This story starts in the spring of 2005 with one man’s desire to pull together a group of his daughter’s friends who also had a passion to play basketball.
This vision will now come full circle as a majority of the girls will be entering their senior year this coming fall and be done with playing MYAS and AAU basketball.
Tim Rice’s daughter, Kelsey, was a sixth-grader at the time and he was looking for an avenue for her to play some basketball in the spring/summer with kids her age to improve her game.
Since fourth grade, Kelsey had met and developed friendships with many girls in area tournaments and camps. One of the earliest connections was Avery Jackson of Wadena, as they both had the common bond of being adopted.
Kelsey also got to know Mattie Lueck of Pequot Lakes and her father John. Tim and John talked to local players of the same age and ended up bringing in kids from Staples, Pequot Lakes, Pine River, Verndale, Upsala, Perham, Brainerd, Wadena-Deer Creek, Crosby-Ironton, New York Mills and Bertha-Hewitt.
The team would be made up of mostly sixth-graders, with a few fifth-graders mixed in.
Tim Rice initially coached the team with help from Craig Wolhowe, Tom Wolhowe, Paul Pelzer, Bill Givans and Mick Stokes. The girls would play four to nine tournaments in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area during the months of April and May. A typical “season” had them playing between 20-30 games.
In the second year of the Starz, Jon Lillquist of Sebeka became available to coach the girls, along with his daughter Jessica, who was the same age as the other girls.
"Jon was looking for a team for his daughter to play and we were glad he agreed," said Stokes.
This was the final piece of the puzzle as the Starz began to really come together. They started to get some recognition as “that team from up north” in the metro basketball circles. Jon did most of the coaching, but others like Pelzer and Brian Boe would help out when Jon wasn’t available. The girls would practice on either Sunday or Wednesday nights in Staples in order to keep their commitments to their other high school sports. Almost all of them were multi-sport athletes.
They have played MYAS and AAU spring ball every year since. In 2006, the girls made the championship game at the Star of the North games and qualified to go to Colorado Springs to play in the State Games of America. The girls represented themselves well both on and off the court and came home with the silver medal as well as another silver medal in 2008.
Just a couple weekends ago, the girls finished off a three-peat as they won their third consecutive MYAS Rings title and fourth title in five years. The other year they were the runners-up.
The team has had some girls come and go, but the core has remained intact.
We have watched them go from 12 and 13 year old girls to 17 and 18 year old young ladies who have become solid basketball players and whose careers after high school will be fun to follow. The strong bonds of friendship not only with their teammates, but with their opponents have been just as important. Whenever you bring a group of friends together, you really do not know what level of success you will experience. We know success is more than just wins or losses, but there are currently six girls who have already scored 1,000 points in their careers and others that will pass that mark this coming winter season.
The results with this team have been amazing, as each girl adapted to the role that they had to play in any given game in order for the team to achieve success. To a fault, they may actually be too unselfish with the ball as they understand the skill level that surrounds them. Most are used to having the ball in crunch time and are the girls relied on heavily by their respective high school teams. They had to adapt to playing varying roles on this team loaded with talented players. The one thing that was evident is they all loved the game and the better the opponent, the more fun the girls had. They loved the challenge and it showed.
Playing up at a division one level, winning the MYAS rings four out of five years, two national championship games and placing sixth in state at Division 1 AAU is a lot to be proud of for a group of friends and parents who enjoy being with each other.
A lot of thanks go to the parents of these girls. They too were all keenly aware of what a wonderful thing they had in front of them and worked very hard at making sure that their daughters were available to play. Their world became one of cell phones, texting, e-mails and the wonderful gift of priceline.com.
Each tournament came with arrangements to be made. Some of the parents could not get to each tournament, so others would volunteer to take their daughter or multiple girls under their wing and not only transport them, but keep them in the hotel as well. This group of parents worked well together to make things happen, and that in itself can be rare today. Not once in all these years has there been player or parent issue.
Living in hotels for that many weekends can also put a dent in the checkbook/credit card, so they became very adapt at using the “price your own” feature on Priceline.com and saved a lot of money by doing so. Whoever booked first would e-mail the parameters used to book the room and then the dominos would fall. Not always would everyone be at the same hotel, but it was uncanny how often many ended up together.
The friendships that these parents developed became as important as the ones the girls made. They all have basketball to thank for these lifelong friends and memories that they made. We have many special moments and we were glad we could be there for each other.
The loss of Jon Lueck hit the girls hard as many called him dad. Being there for Mattie on her birthday in Colorado with the roses on the chair like her dad would have done for her was a very special moment. The girls gathering in the middle of a basketball court after a game to be with Avery as her birth mother came out of the stands to meet her for the first time was also very special.
There were also stories of bad hotels, calling each other wrong names, imitations of Jon as the coach by Avery and too many other personal stories and memories to note them all.
Jon Lillquist is owed a thousand thanks from everyone for his time and commitment in the careers of these young ladies and what he has taught them about the game of basketball and life. One man's vision allowed many girls to live out a dream that would not have been possible without him.
The work Tim did behind the scenes is easy to be overlooked and unnoticed, but the Starz would not have existed had Tim not been there for them. Tim’s efforts are appreciated by all of those involved.
The Starz will be losing most of their players to graduation next year, but will have a few that have another year to play and it is their intention to recruit some others and keep this train rolling for another year if possible. It has been a fabulous journey with great memories that will last for a lifetime.
The current Starz team is made up of: Kelsey Rice – Staples-Motley, Kayla Kraemer – Brainerd, Tatum Sheley and Autumn Ackerman – Pine River-Backus, Mattie Lueck – Pequot Lakes, Alicia Boe and Jessica Lillquist – Sebeka, Avery Jackson – Wadena-Deer Creek, Arei Stokes – Bertha-Hewitt, Aimee Pelzer and Tracy Herzog – Upsala and Katrina Moendendick – Perham.