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In April 2018, when Lindsay Whalen was hired as Gophers women’s basketball coach, Mallory Heyer was a Chaska eighth-grader. Whalen wasted little time making a connection.

“Right when she got the job she reached out to me,” Heyer said this week, days after committing to the Gophers’ recruiting class of 2022, choosing Minnesota ahead of a slew of offers from other schools, including Utah, Iowa and Iowa State. “It was right away. She started recruiting me, we built a good relationship. It just felt right.”

Days after the 6-1 Chaska forward committed, it was Nia Holloway’s turn. Tall and athletic, the 6-1 forward from Eden Prairie had 10 Division I offers, seven of which were from schools in Power Five conferences.

But her first offer came, a long time ago, from Whalen, who started recruiting her right away, too. Holloway had been in the stands at Williams Arena in 2017 when Whalen and the Minnesota Lynx won their fourth WNBA title. As a young girl, she went to Gophers games but never really thought she’d play here. That changed when Whalen took over. Last week she became the second Minnesotan in Whalen’s 2022 recruiting class.

But maybe not the last.

“My final decision was made off wanting to be a part of something special that could happen in Minnesota,” Holloway said. “From wanting to stay home, be around family, knowing they could come watch me play. I think that would be super exciting.”

When Whalen took the job she promised to mine Minnesota for talent, something her predecessor, Marlene Stollings, didn’t do. While there have been notable misses on in-state recruits and work remains to be done, Whalen has been as good as her word.

Making inroads

“On a scale of one to 10, it’s been an 11,” said Carl Pierson, executive director of the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association. “One of the very first things she and her staff did was invite in our executive board, sit us down and say, ‘What do we need to do to best connect with high school coaches throughout our state?’ They went right to the source. They demonstrated an interest.”

Whalen and her coaches went to state coaching clinics. They connected with local AAU programs. There was a lot of ground to make up.

Stollings didn’t have much of a relationship with local coaches. She inherited Minnesota natives Carlie Wagner and Rachel Banham, and she brought back some Minnesotans as transfers, but she didn’t do much recruiting in the state and the feeling was she didn’t make much of an effort to build relationships with coaches and AAU programs.

“She didn’t have the time of day for anybody,” Pierson said. “Lindsay has been different. It’s night and day. And it’s very welcome.”

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Nick Storm is the co-director and founder of the Minnesota Fury AAU team, which Heyer plays for. He said Minnesota coaches felt “scorned” by Stollings.

“Whalen and her staff have gone out of their way to reach out to people,” he said. “They’ve gone out of their way to be visible. And they’re talking to all the kids, not just the top kids.”

Bill Larson is the director of the North Tartan AAU program, which counts Holloway as a member. He said Whalen has been in constant contact.

“It’s refreshing,” he said. “And there is a much better vibe in the state right now when it comes to the Gophers. “People are starting to believe this is going to be a build, and they want to be a part of it.”

But the process takes time. Big-time recruiting starts in the seventh or eighth grades; relationships build slowly.

That helps explain why the Gophers didn’t get a number of top Minnesotans immediately after Whalen was hired. Star 2020 recruit Paige Bueckers was already well down the road with Connecticut, for example. Rochester Lourdes star Alyssa Ustby chose North Carolina over the Gophers in the same class.

With the 2021 class, the Gophers were in on, but didn’t get Farmington’s Sophie Hart — who instead picked North Carolina State. But one of Whalen’s first recruits was Stillwater guard Sara Scalia, who had a strong freshman season last year.

Whalen’s 2021 recruiting class includes Roseau guard Katie Borowicz and Watertown-Mayer guard Maggie Czinano. The bonds formed early with Heyer and Holloway have borne fruit, with the Gophers getting both of the in-state recruits to verbally commit.

As Pierson noted, Minnesota produces about 40 Division 1 players a year. Of those, five to 10 are Power Five conference-caliber players. Maya Nnaji, a 6-4 Hopkins junior and top-10 national recruit in the 2022 class who has yet to commit, is a prime example.

“If the U can snag three of those kids a year, they have a heck of a program,” Pierson said. “They’ve demonstrated they’re on the path to doing that.”

Start of something big?

Holloway and Heyer have played against each other for years, both in AAU and in high school. They don’t know each other well, but there is mutual respect, which is why Heyer was so quick to tweet out her congratulations after Holloway committed.

“It will be fun to be on the same team,” Heyer said.

Said Holloway: “It’s like me and Mallory have been against each other for three years now. It’s just going back and forth. We knew all about each other. Building that into a team where we’re playing together will be so special.”

That’s the plan.

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Hutchinson coach Tim Ellefson sees this process as a two-way street between the team and the state. He remembers watching the Gophers’ 2004 run to the NCAA Final Four with a starting lineup that included in-state players Whalen, Shannon Schonrock and Shannon Bolden. Kelly Roysland (now Whalen’s assistant) started seven games that season. That was part of the draw for fans.

“There is something exciting about cheering for a hometown girl,” Ellefson said.

Of course, Whalen will continue to cast her net nationwide for talent. But it will start at home.

And, perhaps, it’s just starting at home.

“We know Minnesota is a talent-rich state,” Whalen said. “And we’ve recruited the state and seen it pay off with Sara Scalia, and with Laura Bagwell Katalinich and Kayla Mershon coming home (via transfers). We’ve seen our efforts recruiting the state pay off.”

Larson said perhaps the news of Heyer and Holloway staying home indicates something has been established, ingrained. The more Minnesota kids stay home, the more others might want to.

“Recruiting has a tendency to do that,” Pierson said. “To snowball that way. That’s why, when Whalen was hired, it was applauded. It was a home run hire. She isn’t going anywhere, she has enormous credibility and you get the feeling this is her dream job. I think it’s limitless what the Gophers can become.”