It was NCAA signing day in the world of college basketball. Perennial powerhouse programs restocked their rosters with blue-chip players for next school year, and the media savored every minute of it. Recruiting classes were ranked by pundits, coaches gushed over their “diaper dandies,” and there was even a live decision-making cable special that would make LeBron James proud.
Yet here locally, the day went by calmly and quietly. No major decisions were made, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ones being pondered. Just ask Duluth East players Johnny Woodard and Taylor Stafford.
“I think about it often,” admitted Stafford. “Especially during my free time. I’ll be doing something, and then stop and think — where do I want to go to college?”The Greyhound athletic program, widely-known for hockey supremacy and cranking out Division I skaters, is suddenly developing a steady stream of hoops hysteria as well. Rick Rickert started it with his Arizona and eventually Minnesota decision after the 2001 East season. Five years later it was Cory Johnson deciding that Iowa State would be the start of his collegiate career, and it concluded at Valparaiso. Just a couple of years ago Dyami Starks entered NCAA play at Columbia in the Ivy League, and will now begin play at Bryant University in Rhode Island. Now the time has come for Woodard and Stafford to be in the spotlight, although they don’t really need the fanfare.
“I need to have all my options in front of me, and not necessarily take the first offer. I want to wait until I’m ready,” said Stafford, who went from a relatively unknown point guard in his early years, to a high-flying floor general on back-to-back state tournament teams.
Stafford’s amazing quickness and solid jump-shot has created attention from many levels. Scholarships have been offered by Shaw University (North Carolina) and University of Mary (North Dakota) at the Division II level, and Hampton (Virginia) has jumped in at Division I. While Hampton has the best basketball reputation of the bunch, there’s more to the decision.
“My goal is to graduate and get a degree. I’m not sure on a major yet, but my education is a big factor,” Stafford explained. He added that he can see himself playing some basketball overseas after college, but emphasized the importance of using a degree after that.
Stafford joined an exclusive list this season when he surpassed the 1,000 point mark in his career — but now he hopes to start an exclusive list of a different kind.
“I’m going to be the first in my family to go to college, which makes this decision even more important. We’ll see how everything plays out, and I should know by June or July where I’ll be headed,” he said.
The road to this point has been much different for Woodard, as he immediately displayed remarkable athleticism in a four-year varsity career. The 6’4″ forward has an incredible leaping ability, exceptional hands, deceptive quickness, and good strength. All of those traits produced college attention very early.
“I got my first scholarship offer in 9th grade when talking to UW-Milwaukee,” said Woodard. He has since kept a huge box full of hundreds of letters from various schools across the country.
Woodard reached the 2,000 point mark during his senior season despite not appearing on the court until January. He missed nine games due to a shoulder injury he sustained this past summer. Woodard’s return to the lineup energized the Greyhounds as they went 18-2 in their final 20 games. His game didn’t miss a beat, and neither did the attention from Division I schools. St. Louis, Minnesota, and Tennessee were among Woodard’s suitors, but for now, it will be junior college that wins out.
“These first two years in junior college will help me in a lot of ways,” insisted Woodard. “I can get my education going, and also develop my game a lot. That way when I get to D-I, I can arrive with a bang. I’ve talked to some guys that have gone the junior college route first, and they said it was great for them that way.”
Just what junior college will get Woodard’s services is not yet decided. There has been some interest from schools in Iowa, and most notably in Texas with Midland and also San Jacinto in the Houston area. Woodard has kept an open mind about every location.
“I have no idea yet, I’m not leaning any direction, and I haven’t really told anybody anything,” smiled Woodard.
San Jacinto has a Duluth connection with their former head coach being Scott Gernander, a Denfeld graduate who was also inducted into the UMD Hall of Fame for achievements in basketball and football from 1965-1969. Gernander stepped down before this past season, and his son remains an assistant. The program also helped produce NBA talent in former players Steve Francis and Sam Cassell. That’s a distinction Woodard would also like, no matter where he goes.
“I’d like to get to the NBA in any way I can. I’d like to just play professionally, but the NBA is the ultimate goal. Some day I’ll go into business somehow — but hopefully after the NBA.”
Goals like that take time. Yet so do the decisions on how to get there.