Taylor Heise was pegged as one of the best hockey players in the country at her age group long before her freshman season of high school hockey.

But the summer prior to her ninth-grade year, Heise had an awakening while playing in a summer league in the Twin Cities.

"That's when it hit me: If I want to be my best, I really need to work hard to do that," Heise, a Lake City native, said. "If I wanted to make my dreams reality, I had to put in the time and the work.

"I can do nothing but skate three hours a day and be totally happy, but I had to put the work in."

It was around that time that the gravity of the attention she'd received from college coaches began to set in. There were times during Heise's eighth- and ninth-grade seasons playing for Red Wing High School when she would get two or three recruiting calls a day.

"It started in seventh grade, but very limited," Heise said of college coaches contacting her. "In eighth- and ninth-grade, I'd have two or three calls a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. Being that young, it was hard for me at times, I wasn't mature enough. ...

"It was so exciting, though, to know the hard work you'd put in was paying off."

For advice on how to best handle the recruiting process, she leaned heavily on her strong support system — parents Tony and Amy, brothers Nathan and Ryan, as well as her high school coach, Scott Haley, and former Red Wing players Paige Haley, Reagan Haley and Nicole Schammel, all of whom starred at Red Wing and the University of Minnesota several years before Heise did.

"My family, they didn't know too much about hockey, but they know enough and they kept me humble," said Heise, who comes from a basketball-rich family. Her brother Nate will play at the University of Northern Iowa, beginning this fall. "They kept me going so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed.

"I'd think things through when I'd talk to (college) coaches, take a lot of notes, talk to my family, coach Haley, Paige, Reagan, Nicole. They really helped."

Hard to say 'No'

Before Heise set foot on a college campus as a student-athlete, she'd accomplished just about everything a high school hockey player can accomplish.

She played in four state tournaments, scored 216 career goals, had 374 career points, was named All-State three times and was named Minnesota's 2018 Miss Hockey Award winner. She had also won three gold medals with the U.S. Women's National Under-18 Team at the 2016, 2017 and 2018 U18 Women's World Championships, being named the tournament MVP in 2018.

Heise had her pick of colleges.

Yet for someone who grew up watching Gophers' men's hockey games — looking up to players such as Eden Prairie native Kyle Rau — then watching her friends from Red Wing help the Gophers' women's team win national championships in 2015 and 2016, her decision wasn't as clear-cut as it may have seemed.

"It was always super exciting for me," Heise said, "but when you get to the end and have to say 'no' it's hard. That hurt. I don't like to disappoint anyone.

"When you talk to a coach for so long ... you talk to them every week — I kind of knew I wasn't going to go out east; I love Minnesota and never want to leave it — it was hard to say 'sorry, I have to say no.'"

Decision time

Heise beat Minnesota's coaching staff to the punch — or, the email, in this case.

Long-time Gophers associate head coach Joel Johnson coached Heise during her three gold-medal runs with the Team USA Women's U18 team, but Heise was still just a sophomore when she reached out to Johnson.

"I e-mailed Joel because I had been on many teams with him, some Team USA teams and I know he’d watched me play a lot," Heise said. "I reached out to him to ask if I could go on a visit. I really like him and have learned so much from him."

Johnson replied to Heise while she was on a recruiting visit at — of all places — the University of Wisconsin, the Gophers' top rival and a perennial national power.

Though she was excited that her interest in the Gophers was mutual, Heise took one unofficial visit and an official visit to the campus and team facilities as she weighed her options.

"I'm not someone to make a decision quickly," she said. "I didn't know 100 percent exactly where I wanted to go. I talked to Joel first, then (head) coach (Brad) Frost. I made a pros and cons list. I probably knew after the first day I was there, but you always have to think about it."

Frost and Johnson made Heise an offer during her official visit to campus. Of the seven players in the Gophers' 2018 recruiting class, four of them committed on the same day at the same time. But not Heise. She couldn't feel 100 percent committed until she had gone through her pros and cons list once more.

"I said I wanted to go home and think about it," Heise said. "Wisconsin had offered me, too, so me and my family talked about it and I thought about it a lot.

"I called Frosty and got all the coaches on the phone. I said 'hey, I've been talking to a few schools. There are pros and cons' ... I made them wait a little bit (and said) ... 'but I realized this is the place for me.' Coach Frost kind of laughed and said 'you took us on a roller coaster there.'"

Great fit for Gophers

The decision has turned out to be a great one for Heise and the Gophers.

She helped Minnesota reach the national championship game as a freshman in 2019, when the Gophers fell in a tight title game to Wisconsin, 2-0. The Gophers had qualified for the national tournament this past season, posting a 27-6-3 record before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down two days before Minnesota was set to host rival Ohio State in the national quarterfinals.

Heise has been the Gophers' third-leading scorer each of her first two years, totaling 31 goals and 88 points so far in her college career.

All of this from a player who was questioned by some for staying with the Red Wing High School program for six years.

"I had some people say they wonder why I wouldn't have moved or switched schools," Heise said. "But I showed that you can come from a small school and do big things.

"When I was in 10th grade I said to myself 'I want to be 10 times better my senior year than I am now' to show I have that drive and determination to get better. Staying in Red Wing was a great choice for me."

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THE RECRUITING TRAIL

TODAY — Recruited and Playing. Athletes who have gone through the recruiting process and are playing college sports: Gabby Bowlin, Josh Navratil, Taylor Heise, Mason Tapp, Nadia Lowery, Thomas Bruss.

July 15 — Recruiting at Junior Colleges: What challenges do JuCo coaches face in the recruiting process? Why do athletes choose the JuCo route? What role do academic advisors play?

July 16 — Coaches perspective: Coaches at different levels talk about their recruiting philosophies and practices.

July 17 — Recruited and Waiting: We talk to athletes who have made college commitments but have yet to arrive on campus. How are they handling this period of waiting and wondering might happen to their first semester of college?

July 18 — Technology and Social Media: How has social media changed recruiting for coaches and athletes?

July 19 — A Different Animal: Junior Hockey. Men’s hockey is unique to this process in that there is a middle ground between high school and college that most players must pass through.

July 20 — Recruiting Targets: Current high school athletes tell us what their recruiting experiences have been like so far, and how they plan to handle the rest of the process.

July 21 — Borderline Decisions: How does an athlete decide between playing for a Division I school or a Division II or Division III school? Or going to junior college?

July 22 — Two-Sport College Athletes: What is the recruiting process like for athletes who want to play more than one sport in college?

July 23 — Evolution of Recruiting: We talk to athletes from five decades to find out what their recruiting experience was like and how it has changed over the years.