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Privilege & Passion to Play
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Privilege & Passion to Play

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By Merrie Sue Holtan, Photography by Thru Him Photography

Bounce…bounce…bounce. In the gym. In the driveway. In the house. Dribble drive shoot. Over and over again.

“Practice makes perfect” doesn’t even begin to describe five-foot-nine-inch tall Shanley High School senior, Sarah Jacobson, who is captain of her basketball, volleyball and soccer teams.

An avid reader of sports psychology and motivational books, Sarah’s personal graffiti wall could be peppered with words like: Attitude, Action, Persistence. Sweat the small stuff and the big stuff. Go the extra mile and never give up.

As a tough- minded point guard for the Shanley High School Deacons, Sarah helped her team win two Class A North Dakota Girls State Championships her sophomore and junior years during which she received all-tournament honors as well as the most valuable player of the tournaments. Sarah averaged 22 points, 6.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game last season. She was a Gatorade high school player as a sophomore and a three-time All-State selection. Winning the state championship in North Dakota state volleyball last year, the Deacons placed second this year with Sarah playing libero.

This season, Sarah has led Shanley to a 47 game winning streak, blowing some opponents out by 50 points. She is on her way to breaking the unofficial Class A scoring record of 2,120. Next year, she has committed to play for Coach Maren Walseth and the NDSU Bison, where she also hopes to major in pre-medicine.

Besides leadership and athleticism, Sarah has a 4.05 grade point average, and it bothers her “’just a little” that she is only second in her class.

Discipline and competition
start at home
Sarah’s competitive nature began as a little kid in her grandfather Jim Smykowski’s Cayuga, N.D., home, while playing whist with her family.
“It was so intense and loud,” remembers Sarah. “All of us hated to lose including my grandpa. We couldn’t stand it.”

One of the card players and Sarah’s mom, Pat (Smykowski) Jacobson, was North Dakota’s first Miss Basketball and also played for the Bison. She was an All-Conference and All American player for three years. She played in four NCAA playoffs and was named one of North Dakota’s Top 50 athletes of the century by Sports Illustrated.

Sarah’s brother, Anthony (AJ), a former Shanley standout, now plays basketball at NDSU, and as a redshirt freshman played significant minutes for the team which made the NCAA tournament. Dad, David, a family practice physician at the VA Hospital, is quieter, according to Sarah. “But my mom tells me I got my brains from him,” she says. Of AJ, she says, “My brother and I always have each other’s backs. He’s been a huge help to me and a role model, not only in teaching technique but in behavior and how he presents himself with confidence.”

“We have always stressed a humble confidence and drive with our kids to do the best in all they do, socially, athletically, academically and spiritually,” says Pat, who teaches at Ben Franklin Middle School in Fargo. “We tell them not to be outworked and make the most of every opportunity and challenge. We have been blessed with goal-oriented and driven student athletes who understand their talent as a gift from God and their gift back to Him is to make the most of it.”

Pat has also watched heated battles of one-on-one and shooting contests over the years between Sarah and AJ. The siblings point out each other’s weaknesses which Pat believes is good for growth. The family spent earlier summers at the lake where the kids learned to wake board and water ski by age four. Of course, they also spent countless hours on the 30×30 basketball court.

“I remember those one-on-one games and Sarah usually ended up being upset but she never gave up and never stopped challenging me,” AJ says. “I believe her ability to make her teammates better is her best basketball attribute. She is not the basketball player she is today because of luck. It’s the time and effort she has put in.”

Up through the system
Sarah came up through the Fargo Catholic Schools system first playing at Holy Spirit Elementary School, then Sullivan Middle School and finally Shanley. Prior to that, Sarah barely remembers being without a ball in her hands. In first grade, she became a Bison Buddy and then joined an elementary “Squirts” traveling basketball team.

“I remember always playing up a level,” Sarah says. “I often played with the guys and had to have a uniform like my brothers. My family helped to balance me because in the early days, I might get mad at my team. My mom was there for me to teach me about consequences and about what was appropriate and to reinforce that playing was an opportunity and a privilege.”

Sarah points out that the Shanley team works well together and Coach Tim Jacobson (not related) challenges her, pushes her, gives pointers from film and knows when to help her.

“He can read the moment and takes energy from the team” she says.

In the summers as Sarah got older, she traveled with AAU teams from the Twin Cities such as Northern Lites, North Tartan and Minnesota Fury as well as North Dakota Pro. She does her strength and conditioning programs with Shanley or on her own with her mom helping create her workout program.

“I believe I have some God-given abilities,” Sarah says. “I have been blessed with good cardiovascular endurance. I don’t get out of breath. Long distance running in junior high was easy for me, and I don’t mind the running in soccer.”

The next wave of Bison
In the fall, Sarah will switch from the red and white Shanley jersey to the green and gold of Bison athletics and Coach Maren Walseth. Sarah, with no pressure from her family, says she thought long and hard and wanted to go away to school. She had recruitment calls from several Ivy League schools, the US Military Academy at West Point, and Division I opportunities.

“I really liked Illinois State,” she says. “But thinking about AJ and my mom playing for the Bison and having my family there to watch me, it became clear to me to make the home town decision.”

Coach Walseth, who played basketball for Penn State, has seen Sarah play in a variety of recruitment settings, for both AAU and Shanley. Overall she loves Sarah’s competitive and leadership demeanor, her vision of the floor and the game and her ability to work hard and not avoid challenge. She believes it will be fun to watch Sarah adapt and learn to play freely, up tempo and show what she can do. She wants Sarah to relax and have fun with the game.

“I like how Sarah controls the game,” Walseth says. “She is a natural floor general. She has a great left hand but will have to learn to pass in a smaller area. There will be challenges to the college transition, but she is confident, smart and more mature than her age.”

Michael Breker, Shanley’s activity director, sums up Sarah Jacobson as a student athlete.

“She is running and lifting on her own time every day after school,” he says. “On the playing floor she is diving, scrambling, running and attacking. In the classroom she has all A’s. There is no doubt in my mind Sara will be successful in whatever road she takes.” FMSV