PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Jake Sanderson finished practice on a Friday afternoon at USA Hockey Arena and went straight to the gym for a workout.

When he was done with that, he changed into his street clothes: a black University of North Dakota hooded sweatshirt with an interlocking ND on the front.

The shirt signifies a future he's eager to reach.

Although Sanderson is a junior in high school, he's accelerating his education so he can come to UND next fall, where he will be the team's top recruit.

The 6-foot-2, 186-pound defenseman for the U.S. Under-18 Team could, in fact, wind up being one of the top NHL prospects ever to attend UND.

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Earlier this week, he was named the No. 11 North American skater in Central Scouting's 2020 NHL Draft rankings, which makes him a candidate to go in the top half of the first round of June's draft in Montreal.

Only nine UND players have ever gone in the top 15 picks: Tyson Jost, Derek Forbort, Jonathan Toews, Brian Lee, Drew Stafford, Jason Herter, James Patrick, John Marks, and Roger Bamburak.

What makes Sanderson so elite?

It's the total package, said U.S. Under-18 Team coach Seth Appert, who won two NCAA national championships as George Gwozdecky's assistant in Denver before spending 11 years as RPI's head coach.

"If Jake's not the best defender in the world for his birth year," Appert said, "I don't know who's better.

"He's 6-2. Incredible skater. Incredible, explosive skater. Mean. Physical. Blocks shots. Moves the puck. Transitions it really well. He's on the power play. He has everything you want, really. He's our captain. He's a winner. The guys think the world of him. And he's the kind of guy you want in your room."

Sanderson plays on the top defensive pairing, on the power play and on the penalty kill for Team USA, which has a second UND commit on the blue line in Fargo's Tyler Kleven.

"He can help you win in so many different ways," said Appert, who noted Sanderson's defensive coach is Grand Forks native Nick Fohr. "He can jump in the rush offensively. He can transition it to our forwards. And he can play against the other team's best players and shut them down physically. He doesn't have as many big hits as Kleven, but he's just as mean and physical of a defender."

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UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, checks UND forward Collin Adams in a Dec. 28 game in Plymouth, Mich. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP
UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, checks UND forward Collin Adams in a Dec. 28 game in Plymouth, Mich. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP

Coming from Whitefish

Sanderson's hometown jumps off the page: Whitefish, Mont.

Montana isn't exactly a hockey hotbed. Only one UND player has ever come from the state of Montana -- All-American forward Terry Casey, whose No. 12 is one of the program's two retired jerseys. Casey, who came from Great Falls, was killed in a car accident in 1967, a year after he finished at UND.

Sanderson was born and mostly raised in Whitefish, though he bounced around quite a bit as his father, Geoff, played in the NHL. Jake remembers stints in Phoenix and Edmonton at the end of his dad's 17-year, 1,104-game, 700-point NHL career.

Geoff played for a Stanley Cup in 1999 with the Buffalo Sabres alongside former UND greats James Patrick and Dixon Ward.

In third grade, the Sandersons moved to Calgary, which is where Jake called home until joining USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in the fall of 2018. He still lists Whitefish, located on the edge of Glacier National Park, as his hometown, though.

"It's beautiful," he said, "both summer and winter. In the winter, there's really good skiing. In the summer, it's super green."

Although Sanderson enjoys some of the outdoor activities that are so popular in Montana, like mountain biking and fishing, hockey has always been at the top of the list.

UND commit Jake Sanderson plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP
UND commit Jake Sanderson plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP

A lightly recruited player

Sanderson may have followed in his dad's footsteps by playing hockey, but he did not choose the same position.

In fact, he's the only person in his family to play defense.

Geoff was a left winger. Jake's older brother, Ben, is a forward who plays for the Vernon Vipers in the British Columbia Hockey League and is committed to play for Colorado College. His younger brother, 14-year-old Sawyer, also is a forward.

Jake was picked in the fourth round of the Western Hockey League draft by the Kootenay Ice, but he always had his eyes aimed at the college route.

Even as a child, his father and mother, Ellen, discussed the possibility of getting a scholarship to college. Although Geoff played in the WHL himself, he frequently told Jake about his brother, Guy, who played at Clarkson from 1989-93.

"My dad always said that (Guy) did it the fun way, having that college atmosphere and college experience," Jake said. "And when you're done with all of that, you can have a degree. It will make me better off for the rest of my life."

Jake may be a top prospect now, but he wasn't highly recruited.

UND was the first school to be in contact with him after associate coach Dane Jackson spotted him at a few games in Alberta. Harvard was the only other team to reach out.

Sanderson came to Grand Forks on a visit in January 2018 and watched a pair of games against Omaha.

"It was awesome," Sanderson said. "Seeing the rink and stuff was so eye-opening. It was cool. The game was sick. It was like nothing else. . . so unique."

Sanderson committed before leaving Grand Forks.

"I remember I was in the little room where they bring the recruits," Sanderson said. "My dad looked at me and said, 'If you want to be a hockey player, this is the place to go.'"

UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, skates in a game earlier this season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP
UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, skates in a game earlier this season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP

A rise in prominence

Since that moment, Sanderson has continually increased his profile.

First, he made the U.S. Under-17 team and moved to Plymouth, Mich. Within a month, NHL scouts were whispering that he might be the best prospect on the team.

Sanderson posted four goals and 24 points in 44 games last season, though his year was cut short because he sustained a broken jaw in February.

"I had to get it wired shut for like three weeks and drink smoothies," Sanderson said. "I think that time out helped me develop some parts of my game, like my shot. I was in the shooting room a lot. I could still practice, but with no contact. I couldn't get touched."

Sanderson returned for the final couple games of the season.

Early this season, he has solidified himself as a top draft prospect and potentially the No. 1 incoming college hockey recruit in the country. He is the highest-ranked incoming recruit in Central Scouting's midterm draft rankings. His teammate, Fargo's Kleven, is the No. 11 incoming recruit on Central Scouting's list.

"The work ethic of both kids is off the charts," Appert said. "We are in a place here where everybody works. That's why they're here. They're national team players. But then we try to get them to raise it again. 'OK, you had a good work ethic for Whitefish, Mont., or Fargo, N.D., but you're not there anymore. So now you have to have a good work ethic here.'

"That's the pecking order they try to get to. Sandy would be right at the top. If he's not No. 1, he's in the top couple in terms of his daily competitiveness, his daily work ethic and his drive to be a dominant player."

Kleven sees it every day.

"He can definitely create offense with his speed," Kleven said. "He's the fastest guy on this team. He's unbelievable. He's so fast, it's crazy. He definitely uses it to his advantage. He's a good defenseman and he's good in the offensive zone, too."

UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, skates in a game earlier this season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP
UND commit Jake Sanderson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 Team, skates in a game earlier this season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP

An eye toward the future

While the U.S. Under-18 Team is aiming at winning gold in the World Under-18 tournament, which is being hosted in Plymouth in April, Sanderson also has an eye toward the future, as evidenced by his hooded sweatshirt.

He said he's frequently following the fortunes of No. 1-ranked UND. He watches UND's Instagram videos and the weekly Through These Doors program.

"I cannot wait until next year," he said. "I am so pumped."

Sanderson and Kleven have already talked about the possibility of being future roommates -- and even future defensive partners, though they're both left-handed shots.

"I'm excited," Sanderson said. "A little nervous. A little bit of everything. Living in the dorms will be pretty cool. Playing at The Ralph will be sick.

"I want to come in and have a big impact right away. I want to come in and be a good team player and a good role player."

UND will lose at least two senior defensemen in captain Colton Poolman and Andrew Peski. The Ottawa Senators may try to sign sophomore first-round pick Jacob Bernard-Docker, while others will be interested in undrafted free agent defenseman Matt Kiersted. Both Bernard-Docker and Kiersted could be back as well.

No matter what happens, Sanderson has high hopes.

"That would be awesome if we could win it all," he said. "That's obviously the goal next year."

UND defenseman recruits Tyler Kleven and Jake Sanderson stand in USA Hockey Arena on Friday afternoon. Photo by Brad Elliott Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald
UND defenseman recruits Tyler Kleven and Jake Sanderson stand in USA Hockey Arena on Friday afternoon. Photo by Brad Elliott Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald

2020 NCAA recruits in midterm draft rankings

1. Jake Sanderson, D, North Dakota

2. Ty Smilanic, F, Quinnipiac

3. Thomas Bordeleau, F, Michigan

4. Yan Kuznetsov, D, UConn

5. Brendan Brisson, F, Michigan

6. Sam Colangelo, F, Northeastern

7. Dylan Peterson, F, Boston University

8. Luke Tuch, F, Boston University

9. Brett Berard, F, Providence

10. Brock Faber, D, Minnesota

11. Tyler Kleven, D, North Dakota

12. Mitch Miller, D, North Dakota

13. Eamon Powell, D, Boston College

14. Carter Savoie, F, Denver

15. Sean Farrell, F, Harvard

Draft rankings via NHL's Central Scouting Bureau