As I wrote earlier this week, the Dakota Schoolers have built a strong reputation in the state and AAU basketball community at-large for attaining consistent levels of success throughout the program’s 25 years.
Under the guidance of director Paul Seville – and under the tutelage of a Rolodex of successful high school coaches – the Schoolers have routinely turned heads at national and regional tournaments despite a comparative dearth of Division I talents.
Still, the program wasn’t without its share of players who went on to play D-I ball. A lot of those guys opted for South Dakota State, which joined the D-I ranks in 2007.
A much smaller list exists for Schoolers (and South Dakotans, for that matter) who went on to play for power five programs, including the likes of Mike Miller (Florida), Joe Krabbenhoft (Wisconsin), and more recently Cody Larson (Florida).
One player who surely could have forged a dynamic college career was Derek Paulsen, a Schooler and star point guard for Custer, whose life was cut tragically short in a head-on car crash in 1999 that also killed his girlfriend Eva Wahlstrom and two teenagers from Huron.
Paulsen was an exceptional talent, leading Custer to a Class A state title in 1998 as a sophomore. Known for possessing a basketball IQ beyond his years to go with fluid ball-handling skills, Derek received interest from programs such as Marquette, Michigan State and North Carolina State.
(Derek’s father, Fred Paulsen, coached him on the Schoolers and was a college coach and assistant of high repute. Fred Paulsen was an assistant coach with Michigan State during the Magic Johnson years and later turned Huron University into an NAIA powerhouse.)
After Derek’s death, Paige Paulsen – an incoming high school freshman – followed in his older brother’s footsteps and retired as Custer’s all-time leading scorer.
The school that won six state titles under legendary coach Larry Luitjens – the last coming in 2002 with Paige leading the way – had yet to churn out a Division I scholarship player, though.
That was a feat Derek seem destined for.
In 2003, Paige Paulsen joined Division I Northern Illinois, later transferring to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee of the Horizon League. In some respects the accomplishment was another tribute to Derek, no different than Paige donning his older brother’s jersey numbers: 24 at home; 25 on the road.
Nowadays Derek’s spirit continues to live on, with the Schoolers program in the form of an honor handed out at the end of each summer – the Derek Paulsen Inspiration Award.
Since 2001, Schooler players have voted on the teammate who best embodies the qualities Derek was known for: Leadership, character, dedication and a team-first approach on-and-off the court.
“It’s not for the best player – although Derek was a phenomenal basketball player – it’s about the best teammate,” said longtime Schoolers coach Kent Mueller.
The honor hasn’t lost any of its meaning over the years.
“Number one, it’s an award from your peers – which like anything probably means the most,” Mueller said. “The second thing that’s really neat is every year after that person receives the award, they call Fred and [wife] Marilyn to talk to them and thank them. Fred has said that he gets choked up about that.”
In 2002, Paige Paulsen was recognized as embodying the values of his older brother. Last summer, Davis Cowan received the honor from his teammates.
“It shows character and leadership and being a good teammate,” Cowan said. “I take a lot of pride in those things.”
The distinction goes beyond just basketball.
“I had a chance to talk to Derek’s father, and just to see what kind of guy Derek was – getting that award, that was awesome,” Cowan said. “It was a great conversation. The big thing was, he said: ‘You were given this for a reason.’ Continue to be a good leader and teammate. No matter what happens in life, you might get hurt or not be able to play, but you can contribute in other ways.”
In another month or so – when the Schoolers’ season wraps up and they return from defending their title at the KC Hardwood tournament in Overland Park, Kan. – players on the seven Schooler boys teams will decide who’s been the best teammate.
It’s a tradition – like the Schoolers’ sustained success – that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.