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Young Aces keep putting on a show

Alexandria Aces members (left to right) Greta Oldenkamp, Karver Larson, Sampson Hagstrom and Sam Anderson (partially hidden) perform the team's finale at Alexandria Area High School on Feb. 11. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Aces team member Mack Heydt spins a ball on his finger during the team's performance at Alexandria Area High School on Feb. 11. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

The Alexandria Aces performances basketball team is a young group this year, but they are coming into their own as the team gets set to perform at some big-time venues across the college and possibly the professional basketball landscape.

The Aces, in their 28th season, performed in front of a home crowd in Alexandria on Feb. 11 as those at AAHS got see many newcomers to the program. Eleven of the 15 team members are first-year Aces, which caused longtime coach Larry Novotny to lighten the performance load a little bit for this particular group as they continue to progress.

"I didn't feel we'd be ready to hit the major venues until later in the year," Novotny said. "We still have the same number of kids on the team, and they are ages fourth through sixth grade and include both boys and girls. We had to replace 11 sixth graders after last season, which was by far the most ever, so 11 new kids made the team this year, the majority of them being fourth graders."

It's often hard for fourth graders to make the team at such a young age, but more openings this season meant more opportunities for those youngsters.

The Aces did not perform at any major venues until recently as a result of their youth.

"We needed much more practice time to get ready," Novotny said. "When teams are paying us hundreds to thousands of dollars for six minutes of entertainment, we want to be able to put on a world-class show and justify their confidence in us."

The Aces have five members who haven't turned 10 years old yet. Their routine is not technically as difficult as years past, but having so many young kids performing has also made them a popular show because of their youth.

"This group of Aces has exceeded all of my expectations so far," Novotny said. "They have worked very hard on their ball-handling skills and have set their goals high and, as a result, are doing some pretty incredible things. We performed at the Timberwolves game (Feb. 8), and we had multiple people tell us it was the best show they'd ever seen. In actuality, the show wasn't performed better than previously, but because the kids are so young and small, the reaction from the crowd is as good, if not better, than it's ever been."

Novotny says the group is taking off through practice, and it's starting to show in the kinds of venues they will be at during the second half of the season. The Aces have games at Augustana and North Dakota State University, followed by performances between Georgia Tech at Notre Dame and Purdue at Northwestern. Novotny says the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have also expressed interest in having them come during the NBA playoffs.

"That's definitely not a done deal, but it's a possibility," he said. "We've done three Clippers games prior, and they say we are one of their fan favorites. Next year, we will be back to doing a more traditional schedule, as we only lose two kids from this year's team. We have standing offers from Maryland, Rutgers, Georgetown, Navy, Virginia and the Boston Celtics, so we may try to make a tour of the east coast next year."

Performing at these kinds of athletic events is part of the experience that many former Aces have said they never forget.

"We also get yearly invites from the Timberwolves, Gophers, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Florida, UConn, St. John's, NDSU, Augustana and others, which is a huge blessing and honor," Novotny said. "That tells us we're doing something right as there are many halftime shows out there and they continually choose us. Division I schools typically only bring in three halftime shows a year as they have their own dancelines, bands, etc., that perform, as well."

As this group builds up to being ready for those performances, the kids have had an opportunity to perform at more high school venues like AAHS on Feb. 11 and Minnewaska the night before.

"That has been a treat, as the fans have been awesome," Novotny said.

The Aces program is going on almost three decades, and Novotny says he doesn't worry at all about participation numbers dropping in the future. The hardest part of coaching this group is having to turn some kids down through tryouts. The youth of this group means there will likely be a lot of experienced Aces when it comes to the next couple seasons.

"I do worry that we'll have to say no to a number of kids who try out next year, and that just kills me," Novotny said. "Just the fact that these kids have enough belief in themselves to tryout to join a group that does things no other team in the world does, it shows me that they're winners already. That they believe in themselves. We don't want to thwart that spirit whatsoever."

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.

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