Ellsworth’s ‘quiet leader’ELLSWORTH — Tom Nolte is modest, soft-spoken and reserved. He shies from the spotlight and anything that might bring him too much attention.
By: Matt Huss, Worthington Daily Globe
ELLSWORTH — Tom Nolte is modest, soft-spoken and reserved. He shies from the spotlight and anything that might bring him too much attention.
On the basketball court, however, there is no escape.
A senior on Ellsworth’s boys’ basketball team, Nolte stands out on the hardwood. A quick, intelligent and talented do-it-all guard, he has taken his game to another level in his first year as a starter for the Panthers, who will face Sebeka at 5 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Class A tournament at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
During games, all eyes focus on the tall, lanky kid with the smooth jumper, tenacious defensive style and ridiculous spin move. After games, Nolte often is showered with interview requests from radio announcers and newspaper reporters.
“Tom and Adam Van Der Stoep are kind of like exact opposites; Stoep loves to talk on the radio, and he’s very quotable,” Ellsworth coach Tyler Morris said. “I wouldn’t say Tom is shy, but when it comes to public things, like talking to the paper and talking to the radio, he doesn’t want to do it.”
Added junior center Trevor Gruis: “We make fun of him when he talks on the radio because he never says anything. That’s kind of how he is. He’s just a quiet leader.”
In practices and games, Nolte rarely screams, celebrates or does anything demonstrative; instead, he puts the team first and opts to lead by example.
But when Nolte speaks, everybody listens.
“He’s definitely not the first guy to speak in practice or in a huddle or anything, but when there are big moments, he gets vocal then,” Morris said. “If the game is close at the end and we’re in a timeout or something, he’s vocal then. He’s more of a guy who’s going to look at guys in the huddle, in their eyes, and say, ‘Come on; it’s time to go. Pick it up.’
“If he speaks up during practice or in the huddle, it must be pretty important.”
Said Gruis: “That means something is definitely going on, when Tom says something.”
Nolte normally lets his play do the talking. And it speaks volumes.
Nolte is second on the team, behind Gruis, in points (13.3), rebounds (6.7), assists (3.1) and blocks (0.9) per game. He leads Ellsworth in steals per game (2.3), and he is shooting 50.2 percent from two-point range and 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
His numbers improved in the postseason. In the Panthers’ four-game run in the Section 3A tournament, Nolte averaged 14.7 points, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field, and 8.2 rebounds per game.
“Tom isn’t so much a vocal leader, but he does a great job of leading by example,” Van Der Stoep said. “He is one of those guys who is sort of laid back, but when he gets on the basketball court, he’s just an animal.”
Nolte’s signature move also has prompted teammates and fans to compare the 6-foot-3 guard to an animal. Nolte is known best for his spin move, an incredibly quick and smooth pivot that he uses to avoid defenders and finish near the basket.
“A bunch of people around town call him ‘Frog Man’ because when he does that spin move and step-through and jump, he looks like a frog out there,” Van Der Stoep said. “When he’s driving, and you’re too far over, you’re done. He’s too quick.”
Said Nolte, referring to the unique nickname: “It’s kind of weird, but I like it.”
Nolte said he discovered the move while goofing around one day in the gym.
“We used to play a lot of ‘21’ at noon hour at school, and I’d always spin and try crazy shots,” he said. “I did it in practice, and everybody was like, ‘Woah.’”
Morris said the move is virtually unstoppable.
“There’s really not a great way to describe it; you just have to see it. It’s unbelievable,” the first-year Ellsworth coach said. “We try to talk to him, as coaches, about using it wisely, because it’s so good that it has gotten him in trouble sometimes. He’s got a couple of traveling calls because it looks so fast, so quick.”
Sebeka likely knows little about Nolte’s spin-cycle special or Ellsworth. Likewise, the Panthers don’t know much about Sebeka.
“I just know it’s in northern Minnesota,” Gruis said.
The Trojans failed to win more than seven games in a season and advance past the second round of the section tournament for five consecutive seasons, from 2002 through 2007. Their drought ended last year, when they went 19-6 and lost in the Section 5A semifinals. This season, Sebeka (24-3) cruised through the Section 5A tournament, winning by an average of 20.2 points per game, en route to earning its first berth in the state tournament.
The Trojans, who were ranked No. 7 in the final Minnesota Basketball News poll, have just one senior. All five of their starters — juniors Joey Cuperus and Alex Brockpahler, and sophomores John Clark, Cody Pulju and Ryan Sharp — have double-digit scoring averages. Cuperus, a 6-foot-5 forward, is the program’s all-time leading scorer.
“I know they like to run and that they have some good shooters,” Nolte said. “We have a lot of players back from last year, so I think we’ll be ready for (the state tournament atmosphere).”
Ellsworth, which was ranked No. 6 in the final Minnesota Basketball News poll, is making its fourth consecutive appearance at the state tournament. The Panthers also are seeking their third consecutive Class A championship.
With a loss, the Panthers will be eliminated. With a win, they will face either Cass Lake-Bena (24-6) or Ada-Borup (25-4) at 2 p.m. Friday at Target Center.