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The legend of Leech Lake: Taryn Frazer, Cass Lake’s face of basketball, nets Pioneer Sportsperson of the Year

Taryn Frazer's unforgettable career immortalized her place in Cass Lake-Bena lore. She is a generational scorer, a legend of Leech Lake, and the Pioneer's 2022 Sportsperson of the Year.

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Taryn Frazer's unforgettable career immortalized her place in Cass Lake-Bena lore. She is a generational scorer, a legend of Leech Lake, and the Pioneer's 2022 Sportsperson of the Year.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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CASS LAKE — The winter solstice arrives, and with it comes the year’s longest night. The snow hasn’t stopped in days on the Leech Lake Reservation, and the temperature is frozen solid well below zero.

But Cass Lake-Bena High School lights up when Taryn Frazer walks in, radiating with warmth upon the return of a homegrown folk hero.

Old friends dap her up in the hallway. A former teammate adoringly hugs her in the gym. And practice is peppered with spectators who learned to love hoops by watching her play.

“Basketball around here is everything to us, especially on the rez,” Frazer says. “It uplifts everyone.”

Cass Lake-Bena hasn’t forgotten its star. It never will.

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That’s why Taryn Frazer, a generational scorer and the face of this town’s basketball, has been selected as the Pioneer’s 2022 Sportsperson of the Year.

“It’s rewarding how many people know the impact that I’ve made in the community, especially with basketball,” the fabled point guard says. “You see all the kids out there at practice. They’re just watching it. It’s everything to this town.”

Record-setting superlatives

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Cass Lake-Bena captains, from left, Taryn Frazer, Krisalyn Seelye and Amira LaDuke hold up the Section 8A championship trophy after defeating Warren-Alvarado-Oslo to clinch a state berth on March 11, 2022, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Banners hang because of her.

They adorn the northwest wall of the Cass Lake-Bena gym, colored in noble maroon and draped high for all to see: “2021 Class A State Tournament” and “2022 Class A State Tournament.”

Frazer delivered her hometown two Section 8A championships, breaking a 16-year drought as a junior and going back-to-back for the first time in program history as a senior. Those remain her greatest accomplishments, she says.

But individuals don’t earn state berths by themselves. It took co-stars like Amira LaDuke, Gabby Fineday and Krisalyn Seelye to defeat Stephen-Argyle and Warren-Alvarado-Oslo during those playoff runs, plus an army of Panther fans in attendance at sections and at state.

“The whole community was there, I swear,” says Frazer, a proud member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. “It was packed.”

Frazer’s talents are what drove up demand. She spent six years on the varsity level, entering as a small seventh-grader but exiting as a program giant and its all-time leading scorer.

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“They love seeing a young person helping out the team and doing what she can out there,” Frazer says of her rookie season. “It was an opportunity that most people don’t get. … There were a lot of nerves, but obviously (former CLB head coach Michael Reyes) had faith in me to go out there and do something.”

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Cass Lake-Bena's Taryn Frazer (2) scores during the Section 8A championship game against Warren-Alvarado-Oslo on March 11, 2022, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer
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Cass Lake-Bena's Taryn Frazer (2) guards the ball in the first half against Fertile-Beltrami in the Section 8A semifinals on March 7, 2022, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Frazer scored 2,594 total points for Cass Lake-Bena, which also ranks 49th all-time in Minnesota girls basketball history. Only Martin Wind -- her head coach for her final three years -- has ever scored more at CLB. He had 2,622 points from 2006-10 and ranks 26th on the boys’ state leaderboard.

Frazer joined the 1,000 Point Club as a freshman in February 2019 and surpassed Amanda Gehrke’s previous girls record of 2,198 points as a senior in January 2022. The former milestone gave her faith that the latter was possible.

“I put in a lot of work to get to that moment,” Frazer says. “Mart always pushed me to break it because he has the boys scoring record. … It was nice having Mart push me past what I thought I could do.”

The students who now sit and watch practice on cold December afternoons are the same classmates who cheered her on as she authored history like none before her.

“When I was a youngin, all I wanted to do was play ball,” Frazer says. “If something was going on at home or with my medical stuff, everything went away when I got on the court. It was an outlet. Just like all the other kids, I feel like it’s an outlet for them too.”

Ojibwe outlet

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Cass Lake-Bena's Taryn Frazer (2) chases a loose ball in the first half against Hayfield in the Class A quarterfinals on March 17, 2022, at the Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Though the trophy case is stocked, life is not always easy for the former Miss Basketball nominee. Frazer has stage 3 chronic kidney disease, an illness that’s plagued her all her life.

When she first picked up a basketball, it was there. When she reached unprecedented heights and local renown, it was there. Even on merry days like this, with Christmas promised by the end of the week, it’s still there.

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“I was in and out of the hospital all the time when I was younger. That was hard,” she says. “But then I started learning how to take care of myself better, and doctors started figuring out what to do to get me right.”

Frazer has one working kidney that functions at about 40 percent. Her condition has kept her off the court occasionally, and it’s often her mother who has stood as the voice of reason when Frazer isn’t well enough to play.

But she hasn’t surrendered her grip on the ball. She can’t.

“When I was healthy and able, I was playing basketball,” Frazer says.

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Cass Lake-Bena's Gabby Fineday and Taryn Frazer celebrate a double-overtime win against Fertile-Beltrami in the Section 8A semifinals on March 7, 2022, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

In large part, that’s because it’s more than a sport in Cass Lake. It’s an avenue to escape the worst exposures of adolescence.

“How it is growing up on the rez, you live there and see a bunch of negative stuff all the time,” says Frazer. “We look to basketball as the outlet to get away from drugs, alcohol, family issues, all that kind of bad stuff.”

Appropriately so, Cass Lake weaves its culture into hoops. It has molded a style that isn’t standard curriculum and yet still schools most opponents. There’s a flair specific to “rez ball” that looks so easy, so natural.

Taryn Frazer mastered it like few ever have.

She forged her love on the driveway, challenging a formidable older brother who didn’t take it easy on her. She honed it on a court that had never seen talents like those she possessed. And she embraced it in front of a people that proudly claimed her as their own.

“All the community wants to be involved when it’s basketball season. They want to go support,” Frazer says. “It’s something that’s uplifting when there’s a bunch of negative things going on around us.”

‘I’m thankful for everyone’

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Cass Lake-Bena's Taryn Frazer talks to her teammates during a pep fest ahead of the Class A state tournament on March 16, 2022, at Cass Lake-Bena High School.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Until now, Frazer hadn’t been back to Cass Lake-Bena High School since graduation. She’s started a new career in familiar maroon, playing Division II basketball for Minnesota Crookston.

She’s a consistent starter and averages 7.3 points per game for the Golden Eagles. She led UMC to a win at Bemidji State on Nov. 22, a day of celebration with much of Cass Lake on hand for Frazer’s homecoming.

Of course they were there for her. They always have been.

“This town has given a lot of love and support through it all,” Frazer says. “I’m thankful for everyone who has been with me throughout the ride.”

Likewise, she’s there for the Panthers. At semester’s end, as she returns to CLB practice over winter break and stands before its loyal audience, Frazer understands that being a star here isn’t just about her. It’s about them.

“It’s meant a lot, being a role model to the younger kids and showing them that they can do it if they really want to put their minds to it,” she says. “It’s showing them a positive way to go about life.”

Frazer’s No. 2 jersey went unclaimed by this year’s Cass Lake-Bena roster. It may be worn again someday -- perhaps by the next Taryn Frazer -- but it still feels like hers for now. In many respects, it always will be.

“Cass Lake is the start of everything, who I am,” she says. “This is where I started to find my love for the game. All the memories I made here, that’s something I’ll never forget.”

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Taryn Frazer, the Cass Lake-Bena girls basketball star, has been named the Pioneer's 2022 Sportsperson of the Year.
Photo by Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer | Graphic by Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Pioneer Sportsperson of the Year winners

2022: Taryn Frazer, Cass Lake-Bena girls basketball player

2021: Chelsea (DeVille) Stoltenberg, BSU women's basketball head coach

2020: Troy Hendricks, BHS activities director

Read more Taryn Frazer stories
Taryn Frazer led the Golden Eagles to a 69-64 comeback win over the Bemidji State women’s basketball team in a game played at the BSU Gymnasium, but one that almost felt like a CLB home game with how many followers Frazer drew.
CLB handily defeated Warren-Alvarado-Oslo 71-53 in the Section 8A championship game on Friday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls. The victory delivered Cass Lake-Bena its fifth state berth all-time and back-to-back titles for the first time in program history.
Cass Lake-Bena survived third-seeded Fertile-Beltrami 65-60 in double overtime of Monday’s Section 8A semifinals. Scary as it was, Taryn Frazer and Co. are heading back to the championship to defend their title.
Taryn Frazer broke the Cass Lake-Bena girls basketball program record for points on Saturday, surpassing Amanda Gehrke's total of 2,198.
As the focus shifts to all that could be in 2022, take a look back on 2021’s biggest sports moments in Bemidji and beyond.
Cass Lake-Bena girls basketball standout Taryn Frazer became the second player in program history to reach 2,000 career points when she hit the milestone on Friday night in Walker.
Cass Lake-Bena qualified for its fourth state tournament in program history with a 65-55 win over Stephen-Argyle.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The persistence of the Leech Lake eighth grade girls basketball team paid off Saturday, June 30, in the Pacesetter Great Five-State Championship title game at Target Center in Minneapolis.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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