What a small world we live in.
Sarah Northway Maria, a 1993 Brainerd High School graduate, was the first Minnesotan to play women's basketball for legendary college coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut.
Last month, it was announced that Paige Bueckers of Hopkins High School will become the second Minnesotan to play for Auriemma and the highly successful UConn Huskies program, which has won 11 NCAA National Championships.
And both Northway Maria and Bueckers have connections to the Brainerd area.
Bueckers mom, Amy Dettbarn, was two grades behind Northway Maria at Brainerd High School and she watched Northway Maria's younger siblings, Maja and Riant, while the parents were traveling around the country attending some of Northway Maria's college basketball games. Maja and Paige's aunt, Beth Dettbarn, have also remained close friends since their school days.
"I guess it's a small world as all of the paths in my basketball career have come together recently," Northway Maria said in a recent phone interview from her home in Arlington, Va. "I knew the Dettbarns growing up and I was excited to hear Paige had committed (to UConn). We recently lived in Minnetonka for a couple years and I would see (Bueckers) play since Hopkins was near us. When I ran into Paige and Amy a few times (at AAU basketball games), and I would put in a plug for Paige (to attend UConn)."
Bueckers, one of the top prospects in the nation, recently helped the Royals win the Class 4A state title as a junior. She will be following Northway as a UConn player for the 2020-21 season.
Northway Maria was excited when she first heard the news last month that Bueckers would be playing at her alma mata. But the news quickly became confusing.
A blog, published by Jim Paulsen on the StarTribune website, noted that Buckers was the first Minnesotan to play for Auriemma at UConn. That was not accurate as Northway Maria also played for the Huskies as a junior and senior after being a redshirt transfer her sophomore year.
"I started getting text messages from people in the Twin Cities," Northway Maria said about the mistake in the blog. "My initial reaction was that I must be pretty old if the reporter didn't know about me? I did later talk with (Paulsen) and he felt bad."
The good thing that did come out of the mixup was a chance for Northway Maria to reminisce with old friends about the experience from the early 1990s.
"I'm excited for Paige," Northway Maria said. "I know that basketball played such a pivotal role in my life."
Growing up in Brainerd, Northway's basketball career almost came to an early end because of sore knees from a growth spurt.
"I was tall (5-foot-10) as an eighth grader, but my knees started to hurt," she said. "I was considering not playing basketball anymore, but (former Brainerd coach) Jim Gogolin walked up to me when I saw him at the high school one day and said 'what's this I hear about you quitting?' He said it wasn't an option. Thankfully, I didn't quit."
The next season, Northway Maria was among a group of talented freshman who were promoted to the varsity on Gogolin's squad. The team steadily improved and advanced to the state tournament during Northway Maria's junior and senior seasons when Brainerd earned a top-ranking in its class during each season. She still ranks in the top 10 for Warrior basketball scoring with 1,128 career points and is an inductee to the BHS Athletic Hall of Fame.
Besides playing for the Warriors, Northway Maria also gained valuable experience and "exposure to bigger Division I colleges" while playing for an AAU club in Minneapolis.
Northway Maria was recruited by Auriemma, who came to her family's home in Nisswa for a recruiting visit, but she selected the University of Arizona. She transferred to UConn during her second season, and was a red-shirt member of the Huskies' first NCAA championship team, which finished the 1994-95 season 35-0 after defeating Tennessee in the title game at Target Center in Minneapolis.
"(The Final Four) was one of my greatest sporting moments ever," Northway Maria said in the StarTribune story. "My parents and my high school teammates were there."
During her junior and senior seasons, Northway Maria came off the bench as a backup for Nykesha Sales, one of the top players in UConn history and a former WNBA All-Star.
"We made the Final Four my junior year and Elite Eight my senior year," she said.
Northway Maria, along with her husband and four children continue to be involved with basketball in Virginia and remain in touch with basketball friends back in Minnesota.
"We usually come back to Brainerd every summer to see our family," she said. "But I stay in touch with everyone back in Minnesota, including some of my old teammates like Shelly Breen.
"Our family is still involved with basketball. My oldest daughter, Grace, really got me back into the basketball world since I coached her all the way up (through the youth levels) and our other three children also play."