Thanks to a program started up by Kory Kettner, basketball in the area is.. On the Rise

Photo courtesy of Northstar Hoops Report Kory Kettner instructs players during a timeout last year. Kettner runs the MN Rise, a summer basketball program aimed at improving players in the area.

NEW ULM — Six years ago, Kory Kettner had a plan to improve basketball in Southern Minnesota.

The plan led to the birth of the MN Rise, a program for youth basketball players at various age levels to better their game for not only themselves, but for the schools they represent.

Today, thanks in part to the MN Rise, Kettner’s vision is showing up across the area in boys’ and girls’ basketball. South Central Minnesota boasts many young players who have drawn the attention of college scouts, which isn’t too surprising considering the coaching staff available for the players in the Rise program.

The MN Rise has grown significantly since its birth. There are now 20 teams in all (11 boys’ teams and nine girls’ teams) and there are 24 coaches from the area who work as one with the teams.

The collaboration of coaches and athletes has made the program quite successful and it seems to be getting better. It draws athletes from many high schools in southern Minnesota, including the three schools in New Ulm, both Sleepy Eye schools, Hutchinson, Springfield, St. Peter, Maple River, and the Mankato schools, to name a few.

Staff photos by Jeremy Behnke Above and below: Dan Wolfe, an assistant coach at Gustavus Adolphus College, instructs a player at a recent practice for the MN Rise 17U girls’ basketball team.

While the goal of MN Rise is to improve talent on the court, the program also continues to stress the basics at practices so athletes don’t lose touch with that. It’s also aimed at getting kids college exposure.

“There are different ‘goals’ in no particular order,” said Kettner, who coaches the MN Rise 17U boys’ team. “We want to develop the skills and athleticism of all of our athletes. We want to develop their knowledge of the game. Our more competitive teams play in exposure events that a lot of college coaches attend.”

The coaches

Gustavus Adolphus College women’s associate head coach Dan Wolfe has coached at both the boys’ and girls’ basketball varsity levels. He was the New Ulm Cathedral boys’ basketball coach for 23 years (15 as the head coach) and after that he coached at St. James in the girls’ program for four years. He later coached at GAC for 12 years and he spends his “offseason” coaching the 17U girls’ team for the MN Rise.

He’s known Kettner since Kettner was a high school player at Nicollet (and later the head boys’ basketball coach there) and the two are frequently seen at gyms taking in a game when they’re not coaching.

“He had approached me about the possibility of coaching for the Rise,” Wolfe said. “In our league [at Gustavus], the MIAC [Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference], we have a number of head coaches and assistants that are involved with coaching club basketball. That’s become a trend now that college coaches are coaching in the AAU as a way to get their own program noticed and also to have more accessibility to kids that you may be recruiting.”

Coaching with the Rise has given Wolfe the chance to get back to his roots of coaching the basics to younger players. Wolfe has a busy schedule during the college season, so this also gives him an opportunity to watch some of the younger players that he doesn’t get to see during the MIAC season.

“As a coach, it’s always fun to coach fun kids,” Wolfe said. “I’ve been really lucky in the time that I’ve been with the Rise that the kids are really fun. They’ve been very engaged and they have great chemistry even though they come from different towns and some of them do compete against each other during the school year. They enjoy one another. It’s still a game of teaching fundamentals, no matter if you’re at the DIII level or high school level or junior high.”

Having Wolfe and other established coaches on board makes the MN Rise program better all-around, Kettner said.

“First and foremost, the coaches [make it successful],” Kettner said. “We are blessed to have some of the best coaches in the area. They do a great job of developing the players physically and mentally. Parents and players around the area also look at the individual and team success the Rise players have on their high school teams and that sparks interest.”

Meleah Reinhart (Photo courtesy of SMSU website)

As someone who has been around the game for almost 40 years, Wolfe has seen a lot of change in the game, especially in the last 15 years or so.

“I think the level of skills is much better now,” he said. “The ability for kids to handle the basketball, to shoot the basketball, some of those offensive skills, I think are much better than they were five and 10 years ago. There’s more higher-skilled kids across the board. I think club ball has had some influence in helping those kids move their skill level ahead.”

Meleah Reinhart, a 2017 New Ulm High School graduate who played for Wolfe in the Rise system, said she gained a lot of knowledge from Wolfe. She is now playing at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and she just completed her freshman year on the basketball court.

“He would push us to higher standards, so we would know what college coaches were looking for and what they would need,” Reinhart said. “He made sure that we were strong in every aspect of the game, not just the offensive end, but the defensive end.”

Local players have success

The Rise has seen its share of Division III and II players come through the system in recent years, including a large number from the class of 2017. Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop graduate Halley Busse attends Wayne State and Reinhart attends SMSU. Springfield’s Vishe Rabb attends Augustana and Cedar Mountain/Comfrey’s Paige Richert is at GAC, where she plays for Wolfe. Current high school star Joey Batt, a junior at New Ulm, will attend Minnesota State University, Mankato to play basketball after she graduates in 2019.

“In our first five years, not counting our 2018 class because we still have some who haven’t decided on where they want to play, we have over 20 players who have gone onto play college basketball,” Kettner said. “We have others who decided on a different sport in college, other than basketball. We have kids playing in Division II and III schools, JUCOs [junior colleges] and NAIA. We are proud of them all. It takes such commitment to play at the next level.”

Better coaching at the youth levels has made a difference. The fact that players get to see better competition also helps.

“More kids are playing, I think they’re getting better coaching at the youth level, at the high school level,” Wolfe said. “They’re getting more exposure to playing with other kids, not just within their own conference. Now, they have an opportunity to go to the cities to play against [Class] AAA, AAAA schools. They’re getting exposed to a wider variety of talent and in doing so, they see kids with a higher level of skill and you’re constantly seeing as a player you have to continue to improve.”

One player who continued to improve throughout her time with the Rise was Reinhart. She averaged 7.5 points per game as a freshman at SMSU, which was fourth on the team. The all-time leading scorer at NUHS (1,842 points) started 23 of the 24 games she played in this year, making an immediate impact at the college level.

“I think playing in Kory’s program, just the opportunity to play against other kids that are good, it’s a completely different game than high school,” Reinhart said.

Kettner, of course, loves seeing results on the court at every level.

“I would like to see us keep getting more competitive,” he said. “Each year we seem to take a step forward and this year is no different. The depth of talent we have this year in our eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th grades is better than it’s ever been. Part of the reason is that we are able to help develop kids through the years.”

The Sleepy Eye girls’ basketball team also benefitted from players in the MN Rise program. Last summer, there were three players from the Indians’ varsity team that played for the Rise. The Indians finished second at the Class A State Tournament in March, the best finish in school history.

Sleepy Eye head coach Ryan Hulke said the program definitely helped his players. Former Rise players Madi Heidescheidt, Brianna Polesky, Sarah Ibarra and McKenzie Cselovszki were key to the team’s postseason run.

“I think it helped them a lot in playing a faster and more physical game,” Hulke said. “As we figured out the last couple years when we play metro teams it is a different type game, but you when you watched Madi, Brianna, Sarah and McKenzie you could definitely see they could adapt to that type of game and it didn’t effect them as much.

“I think it’s also good for players to hear a different voice and get to know new coaches,” Hulke said. “As I told my teams when I was coaching for the MN Rise or the Minnesota Stars, all coaches have different philosophies and ideas and that doesn’t mean one is better then the other. It’s what you commit yourself to and what works best for your team and how it’s set up. Trying something new or out of the ordinary is okay and you will be better because of it.”

Both Hulke and Reinhart admit there’s a lot of commitment to playing basketball for these offseason programs. The travel for weekend tournaments and practice might not be easy to do, but Reinhart said that pushing herself was worth it. She had some advice for younger players who are unsure about playing during the offseason.

“I would tell them to play, if they’re committed to the game,” she said. “Just give it a shot, your skills just increase immensely and it’s a great experience. You get to meet new people and make new friends from different areas and form relationships.”