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The Alexandria Aces perform for a screaming crowd at the University of Connecticut two seasons ago. Members in the pyramid include (bottom, left to right) Thomas Anderson, Brock Anderson and Zach Harstad. Middle, left to right, is Toby Novotny and Josh Molden and the top performer is Lucas Harstad. (Contributed)

Awesome Aces: Taking the big stage

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Awesome Aces: Taking the big stage
Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
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This is part two of a two-part series on how the Alexandria Aces have turned into one of the best halftime basketball shows of any group in the country. Part one ran in the Wednesday, October 23 issue of the Echo Press

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Alexandria’s Larry Novotny watches over a group of talented kids in the Lakes Area gymnasium on a night in early October with mixed emotions.

On one hand, he marvels at what he sees. On the other, he dreads the decisions he has to make by the end of the night. The 17 kids who tried out for the 2013 version of the Alexandria Aces are all talented. They spin the ball with ease on their finger. Their ball-handling skills are better at 10 years old than some people will ever be.

The problem is there’s only room for 14 kids on the traveling team. Three will have to be told they didn’t make it, but even those three will get an opportunity to practice on their development squad.

“I hate it,” Novotny said of having to deliver the news. “I hate it, and yet, as much as I dislike it, so many times the kids come back the next year really ready to go and improved. They’ve been working hard and those kids turn out to be phenomenal Aces and phenomenal people.”

HEIGHTENED EXPECTATIONS

The bar continues to rise for a program that has become must-see entertainment at halftime shows across the country. The Aces dazzle crowds with tricks that include fan favorites like spinning up to 12 basketballs at once, doing somersaults and cartwheels while spinning a ball and the five-person pyramid with a 5-year-old spinning two balls at the top.

“It’s the best halftime show that I’ve ever seen,” former Aces member Brady Swedberg said. “It was great to be a part of it, but I watch basketball, I go to games and I’ve never seen a better halftime show. Not only is it incredible, but it’s kids. It’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders doing things that adults can’t do. I think that’s why it’s so amazing.”

It takes hours of hard work and dedication from a group of 10, 11 and 12 year olds. The Aces practice twice a week before Christmas and once a week after that until the middle of March. Each practice lasts an hour and a half. On top of that, the coaches encourage them to spend 15 minutes a night at home with a ball in their hands.

“What we do with the kids is try to tap into the part of their brain that hasn’t witnessed failure yet,” Novotny said. “They don’t realize that all these things that are being put out in front of them, all of these amazing tricks, are hard to do, maybe impossible to do to some degree. Their brain hasn’t said that yet.”

From there, they start to believe that anything is possible.

“How do you measure [the importance] of that?” Alexandria’s Larry Thul said after judging the tryouts on October 7. “There isn’t a measurement for that.”

OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME

The kids don’t necessarily realize they are experiencing those life lessons while they are going through the program. That will come later on. What they care about now is the entire experience of getting crowds of 20,000 fans on their feet.

The Aces’ schedule this winter is loaded with stops at big-time college programs. Likely destinations include performances at UCLA, Notre Dame, Illinois and Williams Arena for both the men’s and women’s games against Iowa. The contract hasn’t been signed yet, but a trip to the Staples Center in Los Angeles to perform at a Lakers versus Clippers game on January 10 is also likely. Everything on these trips is bought and paid for by the host teams. Programs will pay for them to travel there before putting them in hotel rooms and paying for their meals. All of that for only a few minutes of entertainment at halftime.

It’s worth it for teams that are looking to provide the best show possible for their fans. For the kids, it’s an experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

“That’s what keeps me going,” Novotny said. “I am so proud of them. I just take a tremendous amount of pride that they have put in the time and believe in themselves enough to get so good where they can go to these venues and get standing ovations.”

“EVERY YEAR I’M AMAZED”

The Aces have learned what tricks the big crowds like and continue to give them what they want, but they also know they can’t get content. They add another trick or two almost every winter that has never been done before.

The coaches also play to the strengths of each kid to let them excel in the tricks they feel most comfortable with. The end result is a show that tends to keep the audience captivated from start to finish.

“Every year I’m amazed and I keep wondering how am I going to get kids who are going to live up to what the kids before them have done,” Novotny said. “I keep wondering, ‘Are teams going to still want us to do halftime shows for them and can we still make it a great experience for these kids?’ Then every year we end up with another great group of kids.”

It’s been that way since the Aces got their start in 1990. With another special season right around the corner, they’re showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

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Eric Morken
Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.
(320) 763-1229
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