The Minnehaha boys’ varsity basketball team plays with one of the largest age ranges in the state—both eighth graders and seniors lead the team as they aim to make a section push and advance to the state tournament for the first time in three years
The team made a chain of linked arms as they watched the clock run down, the score constantly flipping between Minnehaha in the lead and the guests, St. Paul Central. This display of unity wasn’t unusual, except for the players that were partaking in it.
Senior Jake Richardson III, sophomore JaVonni Bickham and eighth-grader Jalen Suggs were fouled out shortly before going into overtime. The team was now relying on senior captain Benny Larry, and their second rotation of players consisting of one junior, one freshman and two eighth graders. This young combination of players carried the team to an overtime win with a score of 91-86.
This year, the Minnehaha varsity boys’ basketball team has consistently impressed anyone who has seen them play. A mixture of young excited players, older focused players and a variety of elite skill sets has lead the team to be 7-0 conference champs and ranked second in Class 2A in state.
Captains Larry and Bickham explained that being put in leadership positions requires more responsibility; however it doesn’t feel like extra work because of the team’s great cohesiveness.
“The guys are great and we play well together, which makes my job as a captain a lot easier,” said Larry. “[Being a captain] helps me make sure my mind is always right even at times when we aren’t playing well.”
Larry averages nine points per game, has made 92 percent of all free throw attempts and has made 32 three pointers this season.
Although Bickham is the youngest captain, head coach Lance Johnson has ever had, his teammates explained that his maturity is not necessarily defined by age.
“His attitude on and off the court shows a lot of leadership,” said senior Jake Richardson. Richardson averages 5.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Larry added, “JaVonni has been in the program the longest, so he knows what Coach J wants and expects from us, and that helps us all.”
Bickham recently scored the 1000th point of his high school career in a game against Saint Paul Academy and is the youngest Minnehaha player ever to reach this milestone. Bickham averages 18 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
The large age gaps between the players on the team have not prevented them from bonding, but in fact brought more energy and versatility to the team. When practice gets intense and tiresome, the younger players’ personalities lighten the mood and remind their teammates to have fun. However, despite their age, young players are still held at high expectations and feel the same amount of pressure as their older teammates.
“I think sometimes it can be overwhelming for them because they’re so young and are held at such a high position,” Richardson said, “so I think the coaches have to talk and work with them more so they can be prepared for the level we’re about to go into with sections and state coming up.”
Because these young players have played with older kids all their life, they are mature and used to being held at higher expectations. However, the coaches have found that when working with such young players they’ve had to alter their coaching style to keep players interested and excited about what they’re doing.
“This year I think we found ourselves switching activities a little more; they need a little bit more variety,” said Johnson.
For example, he explained that some days the coaches decide to dedicate a day to purely shooting games.
“They need to have fun. That’s the bottom line. That’s why they’re playing,” he said. “It’s the longest season so it becomes kind of a grind, and providing different activities has definitely made it more enjoyable for them.”
Johnson explained that he will probably continue to coach in this way even as these players get older, because he has seen positive results from the entire team using this technique.
Eighth-grader and second-year starter Jalen Suggs is a prime example of someone who defies age-related expectations. He averages 16.5 points per game with 54 total steals and 61 total assists. Suggs is described as having the most potential by his teammates and coaches and even as an eighth-grader he has been approached numerous times by colleges and newspaper reporters.
With this reputation, anyone can assume that Suggs feels enormous amounts of pressure. However, he explained that he doesn’t let this pressure get to him by living in the moment and having fun.
“I try to just take the season one game at a time,” said Suggs. “I sometimes feel like I have to meet others expectations, especially my coaches when they tell me I need to have a big game and that they expect me to be more of a leader. But I just go out playing to the best of my abilities and doing all I can do to help the team.”
The team has found that they have a target on their back because their opponents don’t want to lose to players significantly younger than they.
The Redhawks use this to their advantage by taking it as a source of motivation. The team explained that focus and teamwork are their strongest suits, but could always use improving.
“Personally I think the team is best at being positive and always keeping one another going even when someone messes up,” said junior Jose Williamson. “We forget about it, slap them on the butt and say ‘next play’ just to show that we are moving on from it and ‘going to get the next one.’” Williamson has a field goal percentage of 44.
Johnson explained that although they already do well with team play and trusting each other on the court, these vital skills can always become better.
“It could be an age discrepancy thing, but they’ll learn and they are very willing to learn,” said Johnson. “I’m assuming that by the end of the year we’ll be a lot better than we are right now.”
It may seem that the Minnehaha basketball program is represented by only a few young players, but in reality the program is composed of numerous enthusiastic players of all ages. With this unique mixture of age and skill, the coaches have worked hard to insure that everyone feels they have equal opportunities.
An example of the coaches’ efforts is in the freshman boys’ team. Even with 18 players, the freshmen coach Larry Suggs has placed every player in nearly every game. As a result of this method, each player, whether playing for two minutes or 15, comes on the court with enthusiasm.
The pressure will only continue to build as sections approach and the opportunity to go to state is within reach.
As this grows closer, the team will be focusing on their team chemistry.
Williamson explained that Johnson always says, ‘good teams play together, but great teams trust each other.’
“It is easy to trust in your teammates when you’re a part of a program like this,” Williamson said.
“We’ve created a bond that will keep us together for a long time. We really are a family.”