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Vander Veen proves size doesn't matter

WORTHINGTON -- At first glance, Kayla Vander Veen doesn't look very tough.

A junior guard on Worthington's girls' basketball team, Vander Veen is 5-foot-4 and 101 pounds. Her forearms resemble broomsticks, and her seemingly constant smile doesn't do much to intimidate.

Vander Veen usually is the smallest player on the court, but she almost always is the toughest. Her size can be measured, but her heart can't be.

"You can look at the heights and weights, but you can't measure the size of a kid's heart," Worthington coach Eric Lindner said. "And that's the biggest thing with her -- she's got a huge heart. And that's one thing you can't teach."

Lindner said Vander Veen's toughness is a rare commodity.

"I've had maybe one tougher player -- she's one of the toughest I've ever head," he said. "When she gets knocked to the floor, she'll get back up. When she has something wrong with her, she'll play. She's one of those kids who are mentally tough, and that's something you can't teach.

"You give me kids who know how to earn stuff and play hard, and you're going to have a pretty good team."

Vander Veen is a big reason why the Trojans are one game away from the state tournament. Top-seeded Worthington will face second-seeded Willmar at 7 p.m. today in the Section 2AAA championship game at Minnesota State-Mankato.

The odds are good that Vander Veen again will be underestimated by her opponents. She looks harmless on the outside, but Worthington junior guard Gabby Boever said she's more like a professional wrestler on the inside.

"You wouldn't believe how tough she is," Boever said. "You wouldn't even look at her like that, but, inside, she has the toughness -- she's so big and strong inside.

"I think people just look at her like, 'Man, she's this tiny twig that's 4-foot-nothing; I can guard her.' But once she gets in there, she goes between three, four different people and makes these crazy shots that no one can believe."

Vander Veen becomes a different player on the court, unleashing her inner wrestler.

I go psycho," she said. "There's just a fire that comes out."

No one ever has questioned Vander Veen's heart, hustle and toughness. Her work ethic, however, hasn't been quite up to par in the past.

"I used to be, and I sometimes still am, really lazy," Vander Veen said, laughing. "I kind of just don't care about everything."

Vander Veen has been on varsity since her freshman year, with this being her first season as a starter. In the past, she's relied solely on her natural ability.

During the first half of the season, Vander Veen was shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc. Before Worthington's game against Marshall on Feb. 14, she decided to arrive early at the gym, shoot around and put in some extra work.

Vander Veen drilled four 3-pointers and scored 14 points in the Trojans' 72-54 victory over Marshall, and Lindner immediately told her to start repeating the pregame workout.

"The first time, I did it myself because I had nothing else to do; I just came in and shot," Vander Veen said. "I had a really good game, so from then on he made me come and do it."

Since she implemented the new pregame workout regimen, Vander Veen is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc.

"I think it clicked for her, that she has to put the time in," Lindner said. "And once she did that, you can see that her game has risen tremendously. And now she understands, I think, that the more you prepare, the better off you are.

"I think what we're seeing is the maturation of a kid who has the skills and the mentality but just didn't understand how much time it takes to get to that level. And now that she does, she's a different player."

It's also making Worthington a more dangerous team.

"When (opponents) try to take away other players, and when you have a kid who's hitting the open shots, it definitely makes your team better," Lindner said. "And I think it's one of the reasons we've had a little run here.

"The open shots, she's just been begging for them. And that's the kind of kids you want, the ones who want that shot."

Vander Veen scored 16 points Saturday in Worthington's 84-49 victory over Mankato West in the Section 2AAA semifinals, bringing the Trojans to within a victory of the state tournament. She wants more than a shot at making the dance.

"State is so much closer now, and I really want to go," she said.