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By Greg DeVillers / Forum Communications Co., Published February 28 2012

AAU play gels teammates

CANDO, N.D. – Basketball can be a humbling experience for Daniel Grande and Jake Hagler.

The two are dominant players on the North Star team that brings an undefeated record to the North Dakota Class B boys high school basketball tournament, which begins Thursday at the Alerus Center. in Grand Forks. Both were starters on last season’s undefeated state championship team.

But the juniors also play together on Dakota Pride, an AAU amateur basketball team that competes in tournaments in the Midwest in the spring and summer. They’re dominant players on the high school level; not so in AAU ball.

“Here in high school ball, Jake and I and the others (on Dakota Pride) are among the better players in the area,” Grande said “But when you get into those bigger tournaments that we play in the spring and summer, we’re closer to the middle or the bottom of the pack. Those players can bring you down a notch.

“We’re used to going around people; those guys sometimes go around you like you’re standing still.”

Dakota Pride has a lot of talent. In addition to the North Star teammates, others on the team include Mac Kroeplin of Grand Forks Red River, A.J. Jacobson of Fargo Shanley, Nathan Mertens of Devils Lake, Austin Monson of Midkota, Aaron Lien of Moorhead, Jim Warmack of East Grand Forks Senior High and, on a part-time basis, Melvin Langstaff of Warwick. The group has played together for the past three years.

“Playing on that team has helped Daniel and Jake immensely,” North Star coach Jeff Hagler said. “They’ve had to learn how to play against people who are better than they are, who are bigger, quicker and jump higher. That has to help their games. And they’ve actually done quite well. They’ve gone 3-1 or

4-1 in a lot of tournaments.

“It’s not comparable to high school ball. At one tournament in Minneapolis, D-I college recruiters always come to watch. They play against unbelievable teams. There are a lot of the best high school players in the country, and 250 college recruiters from big schools all over the country sitting in the balcony watching.”

Jake Hagler doesn’t think he and his Dakota Pride teammates strike fear into opponents.

“We walk into a gym, hardly any of us as tall as 6-3, and other teams are probably wondering what we’re doing there,” Jake Hagler said. “And you have to work so hard just to get open and get a shot off. You can’t make mistakes. That really helps us now.”

Grande and Hagler both have upped their production this season after graduation took starters Grant Lindahl and Matt Swanson last spring.

Hagler was a first-team all-state pick as a sophomore, when he averaged 18.4 points, 6.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Now he’s averaging 29 points, 7 rebounds and 6.6 assists for the 24-0 Bearcats. Grande averaged 13.7 points, 4.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds last season; now he’s at 18.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

All-district post player Josh Haugen (4.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is also a returning starter, as well as the lone senior regular. Rounding out the Bearcats’ starting lineup are juniors Hagler, Grande, Brooks Larson (4.9 ppg) and Colton Braun (6.3 ppg). The top reserve is freshman Alex Weston (7.9 ppg).

“Jake and Daniel adapted their game this year,” Jeff Hagler. “They needed to score more for us to be successful. Other than those two, right now I don’t know if we have anybody capable of scoring 30 in a game.

“I actually thought we were a year away going into this season. We graduated two great scorers. Now we’re so young. I thought we had a chance of getting back to state, but I didn’t know that we’d be undefeated at this point.”

And, while the competition is stiffer at the AAU level, there’s nothing like high school basketball.

“I love AAU ball,” Jake Hagler said. “But nothing beats high school ball. Playing with your friends, getting to the state tournament – there’s no comparison to that.”

DeVillers writes

for the Grand Forks Herald