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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Northern State's the only game in town

By Graham Hays

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

ABERDEEN, S.D. -- The railroads put Aberdeen on the map, shaping a town out of the prairie and bringing population to this place where the shortest days mark the longest season. More than a century later, trains still rumble through and winter always outstays its welcome, but neither have much company on nights Northern State plays.

Basketball provides an escape from the elements in this part of the world. It makes this place more than just another dot on the map.

Aberdeen's Northern State University led Division II in women's basketball attendance during the 2010-11 season, just as it did each of the three seasons before that as part of a run of seven consecutive seasons in the top 10. The Wolves averaged 2,399 fans per game a season ago, making them one of only two Division II teams to top 2,000; it's a mark that also would have been good enough to rank them ahead of more than 250 Division I programs, including the likes of California, Florida and Georgetown.

With the temperature outside at its finger-numbing, coat-penetrating worst on a recent December evening, attendance was announced as 3,454 for a women's game between Northern State and Wayne State. Schools like these in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play women's and men's doubleheaders during the regular season, and there were more fans in the stands inside Wachs Arena when the men's game began later in the evening. But not that many more.

A four-lane state highway runs through the middle of town, but this isn't a place people visit without a purpose. There isn't an interstate within 70 miles of here. It's more than three hours to Fargo, N.D., or Sioux Falls, S.D., the closest cities, and it's five to get to Minneapolis, the nearest destination with a major professional sports team. Northern State is the place to visit for live sports, and has been for many generations.

Aberdeen resident Doug Berkley is a transplant from Chicago who has fallen under the spell of Northern State and its women's basketball team.

"It's more profound here," Berkley said. "We follow them closer, and I think we're closer knit with the college and the athlete here than I would be with a professional team in the Chicago area. … You don't have a chance to zero in on teams as much [in a city like Chicago] as you do when you're here and you live amongst them and you meet them and meet the parents."

Aberdeen, thanks to the cruelty of its winters, is still located in a region that in some ways recedes from the world around it when winter sets in. The average high temperature in Aberdeen drops below freezing by the end of November and doesn't rise above 32 degrees until the beginning of March. The average low resides in single digits for 78 consecutive days, with wind chills often dropping well below zero as winds whip across the largely treeless landscape. It's not the coldest place in the country, or even the coldest place in a conference that includes the likes of Minnesota-Duluth, but as the locals like to say, it's cold enough to keep the riffraff out.

On this night, Wayne State arrived ranked fourth in Division II and looked the part as it dismantled injury-plagued Northern State 60-38. But pedigree aside, the visitors hadn't played in front of a crowd of more than 738 fans all season. In fact, the total attendance for Wayne State's first eight games barely exceeded the crowd in Aberdeen this night.

What visiting teams in Division I experience when playing in Knoxville, Tenn., or Hartford, Conn., teams in Division II get a taste of in Aberdeen.

"I have tremendous respect for Northern State and what they do," Wayne State coach Chris Kielsmeier said. "The community here really loves women's basketball, and that's exciting. Not every place loves women's basketball. … When you're in that kind of environment, you want to be at your best."

The coach, his town, his team

To understand how this outpost became a destination, you need to understand the people. To do that, you might as well start with the deer heads.

At some point soon, Northern State's Curt Fredrickson will become just the 16th coach in the history of women's college basketball to reach 700 wins. He's two shy of that mark after a win against Augustana College the night after the Wayne State loss. By way of comparison, he's nearly 100 ahead of mainstays like Texas A&M's Gary Blair. But while the desk in Blair's spacious office in College Station wouldn't fit in Fredrickson's office, the latter's snug quarters aren't the first thing that catch the eye.

That would be the quartet of deer heads, one hunting trophy mounted on each wall of the office. Northern State's two NAIA national championship trophies are on display in the lobby, but for a man who holds a midnight practice each season so as not to miss the first morning of pheasant-hunting season, each deer's mute stare speaks volumes.

"It seems kind of crazy, but when you're out bow hunting and you're by yourself, you've got an awful lot of time to think," Fredrickson said. "There's been a lot of decisions made up in a tree about how we're going to do things with our basketball program, what positions kids are going to play and those kind of things."

Fredrickson didn't have to learn how to fit in here. Now in his 33rd season, he is Aberdeen to the core. He played football and baseball for Northern, and his feats on the diamond for the school and throughout the town-ball culture that long thrived in the state are still the stuff of legend. Former USA Today baseball writer Mel Antonen once suggested in print that Fredrickson might be the best all-around player the state ever produced, a prolific pitcher and slugger. But after returning to Northern as a graduate assistant coach in football, he took over the women's basketball program in 1978 in one of several part-time roles. He stepped down briefly in the 1980s to run a local fast-food chain in which he invested, but it only left him spoiling for competition. In 1986, when the women's basketball job was, by then, a full-time position, he returned for good.

Former men's basketball coach Don Meyer is the person Northern State fans talk about in reverent tones. Fredrickson is who they look and sound like.

A person earns respect here. Dacotah Bank regional president and Northern alum Brad Moore is a figure of enough civic significance to claim a certain right of chumminess with the coach of the women's basketball team or any other team. But that's not the way it works.

"Those that are close to him will call him Fred," Moore said. "I wouldn't do that. I haven't earned that. I would call him Coach Fredrickson."

Aberdeen was a basketball town long before Fredrickson. Fans used to stake out seats hours before men's games at the old Civic Arena, a bandbox of a gym where spectators in the front row had to move their feet to give players space to inbound the ball. Fredrickson made the women's team part of that culture. He recruited players from Aberdeen and the surrounding small farming communities, coached them the same way he coached his football players and won more than he lost. Way more.

The program's golden era came with three consecutive appearances in the NAIA championship game in the 1990s, including national titles in 1992 and 1994. The school moved to the NCAA Division II ranks the following season, where sustained success proved more difficult, postseason berths more fleeting. Still the fans come.

Building a family atmosphere

People here like winners as much as the next town, to be sure, but it's not solely an expectation of more hardware for the trophy case that brings people in out of the cold to the game against Wayne State. It's fans such as Berkley, who has been coming to Northern games across a variety of sports for nearly 50 years. He moved to Aberdeen with his wife in the early 1960s and eventually opened up a pharmacy that expanded to three locations. He and his wife, Rhoda, are literally a mom-and-pop success story. But as he talks not long before the Wayne State game, it's the baseball field, which once occupied the ground now home to the arena in which he sits, that convinced him early on that Aberdeen was the right place to call home. He'd walk there with his sons from their house a few blocks away and watch Northern State, just as young parents do with their kids this night. Berkley had pro teams to root for when he grew up and went to Wrigley Field on more than a few afternoons.

The sense of family is indeed more than figurative. Player after player talks of connections to the program that span generations. Sophomore guard Alison Kusler is an Aberdeen native whose sister played at Northern, as did her father and uncle. Senior forward Mikayla Barondeau's mother played for Fredrickson. Even leading scorer Emily Becken, a Minneapolis-area native about as distant in origin as anyone on the roster, is the daughter of parents who played against Northern State for Minnesota Morris.

"I think it's a huge part of its culture and part of what ties it together," Barondeau said of basketball's place in Aberdeen. "One of the things to do is go to basketball games. That was one thing we did as a family -- we didn't go to the movies as a family, we went to basketball games as a family. I'm sure there are a lot of other families like that. It's just something that's always been a staple here."

An ever-evolving story

Aberdeen is a world unto itself, but that doesn't mean it is a place out of time. The world closes in even here. Moore was a Knicks fan growing up, cheering on the likes of Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere. But when the Knicks played the Lakers in the 1970 NBA Finals, Moore was at a track meet and couldn't listen to the radio broadcast. It took him two days to find out the score. It's easier now to watch the same players everyone watches. Northern State is in some ways still the only game in town, but it also isn't.

Attendance has dropped in each of the past two seasons. Because Wachs Arena can seat more than 8,000, it always looks a little patchy, but those patches are growing bigger.

"There's too many other things for kids to do," said Tom Seyer, president of the main booster club and a former Northern State linebacker who had Fredrickson as a position coach in the 1980s. "The entertainment is unlimited. They have access right at their hands to do anything they want, where for us, going to a Northern basketball game was pretty entertaining. We didn't have 500 channels to watch, we couldn't dial up any NBA game or any college game any night of the week. …

"When I was 17, I lived in a pretty small world. The world that they live in today is huge. There's no borders to it."

In another age, Barondeau might have been competition for Laura Ingalls Wilder, who called on her experiences with a particularly wicked winter in tiny De Smet, S.D. as the inspiration for "The Long Winter." Barondeau grew up on a buffalo ranch in Frederick, a town of a few hundred people about 30 miles north of Aberdeen and just south of the North Dakota line. It's where the Northern State record holder in steeplechase learned to love running. It's where a forward with a nose for rebounds learned to work hard. It's also where an English major with a passion for writing listened to her dad spin stories and began to wonder what motivated people to rise above ordinariness.

"I think everyone has a story to tell," Barondeau said.

They seem to in Aberdeen. And more often than not, they seem to come back to the season that defines this place.

Basketball season.