Some say that North Tartan 9th is the Paige Bueckers Show. While the premiere player in the state of Minnesota – one of the top three 2020s in America – is certainly the star attraction, the reality is that this…
Some say that North Tartan 9th is the Paige Bueckers Show. While the premiere player in the state of Minnesota – one of the top three 2020s in America – is certainly the star attraction, the reality is that this team went 40-3 in the AAU summer season because it is a great team. Boasting six of the top 10 players in the Northstar Girls Hoops Class of 2020 rankings, there is no question that this is a talented group, but what's so impressive is the way they function as a unit. It's not difficult to see why North Tartan 9th is our 2017 AAU Team of the Year. “Our team works so well together,” said point guard Kenzie Kramer of St. Michael-Albertville, ranked #2 in the class. “We've got a good outside game, which draws defenders out of the paint. This leaves our posts open down low, or leaves room for our guards to attack the lane. On defense we have a lot of length on other teams so we get hands on a lot of passes and shots.” Sounds about right.
There are so many fine pieces to this winning puzzle, from the superior rebounding of TeTe Danso (#10, Simley) and Vanessa Alexander (#23, STMA), to the outside shooting of Lauren Jensen (#7, Lakeville North) and Kayhla Adams (#26, Hopkins), the refined skill set of Mallory Brake (#5, Hastings), the exceptional passing skills of Mia Curtis (#8, Minnehaha Academy) and Kramer's grade A ball handling. Then there's Courtney Becker, the 6-footer from Wisconsin who can play pretty much every position. And of course, their leader is Paige Bueckers (#1, Hopkins), the all-everything point guard who represented the USA in Argentina this summer. The conductor of the symphony is Coach Tara Starks, who put together the core group – Adams, Jensen, Danso and Bueckers – when the kids were entering 6th grade. “The growth for some of these kids from last year to this year and all the way through is outstanding,” said Starks. “I mean, when I got TeTe in the 5th grade, she could barely walk and chew gum at the same time. She had no idea about anything, but she asked a ton of questions and every single year there has been growth.”
Danso is not alone. The team has improved across the board this year, which should not be surprising given the commitment of everyone involved. All elite squads work hard; none works harder than North Tartan 9th. “These kids have just bought into the systems that I have put in. The parents buy into it, too,” Starks said, “and when we go into the gym we work hard. We work really hard. They never whine about it. They never complain. They never miss practice. They are all in it together.”
A Starks workout can be grueling. If you have watched the veteran task-master do her thing during games, you know she is tough on her players. “Coach Starks' style can be demanding at times, but also very rewarding,” Kramer said. “In practices, she never lets us take a play off. She wants everything to be done right, and we practice fast. Her mindset in practices makes the transition from practice to games easier.”
Folks are sometimes quick to dismiss the challenges of coaching a talented team. We tend to think of great coaches as those who get the most out of a lesser-skilled squad. We think highly of coaches who overcome adversity or injuries and keep on winning, and so we should. In reality, coaching a team of superstars is every bit as challenging. It's not easy herding cats, even if we are talking about gold-plated, diamond-encrusted cats. Somehow it all works, as it did in a special game the NT 9th folks say was the highlight of their year.
Lightning strikes against the West Virginia Thunder
It was July 8th in Louisville at the Run for the Roses event. North Tartan had cruised past a half dozen opponents, winning by an average of 39 points and making it to a championship game with the much-heralded West Virginia Thunder. “We have been waiting for that matchup for years,” Starks said. “They won nationals three years in a row from 4th grade through 7th grade, but we never had the chance to play them because we lost in the semifinals,” Bueckers explained. “It was a matchup we had wanted for a long time and we got it.”
The game was tight throughout. Then, with under three minutes to play, Bueckers had to leave the floor with an ugly cut over her eye. Her teammates responded. “It was just great the way the other kids stepped up and had some big possessions for us. That was huge,” Starks explained. Bueckers returned in the final seconds, and North Tartan sealed the deal with a 51-45 victory. “I would say that was the top highlight of the summer,” said Kramer.
Interesting that Kramer should pick that win instead of the improbable state championship defeat of Minnesota Fury 2020 Blue. After all, it was the SMTA sophomore who made a miracle pass from a sideline traffic jam to Danso for the tying bucket as time expired. North Tartan won in overtime. Bueckers cited another memorable moment, one that speaks volumes about the team's collective mentality. “We were having a very hard practice and had to run about 30 down-and-backs. We were all really struggling,” she said. “But it was the fact that we were all struggling together. This team is a family. We do everything together. It was bad then, but now we can look back at it and laugh. Just the bond we have together. I mean, all of those girls are my sisters and Coach Starks is like our mom.”
The nine girls of North Tartan 9th did it all this year, losing only three times by a total of 7 points and earning a #2 national ranking. Congrats to Fury 2019 Blue, Crossfire 2019 Theissen and a Boo Williams squad from Virginia who rang the victory bell against Minnesota's finest. Well done. “We aren't the most well-liked team,” Bueckers admitted. “We are the team that everyone wants to beat and we love that. It makes us go out there and prove ourselves because we know how good we are and how hard we work and it shows in the games.” Indeed.