Photos by Hillary Ehlen
- 30 career starts
- 9.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.5 APG
- 2017 Summit League All-Newcomer Team
- 2016 North Dakota Miss Basketball
- ND Class A all-time leading scorer with 2,371 career points
- 90 career starts
- 11.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 APG
- 2015 Summit League All-Newcomer Team
- 2015, 2016 Honorable mention All-Summit League
- 2013 North Dakota Mr. Basketball
- Graduated as the Class A all-time leading scorer with 2,002 career points
A.J. and Sarah continue the Jacobson family tradition for NDSU hoops
Sarah Jacobson wasn’t always sure if she wanted to play college basketball at North Dakota State. In fact, during her eighth grade, freshman and sophomore years, she had no desire to be a Bison.
Sarah was a Fargo Shanley High School standout. She was the daughter of Pat (Smykowski) Jacobson, a former Bison women’s basketball player from 1985-89 and a Bison Athletic Hall of Fame member. And she was the younger sister of A.J., who was, and still is, playing for the NDSU men’s basketball team. Sarah wanted to create her own path and legacy.
It wasn’t until A.J. sat down with Sarah at the end of her junior year when she changed her mind. A.J. described what NDSU was all about. He talked about his experiences in his first couple years in the program and the familial elements of being a Bison. After that, Sarah was convinced. She committed and signed with NDSU. She started all 30 games last season as a true freshman point guard.
As A.J. enters his senior season and Sarah is now a sophomore, both have set high goals for themselves and their teams. That competitiveness and desire started when they were younger siblings, growing up together on and off the court under the guidance of David and Pat Jacobson.
Basketball is a big part of the Jacobson family. It’s hard for it not to be when their mother was one of the best college basketball players to play in Fargo. And so A.J. and Sarah set out to be not just good, but great athletes.
Since she can remember, Sarah always looked up to A.J. During traveling basketball season, she would go with her mom and brother and sit on the bench during games. She even had her own uniform. But when she wasn’t cheering on A.J., she was trying to beat him.
“Growing up with a brother, it taught me to be tough and to step up my game when we played against each other,” Sarah said. “We’re super competitive, so I always had someone to look up to and strive to be like.”
Sometimes, it would be a game of 1-on-1. But with A.J. three school years ahead and always bigger, it got chippy at times. That’s when a free throw or 3-point shooting contest would come into play. Both pushed each other to be better.
Pat took them to the gym often. A.J. remembers his sister on one end of the court doing drills and him doing the same on the other end. Their mom would go back-and-forth and rebound for them.
“It was always competitive between us,” A.J. said. “We’re both competitive people. It was one of those things where, especially in our family, if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it 100 percent. And we didn’t hold back on each other, that’s for sure.”
The hard work certainly paid off. By the time their high school careers finished, they were among the best North Dakota high school basketball players in Class A history. A.J. was the state’s Mr. Basketball in 2013 and became the Class A all-time leading scorer with 2,002 career points. Sarah won the Miss Basketball award in 2016 and also broke the Class A career scoring record with 2,371 points.
Becoming a Bison
The siblings were the most sought-after prospects in the state during their respective recruiting periods. For A.J., it was a no-brainer. He wanted to be a Bison.
“It was always a dream of mine to play at NDSU,” A.J. said. “When they offered me a scholarship, I was pretty set in stone that I wanted to play here. I never had any thoughts of playing anywhere else.”
That wasn’t the case for Sarah.
“Honestly, in the beginning of my recruiting process, I wanted to go my own way and not follow in my family’s footsteps,” she said. “It was kind of the stubborn girl growing up, rebellious type thing.”
During her junior year of high school, A.J. and her talked about NDSU.
“It was something where you can’t let people woo you in a sense,” A.J. recalled telling her. “You have to keep a clear and open mind. She’s a smart person, and I knew she would make the right decision for herself.”
Pat played a big role during Sarah’s recruitment. She organized a binder with all the schools that Sarah was considering and threw out the letters and inquiries of the schools she was not interested in. She also went with her daughter during the official and unofficial visits. But maybe the most important part was Pat making sure Sarah saw things through an adult’s eye instead of a teenager’s eye by treating education with more importance than basketball.
“We emphasized to Sarah to choose a school that she could see herself at if she didn’t play basketball,” Pat said. “Having had the privilege to attend not only her high school events but all of her AAU basketball and JO (junior Olympic) volleyball competitions, it meant a lot to me to be able to continue watching her in college. So I made it clear to her that if she chose a school 800 or more miles away, because of my job and her brother being at NDSU, I would not be able to get to many of her games. I think Sarah knew that she had my support no matter what, but I made it clear I would love to see her in the green and gold wearing my number 12.”
As she grew older and neared graduation, Sarah realized she wanted to stay close to home. She became a Bison.
Leaving their own legacy
A.J., a 6-foot-6 guard/forward, was named to the Summit League All-Newcomer Team as a freshman in 2014-15. Sarah, a 5-foot-8 guard, earned that same honor last season. A.J. has become a staple in NDSU’s lineup with 90 starts in three seasons, something Sarah wants to replicate after starting every game as a freshman.
But as far as continuing the family legacy, Sarah doesn’t view it as something hanging over her head.
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but it gives me external motivation to keep striving to be my best and keep pushing myself and never settle,” she said. “There are always areas that I can improve on. Just having a competitive family makes me strive to be better or as good as my brother and mom were during their careers.”
It’s that competitive nature that has brought success to their basketball careers. A.J. and Sarah still go to the gym together and still give each other pointers. When off the court, basketball takes up some of their conversations. But they also talk about everyday stuff such as classes, the future and A.J.’s wedding next June.
For Pat, she is proud of the accomplishments her kids have had on the court. But she also enjoys watching them use their platform as college athletes to make a difference. Pat, who is a teacher, had a special interaction in October at a parent-teacher conference. A parent told Pat about a friend of theirs who has a special-needs son that A.J. had met. On his birthday, A.J. not only texted him happy birthday, but he also took him to shoot hoops.
“I am thankful and appreciative for the opportunities both A.J. and Sarah are receiving at NDSU academically, athletically and being a part of our community,” she said. “There are so many days that random people stop me to tell me about how they met A.J. or Sarah or about how their children respect or look up to them. I’m super proud of what they are doing on the basketball court, but even more proud of how they are making an impact on others in our community.”
“The Bison family” is something that is said a lot around NDSU, from the administration to alumni to the players and coaches. It’s something that perfectly sums up what NDSU has meant to the Jacobson family and vice versa.
“It’s pretty surreal,” A.J. said. “It’s one of those things where it’s hard to explain. As much as NDSU has given me, it’s going to be hard to give that back. And I’m going to want to give that back. Hopefully, I can guide my sister through that process and give back in that way. I’m always going to be around NDSU and hopefully, I can give back to them.”