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Howie Hanson: Rickert honing skills in Europe

The Minnesota Timberwolves' 2003 second-round draft pick had hoped to be playing in the National Basketball Association this season -- even if it meant sitting on the bench to cut his teeth in the world's best professional league.

The Minnesota Timberwolves' 2003 second-round draft pick had hoped to be playing in the National Basketball Association this season -- even if it meant sitting on the bench to cut his teeth in the world's best professional league.

But the Wolves encouraged Rickert to further develop his game in Europe. He eventually signed with Krka in Nova Mesto, Slovenia, where he has spent the entire 2003-04 season.

Competing in Europe's top two professional leagues -- the Euro League and Adriatic League -- Rickert has averaged close to 11 points and five rebounds a game. Krka has completed play in both leagues and will begin Slovenian League play later this month.

Instead of sulking, Rickert, 21, has worked hard this season to improve the weakest parts of his game -- defense and rebounding. He hopes to earn a roster spot with either the Wolves or another NBA team for next season.

"That's Rick's goal -- to gain a roster spot with the Wolves," said his father Lew Rickert. "He needs to be a stopper to play in the NBA. If he doesn't make it next fall with the Wolves, he will likely ask for his release and look to catch on with another team in the league."

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Depending how Krka does in the Slovenian post-season tournament, Rickert is scheduled to return to Minnesota in late April or early May.

But he won't hang around long in Duluth.

The 6-foot-11, 225-pound forward is scheduled to immediately begin daily workouts at the Wolves' training center in Minneapolis. He likely will play on the Wolves' summer team. On June 26, he will marry Minneapolis native and former Gophers tennis player Cici Anderson in Minneapolis.

Then, if it all goes as planned, it's on to the Wolves' training camp in the fall.

The Rickert family traveled to Slovenia during the holidays and watched him play in one game and attended a few workouts.

"It's a different game in Europe, where it's difficult for Americans to make it in the Euro League where the coaches and players have solidarity," Lew Rickert said. "Certainly the referees don't give the American players any favors.

"But it's been a good experience for Rick. He's learned a lot and has become stronger. He's been playing center, guarding the opponent's biggest and toughest players -- and that's what he's needed. He's not getting the ball a lot. The team works out twice a day, so it's been difficult for him to gain weight. But he's in peak physical condition. Right now he's burning metabolism like crazy practicing twice-a-day. His best ball is ahead of him."

Lew, always candid about his son's game, said the 'Wolves biggest question about Rick is "does he have the strength to play the four (power forward) in the NBA? Or is he a big three (small forward)? Rick's future body maturity will enhance his chances (in the NBA)."

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Between the Lines

Duluth East softball coach Stan Karich is impressed with the Denfeld program. The Hunters should be even stronger with Dick Swanson returning to coach the team, he said.

"Swanny is the dean of area coaches, and he has a good group of kids. Add it up," Karich said.

Karich is a master at deflecting attention away from his team, and for putting the pressure on opponents by building them up. The fact is, with catcher Fiona Lodge and pitcher Brittany Nelson returning for their senior seasons, and a strong cast of supporting players ready to step up as varsity players, Duluth East once again is the team to beat in the area.

Cloquet, Hermantown and Proctor will also have strong teams. Denfeld, Cloquet and East will compete in Section 7AAA, while Hermantown and Proctor should slug it out in 7AA.

Two of the best players in the area are Julie Birman of Denfeld, a hard-throwing pitcher, and third baseman Anna Bjorlin of Hermantown. Both are top college division recruits.

Duluth East, which advanced to the Section 7AAA finals last year before losing to Elk River 1-0 in extra innings, has yet to qualify for state in Karich's first seven seasons as coach. Last year's team almost knocked the door down.

"We had everything going for us last year -- great pitching, strong defense and outstanding senior leadership," said Karich. "We were the best hitting team in northern Minnesota, but our bats went dead the last four to five games of the season. So, yes, not making state last year was a disappointment."

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The road to state in softball is difficult.

"We have 16 teams in our section and you have to beat the top team not only once but twice to get to state," said Karich. "We have to win a qualifying game to reach the final eight in our section, and then it's double-elimination."

The Minnesota state softball tournament, for all classes, will be held June 11-12 at Caswell Park in North Mankato. Duluth East, Denfeld, Proctor and Hermantown all have an excellent shot at qualifying.

  • High school softball practices are underway, and teams will begin their season in early April. Nearly 100 players tried out at East.

"The talent of the players will determine how big a group we keep in the varsity and junior varsity program," Karich said. "We've had years when we've kept 30 to 32 players, and other years with only 24. We'll see."

  • Rebecca McCall is the Greyhounds' new volunteer assistant softball coach.
  • Four-foot, collapsible temporary fences will be used at four Wade-Wheeler softball fields this spring, and set at 200 feet from home plate. The Lake Superior Fastpitch League, Duluth Softball Players Association and Duluth Public Schools purchased the fencing.

"They're the white, real nice fences, not the cheap plastic stuff," said Karich. "Esko had similar ones a few years ago, and they've improved the product quite a bit since."

  • The Bowling Challenge is Sunday at Country Lanes North. A field of 64 men, 16 women, eight boys and eight girls will compete in the one-day, match-play event. The semifinal round will begin at 3 p.m.

Howie Hanson writes a regular sports column for Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached by e-mail at Duluth@aol.com .

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