Spring sports are upon us as the weather warms and playing fields become green. But I want to go back a bit to something that took place during the girls state basketball tournament. It’s important stuff, offering important lessons.
What I witnessed centers on the team from Winona. The Winhawks played in the state tournament for the first time since 2003 and played in their first state championship game, where they lost to Holy Angels 51-43 for the Class 3A title. The last time a basketball team from Winona played in a state championship game was 1914, so this was history that was 102 years in the making.
My favorite moments came immediately after the Winhawks played, at Mariucci Arena and Williams Arena. Following handshakes between the teams, the Winona players gathered in front of their fans and band, wrapped their arms around each other and swayed back and forth as the band played a song titled “Varsity” (the alma mater of the University of Wisconsin).
That scene says something about a special connection between the athletes, their fellow students, families and fans from the community. The Winhawks’ basketball season epitomized that connection.
“It was just magical,” Winona coach Tim Gleason said to me during a Sunday afternoon telephone chat, two weeks after the tournament ended. “Even now, around town people come up and say hi and offer congratulations on such a great run by the girls. It was so neat to see so many people come together. And I really feel music is so important. We’re always going to need music, we’re always going to need athletics, because they bring people together. That was so much fun to be a part of.
“Winona is no different than any other town in Minnesota or anywhere else in the nation. There are so many things that people look at that divide us. And it’s so much fun to be part of something that brings people together. I told the girls that they were part of something bigger than basketball, and they should always remember that.”
After their loss in the championship game, Gleason and his players were as sad as you might expect. But the Winhawks also were proud. In the locker room, Gleason told me, senior and leading scorer Hallee Hoeppner talked to her teammates about how proud she was, saying she wasn’t going to let one loss cloud how she felt about what they had learned and accomplished together.
Hallee said the same thing in the postgame news conference: “I just had such a fun time playing with these girls. I told them in the locker room not to be hard on themselves. I have so many memories on and off the court and they have become my best friends. Even if we didn’t get a state title, I’m so happy to have been a part of this team.”
This takes us to Why We Play, an MSHSL initiative that is used to assist coaches in creating the best possible experiences for their athletes and themselves. Why We Play is based largely on a book by Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and longtime high school football coach. His book is “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.”
All high school coaches in Minnesota have access to Why We Play training. I can summarize Why We Play with this: Teams and athletes strive to be successful and win, but the true purpose of high school athletics is education. Winning is a goal, but education is the purpose.
Why We Play training talks about two types of coaching: transactional and transformational. Transactional coaches view winning as the bottom line. All practices, drills, strategies and techniques are geared toward that result. The means to achieve the win, however necessary, are secondary to winning.
For transformational coaches, however, individual consideration is given to developing athletes as a whole, while understanding that the team is only as strong as its weakest member.
Winona’s Gleason has gone through Why We Play training and has heard Ehrmann speak. After the state title game, he talked about what he has learned.
“(This season has) been full of memories,” he said. “The State High School League has done a lot of work on transformational coaching, the Joe Ehrmann-type mindset. This season with these ladies has typified that and it has probably been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
“Whatever happens in these kinds of events, and this goes back to the transformational things, these are things that change lives. I hope it changed their lives because it changed mine.”
Winona athletic director Casey Indra is in his second year in that job. He has been instrumental in bringing Why We Play training to his school’s coaches. That process began by informing local school board members about Why We Play and what Indra hoped it would bring to Winona.
“I said at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, if we were going to go in front of our school board and show our plan, we weren’t just going to say that and be done with it,” Indra said. “And I made the comment at the welcome home for our basketball team that (the state tournament) was a perfect Why We Play moment.”
As part of the Why We Play curriculum, coaches are asked to create their own individual purpose statements. Here is Gleason’s: “With the cornerstones of empathy and love, collaboratively, I will provide opportunities for young men and women to pursue excellence in all that they do.”
Tim also is Winona’s head coach for boys and girls track, so he impacts a lot of students as a coach. He is a band teacher, too, adding to that number and his impact.
He has been the Winhawks’ head girls basketball coach for 10 years, and he was an assistant for 11 years before that. His father, Jerry Gleason, a Winona graduate who also was a band teacher, passed away during the basketball season.
Tim said Why We Play training has been instrumental in how he coaches.
“It caused me to think about things more intentionally. Friends help you get through so many things. It’s probably something that I revisited in the last month or so of the season, with trials in my personal life. There were many days and many times I had to lean on the people I coach with and also on the team to get through the day and keep me in a position where I was helping them as much as they were helping me.”
Nine school buses filled with band members and other students traveled from Winona to Minneapolis for the state tournament. Winhawks fans displayed great sportsmanship and cheered their team until the final whistle.
“They came out in full force and I felt our kids cheered with respect to the other team,” Indra said. “They held true to what we believe in. I told them I wasn’t going to remember the score of the game, but I will remember everyone who put together this run. It was the community.”
Gleason said, “To see the MSHSL go to those kinds of training for their coaches, and to kind of see it lived out ... it was not only transformational for the girls but also for me.”
Well done, Winhawks.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 604
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,195