Regardless of the sport, the adage is the same: To get better, play someone better.
Rare is the North Dakota all-state basketball player who hasn’t played AAU summer basketball somewhere along the way. The goal? To get better.
Ranging far and wide to play select teams from other states in 40 or more games certainly can’t retard a player’s development.
So it is with 40 high school-age boys and 20 girls playing for six North Dakota Phenom teams this spring and summer.
“We want to have kids excel in the high school season and excel in the summer season,” said Jordan Maurer, coordinator of the Phenom operation.
Since mid-April, the various Phenom boys have played in tournaments in Ames, Iowa; Sioux Falls, S.D. (twice); Minneapolis (three times); Moorhead, Minn.; St. Cloud, Minn.; Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Las Vegas.
Phenom girls traveled to Grand Forks; St. Cloud, Minn.; the Twin Cities (three times); Mankato, Minn.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Chicago.
Jodi Leidholm is Maurer’s travel coordinator. She handles the breathtaking myriad of travel details that go with a traveling team.
Even though the Phenom players include some of North Dakota’s best, Maurer said they get to run through the gauntlet time and time again from April through July.
“It exposes what your weaknesses are. ... It puts players in situations where they have to adjust their game to compete,” Maurer said.
“I love high school basketball, but this is just different,” he continued. “They get to play with different kids and meet different people. They become friends with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. ... They play in Las Vegas. There’s nothing like those experiences, that’s why I like it so much.
“They get recruiting exposure. ... For me, it’s an opportunity to make a positive influence on someone’s life through basketball.”
When he played AAU basketball for ECI in 2009, Maurer’s teammates included Brian Kielpinski, Esley Thorton, Joe Hanstad, Adam Randall, Andy Crosby and Jesse Crosby. He said it was an eye-opening experience.
“It was really fun, but it’s a different kind of basketball,” he recalled. “... If you’re a good player in North Dakota you can just dominate.”
Maurer said his 17-under boys and girls teams were similarly loaded.
“Between the two teams we have only three players who weren’t all-state, all-conference or all-district,” he said. “Yet we play Minneapolis teams that are the same way. ... That’s the type of teams that are out there. Everyone is really, really good.”
The Phenom is one of three North Dakota AAU teams with which Maurer is familiar. ECI is a boys program based in Fargo that dates back to 2004. ND Pro is a Red River Valley-oriented girls program that’s in its second season.
ECI and ND Pro tend to recruit athletes from the eastern part of the state and the Phenom leans westward. However, there are no clearly defined borders. For instance, Taylor Schafer of Bismarck plays for ECI, as did Erron Collins of Mandan last year.
This year’s Phenom 17-U boys roster included James Richman of Maple Valley. Among the 17-U girls players were Lachelle Baumgarner of Wahpeton, Nicole Fennell of Grand Forks Red River, Cassidy Thorson of West Fargo and Karleigh Weber of Thompson.
Maurer said there’s no guarantee that the talented athletes are going to be evenly distributed across the state in a given year. Thus the crossover of some of the players.
“You have to adjust to where the talent is in a given class,” Maurer said. “... On the girls side I’ll take players from anywhere. On the boys side I prefer to stay in the West.”
Century boys assistant basketball coach Lucas Moormann is the director of ECI. Fargo Shanley girls basketball coach Tim Jacobson is the ND Pro director.
Maurer said he attends a lot of West Region basketball games and, as a result, the Phenom tends to recruit more Class A players.
“I go to a lot of WDA games, so I see those players. ... If I see a good player I try to pick them up. I have no issue with Class A or Class B,” Maurer said.
According to Maurer, there are no fierce AAU recruiting battles for North Dakota’s top prep players.
“If you’re a good player I’ll try to get you, unless you’re already committed to another team,” he said. “... If, say, ECI has already talked to them, I’ll let them go. I don’t want to get into any big recruiting battles.
“If we both see a kid and talk to them in the same time frame ... I’m not into bashing another team’s program,” he added. “... That’s kind of unfair to the kid. It depends on what the kid and their family wants to do in that situation.”
Maurer said AAU basketball is a valuable tool for putting an outstanding basketball players in front of college coaches who would otherwise never be aware of them.
“High school teams in North Dakota play during the college season, so college coaches don’t have much time to recruit. It’s easier for the University of Mary, for instance to watch Ben (Weisbeck) than it would be to follow a kid from Montana,” Maurer said. “ ... At summer AAU tournaments there will be 40 or 50 coaches there. It’s during their offseason, so they can go to tournaments and look at a bunch of players and evaluate them.”
Maurer said a perfect example of that occurred this summer.
“(Weisbeck) got a call from a school in Florida. ... They’d seen him play in Milwaukee. If he doesn’t play AAU, they don’t know he exists,” Maurer said.
The Phenom started in 2011 with one boys team, which was built around the St. Mary’s class that’s going into its senior year. Last year the program expanded to three boys teams and one girls team.
This year the Phenom staff includes Maurer, Jordan Pintar, Jordan Wilhelm, Jordan Kleinjan, Jacoby Lloyd, Ryan Malm, Juno Pintar, Colin Fennell and Michael Benson.
Running the six-team Phenom program requires a good deal of financing. Fifty-one sponsors and some team fundraisers help to defray the costs, but AAU basketball is usually a several-hundred-dollar investment for the players.
Maurer said most players are able to defray the costs by seeking individual sponsorships and fundraising on their own.
“It’s an expensive undertaking,” he said.
Not so much so that a player should be frightened away by the cost, however.
“Everybody can afford to play. ... If they want it bad enough they can figure out a way to make it work,” Maurer said. “... We try to help out players as much as possible to make it affordable. Of the 42 players we had last year, 18 didn’t pay anything out of pocket because of fundraising.”
Maurer, who is currently a student at the University of North Dakota with a triple major, said the Phenom is definitely not a pot of gold for him.
“I didn’t get into it for money. ... That’s not the point of it. I started the Phenom because of kids I met at the ‘Y’ who were talented and wanted to get better and have a chance,” he said. “I’m a gym rat. I see them every day at the ‘Y’. I wouldn’t feel right charging them a bunch of money.”
Besides, running basketball teams isn’t just work for Maurer.
“My only hobby is basketball,” he said.
The Phenom’s 17-U rosters:
Boys: Jayden Ferguson, Williston, 2014; Robert Hutchins, Century, 2014; Taylor Krenz, Flasher, 2014; Scott Nagel, St. Mary’s, 2014; Alex Quist, Century, 2014; James Richman, Maple Valley, 2014; Tyler Rudolph, Century, 2014; Ramey Schatz, Century, 2014; Darius Sparks, St. Mary’s, 2014; Ben Weisbeck, St. Mary’s, 2014.
Girls: Lachelle Baumgarner, Wahpeton, 2014; Keisha Engelhardt, Bismarck, 2014; Nicole Fennell, Grand Forks Red River, 2014; Jordyn Jossart, Century, 2015; Macy Lynch, Century, 2014; McKayla Orr, Jamestown, 2014; Paige Peterson, Jamestown, 2014; Cayli Slette, Williston, 2015; Cassidy Thorson, West Fargo, 2014; Madison Walford, Devils Lake, 2014; Karleigh Weber, Thompson, 2014.