Grace Kirk was working out with the Broman brothers, Anders and Bjorn, at the Encounter Youth Center in the summer of 2016 in what turned out to be one of the greatest collections of local basketball talent ever assembled in Duluth.
Kirk had known about Gianna Kneepkens and had played against her, but that’s not what broke the proverbial ice.
“We just didn’t really click but then our parents did and then that was it,” Kirk said. “My dad initiated it and then we went to Marshall the next week.”
Two families of hoop heads, united.
Kirk enrolled at Duluth Marshall before her freshman season, forming a dynamic duo with Kneepkens. The rest is Twin Ports hoops history.
Now a senior, Kirk is a standout point guard for the Hilltoppers (14-3), and Kneepkens, a junior guard/forward, is one of the state’s leading scorers at 30.8 points per game.
Kirk is averaging 20.4 points, 7.4 assists and 3.8 steals per game as she has worked on being more of a distributor as she preps for her college career at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
“I’ve always prided myself on defense, but this year I’ve really taken in assists. I’ve had to accept my role,” Kirk said. “I’d rather have the assist than the bucket, and if you just look at my numbers, I think it would reflect that. I’m aware of what my role will be next year at Brown. They don’t need me to score 20. They need me to get everybody involved and play defense, so that’s what I’m working on.”
And few people work as hard as Kirk, from showing up at school at 6:15 a.m. to shoot hoops to staying late every night to lift weights. She’s the consummate teammate, captain and, to Kneepkens, best friend.
While their parents initially hit it off, the girls weren’t far behind. Now, they’re nearly inseparable, from spending time on the court to playing arcade games at Adventure Zone in Canal Park. They’re also competitive in everything they do. Kirk was still smarting about having to do crunches after her team lost to Kneepkens’ team in a 3-on-3 scrimmage last week.
“That bugs me. I hate losing,” Kirk said.
Kneepkens, meanwhile, recently passed Duluth East’s Marisa Yernatich as the city's all-time leading girls basketball scorer. Kneepkens was asked how many of those baskets came on the receiving end of yet another Kirk laser or bounce pass.
“A lot,” Kneepkens said, laughing. “She’s a great teammate. She’s super energetic and gets the whole team going. She works just as hard at basketball as she does in the classroom, and off the court, she’s so much fun.”
Marshall would like to challenge the likes of Proctor for the Section 7AA title, but they need to get healthy. With only about seven or eight true varsity players, about the only thing holding back the Hilltoppers is depth, or lack thereof.
Junior guard Merlea Mrozik, who along with Kirk and Kneepkens is a Hilltoppers’ captain, has been out with a concussion, while sophomore forward Dasia Starks, the younger sister of former East standout Dyami Starks, was dealing with the flu.
“When those two get back we’ll be a lot better,” coach C.J. Osuchukwu said.
Osuchukwu is intense and passionate. He is a demanding, tough-love coach who expects a lot of his players. He is probably harder on Kirk, his point guard, than anybody else. But then, after a game, it’s back to normal.
“I’m on the girls a lot, especially the girls who want to play college basketball. I try to get them prepared for the next level,” Osuchukwu said. “I push them, I definitely push them, but Grace responds great. There is nothing soft about her. You can tell it to her straight. Most of my girls are mentally tough, but you have to build that relationship to earn their trust, so you can push them without them trying to push back. Grace is the perfect example of that.”
Kirk laughed when asked about this. She said it motivates her to “shut him up.”
“Sometimes he’ll come out of timeout and be like, ‘I don’t really have anything to say,’” Kirk said.
And that’s when you know you’re doing good.
To Osuchukwu’s credit, Kirk calls him the best coach she has ever had.
Osuchukwu said it was Kirk’s defense that first attracted the attention of NCAA Division I scouts. He calls her “Patrick Beverley” in reference to the Los Angeles Clippers point guard who is known as a defensive stopper.
“She’s a hound,” Osuchukwu said.
Meanwhile, on offense, the 5-foot-5 Kirk is fearless in the way she slashes to the basket. She has good vision and continues to work on 3-pointers, hoping to create her own shot rather than just catch and shoot.
While Marshall is widely regarded as a two-person team, Kirk disagrees.
“We can make it to state,” she said. “I firmly believe that the only people who can beat us our ourselves. Mentally, physically, we’ve got to take care of ourselves. It’s all on us.”
And if Marshall can do that, make it to the state tournament for only the second time in school history, and first since 2000, it would be the culmination of that fateful summer day in 2016 when two sets of basketball parents, Aaron and Amy Kirk and Don and Betsy Kneepkens, met.
When asked what she and Kneepkens have in common, Kirk said “everything,” and it starts with their parents.
“We share a love of basketball, love of competition, love of school, everything. I think both our parents will go to the extreme for their daughters,” Kirk said. “Me and Gianna, man, we really, really have a bond. That is my best friend.”
PREP NEWSMAKER: GRACE KIRK
Prep status: Duluth Marshall senior point guard
School activities: Black Student Union president, National Honor Society, Equity and Inclusion Council
Family: father, Aaron; mother, Amy; sister Ruby, 5
Pets: Miniature Schnauzer, Rocco Obama
College plans: Going to Brown University in Providence, R.I., to study English and play basketball; wants to be a human rights lawyer
FACE-TO-FACE WITH GRACE KIRK
If I could meet one person — dead or alive — who would it be? Nat Turner (African-American preacher who led a four-day slave revolt in Virginia in August 1831)
One thing people don’t know about me: I love to read; I will spend the whole summer. I think I read about six books that weren’t required for school, just reading.
Favorite author: Ta-Nehisi Coates, former national correspondent for “The Atlantic”
Favorite book: “A Girl Named Disaster” by Nancy Farmer
My ideal vacation: Ghana, Africa, I want to see the Gold Coast
The toughest athlete I’ve competed against: Gianna Kneepkens
If I had a million dollars, I would: give back to my school, including renovations to our scoreboard. I always tell people I’ve fallen in love with Marshall, especially the teachers. They care about me and develop relationships, and that just makes me want to give back to Marshall.
Everybody knows everybody, and I like that
Hobbies: weightlifting, listening to music, taking my sister on walks (it’s like watching myself grow up)
Car I drive: 2009 Ford Taurus
Favorite home-cooked meal: mom’s lasagna
Favorite quote: “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.” Isaiah 54:17
One thing at the top of my bucket list: a trip to New Orleans
Favorite musician: J. Cole
Game-day superstition: I wear the color sock of my opponent. They need a little more support because they have to play us that night (she laughed).
Last website I visited: prephoops.com (where she has read up on her teammate, Kneepkens)
Social media of choice: Twitter, it cracks me up
Favorite celebrity: filmmaker Ava DuVernay
Favorite team: Minnesota Vikings
Dream job: work for the American Civil Liberties Union as a lawyer
Three people I’d want in a golf foursome: Kneepkens, my dad and my English teacher Karen Stiles
Actress who’d play me in a movie: the girl who played Rue (Amandla Stenberg) in “The Hunger Games,” because everyone tells me I look like her