Viking Club showcases top girls basketball players
A high school coach put it best when he said that on a scale of one to 10, Keith Noll rates a 10 in Wisconsin girls summer basketball and the rest of the state rates a two. Noll dominates the scene that much. Unlike the boys game, which has a number of programs in the Milwaukee area as well around the state, the girls game basically consists of Noll and a handful of fledgling programs or independent teams.
About 1,200 girls played Amateur Athletic Union basketball last year. About 300 of them played in Noll’s Viking Club, including the bulk of the state’s best players. In addition, Noll presides over the Wisconsin AAU, organizes two showcase tournaments and is a trusted voice for college coaches.
“He is in control but it’s a very positive type of control,” University of Wisconsin coach Jane Albright said. “I think Keith’s heart is definitely in the right place with this whole thing. He’s trying to do nothing for Keith Noll. He’s just trying to get Wisconsin kids scholarships.”
To college recruiters, Wisconsin players have developed a reputation as hard workers who are fundamentally sound. More than 50 played Division I basketball last season, but the state is also a haven for Division II and state college programs.
That recruiting success has come without the infighting that plagues boys summer basketball in Wisconsin. It has also come without the presence of shoe company-sponsored teams. And unlike like boys basketball, it comes largely from exposure in AAU events.
“When you go to a girls AAU nationals, that’s truly the best players in girls basketball because that’s the pre-eminent event,” said Paul Biddick, coach of the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Fastbreak. “There is no Nike this or that going on simultaneously in Las Vegas or Adidas, like there is with the boys. (AAU) is the main thing.”
In comparison to boys summer basketball, the girls game is relatively tame. As a result, summer recruiting for women’s basketball isn’t at the top of the NCAA’s list of concerns. That conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the governing body of major college sports left the women’s summer recruiting calendar alone while announcing major changes to the men’s. This year, the summer evaluation period for girls basketball is July 8-31. Next year, it will also be 24 days, whereas the men’s summer evaluation period drops from 24 days to 14.
The women’s game survived the NCAA this time, but not everyone is celebrating. In these times of equality, there is a fear that the women’s summer recruiting calendar will eventually change, too. Changing the women’s calendar hasn’t been a hot topic, but the NCAA could address the matter next spring when it is expected to unveil a new men’s summer recruiting plan for 2002.
“I think we have followed some patterns of the men,” Marquette coach Terri Mitchell said of women’s basketball. “I think it would just be a natural for (the NCAA). It would be easy for them. They always say, ‘If we take it out for the men we’re going to take it out for the women,’ so I guess I wouldn’t be surprised.
“I don’t think anyone in the women’s game can sit here and think we’re secure, that this won’t affect us.” If there are rule changes to the women’s game, it won’t be because of people like Noll. By keeping a tight rein on his talent-rich Viking Club, Noll has, in effect, kept a tight rein on the state.
He has repeatedly shunned lucrative shoe sponsorship deals for his top teams. Representatives from big-time exposure camps such as Nike or Adidas try to get Noll to send Wisconsin’s best players to their camps, but he hasn’t warmed to the idea. “I want to stay clear of anything that has a chance to rule a kid, that could lose their eligibility in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “Our association has certain rules that have to be followed.”
In 1987, Wisconsin became involved in AAU girls basketball almost by accident. That spring, Noll was coaching his daughter’s 13-and-under club team when a friend asked him if he was interested in bringing his team to the AAU national tournament. Noll had never heard of AAU before.
Until that point, most of his coaching experience came in YMCA tournaments in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. After some thought, he decided to go, taking his daughter’s team and a 15-under squad to Shreveport, La., to help defray the cost of the bus.
It was an eye-opening experience. “When I got down there, (former Wisconsin coach) Mary Murphy came up and introduced herself to me that first game we played in,” Noll said. “I saw coaches like (Tennessee’s) Pat Summitt, (Louisiana Tech’s) Leon Barmore, (Texas’) Jody Conradt, sitting in the stands. The first game we opened up with, the host team from Louisiana had three or four big-time players that everyone was looking at. That was our first exposure to the big time.”
The next year, Noll sent information about the AAU to all the high school coaches in Wisconsin. Racine Park’s Keisha Anderson, currently playing in the WNBA, was one of the first to sign up. Former Wisconsin Badger Dolly Rademaker was the program’s first Division I player. A standout at Thorp High School, her signing was symbolic of the benefit of AAU ball in Wisconsin.
Just as is the case with the boys, summer basketball allows players to improve their skills or play a position they’re projected to play in college. For girls, it also has served as a proving ground for a number of players from small schools or remote towns.
Anna DeForge, who plays for Detroit of the WNBA, starred at tiny Niagara before becoming a standout at Nebraska. Clare Barnard came out of Menomonie to star at Marquette. Amy Wiersma was a high school All-American at Randolph before playing four years for the Badgers. Each of those players came through Noll’s program.
If it seems as if every talented player has been a part of Noll’s Viking Club, it is because many of them have. Though based in Colfax, 30 miles west of Eau Claire, he draws players from throughout the state. His top team this year has a player from Kenosha and another from Wausau. Players come to him. He recruits no one and accepts anyone, regardless of talent.
There are a handful of other programs throughout the state, the most renowned being Cheryl Mohr’s Higher Level Camps, which is based in the Fond du Lac area.
Six years ago, Mohr’s program started with two girls teams. Through word of mouth, it has grown to 11 for girls and one for boys. She also runs a skills camp that drew 118 participants last month.
Programs like Mohr’s and Noll’s are the exception, however. Mostly there are a number of individual teams that are coached by someone like Biddick, who coaches a group of girls through high school and then starts over with another group.
In the Milwaukee area, there are few girls programs. The Southeast Wisconsin Girls Basketball Club is trying to fill some of that void. In its third year as a full summer program, it is believed to the only program of its kind in the area. It has four teams for girls aged 14 to 17.