Riverland Resurgence: Blue Devil men’s and women’s basketball teams are shining this winter

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, January 26, 2022

It’s a Wednesday night and Riverland Gym is packed. Fans are screaming, threes are dropping and dunks are dazzling as the Blue Devil women and men score convincing wins over St. Cloud Tech.

That sight has been a familiar sight recently as basketball is back in a big way at Riverland Community College this winter.

With a No. 6 ranking in the national Division III NJCAA polls, the Blue Devil men’s team is enjoying one of their best seasons in program history and the Blue Devil women have surged their way back into relevancy after nearly disappearing a few years ago.

Blue Devil guard Jamari Magee said that the key to the success of the men’s program has been the depth and he’s also glad to see both RCC basketball teams on top this winter.

“It’s a blessing, especially with the rate that we’re winning. The girls are coming along too and it’s great,” Magee said. “We’ve got to work hard and push ourselves, we’ve got a lot of guys that are talented on our team. Playing time can be hard to earn.”

Counting this year’s team, the RCC men have now been at least 10 games above .500 for the last six seasons. Head coach Derek Hahn, a former Blue Devil himself, has kept the Blue Devils competitive with a no nonsense approach that demands the best of his team. He has also increased the quality of recruits that the Blue Devils have brought in over the past few years.

“The past players are what built this. We used to not have as talented a roster and it took everything to win,” Hahn said. “JUCO basketball in the state of Minnesota is a hidden gem. People that don’t go and watch it don’t understand how talented these players are. A lot of them are turning themselves into scholarship players.”

It’s been a long climb uphill for the Blue Devil women as the team won just eight games in the last two seasons and RCC didn’t have a team in the 2018-2019 season. 

The last time RCC had a winning record was in 2013. In that season, current Blue Devil guard Elyse Hebrink was just a youngster, who would sit on the bench with the team as her mother Suzy Hebrink coached the Blue Devils.

“My family has been here for awhile,” Elyse said. “I think the attitude and motivation has changed since last year. We’re a lot more disciplined and the girls are here to win and play basketball.”

The women’s team has turned it around behind the coaching of Austin grad Andrew Kaiser. Assistant coach Anna Meyer, an Austin grad who also played for the Blue Devils and is the older sister of Elyse, has helped out this season as well.

This is Kaiser’s third season as head coach.

“It’s been a long process. I came in during my first year thinking I was going to take the world by fire and that didn’t happen. It was stressful and we tried to get a better recruiting class for my second season and then COVID hit and we played three different teams all year,” Kaiser said. “This year, we have depth and that helps a lot.”

Kaiser said the biggest key to turning things around has been to get players in the gym. There was a time when the Blue Devils struggled to get six players on the team, but now they have a full roster with players who are all capable of producing.

The days of walking around the hallways of campus and begging girls to try out for the team are long gone as Kaiser has amped up the team’s recruitment.

“After Suzy left, the team went very downhill very quick and there was a social stigma where players didn’t want to come here, but now we’re breaking that and we’re getting kids,” Kaiser said. “Whether they’re from across the country, or local, we just want talent and that’s what gets you winning.”

Cayli Miles came all the way from Grand Canyon, Arizona to play for RCC, and she has seen the program grow in the two years she has been in town.

“Coach Kaiser contacted me and I just wanted to go out of state and try something new so I came here,” Mile said. “Last year, our team chemistry was bad, but this year it’s gotten a lot better.”

The women’s team played in the Region championship last season in the COVID-19 shortened season. The men’s team didn’t have a postseason last year due to COVID-19, but the team has played in the Region championship in the past.

Hahn is hoping this year’s team can make some big things happen if it continues to push.

“We always need to keep our foot on the gas pedal and try and get better,” Hahn said. “If you don’t take advantage of it every day in practice, the weight room and the film room, you’re going to get caught by someone else. The finish is always the most important thing. The goal is to be the best team in March.”