Thunder men score a swift start, women competitive
CLOQUET—Jordan Diver was at a Cloquet convenience store when he came upon a convenient opportunity.
Diver, who grew up playing basketball and scored 1,901 career points playing for Fond du Lac Ojibwe School and Cloquet High School en route to two state tournament appearances, had surprisingly decided to give up his favorite sport while he pursues a law enforcement degree at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
That's when Diver bumped into former prep coach Steve Battaglia at a local gas station. His former Lumberjack coach — who also participated in both football and baseball during his studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth from 1998-2002 — encouraged him to give college athletics a try.
"I took his word for it," Diver said.
By August, Diver had messaged Thunder men's basketball coach Damien Paulson over Facebook, met in his on-campus office and before you knew it, Diver was donning the same No. 23 jersey, just for a different team. Now almost Thanksgiving, he's helping FDLTCC’s score-happy team get off to a swift start to the season.
Scoring a lot doesn't adequately describe the Thunder and their torrid point-producing ways. FDLTCC has kept its scoreboard operator busy, averaging 100 points in each of their first pair of home games. Lopsided wins over the University of Wisconsin-Barron County (98-52) last Wednesday night and Leech Lake Tribal College (102-65) this past Saturday afternoon in Cloquet have the Thunder (2-0) sitting pretty.
At this pace, they may even qualify for their first playoff berth in program history.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse," said Paulson, now in his sixth season at the helm.
Paulson, who also played basketball at UMD from 1991-95, said Diver's late decision was a pleasant surprise.
"We're glad he got that itch," he said.
Diver isn't the only Cloquet alum on Paulson's roster. Sophomore starter Dillon Johnson, who helped lead the Lumberjacks to a state tournament in 2014, played for Paulson his freshman season, took last winter off and now returns for a final year of community college eligibility.
"That was huge," Paulson said of Johnson, a good-sized right-handed forward with deadly 3-point range. He scored a team-high 19 points on Barron County, many from distance.
Diver does the same, only extending the arc with his left hand. The 5-foot-10, 145-pound reserve guard got hot last Saturday off the bench, scoring a game-best 24 points against Leech Lake, including a 5-of-10 effort from 3-point land and a perfect 7-for-7 mark from the free-throw line.
Although Paulson wants to establish the paint like he did for the Bulldogs, he was quick to note his shooting duo is nice to coach, versus coaching against them.
"You’ve got to put the ball in the basket. If you don't, it's hard to win," Paulson said. "So when you have a couple guys like that, it makes the game easier."
Adding to his pair of potent shooters, Paulson has proficient scorers in a pair of Florida natives, Daquan Braxton and Gary Brooks, who combined for 57 points in their first pair of games. Big-man center Darius Williams of Detroit is also a major threat inside, and sophomore Jesse Ellerbe of Wrenshall gives the team of 14 players a more local look coming off the bench.
Constantly pacing the sidelines last Wednesday looking to bring his team energy, Paulson likes his group. Despite allowing less than 59 points per game thus far, Paulson said he wants his team to get more defensive as their schedule heats up. He said their first real test comes this Friday and Saturday at the Mesabi Range Invitational.
Mesabi Range is the same team that edged the Thunder in a fourth-place tie last season, earning the final state playoff spot. FDLTCC's 10-16 record was the program's best record in their eight years of existence, but Mesabi won the deciding game by one basket, Paulson said.
"We knocked on the door last year. Hopefully we can come knock on it again," Paulson said. “It's real early, and we have a lot more work to do."
The same goes for Diver, who was working on his law enforcement homework when interviewed earlier this week. He added that he enjoys the campus, his studies and, of course, putting on a basketball jersey again.
"I'm glad I played," said Diver, noting his father, Robert King, still doesn't miss a game. "We'd definitely like to raise some eyebrows."
IMPROVING WOMEN’S TEAM FALLS IN OPENER
Faryn Dupuis can relate to Diver’s experience, as the fellow FDLTCC freshman was also not planning to play hoops this winter, but opted to pick up a basketball again.
Dupuis, like Diver, graduated from Cloquet High School last year but also played for Fond du Lac Ojibwe for a pair of varsity seasons. She's played basketball since age 10, and the 5-foot-3 point guard just couldn't put it aside once in college.
"You can't stop what you love, right?" said Dupuis. "I care hugely for this sport."
Dupuis sported a team-high 20 points off of the bench last Saturday against Leech Lake, but it wasn't enough in a 64-52 defeat in their season-opener at Cloquet.
Due to thin numbers and foul trouble, visiting Leech Lake spent the entire second quarter with four players, then finished the game 3-on-5 and still hung on.
Laura Sylvester, who also coaches volleyball and is the school's athletic director, said numbers in the women's game are an issue, noting there have been several occurrences like last weekend's where uneven matchups are managed by schools across the Minnesota College Athletic Conference.
Numbers aren't a serious problem this winter for Sylvester and her Thunder, unlike some previous women's seasons. Sylvester said she has seven players, including Dupuis and sophomore Kayla Jackson, who put up 16 points and 12 rebounds on Leech Lake. Jackson, who hails from South Ridge High School, nearly averaged a double-double in scoring and rebounding for a 5-20 team a season ago, and to be at it again already this season, Sylvester said is great to see.
Mix that with Dupuis, who is sure-handed at the point, along with Tia Moore, who added 11 points and 18 rebounds last Saturday, and Sylvester is optimistic about her cooperative crew.
"It's exciting to get going again," said Sylvester, who just recently finished the volleyball season. "It's a quick transition, but having these girls in the gym every day makes it easy to come to work.
"They all work well together, care about the team and want to get better," Sylvester continued. "They all really have a lot of heart."
Case in point is Dupuis, who balances basketball with her job at a local convenience store and her studies. After soon earning her Associates of Arts degree, she wants to pursue marine biology someday.
"It keeps me busy," Dupuis said. "But I love playing on the court.
"And I know our team will improve," she continued about the 0-1 Thunder that will also play in this weekend's Mesabi Range Invitational. "We have the potential, as long as we stick to the fundamentals. But we all get along, so we just need to have fun and play basketball."
Basketball wasn't the first sport of choice for Dupuis, however, who wrestled from third until sixth grade, she said. Now a collegiate hoopster, she's happy she made the switch from the mat to the court.
"I'm definitely glad to be a basketball player — I started on our hoop in the gravel," she said. "But I have four brothers and I'm the only girl, so of course I took on wrestling. We would always wrestle."