Patrick Reusse
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The Gophers' biggest rivals in recruiting in-state basketball talent starting in the early 1930s and for two more decades were the Hamline Pipers, coached by Joe Hutton Sr.

The competition was such the Gophers refused to play the Pipers, even though an annual game could have filled what were then 18,000-plus bench seats in Williams Arena.

This isn't exactly Hutton getting Vern Mikkelsen out of Askov High School in the mid-1940s, but the latest player to emerge from that Hamline recruiting battle is doing his best to make emergency repairs to first-year coach Ben Johnson's thin Gophers roster.

Will Ramberg was a 6-foot-5, do-everything player for Cook County High School. He graduated in 2019 with 1,346 points, the most in school history.

This is the only high school in the county and located in Grand Marais. Enough travelers make it that far along the North Shore that this was recent news in the Star Tribune:

The building that houses Sven and Ole's Pizza was for sale, and the historic Ben Franklin store had new operators.

News did not spread so easily on Ramberg's basketball exploits. Which makes it rather wonderful for Cook County folks to now look in a Big Ten boxscore to find their local hero playing 14 minutes for the Gophers, even if it was in Tuesday night's 76-53 loss to Illinois and its mighty Kofi Cockburn.

How was it trying to help with that well-muscled 7-footer?

Ramberg offered a slight laugh on the phone Friday and said: "He's a big fellow. He has a lot of talent, and when he has you by 100 pounds, you're not going to move him out of the way."

Andy Feddema, an assistant coach in Ramberg's senior year and now Cook County's head coach and athletic director, said:

"Will has a ton of people on his side up here. Our players are talking about it all the time. We're looking to go down on January 19th for the Northwestern game. The starting time is 3 p.m., so that's perfect for us."

Starting times are very important to Cook County residents when it comes to Twin Cities events. You don't impulse attend.

"We're 2 hours and 15 minutes north of Duluth," Feddema said. "That's basically the halfway point for us to the Twin Cities.

"That's also the reason not many people heard about Will as a player. Every team we played talked about him as an outstanding player, but that didn't mean you were going to see or hear much about him in media.

"The school that took an interest in Will was Hamline. The coaches we heard from the most were the Hamline guys. They really wanted him."

Rather than head south to the Twin Cities, Ramberg decided to go around the top of Lake Superior and travel 1,100 miles east to attend McGill University in Montreal.

"That was the highest level of basketball I had a chance to play," Ramberg said. "There are good basketball players in Canada. And they have post-high school studies before they go to 'university,' so some of the first-year players are 22.

"It took me a half of a year to catch up to the pace. Once I did that, I had a chance to play more later in the season."

Ramberg was envisioning increased status when he returned to Montreal in the summer of 2020. He was there a month when Canada basically shut down due to the pandemic.

All remote learning. No basketball. He made it home to Grand Marais.

"I did a lot of dribbling in my basement," Ramberg said. "I made it into a gym maybe three times last winter. We had a basket, but it was with a gravel court, so not great in the winter in Grand Marais."

Ramberg's parents, Kathryn and Stephen, met at the University of Minnesota. That steered Will into becoming a hardcore Gophers hoops fan.

The new Gophers coaching staff was trying to find reinforcements for the 10 players who transferred. They found starters — a top seven, actually — but needed backups.

Turned out, Ramberg's performance coach at McGill, John Dangelas, had a good friend who was close to new Gophers assistant Marcus Jenkins.

The third-hand communication was made, the Gophers offered Ramberg a chance to walk on, and after 15 total minutes in six brief appearances, there was the 6-foot-6, 205-pound Ramberg trying to help inside for 14 minutes vs. Illinois.

"This means the world to me, to be part of the Gophers," he said. "I would rather play here than any place in the United States."

And probably Canada, seeing that on a team of transfers from unlikely locations, the man from Montreal's McGill is the unlikeliest.

Those enjoying Ramberg's background story include his teammates, according to Dave Thorson, Johnson's veteran assistant.

"They are asking Will often for updates on Sven and Ole's," Thorson said, "and also if the transition at the Ben Franklin is going well."