Women's basketball: How Jes Mertens found a way to be different

Jacob Shames
Jes Mertens averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.1 steals per game while leading Devils Lake to a 25-1 record in her senior season.

When all of your siblings have played college basketball, there’s a familial force guiding you down that same path.

Jes Mertens resisted it for as long as she could.

In second grade, Mertens started playing organized ball and going to tournaments. She enjoyed it enough, but she didn’t want to be like everyone else in her family. She wanted to do something different — maybe dance, which most of her friends in Devils Lake, N.D. did.

“I liked my team and thought (basketball) was fun,” she said. “I just had no interest in getting better or doing it in high school.”

In the end, Mertens never did dance. When she was in middle school, her team, which was originally “really bad,” started working harder. Focusing more. Winning more games. She fell in love with basketball just like B.J., Steph, Nathan and Jake before.

And it’s paid off so far. Mertens committed to Minnesota Crookston in January, and when she first takes the court next season, she’ll follow in the footsteps of four of her siblings: B.J, who played at Jamestown, Steph at Lake Region State, Nathan at Minot State and Jake, who’s currently a junior at Minnesota State Moorhead. (Her youngest brother, Brett, is still in high school.)

More than that, though, she’s a prized get for the Golden Eagles — an athletic, slashing wing with an emerging outside shot and off-the-charts defense. In March, UMC head coach Mike Roysland said Mertens might be the best defender he’s ever recruited.

Jake — who still faces off regularly with Jes in the driveway — adds credibility to that assertion.

“Just because she’s so quick, it’s a challenge when she’s guarding you,” he said. “I can’t imagine playing against her a whole game.”

That quickness came naturally. Mertens has always been long and athletic, and now stands 5-foot-9 with a wide wingspan. Her earliest travel teams emphasized defense first, and as a result, it didn’t take long for her to find her niche once she devoted herself to basketball.

Her offense, though, took longer to develop. While Mertens became a lockdown defender on the strength of her physical gifts, she sought out her siblings when she wanted to work on her shot, constantly asking questions about how she could get better. Her family’s competitiveness also gave her a mental boost.

“My whole family’s been very supportive, very involved in my athletic career,” she said. “We’re very competitive, we’re always pushing each other, we don’t really lax off on anything.”

But even as Mertens made her way down the family path, her desire to be different never left.

As a senior in 2019-20, Mertens led Devils Lake to a 25-1 record. She averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 5.1 steals, finishing with 1,279 points for her career. But she also made her mark on the track: last spring, she placed sixth in the 400 meters at the state championships, as well as eighth in the high jump. In fact, at one time, she had trouble choosing which sport to compete in in college.

Roysland was aware of this dilemma. When Mertens visited Crookston last fall, he noted that UMC didn’t offer track, but told her she could still run cross country.

Mertens says basketball will be her main priority in college. She’ll train almost exclusively with the basketball team and run on her own while attending every meet. But in the meantime, she’s following a summer training plan given to her by cross country coach Steven Krouse, while also finding the time to play basketball every other day.

“(She felt pressure) maybe a little bit more in high school than now,” Nathan said. “ … I think now, she’s very relaxed and comfortable. She knows there’s a lot of work to be done moving forward but I think she probably has more a sense of relief that she’s in a place she really enjoys.”

Being a Mertens in Devils Lake means being a basketball player — and not just an average one. But being a Mertens in Crookston doesn’t carry the same weight: here, Jes really is her own person.

If there’s one sibling who Jes’ game is most similar to, she, Nathan and Jake agree that it would be Nathan’s: defense-focused, athletic and hard-working. But it’s not a perfect comparison by any means — the reality is far more complex.

“A lot of people tell me that I don’t play like any of my siblings,” she said. “So I guess I did go my own way, even though I’m still playing basketball.”

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