By Pete Temple, Express Sports Editor
If you can’t beat them, sign them up.
It was that philosophy, back in 2002, that spawned the Iowa Barnstormers, the state’s most successful AAU basketball program, which is run by Monticello’s Greg Stephen.
The idea came about while Stephen was a student at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. He was coaching at the middle school level in the Odebolt-Arthur school district (what is now OA-BCIG).
“We had one really, really good player,” Stephen recalled. “And there was another player that used to kick our butt all the time.
“I asked him to play with us in a couple of tournaments, and we picked up a couple other kids, and it just kind of grew from there.”
In 2005, Stephen was director of sports performance at Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids, and continued to expand the AAU program. He teamed with Jamie Johnson of Iowa City to build the program further.
“He was kind of doing the same thing, and we joined forces and created the Barnstormers,” Stephen said.
He said the Barnstormers helped fill a void of select basketball programs in the State of Iowa.
“There have been grass root club teams in other states,” he said. “In Minnesota and Wisconsin, there are 10 to 15 different ones. In Iowa, there was one.
“There were a lot of kids who were really talented basketball players, who didn’t have an opportunity to play. I thought Iowa was a little behind the times.”
Not anymore. Now there are several Iowa teams playing around the country during the open period, which is the period in which NCAA coaches are allowed to watch prospective recruits.
“It’s really good for Iowa athletics and for the kids, giving them more opportunities to be seen, and more opportunities to play,” Stephen said. “And it has really raised the level of basketball in the state over the last few years.”
Not only is a Monticello native running the program, but the teams have also held recent practices at Monticello High School.
“The majority of our kids are from the Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City or Dubuque, so Monticello’s kind of nice (for practice). It makes it pretty well centrally located,” Stephen said.
The program is essentially split in two. The Barnstormers are the teams that travel and play nationally, and the Mavericks are the regional squads. In all, there are nine Barnstormers boys teams, six Barnstormers girls teams, and eight Mavericks teams.
All of the players are in grades 5-11. Stephen coaches the 11th-grade and eighth-grade teams.
Several area players are part of the Mavericks program, including Monticello’s Sawyer Herman and Jarrett Easton, and Cascade High School players Devin Green and Haris Takes.
The teams conduct open tryouts in the fall, but for the most part, the Barnstormers and Mavericks seek the players out.
“As elite of a program as it’s become, it’s really a situation where we go out and find the kids, based on statistics and coaches’ recommendations,” Stephen said. “I drive around and watch high school games around the area and evaluate those players based on that, and then we put the teams together based on what we’re seeing.”
The program can be pricey, but Stephen said it has never turned away a player who had struggled to pay. Instead, the coaches find fund-raising opportunities for such players.
“We want them to have the opportunity, because it’s a pretty neat opportunity,” he said.
The teams start practicing in early March, then begin a 10-tournament schedule in April. This year, the Barnstormers will play in tournaments in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Chicago and Indianapolis, among others, before ending the season at the Fab 48 tournament in Las Vegas in July.
The key tournaments are the last two weekends in April, and three weekends in July, which are during the NCAA open periods. Stephen refined the schedule based on his knowledge of NCAA rules, which he picked up in two years as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Upper Iowa University in Fayette.
“It’s really important to get the kids playing in front of the college coaches on dates when the college coaches can come out and watch,” Stephen said.
The middle school players have a longer schedule, starting practice in October and playing up to 20 tournaments.
The teams only practice and play on the weekends.
“Most of my guys are involved in track, involved in high school baseball, involved in all sorts of stuff,” Stephen said. “We’ve got kids who are the best athletes and the leaders in their school communities. And so we only practice on the weekends, which allows them to put their time in during the week with their school teams.
“When we do practice, it’s for three or four hours, so we go pretty hard with the kids when we do.”
Stephen performs administrative duties such as scheduling, figuring out the traveling, organizing the rosters and more.
“We’ve got a great coaching staff of former high school and college coaches, and former recruiting analysts,” he said.
Stephen takes pride in the success of the teams.
“We had 41 kids in our program that made it to the Iowa high school state tournament, and 21 of those kids were named to all-state teams this year,” Stephen said. “Of the four classes in Iowa, three of the MVPs were Barnstormers.”
Last year, there were 12 players on the Barnstormers 11th-grade team, and Stephen said all 12 received full-ride college basketball scholarships.
Stephen has had the privilege of coaching players such as Josh Oglesby, who was a Barnstormer from grades seven through 11, and now plays for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“That’s really cool,” he said. “I get a chance to watch these kids grow up, and then I get a chance to watch them on TV.”
While the Iowa teams run up against tough competition from Indianapolis, Chicago and other larger areas, the Barnstormers have found success. In 2010, the Barnstormers’ 11th-grade team, for instance, reached the championship game of the Las Vegas tournament before losing.
More success may be ahead. The current 11th-grade team has six players who stand 6-foot-7 or taller, including two who are 6-10.
“It’s the biggest class we’ve ever had,” Stephen said. “Not only are they really talented basketball players, but the entire group has 3.5 grade-point average or higher. They are leaders in their communities, leaders academically and leaders athletically. Those are things we are really proud of.”
Stephen stays busy, not only organizing the Barnstormers and Mavericks programs, but also serving as general manager for Stephen Motors in Monticello.
“I came back to coach, and to help my dad out in the business after my brother (Brad) passed away,” Stephen said. “It’s a lot, but it’s a passion of mine to work with these guys. I’ve had an opportunity to work with some really, really talented basketball players. It’s been a pretty fun ride.”
More information about the programs is available on two websites, barnstormersbasketball.com and iowamavs.com.
PHOTO: Greg Stephen of Monticello (right, in black) gives instructions to Barnstormers players at Monticello High School (Photo courtesy of Dianna Rucker, Rucker Photography)