From St. Cloud to State stardom


Looking back, it helped more than it hurt.

Wolters, then a senior in high school, had his team back at the state tournament for the second-consecutive season in Minnesota’s highest class. Off a third-place finish in 2008, St. Cloud Tech would be back at the Target Center, preparing to play undefeated suburban powerhouse Hopkins in the state semifinals.

Looking back now, it would become a cross-section of great athletes on the court that night. Hopkins had the firepower with five Division I recruits: Royce White (Iowa State), Mike Broghammer (Notre Dame), Trent Lockett (Arizona State), Raymond Cowels (Santa Clara) and Marcus Williams, who plays football at NDSU.

The game tipped with Tech taking an early but narrow lead. With less talent, Wolters’ team deployed a stall tactic, putting the ball in the hands of their star guard. Hopkins came out to guard him and Wolters weaved seamlessly through the talented defense.

“It was like Harlem Globetrotters, Curly Neal-type stuff. He was just spinning them in circles and the Hopkins guys were chasing him around,” said Tom Elliott, a longtime prep writer who covered Wolters for the St. Cloud Times, comparing the high school senior to the legendary dribbler and two basketball showmen.

Hopkins had a 16-15 lead at halftime and the end would arrive soon after. Despite a game-high 17 points from Wolters, Tech lost 55-36 and the dream of a state title was gone.

“Obviously, our goal was to win State and we knew that Hopkins was good but it was real tough after that game,” Wolters said.

Wolters’ squad would claim third place again two days later, but he did learn lessons from the significant loss. He now knew, for the first time in his career, he could play with the top Division I talent Minnesota had to offer.

SDSU knew it was going to want Wolters even more and want him to play point guard.

Basketball bred

Wolters’ family had a history of being basketball-oriented. His father, Roger Wolters, played in college, and Nate’s  sister, Kristen, played Division III basketball at Bethel University. The siblings, who are three years apart, were never competitive because of the age difference.

It’s easy to think about Nate Wolters being in a league of his own, considering he regularly spins Summit League guards out of their shoes. But he’s been playing that way for a long time. From about third grade on Wolters has always played a grade level above.

“Nate has always played up and it’s never really fazed him,” Roger Wolters said. “He just has always worked hard and tried to get better.”

He found himself developing a love for basketball, surpassing his passion for tennis and football, both of which he also played growing up. He often would have a basketball in his hands in the basement of his home with basketball on the television, spurring his ball-handling skills into something special.

“He would dribble for hours in the basement and he really worked on his game down there,” Roger Wolters said.

Wolters played on traveling teams growing up and found his way onto Amateur Athletics Union squads during his teenage years, but the days of having big-time coaches in his living room begging him to play for their school never came. Despite having a father who played college basketball, Wolters said there was never any pressure for him to work on his game — he did it because he wanted to.

“My dad coached me up until eighth grade, but he never pressured me and all of my friends loved to play, so it was great,” Nate Wolters said.

He noticed an adjustment when he was a sophomore and went from being a scrawny five-foot-ten kid to a well-built and athletic six-foot-four guard.

“I was always really small,” he said. “I was just a spot-up three-point shooter until about 10th grade, and I grew in my junior year to about six-foot-three, six-foot-four and just became a lot more athletic.”

Elliott said there was no denying Wolters could shoot, but once he developed more physically, he became a completely different player.

“I remember a road game where he was just dribbling the ball out at the end of the half and he was about 35 feet out from the basket,” Elliott said. “The defense sort of challenged him and he just said ‘Okay’ and drilled it from right there.”

College Courtship

Most of the contact he had with collegiate coaches came from the Division II level, specifically in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

SDSU wanted Wolters to commit early, which he was not willing to do right away. He passed on signing during the November signing period of his senior year. Things cooled from there, but the NSIC schools kept chasing. Wolters progressed through his final season, leading his team to another great mark and state tournament berth. Tech was 29-3 with Wolters as a junior; 31-1 during his senior year and he finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,767 points.

“Let’s put it this way,” Elliott said. “I’ve been covering basketball in St. Cloud for 30 years and I’ve never seen a player like that.”

Almost every team that wanted Wolters wanted him to play some sort of combo guard position in college. Even in high school he was not a full-time point guard, but the idea of being the court general appealed to him. Only SDSU offered him that chance to play strictly point guard and a scholarship during the summer of 2008.

“I think everyone else told him that they were looking at him as a combo and that’s not what we wanted,” said SDSU head coach Scott Nagy. “He wanted to be a point guard. He wants the ball in his hands and that’s what we wanted.”

With his high school career over, Wolters narrowed his college choices down to three: SDSU, Augustana and Colorado State. The Rams remained in the picture based on the rapport that he had built with former NDSU head coach Tim Miles, who left for Fort Collins, Colo., in March of 2007. The Bison also came beckoning with a scholarship offer but it proved to be too late. Ultimately, the opportunity to run the point for a Division I team that was close to home won out. On Apr. 29, 2009, Wolters officially signed to play for the Jackrabbits.

Moving on up

Wolters became acclimated as a freshman behind guards Kai Williams and Garrett Callahan, and then playing alongside Clint Sargent over the previous two seasons. He credits those three players for helping him out and preparing for a sophomore season where he took the full-time reins at the point guard spot. He made the leap with ease, scoring 25 points in the Jacks’ second game of 2010-11, a win at Iowa.

“Watching Garett and Kai and Clint, those guys were a huge influence for me,” Wolters said. “Those guys were good players. I think that gave me a little more confidence for the year and that carried into that game.”

Thirty-four points during SDSU’s signature win earlier this season against the Washington Huskies brought more attention to Wolters and the Jackrabbits.

“It was cool and it was good for the program and the team, and we knew that it was great to get SDSU on the national stage,” Wolters said.

Nagy said Wolters didn’t let the big win go to his head, though.

“He’s not any different and it hasn’t affected what kind of person he is or how well he plays,” Nagy said.

His career is already among legends at SDSU with 1,363 points, 13th highest in school history. This leaves him 568 away from the top, set by Mark Tetzlaff in the mid-1980s. He also finds himself third in assists with 409 and has a chance to finish with the top spot in both catagories. His teammates aren’t afraid to heap the praise on him, either.

“Nate’s definitely the best player I’ve ever played with and probably one of the most-talented players I’ve ever seen too. Playing with him just makes the game easier, and I get a lot of open shots that I otherwise wouldn’t get,” said Brayden Carlson, who was recruited in the same class as Wolters.

People know about his ability to shoot and pass, but his teammates say his ability to dribble and move is what’s underrated.

“He’s an unbelievable ball-handler and it’s just ridiculous,” Griffan Callahan said. “He keeps the ball so low and he can just get by defenders. He’s easily the best one that I’ve ever seen.”

Quiet and point guard don’t always go together, but Callahan says that isn’t an issue.

“He’s just a great kid and a great leader,” he said. “He doesn’t say much but he just gets it done.”

Wolters’ work ethic can be seen at all hours of the night. He was notorious for shooting in the various St. Cloud city gyms, a trend he’s carried over to late nights at Frost Arena.

“I just try to be the best player I can be and I have high expectations for myself, so I just try to motivate myself and try not to worry about the outside,” Wolters said.

Through games played on Jan. 29, Wolters ranks 10th nationally in points per game, averaging 20.7 points per contest. He’s 16th in assist-turnover ratio and 17th in assists per game at 6.1 nationally.

His parents are proud — to say the least — and come to every home game in Brookings, frequenting the 190 miles between the two cities.

“He doesn’t have an ego and he’s really handled it well, even with all of the attention that he’s picked up,” Roger Wolters said.

Swelling popularity

For the first time in school history, Wolters has become a sports icon. He’s the subject of a fake Twitter account and has his face stuck in a heroic gaze with the words “Naters Gonna Nate” on the front of blue shirts worn by students at home games.

His career could continue on beyond SDSU. For reference, one draft website has him projected as a mid-second round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. A long way off, but Wolters is keeping his options open, here or abroad.

“I’m just worried about the season right now and I’m not too concerned about the future,” Nate Wolters said. “But I would definitely like to play.”

He has things he wants to accomplish: Summit League title, NCAA Tournament and beyond.

He’s a history major at SDSU. With a player of his ability, it’s fitting, really.