top of page
  • Patrick Engels

University of Mary's Carly Kottsick Can




The sign read: “Garage Sale.”

With just two dollars in their pockets - granted by their parents - 4-year-old Carly Kottsick and her older brother, Evan, stumbled upon the neighborhood sale’s ultimate crown jewel.

No, they were not enamored by a fancy necklace or a large toy, but by a beautiful orange basketball, being offered for a bargain of just 50 cents.

Sold!

“We dribbled it back home,” Kottsick said.

And it marked the beginning of an unwavering bond between Carly and basketball.

A bond almost as tight as that with her mom.

More Than a Game

Neurodegenerative disease, what’s that?

Lou Gehrig, who’s he?

ALS, what’s that stand for?

Little 4-year-old Carly didn’t know the answers to these questions. But she did know that Mom was sick, really sick.

And most importantly, Mom needed help, a lot of help.

At the same time, Kottsick sought to turn that 50 cent investment into a large part of her early life.

Thanks to Mom and Dad, her quest to achieve that began right at home.

“My parents actually put a hoop in our driveway and did the paint lines where you would draw on the three-point line and what-not,” Kottsick said. “We’d go outside and play ‘PIG’ four or five nights a week.”

Playing against Evan and her father, Bud, in the driveway, Carly began to develop some foundational basketball skills, from shooting to ball handling.

“I was half decent at basketball, and who doesn’t want to pursue something they are good at, right,” Kottsick said.

ALS, however, slowly shut Julie Kottsick’s body down bit by bit. Eventually, Carly’s mom could not eat, could not drink, could not shower, could not even go to the bathroom - without the help of her family, including Carly.

“Just small daily tasks and chores that you imagine to be done…you load your cup in the dishwasher or you grab your glass, and you take a drink of water for example, this was done for her. And it was a big responsibility.”

Carly very much wanted to help her mom. And she also very much wanted to become the greatest basketball player on the planet. Those two goals did not seem like they could coexist.

Many of her teammates often hung out after practice to get some extra shots up. Carly tried to stay. She also tried to take care of her mom. Hard to be in two places at the same time.

“You want to maybe go back to the gym and shoot around, but all these things had to be so planned in order for that to properly occur,” Kottsick said.

Take the nighttime routine, for example.

“When practice was over, even in elementary school, Mom needs dinner, needs her pills, needs to get ready for bed. And then you have to do it for yourself too.”


“Going home from practice, teammates would be like, ‘Oh, do you want to go out for supper,’” Kottsick said. “[But] that wasn’t necessarily a luxury I had. It was time to go home, because you have to feed [yourself] dinner, and you have to feed Mom dinner.”

“[Dinner] is probably an hour-and-a-half ordeal. Mom chews slow, you are feeding yourself. . . it lasts a long time.”

After dinner, Carly had homework.


But before she hit the books, it was time to clean up the kitchen, and - most importantly - get Mom ready for bed.


“It was kind of like what you would expect when you go home from your workday that you do in an hour to unwind, this probably took us the evening,” Kottsick said.


“I would definitely say that was a huge struggle of just being a child. People didn’t really understand that, as a kid, you expect a kid to more or less be a kid. I don’t want to say I didn’t have those opportunities to just hang out and be young, because I definitely did. However, there were a lot of things that my brother and I faced in order for that to happen.”


Kottsick continued, “Ultimately, at the end of the day, we are caring for someone that we loved, so it shouldn’t have been a chore.”


Meal after meal. Bite after bite. Night after night.


Feeding, helping, hoping - for Mom to be okay.


Yet also learning, working, dreaming - to some day dominate at hoops.


Something had to give. One one hand you have Mom, and on the other hand. . . . there’s no other hand. Clearly basketball had to go.


Not necessarily. If Carly could learn how to balance, how to prioritize her time, and how to capitalize on the limited opportunities she had to improve with basketball, then maybe she could do both.


Not easy. Lots of struggle and thoughts of giving up the dream. There’s only so much time in a day.


“It definitely made discipline in the athletic world all that much [more important] too,” Kottsick said. “How many hours am I actually going to get in the gym? I don’t know, so let’s make it whatever you can be when you get the two hours. Because when you go home, you have these things to do. When your friend asks you to come shoot around, well, I don’t know if I can, I have things going on.”


As Carly grew older, she began to put this attitude into action. Throughout her elementary and middle school years, Kottsick devoted the time she had away from her caregiving responsibilities to training with her dad in the driveway.


“We would go elbow-to-elbow all night long until I made 15 in a row,” Kottsick said. “[It] took a while. I was practicing midrange a lot.”


“We spent a lot of time in the driveway, just doing various drills,” Bud Kottsick said. “[We did] the Mikan Drill, I remember doing that with her, and she would get tired - but continue doing it.”

In fact, this time outside would allow the whole Kottsick family, yes - even Julie Kottsick - to bond and connect.


“Not only was that an individual growth aspect of basketball, but a huge family time,” Carly said. “Mom can sit and watch me and my brother play basketball whenever [we were] outside.”

With her new mentality allowing Carly to find the right balance in her life and improve herself as a basketball player, she looked to use this to her advantage as she advanced her young hoops career.

As Carly grew older, her attempts to find the perfect balance between life, family and basketball did not come any easier.


On some weekends, her older brother, Evan, would spend time away from home and head to the lake with his friends.


“That meant I was staying home,” Carly said.


Now, time with her friends and teammates after practice was even further away from her mind. With her brother gone, she often took on her brother’s caregiving roles, in addition to her own.


For the young Carly, finding the right approach to tend to her mother by herself seemed like an impossible task.


At times, she even wondered what would happen if she failed to do her job.


“If I didn’t fill Mom’s pills at the end of the day, now what? “As an individual, you put a lot of pressure on yourself in terms of...‘You got to do this right.’”


Despite these fears creeping into the back of her mind, Carly pushed forward.


Could she help Mom eat dinner by herself?


Yes.


No way she could help Mom get ready for bed on her own, right?


Wrong.


The bathroom though, would have to be beyond little Carly.


Somehow, someway, she did.


How could Carly possibly do this at such a young age?


She became independent simply because she had no other choice.


For Carly, “independence was necessary” to help her achieve what seemed like the impossible.


“You know what needs to be done, so you get it done,” Kottsick continued. “Mom’s still up, she needs to get in bed, figure it out and do it. You just get it done. You have your priorities, and you just know what needs to be done, and you just do it.”


Carly’s Declaration of Independence


Carly did have that other priority. The much easier one - becoming the greatest basketball player of all time.

She knew of travel and AAU teams. But they came with much bigger risk for Carly than playing in elementary school or on her driveway. She had fears and apprehensions.

She also had her mom, with that devastating illness. And because of that - she went for it.

She knew she could do it because of her mother - because of the independence and self reliance now ingrained in her from successfully helping her mother. Thanks Mom.

But then she had issues. Made mistakes. Messed up plays, Missed shots. All huge confidence killers.

Not for Carly.

“When you lose a game, or even a drill in practice, it’s like, ‘Ok, shoot, do the consequence, make the shot, do your push-ups and sprints,” Kottsick said. “But then you move on and do the next thing. That helped me when I was younger...When something was over, I didn’t really stick to it. I just moved on, worked on the next task ahead, and try to fix it from there.”

So 8th grade comes and Carly considered the seemingly impossible- going out for the high school varsity team.

Some thought she had reached the point of overconfidence. Big crash clearly coming.

And the coach of the Davies High School Eagles clearly disagreed. He gave Carly considerable playing time during her first season.

The “get it done” mentality worked again. Thank you Mom, again.

While Carly believed in her sheer talent and ability, the then-middle schooler’s ascension to the varsity team turned the heads of many, such as Tim Jacobson, who served as a head coach for rival Shanley High School at the time.

“I really noticed how well she played,” Jacobson said. “She was a tough nut. She played hard. She played with intensity. She could shoot. And she was a competitor ‘par excellence.’”

She had a problem, however. To stay on the team, Carly had to keep her grades up. With practices and Mom, she did not have time, especially for group projects.

So she just did them herself.

“I definitely wanted those to be like, ‘Hey, forget it. I know this is your guys’ work, but I kind of want to do it a week ahead before the due date, so I’ll just take care of it,” Kottsick said.

And on top of that she had AAU. Not only a time commitment, but some pretty intimidating travel for a young girl.

One time she and her father went to a tournament in Chicago. Then Dad got sick.

Carly still needed to get to the games. She’d have to figure out how to navigate the bus shuttle service alone, or not play.

“For a little 13-year-old girl from Fargo, North Dakota in downtown Chicago . . .she was pretty pleased with herself after she pulled that one off,” Bud Kottsick said.

Independent Carly can. Thanks, once again, Mom.


Carly’s Revelation

Through this time, Carly’s need to care for her mom never ceased.

And Carly’s mom never ceased caring for her.

Though in a wheelchair, Julie managed to attend Carly’s games. She’d cheer for her little girl from the sideline and hope for the best.

But Carly remained just an underclassman. She still tried hard not to disappoint.

And she succeeded.

She became the starting point guard and as a mere sophomore earned an All-Eastern Dakota Conference selection.


So, as any other successful child would, Carly looked for more of the same as she progressed through her high school journey - relying on her independent approach to grant her further basketball and life triumphs.


However, at the beginning of her junior year, Carly and her teammates did not perform well in practice.


And, with her independent personality convincing her that she had all the right answers, taking the blame was the furthest thing on her mind.


“This was a huge pride thing,” Kottsick said. “I was like, ‘I’m not taking accountability for a mistake that wasn’t mine.’”


Kottsick’s self-reliant and mature mentality previously helped her thrive in basketball and beyond. But this time, things were different.


“We weren’t doing well. I was struggling at the time to lead the team in a culture of moving forward.”


Later in the season, the same coach that gushed at her talent in eighth grade attempted to deliver Carly a wake-up call.


Tim Jacobson - now Carly’s head coach at Davies - offered the young point guard a piece of basketball advice that could translate away from the hardwood.


“He said, ‘Hey Carly, you got to let them know that that pass was your bad,’” Kottsick said. “And I said, ‘But coach, it wasn’t my bad. That was a good throw, right?’


“I don’t really want to hear that,” Kottsick said. “I don’t want to admit to being wrong when I don’t feel like I am either.”


The team spiraled. Chemistry dwindled. The season look unsalvageable and . . .


“I figured out . . . I can learn a thing or two from other people who know more about something, it can really change my game.”


“That was just a super huge revelation I had,” Kottsick continued. “Just taking accountability for the mistake and saying, ‘You know what? We’ll all do better,’ ultimately leads to better attitudes and better success.”


This new mindset helped boost the team’s “morale” for the second half of the year.


Did this mean that Carly had completely abandoned her ability to be self-reliant and her goal to be the best? Not a chance.


She had another impressive individual year, averaging 11.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals per game and earning her second-straight All-Eastern Dakota Conference selection.


But, according to Jacobson, what mattered most was that it allowed her to redefine her role and emerge as one of the team’s most impactful leaders.


“We told her, we need you to run this team, so people are in the right spots for the opportunity to score. It took a while, but she bought into it. And she bought into it as well as anyone could ask for. We won many games because of her willingness to sacrifice her own for the betterment of the team. And what more can you ever ask for a kid?”


“Ultimately . . . it is a team sport,” Kottsick said. “You’re ultimately going to have your hard days and you’re going to struggle, and you might even fail sometimes. But that’s the beauty of having the teammates behind you to grow from.”



Special Senior Season

With a bit of a change in attitude and a stellar junior campaign behind her, Kottsick looked to continue that upward momentum into her senior season.

That year, Carly hoped to take her game to another level, and lead the Eagles to a conference championship.

All while continuing to care for Mom.

After the season started, the importance of each practice magnified every passing day.

Then came November 28, 2017.

Kottsick entered the school’s basketball gym through the side door, and Coach Jacobsen noticed Carly had a different look on her face, and even some redness. He needed to know if something had gone wrong.

Coach Jacobson was right. Something was wrong.

Just a few hours earlier - at around 12:45 p.m. - Julie Kottsick passed away. Her courageous 14-year battle with ALS had ended.

Carly again needed to try to push aside her independent tendencies and this time rely on the kindness of others to guide her through the immediate “shock” of her mother’s death.

“It wasn’t a huge, unexpected thing, but [I] was also trying to understand the weight your mom passing away holds, even though it was expected,” Kottsick said.

Luckily, she would receive support from the man who stood right beside her hours after the passing.

“[Coach Jacobson] said, ‘[Did] she pass?’ And I said, ‘Yep.’ And then he hugged me, and we had cried,” Kottsick said. “That’s a huge moment that I just remember with coach Jacobson. He was the first individual outside of my direct family that I had seen after that day.”

Kottsick trudged through the beginning of her senior season. Her obviously heavy heart outweighed her once unstoppable drive. Coach Jacobsen and his assistants worried.

“Our concerns were about her, not her game,” Jacobson said. “I do remember being able to see her when she would walk into the gym, and see where she was at, if she seemed distant or right with us or whatever. We always made sure we visited with her to see where she was for that particular day and if there was anything we could do.”

Unfortunately they couldn’t do much. The dream of a conference title lost its importance. Who can possibly care at this point?

Carly Can.

She again found it in her to at least temporarily set aside her independence and accept support from teammates and coaches.

“I could see it, every kid on the team. . . .all the energy [went] to Carly. I could see Carly was very moved and acceptive of it. It’s quite a deal when you go about the game you love to play, because you realize that isn’t the most important thing. It is the relations and the care and the love that everybody has beyond playing.”

With the full support and love of her team behind her, Kottsick developed a positive life outlook during her senior campaign.

“This happened, but now it’s time to keep going. Not that there’s not always time to reflect and time to grieve and time to cope as well. But, at the end of the day, life goes on, and you got to take what you have and work with that too.”

This mindset allowed Carly to go forward with her initial goals and at least try to salvage a decent senior year.

Well, the season did not turn out decent. It turned out with the team being crowned Eastern Dakota Conference Champions.

Again, make no mistake, though Carly realized a need to be dependent, the “get it done” in her had not vanished.

Kottsick became one of just seven players in program history to eclipse the 1,000-point mark, while also setting the program record for most assists in a single season with 139.



Fargo to Bismarck

After a historic and inspiring senior season at Davies High School, Kottsick looked to take her basketball game to the collegiate ranks.

Back in September of her junior year, University of Mary’s coach Rick Neumann traveled three hours east alongside an assistant to visit Carly and her family.

“The hardest home visit I ever had was going to visit Carly and her mom and dad,” Neumann said. “When everybody walked out of the room, there was just a moment where it was just her mom and I. I can tell her mom wasn’t very verbal then. But I could tell [she] wanted to know Carly was going to be okay. I just leaned over to Carly’s mom, and I was like, ‘I’ll take care of her.’

Neumann continued, “You can see her mom, with whatever strength she had left, she squeezed my forearm, and I was like, ‘Okay, that was an emotional one.’”

But Carly had so many other offers. How to chose? Go to a school with an even bigger name? Pick one that will guarantee she starts? Hold out for a D1 opportunity?

“Just seeing they were willing to see my mom in Fargo and go through that process because they knew [she] wouldn't be able to come out here. That was a huge investment, that I knew that coach Neumann and the University were taking on me. . . . That was a big deal for me,”

Carly signed her letter of intent and became a Marauder.



After buying into coach Neumann and the program's philosophy, Kottsick looked to make an instant impact her first year on campus. She intended to be what she always wanted to be - the best.

During her very first practice, Carly and her teammates geared up to compete in the notoriously feared “Marauder Run” - a conditioning test each player must partake in at the start of the season which involves running, a lot of running.

Coming off an amazing senior season, Kottsick felt prepared to take on this daunting challenge.

After all, hasn’t she been through enough already?

“I thought I was ready for this thing, I thought there was no way I wasn’t passing it.”

Wishful thinking for the freshman.

“I didn’t pass it, and I didn’t make it to the garbage can, either. We walked like two laps after we [ran], and I got on my knees, and I threw up.”

To make matters worse, Kottsick said she received an earful from then-junior Gabbie Bohl - a former standout forward and All-NSIC player for the Marauders - who placed the blame on Carly for the sudden disruption in practice.

“She yelled at me, ‘You better get that off the floor!” And I was like, ‘Do you think I tried to do this, Gabby?’ I was pretty livid that she was upset with me, but I can’t say that if I was in her position that I would have said anything else.”