HECTOR — Basketball in the backyard has been a staple for the Kottke sisters.
Kaitlyn, Sara, Rachel and Kristi Kottke grew up around basketball thanks to their family. Graduating Buffalo Lake-Hector in 1990, father Kory was a 6-foot-6 post that scored 1,057 points in his career. Their mom, Pam, a 1989 BLH grad, was a statistician for the boys team.
Going back even further, Pam’s dad, Paul Trongard, was an All-212 Conference selection in 1954-55 and ‘55-’56 for Sacred Heart.
Sara and Kaitlyn started their basketball journey with their dad at the house.
“I remember when I was 5 years old and starting in the backyard with my dad and older sister,” Sara said. “Then my younger sisters were born and ever since they’ve been able to shoot, that’s what we’ve done.”
When twin sisters Rachel and Kristi came along, the older duo tended to beat up on the youngsters in two-on-two.
“When the twins were still small enough, me and Sara tended to take it to ‘em and we’d gang up on ‘em,” Kaitlyn said. “Sara would always beat me at one-on-one.”
The Kottke sisters were certainly competitive with each other. But, they’d also plan on what to do when they played with each other.
“I remember in the summer we’d make plays and Sara would say ‘Someday we can use these,’” Rachel said. “She’d joke, ‘We can use these plays when you get older.’”
Now, that’s not far off from real life.
On any given night for the Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart girls basketball team, the quartet of Kottkes are in the huddle. Sara, now a senior, is the star player for the Mustangs. The twins are in eighth grade, with Rachel as the team’s starting point guard and Kristi coming off the bench. On the sidelines is Kaitlyn, who drives an hour to Hector from Minnesota State University in Mankato to serve as a volunteer coach.
“Basketball has brought us closer together,” Sara said. “We have chemistry on the floor and we’re super close outside of it.”
All four are helping to revitalize the BLHS basketball team. The Mustangs made state for the first time in 2010 and went 20-6 and 18-8 in the two years after. But since the 2012-13 season, BLHS has averaged just over five wins a season.
After going 10-16 last year, the Mustangs have already matched that win total with a 10-2 record this winter heading into Friday’s Tomahawk Conference game against Cedar Mountain. They are also 6-1 against Section 2A teams and are the top team in the sub-section, according to QRF rankings.
When she graduates in the spring, Sara will go down as one of the best players to wear Mustang blue.
Averaging 19.3 points and seven rebounds per game this season, Sara is currently third in school history with 1,724 points, behind Leah Ashburn’s 1,798 and Karlee Ilgen’s 1,863. Sara’s also third in career steals (210) while already holding the record for career rebounds (1,247) and assists (287).
When talking about BLHS’ turnaround this winter, second-year head coach Dustin Wright said Sara has meant everything to the Mustangs.
“When I got here, Sara bought in right away and showed up to every open gym and early morning weight room or shooting session. She’s there every time,” Wright said. “When your best player is there, your leader is there, everyone else comes, too. It sets the tone for the entire program. Without Sara’s buy-in and work ethic, we wouldn’t be where we’re at.”
Sara can relate to how Rachel and Kristi can feel about having an older sister on the team. As a seventh-grader, Sara had the chance to play with Kaitlyn.
“That was fun,” Sara said about playing with Kaitlyn. “And I think that kind of motivated my little sisters to want to play with me when they were older. It’s been really fun to see them work hard and get rewarded for all of this. I’m really glad I get to play with them in my last year.”
While Sara has found individual success, wins have been hard to come by for BLHS. So to have the Mustangs on the winning track in Sara’s final year has become a point of pride for the twins.
“She loves being able to be 10-2 instead of 2-10,” Rachel said. “She loves the team because we’re really connected.
Kristi added, “It’s just nice for her to have a good record in her last year.”
Next year, Sara will be playing basketball at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. She’ll be five minutes away from Kaitlyn and an hour away from home.
“I’ve made good relationships with Lyle (Jones, the head coach) and Emma (Purfeerst, an assistant coach) there,” Sara said. “The team is super nice and I like their style of play.”
“But,” Sara added, “I’ve always been close to this community and I wanted to make sure I can keep supporting them and they can keep supporting me. I think that was the deciding factor.”
A 2017 grad at BLHS, Kaitlyn was at home last year while taking a semester off of school. Sara was getting ready for the basketball season when a new opportunity opened up for the oldest Kottke sister.
“I was in (the gym) with Sara just playing with her and working with her,” Kaitlyn said. “And Coach asked if I would be interested in helping out and volunteering when I could.”
She thought it would be a one-year gig. But in her time on the bench, she developed a rapport with the team and wanted to find a way to juggle life as a student and coach.
“I wasn’t ready to be done yet,” Kaitlyn said. “I just decided if I can fit it into my schedule, why not come back and continue to watch these girls continue to succeed and watch them be good people, too?”
Coming back for this season and knowing her three sisters would be on the squad, Kaitlyn wanted to clear the air a bit.
“I said to them, I know it’s hard because first of all, I’m always your sister,” Kaitlyn said, “but now you have to remember I’m taking a different role in your life as a coach. But they’re awesome about it and treat me as well as the other two coaches. It’s another bond to add to the sister bond.”
Kaitlyn tries to treat all the girls on the team equally and said she lets Wright handle her sisters most of the time “just so they don’t feel it’s coming from a place where I’m pushing them because I’m their sister.”
But, having some tough love from an older sister is what they need.
“Since she’s our sister, she tells us everything,” Rachel said. “I think it’s easier to talk to her and ask her the questions because she won’t be afraid to be honest.”
Beyond the varsity squad, Kaitlyn also helps out with the elementary program.
“They’re a super tight-knit family. They all love the game of basketball,” Wright said. “Kaitlyn loves to be around the game. She’s very involved in our elementary program. Their dad helps coach the elementary program and their uncle Kyle helps, too.”
Wright continued, “Kaitlyn is a very smart coach and if she wants to be, someday she’ll be a great head coach. It’s great having her along with us.”
From a young age, Rachel and Kristi were Kaitlyn and Sara’s No. 1 fans.
“We wanted to fill their water bottles and sit behind the bench,” Rachel said. “That’s when we were inspired by basketball. We’ve watched them since they started.”
“It’s a small school and they’re the leaders of the team,” Kristi said. “You want to do that when you get (to varsity). It makes you want to work hard.”
As the team’s starting point guard, Rachel averages 9.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game, hitting 47 percent of her field goals and 39 percent of her 3-pointers. Off the bench, Kristi averages 6.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.2 steals while serving as a 3-point shooter.
“I told Rachel that (point guard) is a special role and it takes a special person and she’s really grown throughout the course of the season in terms of her leadership,” Sara said. “Kristi is a sharpshooter and I’m glad she’s shown a lot of confidence for us. She’s amazing on the defensive end so she brings the energy up for us as well.
“They’re amazing people and they get along with everyone.”
On average, Wright says the three sisters play about 20-to-25 minutes together per game. The Kottke chemistry on the court has helped BLHS become one of the highest scoring teams in Class A at 71.0 points per game. The team around the Kottkes has thrived as well. Along with Sara, sophomore Maddy Wulkan (13.3) and ninth-grader Allison Milbrandt (12.2) are averaging double-digit points.
“It raises everybody's game,” Wright said. “Sara doesn’t want the twins to outplay her and the twins want to be as good as their older sister. The twins want to be better than each other but at the same time, they all support and encourage each other and are happy for the success of everybody on the team.”
Knowing her sisters are there to keep the Mustangs’ outlook on the uptick is encouraging for Sara, who is the only senior on the roster.
“I’m really excited to see how they grow next year and throughout the years,” Sara said. “I think they’ll do really well.”
“Everybody knows about the twins, but then you look at a Maddy Wulkan, an Allison Dornseif (sophomore), a Lily Dean (freshman) or an Allison Milbrandt, we have a lot of talented kids that put in time,” Wright said. “If we continue putting in the time and doing the right things from top to bottom, we can be consistent. The goal of our program is not to be the once-every-10-years-team that’s good. We want to be consistent year in and year out.”
Even after the twins graduate, there will be more Kottkes down the line with five cousins, all girls, currently going through elementary school. Another cousin, Collin, is at the games as the team’s public address announcer.
But in the present, the Kottke sisters have shared their success together from the backyard all the way to the varsity court.
“It’s been a long time coming and it hasn’t been easy,” Sara said. “Ever since my seventh-grade year, I’ve just been ready to help turn this program around. … I’m really happy this is my last hurrah and we’re doing as well as we are. But we couldn’t have done it without the hard work we’ve put in and the relationships (the team) has built. I’m excited but we’re not done yet and I’m excited about what’s to come.”