Jacob Harder was a student assistant for mens basketball team at the University of Minnesota Duluth before stepping out on the court his junior year.
Jacob Harder was a student assistant for mens basketball team at the University of Minnesota Duluth before stepping out on the court his junior year.
When Jacob Harder was a junior at Kingsland High School during the 2009-10 season, his playing time during basketball games came mostly when the score was lopsided and the clock was ticking down to the final buzzer. Four years later, he cracked the starting lineup of a Division II college this season.

Even more unusual is the path he took to becoming a key player on the University of Minnesota Duluth basketball team. He started out as the team's student assistant, or manager, before being asked to play by coach Matt Bowen who had observed Harder's growth - in size, talent and intelligence.

For Harder, the pieces came together because "God always has a plan," he said. He was able to make such great strides in his playing not only through faith, but also hard work and a passion for the sport of basketball.

Looking back at his time at Kingsland, Harder said he didn't play much as a junior because he didn't have a great work ethic and, though he was on the taller side for high school at 6'3", he was "scrawny." Over the next summer, he changed his attitude and worked hard to prepare for his senior season. His hard work resulted in more playing time as he was a major contributor to the team.

He became better as the season went along and had his best game ever in the Knights' final game that season and his final high school game. His performance gave him satisfaction, but also created a yearning for more.

Despite growing a couple inches taller during his senior year, he also realized he didn't have the same amount of experience as many high school players entering college. He also questioned whether he had the size or skill to play college ball.

However, he still had the passion for the sport, so he decided to help the team in a non-playing role from the sidelines as a manager.

During his time as a student assistant his first two years of college, he didn't participate in any type of competition, but helped with drills and other things needed for the team.

At the same time, he was learning. He observed the players on the team and noted what it takes to become a college player. He said he "soaked information up" as he learned more and more about the game.

In the meantime he got bigger, growing to nearly 6'8", and stronger by lifting weights, adding 20 to 25 pounds to his lean body.

His coach noticed the change. Bowen said he threw him some drills last season and when spring workouts came around, he told Harder "you're too valuable to stay on the sidelines."

When Bowen asked the junior if he wanted to join the team, Harder could barely contain his excitement, but he told him he needed to think about it. He prayed, asking God for guidance with this life-changing decision. Later, he felt confident his decision was right and accepted the offer.

"I knew I would regret it if I said no," he reflected. "I'm 100 percent glad I made the decision to join."

He knew it would be a challenge because he wants to follow his father's footsteps into the medical field, perhaps as a sports medicine doctor, and needs to keep his good grades up and do well on his medical college admission test (MCAT).

The University of Minnesota Duluth ended the season with a 12-15 record. At the beginning of the year, the team struggled, but some players left the program and those who remained started feeling a change, said Harder, who played post and eventually moved into the starting lineup.

By the end of the season, the team was in every game, not getting blown out as was the case earlier, and getting more wins. In the game closest to his hometown at Winona State University near the end of the regular season, the team lost by four points in a game that could have gone either way. Winona was ranked 15th in the nation at the time.

"The record doesn't show how much the team improved over the season," said Harder.

The Kingsland graduate also showed much improvement. He got his chance when the team's star center got hurt at the start of the season. By the break in the season, Bowen rewarded him with a scholarship incentive.

"He earned every penny of it," said Bowen. "He's the type of kid we want in our program."

Before offering Harder a spot on the team, Bowen knew Harder was bright, but he also observed his passion for the game as student assistant. He also couldn't help but notice his physical growth.

He has been impressed with his transition - coming from a small town to a high level basketball program with two years off from the sport. Everything was new for him, including a different type of body and a different type of game at that level.

"His rate of improvement and attitude has been phenomenal," said Bowen. "Everything was just brand new for him."

Harder said the biggest difference between high school and college is the speed and pace of play.

He and Bowen have optimism for next season. While this year was a transition hampered by injuries and youth, Bowen said a foundation has been laid with the majority of the team returning.

Harder, who was a starter by the end of this season, is going to play a significant role next year, said Bowen, as his length provides great stability on defense and his offensive production became more consistent as the season progressed.

"Kids like Jake don't come along very often," said Bowen. "With such high academic grades, a great family, he's a great teammate, very well liked around campus - he's a great representative of Spring Valley."

Harder sees his transition from a student assistant, in which he contributed more than 300 hours of service to the team, to a starting player as a "challenge" from God, something he wrote in his personal statement required for his aspiration to become a doctor. In that statement, he ties his experience with basketball into his expectations for medicine - and life.

"If God had just presented me with a scholarship to play basketball right out of high school, I would not be the same person," he said. "I learned that everything good in life is earned and not always given."