When paths cross again: DSU’s Wetzel, Donaldson share unique connection on and off the court

From the moment Dickinson State men's basketball head coach Justin Wetzel saw Connor Donaldson play, he knew he needed to have him on his team. That was two years ago, when Wetzel was an associate head coach for Montana State-Billings and made an...

Connor Donaldson, Justin Wetzel
Photo by Meaghan MacDonald Dickinson State senior post Connor Donaldson, left, stands next to head coach Justin Wetzel during Senior Night on Feb. 14 at Scott Gymnasium.

From the moment Dickinson State men’s basketball head coach Justin Wetzel saw Connor Donaldson play, he knew he needed to have him on his team.
That was two years ago, when Wetzel was an associate head coach for Montana State-Billings and made an impromptu recruiting trip for the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges all-star game. Donaldson was playing for Everett (Wash.) Community College at the time.
“I literally got his phone number from his coach, walked out into the parking lot and called him right there,” Wetzel said. “The sweat from his jersey probably wasn’t even dry yet.”
Weeks after Donaldson signed his letter of intent with MSU-Billings, plans went on a brief hiatus as Wetzel took an assistant position at Montana State University. He never got a chance to work with his recruit.
A year later, the two crossed paths again and have reconnected as Blue Hawks.
In Dickinson, they’ve built a unique player-coach bond.
“The way he goes about recruiting and building relationships with his players, I thought it was pretty impressive to me,” said Donaldson, a 6-foot-7 senior post for DSU. “At MSUB, he still remained in contact with me and cared about me, and that’s something that stuck with me, and I was able to come to Dickinson and finish out my senior year.”
The road to Dickinson was an unwinding path of uncertainty and gut choices for Donaldson. A native of Edmonds, Wash., he took a few years off between high school graduation and playing collegiately at Everett. His success was immediate on the court. Donaldson was named first-team NWAACC All-North Region. He averaged 16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for the Trojans.
When Wetzel decided to leave for Montana State, which plays at the NCAA Division I level, he did not regret the decision, but was disappointed he didn’t have the chance to coach his talented recruit at MSU-Billings.
“You always get a feeling when you work hard to recruit a kid and things like this don’t work out,” he added. “I would have loved to have an opportunity to coach him.”
While Wetzel was coaching the Bobcats, things went sour for Donaldson at MSUB. The university and program weren’t the right fit, he said. But it wasn’t long until a chance opportunity would arise.
When Wetzel was hired as DSU’s new head coach last spring, Donaldson was the first player who came to his mind. Wetzel called Donaldson before he was even hired.
Unhappy and realizing MSUB wasn’t the proper fit, Donaldson arrived at a crossroads. Either he could give in to the burnt-out feelings, or take a leap of faith and join Wetzel at DSU, a NAIA Division II program that had been in a rut for several seasons.
“Basketball is our passion, and it was like a breakup for him,” Wetzel said. “Things did not work out well for whatever reason and it was really like a breakup, and he was reluctant to date again when I picked up the phone and called him.”
Wetzel’s impact on Donaldson in the recruiting process was so profound that Donaldson knew he wouldn’t be steered wrong.
“I just put my trust in coach Wetzel,” Donaldson said. “Up until that point, he had proved nothing but sincerity and honesty in the recruiting process, and everything he had promised me and told me he had proved to me. I was really reluctant, but I think if it would have been really anyone else than coach Wetzel, I don’t think we would be having this conversation. I have to give a lot of thanks to him for making me come back.”
The decision to join the Blue Hawks couldn’t have gone better for all parties. The team is currently 11-15 overall and plays its final game of the regular season at Dakota State at 5 p.m. today in Madison, S.D.
Donaldson has been a key factor in the team’s success. He leads DSU averaging 13.7 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game. He’s ranked No. 18 in the NAIA in defensive rebounds per game (6.23).
“He’s a real weapon offensively,” Wetzel said. “He may not have always have a scoring night but he requires so much attention from the defense. At 6-foot-7, almost 6-8, and the way he can shoot it, he’s a real weapon for us at this level.”
Statistics aside, Donaldson has finally found a program that works for him.
“This year has been nothing but great and great to get the program back on its feet again if you will, and all in thanks to my teammates,” he added. “I like them all and respect them and not everyone can say that about their teams, year in and year out. But I can say that about this team and love and value each relationship I’ve built with these guys forever.”

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