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College basketball: These Ridgewater guards really are family

The Warriors' duo of DJ Brown and Jaylyn Clardy are cousins from Pensacola, Florida, adjusting to life in west central Minnesota.

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Jaylyn Clardy (left) and DJ Brown are not only players on the Ridgewater men's basketball team but also cousins from Pensacola, Florida. <br/>
Matthew Curry/West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — Since August, the Ridgewater men’s basketball team has viewed each member as a family. But for DJ Brown and Jaylyn Clardy, they’ve been family since the day they were born.

Brown is the Warriors’ starting 6-foot-1 point guard. Clardy is the Warriors’ 6-foot-3 reserve wing.

As cousins growing up in Pensacola, Florida, they have been close ever since their earliest memories. Despite Brown attending Tate High School and Clardy attending Pine Forest High School, the duo played AAU basketball during the summer and were always connected.

“It was crazy,” Brown said. “We were literally together every weekend, playing or something. He was staying at my house one weekend, I’d go to his house one weekend. Play in a game, wake up, go to practice, basketball practice or something. Or we’d be going to a water park or something. We were always together. That’s what it was.”

With their high school careers coming to a close, the question of college, and college basketball, quickly became a primary topic for the duo.

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With the help of their Uncle Bell, despite being more than 20 hours away by car from Pensacola, Ridgewater men’s basketball head coach Nathan Thooft took notice of the two players’ highlight videos and got in contact.

Half of the Warriors’ men’s basketball roster is from Florida.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Brown said. “I didn’t really expect a guy from up north to recruit a lot of people from down south. I mean, it’s really crazy to me but it’s a great experience.”

Thooft described how the program has managed to recruit so many players from places like Florida.

“We just try to build relationships all over the place,” Thooft said. “The world is small now because of the internet and things. So the longer I’ve been here the more coaches that I’ve gotten to know and trust in different places. And you just start to trust those coaches and rely on them sending film and sending what they’ve experienced as far as with the guys on and off the floor.

“It’s as easy as anybody from Minnesota talking to anybody from Florida,” he added. “Now it’s nice to see athletes play in-person. But film has made that easier and just building and trusting relationships with other coaches is a big deal.”

Their family ties are this: Brown’s father is Clardy’s uncle. Clardy’s mother is Brown’s aunt.

When it came to committing to Ridgewater, Clardy went first.

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“We were playing a game together when (Clardy) had told me he had committed,” Brown recalled. “And (Thooft) had been in contact with me. So when he committed first, a couple days later I was like, ‘You committed, Imma go ahead and do it too. I mean, why not? Let's experience that together.’’’

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Ridgewater's Jaylyn Clardy brings the ball up the court on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in Willmar.
Matthew Curry/West Central Tribune

Together, the two arrived in Minnesota in August and then met the Warriors’ basketball team.

With so many players having lived in the same state, it did not take long for the team to build a family type of environment.

“It does definitely help having some real family on the team,” Brown said. “But we are all brothers on the team. We developed that from day one back in August. We all developed that brotherhood, but it’s even better having blood here.”

Weather adjustment

When first arriving in August, the duo were also greeted to Minnesota’s warmer summer weather, the type of weather they were used to.

But Minnesota’s cold has been a different story.

“Every day I go out there, man I ain’t ever really felt no wind chills like that,” Brown said. “That’s pretty heavy wind chills. And I’ve still got to get used to the snow. (The cold and snow) has been here since about the beginning of November and it’s still here. I’m used to that sun.”

Nevertheless, the two have been inseparable since day one.

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Ridgewater point guard DJ Brown fires a 3-pointer over St. Cloud guard Reace Anders on Wednesday at Ridgewater in Willmar. <br/>
Matthew Curry/West Central Tribune

“We live together so it’s like we wake up around the same time together and we stay connected and we always with each other every day,” Clardy said. “When he goes somewhere I’m there and when I go somewhere he's there. It’s just being there for each other, that’s what it really is.” When being away from family, friends, and their home state, most athletes would deal with homesickness.

But for Brown and Clardy, that hasn’t been the case. “I ain’t going to lie, these past few months that I’ve been here, I haven’t caught homesickness once,” Clardy said. “I got family with me and I got my mama calling me almost every day so it ain’t no home sickness. It’s just really being 22-23 hours away from home. But they still here at heart.”

Brown added, “We’ve been experiencing it together and just have each other’s back through it all. We know it’s going to be cold but we know we ain’t gonna be here for too long. We went home for the Christmas break. We’ll go back home for spring break, so we just remember it’s just temporary and stuff like that.”

Both Brown and Clardy are currently focusing on earning their general credits academically.

Big contributors

This season, with Brown as a starter and Clardy as a reserve, the duo have been a strong unit for the Warriors.

The Warriors are 13-4 overall, 4-3 in the Minnesota College Athletics Conference.

The Warriors defeated Minnesota State Community & Technical College 91-89 on Wednesday. Clardy notched his second double-double of the season with 23 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes played.

This is Clardy’s first season of basketball in three years. He is averaging 11.3 points-per-game and 5.7 rebounds-per-game in six games played.

“I feel like I’m playing a little more confidently,” he said. “The first two games I was really just playing off of instincts. But now that I’m getting into a system it really feels a lot better. The confidence is there, not just within me but all my teammates. Everybody got confidence in each other and everybody’s abilities.”

For Brown, the starting guard has played in all 17 games and is averaging 13.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 3.5 assists per game.

In the Warriors’ 103-80 win over Minnesota West on Jan. 19, Brown totaled 29 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.

“We lost a couple players after (Christmas) break so I had to step it up as a point guard and as a leader on the team I really had to step it up and get everyone involved while getting myself involved, stuff like that,” Brown said. “Coach has been telling me, ‘Aye, you got to pick it up. Be a leader. We got a couple players down but that shouldn’t stop us. Keep the chemistry rolling, keep pushing for a championship.’”

Both love their teammates and playing the game of basketball, but they both cherish being on the court together at the same time.

“If we are on the same court together, we just click,” Clardy said. “I find him, he finds me, it’s just repetitive and it’s fun.”

The duo are hoping to bring an NJCAA Division III National Championship to Ridgewater College.

“It feels like we are in a win-or-go-home every game now, already preparing for the tournament,” Clardy said. “We just going out there and you got to play this game as, ‘You lose, you're out of the tournament. You win, you keep going’. And that’s how we feel every game. Coaches tell us that every game. Every game is so important so you got to go out there and give it your all.

It’s just like you got to go out there and put everything you have into it. Leave nothing to question and let the chips fall where they may.”

Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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