The Hastings Raiders boys’ basketball team just ended its best season since 2014-2015 and the play of senior guard Devon Haraldson was a main reason why.

Watch Haraldson on the court for just a few minutes and his skill, basketball IQ and competitiveness are easy to see. What you won’t see are the 21 months that Haraldson spent away from the sport he loves due to a couple of ACL injuries.

Go back to the end of the 2017-2018 season. The Raiders were around .500 with two weeks left before playoffs having rebounded from a bad start. A key part of that was the emergence of a skilled sophomore guard, Haraldson, who could play off the ball, or point guard when senior Grant Hollar went to the bench.

That season Haraldson played in 19 contests and averaged 10.5 points per game. He was the team’s fourth-leading scorer behind three seniors. Four games before playoffs, he tore his right ACL.

“His sophomore year, he was arguably our best player. He was averaging around 11 points a game, he often guarded the other team’s best offensive player, so he was a really good defender,” said Raiders’ head coach Chad Feikema. “Very heady, very intelligent player. He was having an outstanding sophomore year at the time he got hurt. When he went down it had a significant impact on our team, it was shortly before sections.”

Hastings won three of its next four games, but lost to Burnsville 67-60 in the Section 3AAAA playoffs. Another double-digit scorer could have made all the difference.

“My sophomore year was really tough on me mentally because with it being my first year on varsity, we were starting to make a run and then bang,” Haraldson said. “I had never had an injury this bad in my entire life. I have to give a lot of credit to my coaches and my family for how I responded because they really helped me get through the mental battle, on looking forward and seeing the goals ahead.”

The set back

Haraldson missed that following season of AAU basketball as he rehabbed and was ready to return for the start of his junior season. He and some friends were shooting after school the Friday before the first practice of the year. Haraldson went up for a layup, came back down and landed awkwardly. He said it really was a freak accident, but he tore his right ACL — the same one as back in February — for the second time in nine months.

If this were to happen to most people, it would be devastating. Outside of the physical trauma, the emotional aspect would be just as intense. Some may have given up sports altogether. But not Haraldson.

“My main drive that kept me going through was so I could get to play one last season with the boys I have played my whole life with,” Haraldson said about the aftermath of that second injury. “Some of us have been playing together since third grade so I knew that my senior year I needed to get back so I could have one last, final season of ball.”

Feikema said that when he heard Haraldson had torn his ACL again, his goal was to keep things positive.

“I want to say he found out the Tuesday or Wednesday of that first week of practice, he had to go in and get it checked out,” Feikema said. “When he came back, one of my messages to him was ‘well, that means you’re going to have a heck of a senior year.’ I just tried to bring the smile back to his face. That led to ‘how do you want to handle this (junior) year?’ And it was more or less to be an assistant coach.”

And that was the arrangement for Haraldson’s junior season. Feikema and the coaching staff treated him like an assistant coach, which Haraldson credits for helping keep him engaged.

“Especially with my coaches, instead of just letting me sit on the end of the bench they put me in a spot to where I was basically an assistant coach,” he said. “This really helped me get through to looking forward to getting healthy.”

So once again Haraldson went through the rehab process, this time with a full year to get healthy before the next season. He said he was lucky that there weren’t any complications either time, and when speaking in January, that he did not have much pain once he started playing.

“Right now I feel 100% trust with my knee and I’m having no problems with it,” he said.

Between then and the start of this season, Haraldson said he kept up his basketball IQ by “constantly trying to keep myself around basketball.” He watched as much of it as he could on TV. During the offseason, he would shoot set shots so he wouldn’t have to jump and use the rebounding machine in the Hastings gym so he wouldn’t have to chase after balls.

He also took advantage of his time on the bench during his junior year.

“It really brought a new perspective into my game being on the coaches’ side,” Haraldson said. “I got to listen to how they think and look at the game from different angles, such as at halftime, I would listen in on what they had to say on in-game adjustments and other parts of the game that I try and include today.”

“It just helps from an understanding standpoint,” Feikema said about how that time on the bench helped improve Haraldson’s game. “A year ago the team would go into the locker room at halftime and the coaches would take a couple minutes before we went in to talk about what was going on and what our message would be. Now as he’s back on the other side of the door, I think he knows all of the thought that goes into everything that we do.”

The comeback

Heading into the 2019-2020 season, Haraldson slowly added more and more to his plate. He was not cleared to play 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 until a week or two before practice started. Once he was, he was able to do most things but could not scrimmage unless it was against his own teammates. He was not fully cleared until Nov. 26 and then played in the first game of the season Nov. 30 in Red Wing against Kasson-Mantorville. It was the first time he had played in 21 months.

“Before the first game I was insanely nervous, I remember the bus ride there I was shaking the whole time,” he said. “As soon as I stepped onto the court my nerves just kinda went away and all my thoughts went to the task in front of me, which was winning the game.”

Since stepping foot onto the court for that first game back, Feikema said he was stunned by what transpired.

“It was remarkable. It was remarkable. He got cleared on a Tuesday, Nov. 26 … and Saturday, Nov. 30, he put up 21 points,” Feikema said. “He looked like he was exactly the same as when he left when he was a sophomore, if not better, which is incredible.

“I think it was nothing short of remarkable how quickly he was able to step back on the floor and make it seem like he had never been gone.”

Feikema said that in terms of managing Haraldson’s minutes when he came back, it was not a matter of how many total minutes he played but rather consecutive minutes. That, and the fact that Haraldson instantly helped the team right off of coming back from injury.

“It was very evident early that our team was a lot better when he was out there,” he said. “We had a couple of close games early, so especially in the second half it became difficult for us to take him off the floor, especially when every time he came off the floor we asked him ‘how are you doing’ and he said ‘I feel great.’”

The restrictions did not last long and Haraldson continued to get better as the season went on.

Better than ever

Heading into Thursday’s playoff game at Lakeville North, he leads the team in scoring with 15 points per game and has been the Raiders top scorer in 10 of them. Haraldson had a season-high 38 at home against South St. Paul.

“I feel that I have improved a lot since my sophomore year with overall skill and just my overall game has improved a lot, especially on the offensive end, my ability to create shots for teammates I feel has improved greatly,” Haraldson said. “By getting into the lane and finding the open guy for the kick out. It really didn’t take me too long to get back into the flow after that first game, I was really feeling it and started to get into the rhythm of having a practice or a game after school.”

Remember what Feikema said to Haraldson after his second injury? About how he was going to have “one heck of a senior year”?

“Fortunately that has come to fruition,” Feikema said with a laugh.

It is easy to get wrapped up in what Haraldson is capable of on the court, but Feikema said he is just as valuable off it.

“He’s just got that presence, that calm, kind of steady. Some guys are very emotional, they’re riding a roller coaster, and he’s as steady as stone. I think that really plays dividends in close games, I think we’ve seen evidence of that all year,” he said. “Most of our games have been close games, and you’re never going to win all of them. He puts us in a really good position in a lot of those games because he’s able to stay dialed in and focused on what he needs to do next, he doesn’t get caught up in the emotion of stuff.”

How will the story end?

Hastings finished the regular season with a 17-9 record, its best since 2014-2015, which coincidentally was their first year in the Metro East Conference and the only year they have won it.

“I think our team this year is outstanding. Offensively we have plenty of options on the court that can score with ease so there is no real pressure on any one of us to score a majority every game,” Haraldson said. “Defensively we are starting to look a lot better since the start of the season, especially with our help side defense and rotations.”

What is in store for Haraldson when this season and his senior year is over? He was unable to play AAU basketball the last two summers, which is where most players are seen by college coaches and plays a huge role in evaluations. But that is not going to stop him.

“As of right now, nothing is official but I am trying to play basketball at a college,” he said. “I have sent game film to a couple colleges. But as of right now the plan is to play basketball in college.”

“I’m hoping he gets an opportunity. I know we’ve been in contact with a couple of different schools and coaches. From an intelligence standpoint, I think he’s definitely at the collegiate level, he’s extremely coachable and understands the game very well. He’s ready for it from that standpoint, his skillset is excellent,” Feikema said. “The only thing would be, at the college level, the level of athleticism is very different, obviously everyone is a lot more athletic. I think Devon is talented enough and smart enough to make the most of the athleticism that he has. We’re hoping that he has an opportunity, kind of waiting to see what develops.”

Haraldson wanted to thank those who helped him the most over the past two years in his journey back to basketball.

“The main, core people who have helped is my family of course, for being there for me with any problem that came up even when I couldn’t walk — I had my brother running around the house to get me some food or water or even just another pillow,” he said. “I really give him a lot of credit for putting up with me for that short period of time. Both of my coaches were a huge support for me throughout the process. Whether it was advice or just even a conversation between them, they both were just there for me with any problem I had.

“Lastly are my physical therapists, both Aaron and Jordan, who work here at the Hastings center, and Jeff who works at the Woodbury center. (They) really helped me by constantly giving me new workouts to do and helping me push myself to get back to being in basketball shape.”

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