Kelsey Bolte

Written by Chuck Schoffner

 

   There were no favors granted, no slack extended back in those days when the Boltes of Ida Grove went at it on the basketball court.

   It was a roundball version of Family Feud, and if young Kelsey wanted to join in when her brother Kaleb and her father Owen shot hoops -- and she always did -- she was expected to hold her own.

   "We were just really competitive with each other," she said. "None of us ever wanted to lose."

   Then again, the losing side always got another chance because they usually were back on the court the very next night.

   "We played all the time," Kelsey said. "Every night we'd walk down there and play. We lived a block from the elementary school, and we'd walk down the street and play forever. Then we'd bounce the ball all the way back up the street."

   The competitive streak that grew out of those games served Kelsey Bolte well in a memorable playing career, first at Battle Creek-Ida Grove High School, then at Iowa State University. So well, in fact, that she was elected to the IGHSAU Basketball Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility.

   "When you talk about greatness, uniqueness, first ballot Hall of Famer says a lot," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "When you look at what Kelsey has done, the impact she has made on our sport in our state is pretty special."

   It helps, Kelsey said, to have parents who care.

   Owen and Carol Bolte started a youth basketball program for Kelsey and her friends when they were in grade school. She played on those teams until she joined a club team in the eighth grade.

   "I was grateful for that," she said. "Because some parents don't want to take that responsibility."

   So when Kelsey joined the varsity at Battle Creek-Ida Grove, she had played a lot of basketball. She was a skilled player then -- leading the team in scoring as a freshman even though she didn't start -- and she only got better.

   Twice she was a first-team all-state selection. Three times she helped her team reach the state tournament, with two of those trips taking the Falcons all the way to the Class 2A state championship game. In her final two seasons, 2006 and 2007, Kelsey was named to the all-tournament team.

   And when things got tough, she never wanted to leave the game, even if she was hurting. In the 2004 district final against Audubon, when Kelsey was a freshman, she collided with a teammate and a tooth was knocked back toward the inside of her mouth.

   "We pushed the tooth right back in, she went back in the game and never complained," said Pat Miller, the team's coach at the time.

   Her reason for staying in was simple.

   "You can't come out," Kelsey said. "You want to play. You want to win."

   The Falcons did win, 64-59 in overtime to earn their first trip to state as a combined program.

   "There was this huge celebration at my house afterward," Kelsey said. "Everyone was eating pizza and having a great time and I was miserable. Well, not really miserable. I was happy, but it could have gone better. I went to the dentist the next day."

   By the time it all was over, Kelsey had amassed 2,026 points, 1,016 rebounds, 516 steals, 448 assists and 327 blocks. Those numbers are a testament to her versatility, as is this fact: She is the only player in state history with more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 steals.

   "Offensively, she could do anything we asked," Miller said. "We thought with the ability she had to shoot the three, shoot off the dribble, shoot a jump shot, that was a pretty special skill for any high school player. We could have used her in the post if we had to, but we wanted to utilize her in ways that other teams couldn't double-team her down there."

   Even in the low post, double-teaming Kelsey would have come at a risk because she was surrounded by talented teammates. Kelsey, Crystal Schiernbeck, Dani Miller, Gabi Miller and Shelby Schmidt started together from their sophomore year on.

   "The big thing that made that whole class successful was they all understood the big picture, and the big picture was to try to be as good a team as they could possibly be," Pat Miller said. "Ultimately, they wanted to win and they didn't care how.

   "Kelsey could have scored more, she could have rebounded more, she could have done more individually. But she understood we had more kids who could score and rebound and play defense. She really played within herself because she was with a lot of other kids who could do great things as well."

   That togetherness helps explain why the individual accolades arenŐt what Kelsey remembers most about her high school career.

   "The best memory is just having the friendships -- those bus rides to games, practicing and winning and celebrating," she said. "I think it's the same anywhere you go. College is the same, though high school is a little bit different because you grew up with the people you were playing with and you have more than just basketball memories. You have life memories and school memories, too."

   Iowa State was an easy choice for Kelsey after high school. Her family had season football tickets, she grew up a Cyclone fan and went to basketball camp at ISU every summer. She was a perfect fit in Fennelly's system, a good shooter who could run -- she was on relay teams that qualified for the state track meet -- and defend.

   Though she didn't start right away, Kelsey usually played half the game or more before becoming a fixture in the starting five midway through her first season. "I remember when I checked in my freshman year, coach told me not to airball it," Kelsey said, laughing at the memory.

   There certainly were no airballs during a stretch in early January of 2008. In the first four Big 12 games of her career, Kelsey rang up totals of 23, 21, 20 and 20 points, the first freshman in league history to score at least 20 in her first four conference games.

   "I don't know what got into me," Kelsey said. "You put in a lot of work and you play with so much passion and excitement and emotion. I think that has a lot to do with anyone's success -- how you're into it, physically and emotionally."

   Iowa State played in the NCAA tournament in each of Kelsey's four seasons, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 and the Elite Eight in 2009. She was a unanimous all-Big 12 selection as a senior, when she was the one player who had to score for the Cyclones to be successful. Everyone they played knew that and designed their defenses accordingly, but she still got her shots, still made them and Iowa State still won.

   "It was one of the few times that I've been a coach where, if not every play, then almost every play, was designed either to get her the ball or make people guard her to get somebody else a shot," Fennelly said. "I told her, 'You're going to have to take a contested shot at the end of the shot clock, you're going to have to pull the trigger when you're maybe not as open as you used to be, but that's the best shot we can get. Can you do that?'

   "We talked about it at length before the season. And she said, 'Coach, just tell me what to do. I'll do it.'"

   Her teammates recognized that and went along because they knew they could depend on her.

   "She's my favorite senior that I ever played under," said Anna Prins, a sophomore that season and a senior now. "She was just really nice to us on and off the court. She did a great job leading us on the court and keeping us calm. She's just a great person."

   Fennelly said it takes the right kind of person not only to take those difficult shots, but to keep the respect of teammates who aren't getting the same opportunities.

   "If you're not a good teammate, if you're always worried about your own numbers, that doesn't work," he said. "But if you have a kid that cares about the school, cares about their team, cares about her legacy, cares about everyone, then it's easy to say, 'OK, you be the leader, we'll throw you the ball.' And that's what happened."

   Kelsey finished as Iowa State's career leader in free throw percentage (.879), she ranks third on the career list in 3-pointers (276) and is sixth in scoring (1,639). She played professionally for a year in Nice on the French Riviera and Stockholm, Sweden, and while she enjoyed the experience of living overseas, she missed the camaraderie that had been so important in high school and college. She's back in Iowa now, working as coordinator of basketball operations at Drake under first-year coach Jennie Lillis Barancyzk, who was inducted into the IGHSAU Hall of Fame in 2008.

   NCAA rules limit Kelsey to administrative work such as arranging travel and setting up camps, so she can't work with the players. But if she ever wandered out to the Knapp Center court during a quiet time, picked up a ball and shot it, well, there's still a pretty good chance it would go in.