BROOKINGS — The cornerstone of St. Thomas More’s recent run of success is its suffocating defense.
For most coaches, getting players to buy into such a demanding style can be difficult, especially at the high school level. But that hasn’t been much of a problem for St. Thomas More coach Brandon Kandolin.
“It might have been a while back,” he said following Thursday’s 57-32 win over Madison in the Class A quarterfinals. “I’ve always been defensive-minded, but back when we first made our first appearance, we just took it to another level. It started Caitlin Duffy’s freshman or sophomore year, that group in particular buying into how hard we’re going to have to work to get where we want to be. I think that’s just built on itself more and more.”
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The Duffy he is referring to led the team to its first-ever state championship in 2012 before heading to Colorado State University. She transferred after her freshman year and is now a senior at the University of South Dakota.
A few years later, another Cavalier, Alexys Swedlund, headed to Washington State, where she currently starts as a sophomore.
Last year, a third player joined the Division I ranks with Ciara Duffy following her older sister to Vermillion where she has emerged as one of the Coyotes’ key players.
Their success and strong leadership laid the foundation for St. Thomas More’s dynastic run, and now the torch has been passed on to senior Dru Gylten, a 5-foot-1 guard who is the program’s third Division I recruit in as many years.
“They were amazing role models and just amazing women in general,” the University of Utah signee said of her former teammates. “Being able to look up to them in practice and even every day in school, it formed the person who I am today. They showed me the person you’re supposed to be as a senior, both in basketball and in life in general.”
Gylten differs from her predecessors in that she’s more of a playmaker, a role she’s flourished in since she joined the varsity squad as a freshman.
“I could tell especially that freshman year that she had that sixth sense,” Kandolin said. “She has that weird sense about basketball.”
Gylten’s grandfather, Jerry Schultz, played at the University of North Dakota in the 60s.
Her parents, Steven and Kristi Gylten also played college basketball. Steven at North Dakota State College of Sciences then Moorhead State, and Kristi (Schultz) at Concordia (Neb.).
Needless to say, they passed on their passion for basketball to their oldest child.
“They say you can’t really be born into basketball, but my family, they’ve played basketball themselves,” Dru explained. “At a young age, my dad would really push me to become the player that he and my grandpa once were.”
That early exposure to the game manifested itself in an incredibly high basketball IQ.
“She’s special in a lot of ways,” Kandolin said. “Since day one freshman year, understanding the game already at that age – her basketball knowledge was incredible. It took a while for some of our players to adjust to her ability to see the floor and anticipate a play, because if you didn’t get your hands up, she was probably going to hit you in the side of the head with the ball.”
The loss of six seniors off last year’s roster has led to Gylten taking a different role on this year’s team – she’s being asked to be more of a scorer.
Against Madison on Thursday, she showed off that aspect of her game, pouring in a game-high 29 points on 12 of 24 shooting.
“In the past, my role was to get the shooters the ball and play defense,” explained Gylten, who is averaging a team-high 12.8 points per game on 42 percent shooting. “This year, I knew that I would be faced with a challenge that I was going to have to react to, and that’s just life.”
Gylten’s approach to this year’s state tournament is different as well. With the finale of her high school career now clearly defined, she is focused on embracing the moment and making the most of her final games as a St. Thomas More Cavalier.
“When you’re just a little girl, it’s hard to bring it all in. It’s hard to understand what’s happening and what you’re actually a part of,” she said. “Now being a senior, your memories and everything are limited, so I think it’s a lot easier to take it all in and really take advantage of it.”
Gylten acknowledged that it’s started to sink in that her high school career is almost over. Though she said she’s not ready for her time with STM to end, she will forever maintain a special connection with her teammates – both current and former.
“There’s a sisterhood at St. Thomas More that you never get out of,” she explained. “You’re a sister with everyone forever, really. It’s like they’ve never left. You’re always a teammate. You never lose that sisterhood.”
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .