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Cloquet's Deb Hunter enters DECC Hall of Fame

Deb Hunter 9right), a 1979 Cloquet graduate, enjoyed four terrific seasons at point guard for the University of Minnestoa, where she is one of 10 players in program history to garner All-America status. She's shown here talking with Gophers coach Ellen Mosher. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Department

Making the quantum leap from pure scorer as a prep phenom in Northeastern Minnesota to Division I point guard was daunting enough for Deb Hunter. But she had to make that transition in the early 1980s while also adjusting to Minneapolis and the massive University of Minnesota campus.

Hunter wasn't in Cloquet anymore.

"I had classes that were a quarter the size of Cloquet," Hunter, now 56 and living in Austin, Texas, said recently by phone.

She navigated the jump, from big fish in a small pond to small fish in a big pond, the same way she handled a double-team on the hardwood — by capitalizing on the situation. Hunter scored 1,361 points in a decorated college career that saw the ex-Lumberjack splash her name throughout the program's record book.

In the Gophers' 46-year history, 10 players have earned All-America status. Hunter, a 1979 Cloquet graduate, is one of them.

Not bad for the small-town kid who describes her arrival in Minneapolis nearly 40 years ago as follows: "I was scared to death."

Hunter, a multi-sport standout in high school, was inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame with five others in a ceremony Wednesday night.

She was part of Cloquet's first girls basketball team in 1975-76 and morphed into a high-scoring whiz who twice was chosen All-State. Hunter led the Lumberjacks to the state tournament as a junior and, the following winter, averaged 27 points per game and was named one of five Ms. Basketball finalists.

In an era of short shorts, high socks, collared jerseys — and no 3-point line — Hunter was ahead of her time while starring for Dave Burgett's Lumberjacks. At Cloquet, the 5-foot-10 guard didn't have much of a choice: She had to score, and score in droves. Her trusty jump shot was up to the task more often than not.

"I think as a coach you're really lucky if you get one of these kinds of kids," Burgett said. "And we had other really good players, but Deb was head and shoulders better than anyone else we had.

"It made me look a lot smarter when she was playing."

At the 'U,' Hunter embraced a different role. She still had to put the ball in the basket, but Gophers coach Ellen Mosher wanted Hunter to double as the team's floor general at point guard.

Welcome to college basketball, kid.

"Everybody that was a shooter wanted the ball from me," Hunter said.

She figured it out.

Hunter was inducted into the Gopher Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 — alongside another Cloquet icon in Corey Millen — and had her jersey honored with a banner at Williams Arena. She was Minnesota's most valuable player each of her final two seasons, was all-region three times and All-Big Ten as a senior.

Thirty-four years after Hunter played her final game for the Gophers, a bevy of her statistical accomplishments have endured. Among the notable ones:

• First in career assists (632)

• First in career steals (413 — next-closest is 290)

• Fourth in career field-goal percentage (.519)

• First and fourth in assists for a single season (241, 174)

• First, second and fourth in steals for a single season (139, 120, 96)

Coaching beckons

Hunter didn't follow the typical path of departing Division I All-Americans when her time was up with the Gophers in 1983. Nowhere in the after-basketball handbook will you find the advice, "go live in a shanty in Louisiana and work at a grocery store." But that's what Hunter did.

She needed to get away. Year-round basketball had taken its toll.

Hunter had friends down south. The sojourn wasn't glamorous.

"The apartment I had was $90 a month, just to give you an idea," Hunter said.

Eventually, she returned to the 'U' and finished her degree. Coaching appeared inevitable. To everybody but Hunter, that is. She did her time as a high school assistant, but Hunter didn't think of herself as a coach.

"I thought, 'This is not for me. I don't want to be in the gym 365 days a year,' " she said.

So when Bethel University inquired about hiring the former Gophers point guard to oversee its fledgling women's basketball team, Hunter responded flatly, "No."

She reconsidered and, channeling her inner Bob Knight — "Bobby Knight is my hero," she told the News Tribune in 1985 — compiled a 164-89 record and guided the Royals to three NCAA Division III national tournaments over 10 seasons.

Hunter also served as Bethel's women's athletic director.

After Bethel, her next coaching stop was Colorado College, where then-men's hockey coach Don Lucia, a fellow Northlander, helped Hunter get going. Hunter stayed out west for two years, before being lured to Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

Sidelined by a stroke

For someone who initially winced at the thought of coaching, Hunter fell in love with the profession. She relished the chance to be a role model for young women. And she'd likely still be going if not for a massive stroke in July 2007.

Hunter woke up one morning paralyzed on her left side. She endured a five-hour brain surgery. And while she stayed on the bench at Austin College, she ultimately was forced into retirement following the 2009-10 season.

Almost 10 years after the stroke, Hunter says the after-effects aren't visible except to those who know her well.

"I don't have a lot of the deficiencies that some do, and I'm really lucky that way, but my brain gets really scattered," she said.

She says she was fortunate to be surrounded by good people, and at a school with first-rate health insurance.

"I love coaching, I love what I did, I love the places that I worked," Hunter said. "I just had a good life. I'm not sad. I'm one of the lucky ones."

She now spends much of her time volunteering in Austin. As she rehashed her playing and coaching career, one thing stood out with the personable Hunter — her voice. It was heavy with southern twang.

"After being here for about 18 years, and I was in Colorado for a couple years, so Colorado, Minnesota, Texas," the native Californian said. "It's all messed up. I'm a true American.

"I have everything kind of west of the Mississippi."

Basketball may have taken her across the country — and beyond — but there are certain things about Northeastern Minnesota she's never forgotten. Back in town for tonight's Hall of Fame celebration, Hunter is itching to reconnect with a few of her favorite spots.

"I'm for sure going to Gordy's Hi-Hat," she quipped.

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