South Dakota family bonds over basketball

South Dakota family bonds over basketball

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Jay and Dawn Plitzuweit met at a senior high school basketball all-star game in Wisconsin when they were both getting ready to go off to college. Given how things have gone for their family since then, this part of the story seems too good to be true.

Dawn, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Dakota, was playing in the girls game after starring at Kettle Moraine Lutheran, a small private school in the town of Jackson, where they’d won a state title her senior season. Jay was coming off a big year at Northwestern Prep, located in Watertown, Wisconsin, where his team had also won a state championship.

“After our practice for the all-star game I saw him standing there — I recognized him because he played for our arch-rival school and they’d won a championship,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “I congratulated him on the state title. That’s how we started talking.”

It was the beginning of a long-running conversation. They dated all through college while Dawn was playing at Michigan Tech and Jay was at Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and they married in 1995 while Dawn was starting her coaching career at her alma mater, the Argus Leader reported.

Stops at six additional schools have followed in the next two decades for a family that now includes son A.J. Plitzuweit, a record-setting high school player in Vermillion who is now starting as a freshman at Augustana, and daughter Lexi Plitzuweit, who has been playing varsity basketball for the Tanagers since she was an eighth-grader and is now a sophomore averaging 16.1 points a game.

“As parents, Jay and I don’t care what our kids do as long as they find something they’re very passionate about,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “Sometimes I think it’s better when they’re doing something that we don’t know as well as we know basketball. When Lexi plays soccer or is running cross country, she can just go off and do those things. But they’ve kept coming back to basketball.”

It’s instinctive to ask the children who’ve been around the game to the extent they have what it was like being a part of that. But it’s a difficult question to answer because for A.J. and Lexi Plitzuweit, there is nothing to compare it to. Did it seem weird? No.

“I think our lives are about much more than basketball,” said Jay Plitzuweit, now a stay-at-home dad who has coached high school and AAU teams for much of his adult life. “I think we have a pretty good balance, but we do count our blessings about what the sport has meant to us. We kid each other about it, too, though. Yes, we Plitzuweits are a pretty shallow family. All we know is basketball.”

A.J. Plitzuweit is a 6-foot-2 guard for Augustana who is averaging 13.8 points a game for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore. He is one year removed from averaging 33.9 points, nine rebounds and 4.3 assists for Vermillion High School, an effort that earned him Gatorade Player of the Year honors and got Augie coach Tom Billeter very interested in making him a Viking.

A.J. Plitzuweit suffered an early setback with a case of mono that kept him off the court for more than a month, then he missed four games with a back injury. He has otherwise delivered as advertised.

“We knew he would be good enough to help us right away,” Billeter said. “He’s so skilled. He’s got a great basketball IQ, so a lot of it was just getting used to what we were doing.”

There was never a day in A.J. Plitzuweit’s life when the sport was not surrounding him, so it’s not unusual that he’d play it himself. But the commitment to become good enough to average more than 30 points a game in high school and then immediately contribute for a traditionally strong college program? Those extra shots and extra drills had to come from within.

“My folks do a good job of telling me after a game what I can work on and what I can get better at,” A.J. Plitzuweit said. “And the coaching staff here does a great job of doing that as well. I’m just trying to get better and put those things on the court.”

As one might expect, basketball courts were A.J. Plitzuweit’s home away from home as a child. He’d bring his toys along in a backpack and keep himself occupied while his mom or dad conducted a practice.

By the time his mother, after winning a national Division II title at Grand Valley State, joined her former coach Kevin Borseth as an assistant at Michigan, A.J. Plitzuweit was getting toward the point where he could shoot a ball at a standard basketball hoop and think it might go in. His life has never been the same since.

“They had their own little travel team, the Michigan Freeze,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “I remember watching him in his first game and he was so excited about everything that happened. He was excited to get on the court and the opening tip. Anytime someone on the team scored, he was jumping around. I kept thinking, ‘This is really fun for him. He’s having a great time.’”

A.J. Plitzuweit had started as a sophomore at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Kentucky, when his mother, then the coach at Northern Kentucky, was offered the job at USD. None of the previous moves up to that time had made any significant impact on the children, but this one was going to be more difficult given A.J. Plitzuweit’s age and his affinity for his teammates.

“We weren’t going to come out here without the kids’ blessing,” Jay Plitzuweit said. “A.J. was the one who wasn’t so sure, but it worked out terrific. He’s thanked us many times since then for talking him into it. It was a real positive move for both our kids, and we were proud of the way they handled it.”

A.J. Plitzuweit watches his mother’s games on his computer when there is not a direct conflict and attends games at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center when his schedule permits. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s working out better than he expected.

“It’s nice playing in a Friday-Saturday night league where she can watch us play after her game,” A.J. Plitzuweit said. “Or she’ll play on a Thursday and be able to see us on a Saturday. And I can get down there once in a while, too. I’m a big fan. I root for them and they’re having a great year. It’s fun to watch them and then come out here and do my own thing.”

The Plitzuweit parents were not sure what direction their daughter Lexi Plitzuweit was going to go with her sports interests, but they knew early on that she was competitive. Whatever she ultimately decided to spend her time on she was going to do it at a hundred miles an hour. Her first experiences with youth basketball would be an example.

“It was a church league that combined basketball with a religious message at the end,” Jay Plitzuweit said. “After a while I think they wanted to throw Lexi out. It was good to see how competitive she was but we had to say, ‘Lexi, maybe you should think about holding back just a little bit.’”

The younger Plitzuweit is in her second year as the team’s starting point guard. Like her brother, she’s benefited from a near-constant exposure to the sport. Also similar is an unusual level of commitment to developing as a player.

“I love the game,” Lexi Plitzuweit said. “My parents and my brother bring it out of me. They’ve made me the best player I can be — I know that. I’ve learned so much from them. And basketball always makes for good conversation at the dinner table.”

Her mother’s players have often served as Lexi Plitzuweit’s unofficial older sisters over the years.

“I feel like I can tell them things,” she said. “When I was little I remember them buying me coloring books. They’ve been really good friends to have. Role models to look up to — people I want to be like when I get older.”

Lexi Plitzuweit’s sophomore year for the Tanagers has been unlike her first two. She’s stronger and scoring more for one thing, but there’s more to it than that.

“She’s been a lot more confident this year,” said Tanagers coach Jon Brooks. “I don’t think people realize how tough it was for her last year being a freshman point guard surrounded by four seniors. Finding her role last year was something she had to work through. Now she knows it’s her time to step up. Obviously she’s done that the first half of the year.”

When Dawn Plitzuweit was out recruiting within the region, Lexi Plitzuweit would often tag along in the old days, with mom supplying road-trip diversions to keep her daughter occupied. Both appreciated the company.

“She’d take her little crafts and projects with her to the games — the other coaches thought it was the greatest thing,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “Then YouTube came along and Lexi would be watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ during some of the games.”

During one summer tournament, Lexi Plitzuweit looked at her mom and wondered if when she got older she’d be able to play in games like these. “Wouldn’t it be great, Mom, if I could do that?” she asked.

“I said, ‘Lexi, you keep working and you’re going to be playing in these tournaments someday,’” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “So it’s been fun to watch her play in all these tournaments the last few years. In a way, it’s coming to fruition for her.”

Dawn Plitzuweit grew up playing basketball on a hoop behind a barn on the family farm against her taller brother, developing moves that would permit her to score more than 1,300 points at Michigan Tech. Though the record has been broken since, she was the school’s all-time leading rebounder when she graduated.

Jay Plitzuweit’s father was a professor at what was then Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin. Growing up he was on the campus a lot, spending a majority of that time hanging around the gym putting up shots.

Though neither grew up in the game in the same way their kids have, they’re well aware that it’s different now. In Dawn Plitzuweit’s case, she’s professionally dependent on the process of finding suitable potential student-athletes and selling them on the benefits of her program.

In regard to their own kids, it’s always going to be different than it is grading the skills of players with other last names. There are instances, though, where all that experience helps define and understand the Plitzuweit children’s challenges.

“The thing we watch as parents is how are they as a teammate?” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “How are they as an encourager? How do they help their teammates play to the best of their ability? What are they doing in the game to facilitate that? It’s not a static equation. It’s not like if you do it one time or three times that you’re going to do it at that level all the time.”

Where coaches sometimes have an advantage in the sports parenting business is in realizing improvement is almost never delivered via a steady climb. Those two steps forward that are followed by a step back demands problem solving and focusing on weaknesses. That, the Plitzuweit parents will tell you, can be a good thing.

“When those things happen it’s probably the best for your kid,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “As a parent you don’t want to see that happen, but as a coach you know that’s very important for their development.”

A very young A.J. Plitzuweit was playing in a league where ties at the end of regulation time were broken by free throws after time expired. When it was A.J. Plitzuweit’s turn he missed and his team lost. It was traumatic for him, and probably for the parents as well, but the reaction was ultimately a constructive one.

“He was devastated,” Jay Plitzuweit said. “He couldn’t believe what had happened. But for him it fueled the fire. He was done missing free throws. It was great to see as a parent that he wasn’t afraid to work on something that he’d failed at.”

Lexi Plitzuweit joked that she worries about her mother someday popping a vein on the sidelines, though all three of the other Plitzuweits marvel at her energy level and positive attitude both as a coach, a wife and a mother. As Jay Plitzuweit said, “She’s the one who usually talks me off the cliff,” not the other way around.

Her ascent as a coach has progressed as if it was pre-orchestrated, with stops here and there to round out a near perfect coaching resume that now includes two-and-a-half seasons at USD running one of the top mid-major programs in the country. Yes, there are inconveniences when three people are trying to share their seasons at the same time, but it’s only happening once.

“It’s something that has been part of our lives since they’ve been born,” Dawn Plitzuweit said. “Our family time together usually revolves around watching one of them play or them coming along with our team. When they were young, they’d come on the bus and that was our family time. That was our time to celebrate and be together. From our standpoint, it’s neat that they like basketball but ultimately it’s about them finding something they are really passionate about.”

It’s an equation that has worked for the Plizuweit family. Like all other things associated with the game they love, it takes hard work to make it look easy.

“Where I really give those parents credit is in how they haven’t turned their kids off to basketball,” Billeter said. “When kids are exposed to something all the time, they might rebel against it because they feel like they were forced into it. Dawn and Jay have done a great job because their kids love the game.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com