As, one by one, they each decided to stay home, to play for the University of Minnesota, they started texting. And calling. Facetiming.
“I reached out to them,” Mallory Heyer said. “I wanted them to come, too. I wanted other girls from Minnesota to stay home, so we can build something here.”
Heyer was the first to commit to Lindsay Whalen and the women’s basketball team. Then Nia Holloway, then Mara Braun, finally Amaya Battle. Heyer from Chaska, Holloway Eden Prairie, Braun Wayzata, Battle Hopkins.
Monday was the Gophers’ first practice of summer workouts. The 12-player team that assembled bears slight resemblance to last year’s team, with graduations and transfers by players like Sara Scalia, Kadi Sissoko and Jasmine Powell. There are three returners from last season in Katie Borowicz, Rose Micheaux and Maggie Czinano. Four transfers in Aminata Zie, Destinee Oberg, Isabelle Gradwell and Mi’Cole Cayton. Monday the Gophers announced the addition of preferred walk-on Angelina Hammond.
And the recruiting class of ’22.
It is the best recruiting class in program history, ranked 10th in the nation and first in the Big Ten Conference by ESPN. With that will come expectations, which they embrace. And perhaps some pressure, which they welcome.
“As soon as we heard all four of us were committed to coming here, we made a big effort to come together,” Holloway said. “To get to know each other better.”
All four, along with Whalen, met with the media after Monday’s practice. It was impressive. Nobody talked about themselves, they talked about the team. Just freshmen, just having moved in, together, in a four-bedroom apartment close to the workout facility, they talked as much about the future as they did about the present.
As in, what do you four want to accomplish here?
“The hope is we’ll do well this year, and kinda prove Minnesota can bring a great culture here and keep future girls in-state,” Braun said. “That’s the goal for all of us.”
Said Heyer: “There is a huge opportunity in front of us. And, like Nia said, we want to build a new culture here. And it started today.”
How much this Fab Four will play, or how many will end up starting right away, remains to be seen. The Big Ten is a tough conference for freshmen. But there is opportunity, a lot of it, on a roster that includes eight native Minnesotans.
“I know they have huge goals, big dreams,” Whalen said. “It’s my job, our coaching staff’s job, to help them with that.”
Interestingly enough, the steady march of transfers that followed a season that ended with a 15-18 record and a berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament didn’t seem to faze any of the freshmen. The turnover didn’t give them pause, but purpose.
“It made me feel way more resolved,” Battle said. “All four of us, whenever somebody left, we were like, ‘You know what? That’s more of an opportunity for us to put our names out there.’ Really reset the culture and everything. It was sad to see them go. But in the end, it’s our turn.”
Said Holloway: “It was shocking to say the least. But it’s more important that we push forward to the culture we’re trying to build here with the players who stayed. It’s about being together. We want to be better for each other. In that practice we just had, you could feel the energy.”
It has been a whirlwind. This group of four just graduated from high school. They’ve already moved onto campus, enrolled in summer school. Monday they practiced.
About those expectations? Having played at Hopkins, Battle knows about expectations. She said she’ll be fine. Braun talked about focusing on her teammates.
“I don’t think I’ll let the pressure get to me,” Heyer said. “I’m just excited to get to work.”
After all, they have a legacy to build. “I expect our class to be the class that gets good players from Minnesota to stay home,” Battle said. “And be a part of a class that really changes the Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball culture.”