalen, are trying to overcome the crevasse created with state recruits and coaches by Marlene Stollings’ regime from 2014-18. Whalen and her staff are establishing an improved working relationship with the Minnesota State High School Girls’ Basketball Coaches Association — an element significantly missing with her predecessor.
“Lindsay has so many intangibles going for her to have success on the state recruiting front,” said Farmington coach Liz Carpentier, who is also president of the coaches association. “It takes time, but Lindsay and her staff have already built a great rapport with high school coaches around the state. They are headed in the right direction.”
Whalen’s hiring on April 13, 2018, wasn’t enough to alter the collegiate plans of the state’s top three seniors, including the nation’s highly coveted No. 1 prospect: Connecticut-bound Paige Bueckers of Hopkins. Players can sign national letters of intent beginning Wednesday.
“We want the top kids in the state to want to represent Minnesota. We want to get in early with kids from the state.”
“When we came in, there were players already well into the recruiting process,” Whalen said. “We were way behind in those situations.”
The Gophers staff is focused on a deep junior class, talented sophomore group and upcoming freshmen. It has made scholarship offers to 13 players from the state in those three classes.
“The talent coming up in the state right now is really great,” said Whalen, whose second squad is off to a 1-1 start after going 21-11 in her first season last year. “We are recruiting the state as hard as we can.”
Whalen wants to keep the state’s best at home and is hoping that reaching out to them at a young age will help in that regard. The Gophers don’t want to be beaten to the punch by other Power Five conference schools, namely those in the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten.
Changing the complexion
This season the Gophers have only one Minnesota player — freshman guard Sara Scalia from Stillwater — on their roster. Scalia was the school’s first state recruit straight out of high school since Pam Borton signed 2014 class members Grace Coughlin of Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Carlie Wagner of New Richland-Hartland-Elldendale-Geneva. Coughlin played in only five games before transferring to North Dakota State midway through her freshman season.
Stollings never landed such a high school recruit during her four-year tenure.
“We want the top kids in the state to want to represent Minnesota,” Whalen said. “We want to get in early with kids from the state.”
With Hart, the Gophers offered the 6-4 low post after her freshman season. The last frontcourt player from the state signed by the Gophers was Kayla Hirt of Bemidji, a 6-2 forward, and that goes back to the 2011 class.
“I honestly didn’t expect it,” Hart said about her initial offer from a Power Five school. “It brought a big smile to my face. I was flattered.”
She knows firsthand about the upcoming talent throughout the state.
“There is a lot of top-notch talent in the state right now,” Hart said. “We’re all very competitive, but also respectful of each other. All of us are hard workers, too.”
Hart said she realizes she has to continue down that path, at both ends of the court, to play at the next level.
“I have to become more assertive,” Hart said. “My back-to-the-basket moves have to get better, and I’m working on my outside shot.”
Hart can be dominant in the paint, especially on defense. She averaged over 10 rebounds and two blocked shots per game in her first two high school seasons.
“It’s more fun playing defense than offense,” Hart said. “I like rebounding, blocking shots and getting out and running the floor. I want to beat every other player down the floor.”
A team player
Hart gained versatility by being a multisport athlete. She just completed her second year as a member of the volleyball team and has run cross-country and track in the past. She competed in the high jump, hurdles and 400 and was a relay team member in track.
“Sophie has tremendous foot speed for a post player,” Carpentier said. “She runs the floor very well and will score in transition.”
Hart averaged eight points per game as a freshman and raised that to 12 the next year.
“The area I saw the most growth from her freshman year to sophomore year was her being able to command her space in the paint,” Carpentier said. “She demands the ball more now, which she didn’t do as a ninth-grader.”
Hart will bring even more incentive to the floor this season for a team still seeking its first state tournament appearance. The Tigers have lost to Lakeville North in the Class 3A, Section 1 final each of the past two years, including 37-35 last season when the Panthers’ Lauren Jensen made a basket in the waning seconds.
“Losing on a last-second shot last year was very hard on us,” Hart said. “We want to get to the state tournament more than anything. This is a team sport. It’s not the Sophie Hart show.”
That’s another reason Carpentier and college coaches are keen on Hart.
“She is unselfish by nature, so once in a while we have to remind her that we don’t want her kicking the ball out to a teammate. We want her to score,” Carpentier said. “You can tell her academic success carries over onto the basketball court. She is very good at reading the game and communicating with her teammates on the court. Sophie is a great teammate.”