Ellie Thompson reigns on the court through dedicated effort

Ellie Thompson has seen plenty of success on the basketball court.

The 6-foot-1-inch junior  forward is a three-year starter for the South Dakota State women’s basketball team and was a Summit League Preseason First Team pick.

She was named to the All-Summit League Second Team as a sophomore and the Summit League All-Newcomer Team as a freshman.

In high school, Thompson was a finalist for Minnesota Miss Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American nominee.

In fifth grade, though, she didn’t make the cut for a traveling basketball team.

For Thompson, a Chaska, Minnesota native, fifth grade was the first year she could try out for a traveling team in Minnesota. Tryouts were held for three teams: an A, B and C team. The teams were then posted online.

“I went into tryouts and came home from school and I just remember we looked it up online and we couldn’t find my name. We were like ‘There must be a mistake or something,’” Thompson said. “So it turns out, out of all three teams — A, B, C — I didn’t make a team. I was seriously devastated.”

In order to give Thompson the experience of traveling basketball, her dad decided to create his own team with Thompson and a few other girls who were also cut. They called themselves “The D Team.”

It was around that same time Thompson’s parents decided to put a sport court in the backyard. Thompson made it a point to go out and shoot with her brother every day.

“I feel like that was kind of what sparked my love for basketball,” Thompson said. “I was never the tallest or the most athletic, but I always made it a point from the day I got cut that every day my dad and I would go early and I would have to make 10 layups with just my right hand and 10 layups with just my left hand, and from then on I’ve had a habit of coming early to gym and working on it.”

Though Thompson saw improvement, she never made the A team. She made the C team in sixth grade and the B team in seventh grade. In her eighth grade year, Thompson was pulled up to the ninth grade high school team due to their lack of players.

“My ninth grade year I tried out for Varsity and ended up making it,” Thompson said. “For some reason, I didn’t start the first game, but then started all the games after that. Somehow from that point on, I found a knack for it.”  

Shortly after, Thompson began playing for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team and later became part of the Minnesota Fury. About halfway through her first season with the Fury, Thompson was surprised to learn that college coaches were starting to gain interest in her.

One of those coaches, SDSU Women’s Basketball Head Coach Aaron Johnston said Thompson’s versatility and competitive attitude immediately caught his attention.

“She shoots the ball from the three-point line pretty well, she’s a good passer, she handles the ball, and on top of that she’s a competitor,” Johnston said. “She’s got a real drive and determination to win and succeed so we just loved her effort and her versatility of skills.”

For Thompson, the decision to become a Jackrabbit was an easy one. Though she knew college-level basketball would require even more effort than the high school level, Thompson experienced a little wake-up call during her first season at SDSU.

“In high school, I was always by far the hardest worker and when I came here I realized everyone else works 10 times harder than I ever did,” Thompson said. “Having to raise that effort and being on a whole different level of physicality and how hard you sprint on the floor was definitely the biggest adjustment. Especially in the post, everyone was so much stronger than me my freshman year so I had to work really hard in the off-season and in the weight room in order to hold my own.”

Clearly the hard work has paid off, and between her work ethic and love for the sport, Thompson was able to overcome her minor setback in fifth grade. Heading into her junior season, Thompson was averaging 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. This season, she is averaging 10 points and 4.5 rebounds a game.

“It’s weird because most people that play Division I athletics have always had a dream to play in college and have always been working toward that, but the only reason I ever played it [college athletics] was because I just love basketball,” Thompson said. “I think the difference is that I never really had that dream in mind, but I don’t know, things just fell into place and it worked out really well for me.”