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Born to ball: Winner’s Bella Swedlund is Mitchell Republic’s girls basketball player of the year

“I am extremely competitive and basketball is the most competitive sport out there,” Bella Swedlund said. “You begin to love it and you fall in love with it.”

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Winner High School's Bella Swedlund is the Mitchell Republic's 2021 Girls Basketball Player of the Year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

WINNER -- Bella Swedlund had one thing on her mind during Easter egg hunts: basketball.

Swedlund’s parents, Tresh and Sara, did a traditional Easter egg hunt when Bella was a toddler. But while some kids scattered for dyed eggs, Bella’s obsession was a newly-purchased orange basketball from the dollar store.

“She was just two years old and could really care less about anything but the big orange basketball,” Sara Swedlund said. “She loved that and of course ever since then has moved onto a nicer ball.”

It was the start of Bella’s journey as a baller. She regularly tossed a golf ball in the air to work on her eye-hand coordination at 9 years old and tagged along when Tresh coached American Legion baseball.

“She always had a ball in her hand,” Tresh Swedlund said. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to say, ‘Please quit dribbling in the house.’ ”

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Bella, however, hasn’t quit dribbling, shooting, passing or scoring and she’s turned into one of South Dakota’s best girls basketball players. Swedlund and the Winner Warriors capped their season with a third-place finish at the Class A girls basketball tournament.

This season, she became Winner’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Lisa Carlson (1,484). With her senior season left, Swedlund has 1,745 career points and a school record 249 3-pointers. She also broke season school records for most points (565), field goals made (219) and 3-pointers made (72).

The 5-foot-8 point guard averaged 22.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.9 steals per game this season.

She was also voted the Mitchell Republic girls basketball player of the year. Swedlund was unanimously voted No. 1 and received 20 total points in the voting, which is conducted by the newspaper’s sports staff and dates back to 1994. She’s the first Winner girls basketball player chosen for the award.

The area standouts that received consideration for the award included: Corsica-Stickney’s Raven Barse and Avery Broughton, Menno’s Morgan Edelman, McCook Central/Montrose’s Madisen Koepsell, Ethan’s Hannah Bartscher, Mount Vernon/Plankinton’s Emilee Fox, Winner’s Kalla Bertram and Mitchell’s Macy Kempf.

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Winner High School's Bella Swedlund is the Mitchell Republic's 2021 Girls Basketball Player of the Year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell Republic file photo

Desire to be great

Bella Swedlund is an NCAA Division I prospect and a household name among the state’s elite girls basketball players. She plays with flare and swagger not often seen among girls basketball players.

However, it didn’t happen overnight. She’s the perfect storm of God-given talent, work ethic and competitive drive to succeed at her favorite sport.

“I am extremely competitive and basketball is the most competitive sport out there,” Bella Swedlund said. “You begin to love it and you fall in love with it.”

She dreamed of wearing the purple and gold and being the next big thing in South Dakota. Swedlund’s two favorite players to watch were Kelsey Bertram (Winner) and cousin Alexys Swedlund (St. Thomas More).

As a grade schooler, Bella and her friends sat behind Winner’s bench pretending to be water girls. They eagerly awaited their turn and paid close attention to everything coach Larry Aaker preached to the Warriors.

Aaker was also paying attention to the next generation of Warriors, including the young do-it-all guard and her advanced skills.

“You could just tell she was very advanced skill-wise for her age,” Aaker said. “Even at a young age, she could really shoot it. It was going into her seventh-grade year she started doing open gyms with us and it was very evident she could play at that level. So when she was a seventh-grader, we brought her up.”

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The fresh face wasn’t afraid of the promotion. In fact, she thrived and was Winner’s leading scorer (13.9 ppg) on a team with six seniors. She admits now the jump to varsity was intimidating, but she welcomed the challenge.

“I was like God put this challenge in front of me for a reason and he wants me to tackle it head on,” Bella said. “That’s kind of the mentality I’ve had since.”

That mentality was tested after her seventh-grade season. During an AAU practice, Swedlund and Sioux Falls O’Gorman’s Hannah Ronsiek collided going after a loose ball. The collision resulted in Swedlund tearing her ACL, forcing her to miss the AAU season and a bulk of her eighth-grade season.

She said it was both the hardest thing she’s gone through and also a blessing in disguise.

“I really found myself off the court mentally,” Bella said. “I would cry literally after every game and I just want to be out there so bad. It was hard, but that next morning, I have to do my rehab. I had to do that because I wanted to be out there.”

She returned for the final five games of her eighth-grade season, which was ended by Pine Ridge in the region tournament. Winner responded by winning 49 straight games, including the 2018-19 Class A state championship.

“I was definitely on top of the world,” Bella said about delivering Winner’s first girls basketball state championship. “Especially because we ranked fourth in the region. Region. Not even state. I remember when that first came out we were like ‘Wow. OK, we know we are better than that. We are championship contenders.’ Once we had that mentality, no one was stopping us.”

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Winner High School's Bella Swedlund is the Mitchell Republic's 2021 Girls Basketball Player of the Year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

‘She’s not satisfied’

Bella is not only Winner’s best player, she’s also its hardest worker.

She doesn’t play volleyball in the fall and instead uses it to gear up for basketball season. During the fall, she goes through early morning shooting routines, lifts after school and has a workout regime through Orthopedic Institute.

“She’s in here at 5:30, 6 a.m. shooting and it’s not just one day a week,” Aaker said. “It’s every day. It’s no different the Monday after the state tournament. She’s like, ‘Can I get in the gym and shoot?’ That’s just how she is. She’s not satisfied. She wants to get better each and every day.”

It’s not easy either and Bella has to go through great lengths to make it happen. Bella and her family live 20 miles away from Winner. But she makes the morning workouts part of her daily routine, impressing those closest to her.

“Her drive is just unbelievable,” Sara said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand, yeah, she is talented, but she also has to work hard to get there. It’s something that she works on every single day.”

At times, Bella’s parents have tried to rein her in and remind her to take a day off. During a recent snow day, she was forced to stay home instead of swishing jumpers at the gym.

Winner has four girls, three boys named to all-Big Dakota hoop teams

“Her drive is not pushed by her mom and I,” Tresh said. “We actually try to curb it sometimes to just be a kid. She’s done a really good job trying to balance that now as she’s gotten older. She watches a lot of film and does a lot of things on her own. We are extremely proud of what Bella has done, but we are also excited because we actually think she hasn’t tipped the iceberg yet.”

Bella has three younger sisters -- Olivia (14), Savanna (11) and Lela (5) -- in the family. Olivia was a manager for the Winner girls basketball team this season.

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Winner's Bella Swedlund (23) attacks the basket against Corsica-Stickney on Jan. 14 in Corsica. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

A Division I future

Bella is committed to her craft all year long. But 2020 threw a curveball at that mission.

COVID-19 wiped out the State A girls basketball tournament and it prevented Winner from defending its state championship. It halted part of the AAU season and stopped Bella from driving to Sioux Falls for individual workouts.

Bella found other ways to scratch her basketball itch. Witten, a small village 15 miles northwest of Winner, has an old elementary school gymnasium with a tile floor. It’s where Bella spent quarantine when her practice options were limited.

She also began working with White River’s Louie Krogman, who is South Dakota’s all-time leading scorer and a former University of South Dakota standout.

“My dad knew him through business and White River is only about 40 minutes from my house,” Bella said. “I had always worked with Warwick Workouts and in Sioux Falls. With COVID, it’s kind of difficult to go over every weekend. Louie is 40 minutes away. It was a great opportunity in my backyard -- literally.”

Winner's Swedlund secures first Power Five scholarship offer

Tresh also credits Aaker, Warwick Workouts and the South Dakota Attack program’s coaches for developing the Division I prospect. She’s a three-star prospect and the 19th-ranked point guard in the 2022 class, according to espn.com.

Currently, Bella has Division I scholarship offers from Grand Canyon, Lehigh, Toledo, Navy, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Portland, Montana, Colorado State, St. Thomas (Minn.), Illinois State, Illinois, Montana State and Colgate.

Bella, who has communicated with between 40-50 Division I coaches, plans to make a decision after the summer season and closer to the fall.

Then it’s back to fall workouts before chasing another championship banner.

“I am excited to get these younger girls in the gym and show them this is how a state championship feels,” she said. “I want to leave Winner with that.”

Here's a look at the rest of the award nominees with vote total in parentheses:

Raven Barse, Corsica-Stickney (8): Barse, a 5-11 senior forward, was a consistent leader for the Jaguars, taking them back to the Class B state tournament and finishing in fourth place. She shto 51% on field goals and averaged 13.6 points per game and 8.2 rebounds. The Class B Spirit of Su winner led her team in scoring at the state tournament with 11.7 points per game.

Morgan Edelman, Menno (6): Edelman, who is already the school’s leading all-time leading scorer, cleared 2,000 points for her career. The 5-foot-7 guard averaged 21.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game this season. She will play for Dakota Wesleyan next year.

Hannah Bartscher, Ethan (6): Bartscher, a 5-foot-8 junior forward, led her team in scoring with 17 points per game and shot 60% on field goals. An all-tournament pick, she also had more than 13 points per game in a third-place finish at the Class B tournament.

Madisen Koepsell, McCook Central/Montrose (6): Koepsell, a 6-foot senior, posted 19 points per game and 11.5 rebounds to get MCM back to the state tournament, where she was an all-tournament pick, shooting 51 percent from the field, along with two blocks per game.

Avery Broughton, Corsica-Stickney (5): Broughton, a 6-foot sophomore, paced the Jaguars once again and was among the state’s best players until a knee injury 12 games into the season ended her campaign prematurely. Nonetheless, Broughton averaged nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, shooting 46 percent from the field for Corsica-Stickney, which took fourth in the Class B state tournament

Emilee Fox, Mount Vernon/Plankinton (4): Fox, a 5-foot-8 freshman, carried the Titans to a 14-win season in Class A and once again was a major focus of defenses. She averaged 19.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5 assists per game.

Kalla Bertram, Winner (3): Bertram, a 5-9 senior guard, averaged 18.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.4 steals per game for the third-place finishers in Class A. She was an all-tournament pick and will play college basketball at Black Hills State.

Macy Kempf, Mitchell (2): Kempf, a 5-11 senior forward, was the Kernels’ most consistent inside threat throughout the season. She finished the season averaging 11.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 49% from the field. She intends to play college basketball at Mount Marty.

Past award winners: 1994: Erin Olson, Mitchell; 1995: NaTascha Dawson, Howard; 1996: Mandy Koupal, Wagner; 1997: Mandy Koupal, Wagner; 1998: Mandy Koupal, Wagner; 1999: Lacey Johnson, Wessington Springs; 2000: Lacey Johnson, Wessington Springs; 2001: Vanessa Yanes, Wagner (2002 Season Switch); 2003: Jenna Hoffman, Mitchell; 2004: Jeana Hoffman, Mitchell; 2005: Allison Johnson, Mount Vernon; 2006: Jill Young, Mitchell Christian; 2007: Megan Doyle, Hanson; 2008: Terri VerSteeg, Platte-Geddes; 2009: Rhianna Gullickson, Hanson; 2010: Hillary Paulson, Freeman; 2011: Kerri Young, Mitchell; 2012: Kerri Young, Mitchell; 2013: Macy Miller, Mitchell; 2014: Macy Miller, Mitchell; 2015: Myah Selland, Sanborn Central/Woonsocket; 2016: Myah Selland, Sanborn Central/Woonsocket; 2017: Myah Selland, Sanborn Central/Woonsocket; 2018: Morgan Koepsell, McCook Central/Montrose; 2019: Karly Gustafson, Ethan; 2020: Avery Broughton, Corsica-Stickney; 2021: Bella Swedlund, Winner.

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