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Local players shine for Thunder

Kello Brown has signed plenty of autographs already in his young lifetime, but perhaps his biggest came when the basketball superstar signed up to play for Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Brown has made an immediate impact for the fifth-year men's program, averaging 24 points and 13-plus rebounds in leading the Thunder to three wins in their first four games - equaling last season's total - entering Wednesday's home opener in Cloquet.

With the 6-foot-5, 189-pound freshman forward's long limbs, vast vertical and high-flying dunks a nightly attraction, Brown was recruited heavily by a bevy of area community colleges and even visited a school in Kansas City before choosing FDLTCC.

"He's a game-changer," said second-year Thunder Coach Damien Paulson. "He's got the ability to jump, score, block shots and always wear that smile of his. He's fun to watch play. He's the type of kid that you don't get to see all that often around here."

Paulson saw plenty of Brown a season ago at Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet, noting he went to the small tribal school 8-12 times to watch Brown showcase his skills for the Ogichidaa.

"A lot of community colleges contacted me, but Coach Paulson was there all of the time, wondering how I was doing," Brown said. "I saw him all of the time - almost every day. He was like my best friend. I chose here, and I'm glad with my decision. I love playing in this gym with this team. It's taken a bit, but now we're clicking."

Brown transferred north from Minneapolis South two years ago to play alongside his older brother, Travis, in Cloquet. A pair of starters for the Thunder now, Kello said the siblings are having fun.

"Travis and I would always talk about having the chance to play together again like we did, and join up in college again," Kello said. "It's been well worth it. We all can make some noise."

The Brown brothers highlight a cast of 18 players for the Thunder (3-1), including athletes from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia. They've beaten Rainy River twice, Wisconsin-Barron County and lost to Vermilion.

"Against Vermilion, we had too many turnovers and got out-rebounded," said Paulson, who played collegiately at the University of Minnesota Duluth before coaching at AlBrook, then FDLTCC. "I keep telling them to keep focusing in the classroom and fixing the little things and we'll do well. We have a good mix; our goal from day one is to get to the state tournament for the first time."

Speaking of firsts, the FDLTCC women's program posted the first win in school history, defeating Itasca 56-50 Nov. 17 in Ely, according to Public Information Director Tom Urbanski.

The Thunder women are coached by Tim Myles, who follows last year's coach Melissa Johnson. Myles said he approached Athletic Director Keith Turner about the coaching vacancy in August and was hired one day before school began in September.

Myles, who has also coached basketball in Floodwood and Rainy River before taking over at FDLTCC, said practice began in November and only seven players are on the current lineup card.

"We're fortunate to have a talented group of girls so that we can continue to play," Myles said of his thin squad. "The team isn't full of recruits, but [rather] a group of young women from around campus."

One of those who was already around campus is Cloquet's Kami Diver. The former 1,000-point scorer for the Lumberjacks graduated in 2008 and took four years off before Myles contacted her to play again.

"It was over Facebook," said Diver, a 5-foot-9 long-shooting starting guard for the Thunder. "I haven't played organized basketball for four seasons, so I was rusty - I still am kind of rusty!

"We don't have too many fresh legs, so we'll have to be on the ball all of the time," Diver continued. "But I think we have a shot to do well. We have a nice starting five and just a good lineup I think."

Joining Diver for the Thunder women are Moose Lake's Natasha Dragicevich - the team's leading scorer - Moose Lake's Shelby Halverson, Cromwell-Wright's MaKayleigh Cahoon, Carlton's Shauna Goodman and Floodwood's Sammy Johnson, all local players.

FDLTCC lost all 21 games during its inaugural season in 2008-09, all 22 the winter after that and all 23 last year. Sandwiched between lopsided losing records was a forfeited season in 2010-11.

"We have low numbers, but we have some girls who can get up the floor and score - we're a lot faster than I anticipated," Myles said. "We've had a few practices for just an hour, but girls are staying after and shooting the ball for hours. They want to play."

Both Thunder programs welcomed Gogebic to Cloquet Wednesday when this edition of the Pine Journal went to press. FDLTCC will also host doubleheaders on Friday with Austin's Riverland Community College at 5 and 7 p.m. and Saturday against Anoka-Ramsey at 1 and 3 p.m.