Local Fare: Lake Zurich's Gilbertson a postive force for University of Minnesota-Duluth women's basketball
When Ella Gilbertson was named to the Daily Herald's Lake County all-area girls basketball team in 2020 her coach at Lake Zurich, Chris Bennett, said: "I don't think I have ever seen her without a smile on her face."
Now a junior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Gilbertson has brought her smile and positive energy to a team that on April 1 will play for the NCAA Division II National Championship.
Yes, Duluth. It's a Minnesota city of nearly 87,000 that sits on the north shore of Lake Superior, roughly 100 miles south of the Canadian border. A popular destination for an athlete? Maybe not for most, but for Gilbertson it was the perfect fit.
"There are so many reasons why I came to Duluth," Gilbertson said last week after she and her Bulldogs teammates defeated Catawba 70-59 in the national semifinals in St. Joseph, Mo.
"I think the main reason why I came here was because of the people, as cliché as that sounds. When I first met all of the girls, I immediately felt welcomed and comfortable around them. I could tell that Coach (Mandy) Pearson genuinely cared about every individual that was a part of this program, so I knew I wanted to come and play for her because of that. Also Duluth is such a beautiful city. Being right on Lake Superior and having both the big town feel at a smaller school was perfect for me. The community support for the school is also something so special and I am lucky to be a part of it."
Second-seeded Duluth, which takes a 32-3 record to Dallas to face undefeated No. 1 seed Ashland in the title game (2:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network) has been lucky to have a player like Gilbertson as well. She is second on the team in scoring at 10.3 ppg. She's a 48 percent field goal shooter, and a team-best 39 percent from 3-point range. The 6-foot guard/forward has had three-straight double figure scoring games including 14 in the win over Catawba.
"Ella has been a phenomenal addition to our team," said Pearson, now in her eighth year at Duluth. "She has an incredible basketball IQ which helps her to make huge plays for us on both ends of the floor. She is a very unselfish playmaker and knows how to make our team better in a variety of ways because of her versatility and skill. Her versatility is her strength on both ends of the floor -- she can defend anyone on the court and is a great help-side defender. Offensively she can shoot, drive, score in the post and is a very good passer.
"Off the court, Ella is a fantastic human being. She always has a smile on her face, is a great leader and a constant calming presence for her teammates."
Pearson has seen firsthand how Gilbertson's game has evolved since the LZ grad first played for the Bulldogs.
"Ella has done a fantastic job of making herself better every year," Pearson said. "Because of COVID and people returning on our roster, Ella didn't get as much playing time early in her career, but she remained an amazing teammate and continued working as hard as she could regardless if she was playing two minutes or 25 minutes a game. This year she has become more aggressive on the floor and someone we go to offensively. She has really developed all of her skills and is one of our most prepared players every single game. Ella is someone we all absolutely adore and I am personally very thankful she is such a major part of our program."
Gilbertson has quite the interesting major at Duluth as well -- Communication Sciences and Disorders.
"CSD is a major that is leading me to a career as a Speech Language Pathologist," she explained. "I have to complete a two-year masters program after my undergrad and then hopefully I will become an SLP either in a school setting or a medical setting. I am going to be working with people who have communication, voice and swallowing disorders on their speech and language skills in order to help improve their communication abilities."
The current task at hand -- playing for a national championship -- has Gilbertson excited.
"I always wanted to help be a part of a successful program coming into college and it was a goal from the start," said Gilbertson, the daughter of Gerry and Gretchen Gilbertson who has an older brother, Andrew (22), and two younger sisters, Anna (15) and Leah (13).
"At the beginning of this year, I knew we had a really special team and had the potential to make a deep run into the postseason tournament. I genuinely couldn't imagine getting to this point with a greater group of people so I'm just really excited to be playing in Dallas with everyone."
And it's a team that has formed a special bond this season.
"I think one think that makes this team unique is the leadership that we have," Gilbertson said. "Our fifth-years and seniors have really turned this program into something that is so special. I know personally I have learned so much from all of our upperclassmen that has made me a better basketball player and person in general.
"Also, we are all best friends off the court, which adds to the chemistry we have on the court. I think that we just have a lot of fun playing together which makes every practice, road trip and game so much more enjoyable. We want to play for each other, and I have been so fortunate to have such an amazing group of people around me every day."
As Minnesota-Duluth has been fortunate to have the smiling Gilbertson helping lead the way to Dallas.