ROCHESTER – The Owatonna High School girls lacrosse team has several storylines. The main one today is this splendid fact: With a 13-4 victory at Rochester Mayo on Monday evening, the Huskies clinched the inaugural Big Nine Conference championship in their sport.
Owatonna has fielded a girls lacrosse team for eight years, all under coach Bill Bernard. But the 2016 season is the first in which the 12-team Big Nine has enough teams (six) to crown a league champion. So Monday’s accomplishment was big.
“We are really excited,” senior captain Meghan Rethemeier said after the game. “This was our goal, to win the first Big Nine championship. So we’ve all been working hard and it’s really exciting to get what we’ve been working for.”
Look back, however. And look into the future, too, because there is some interesting stuff in play here.
For example, Bernard, 54, is a Louisiana native who never played lacrosse. His wife is a South Dakota native, which is how Bernard (pictured) ended up in the Midwest. He’s basically a commuter coach this season, his final one with the Huskies.
Bill and Cathy Bernard have two daughters; one is a recent graduate of Augustana University in Sioux Falls and the other will graduate soon. The draw of Cathy’s family and the fact that their daughters now call Sioux Falls home has created an interesting arrangement.
The Bernards have already moved to Sioux Falls, with Bill spending weekdays in Owatonna, driving 200 miles to Sioux Falls on weekends, coaching lacrosse and living at a bed and breakfast as his coaching days count down to the end of a great year.
“We are having a special season,” said Bernard, who announced at last year’s end-of-season banquet that 2016 would be his last year with the Huskies.
The Bernards moved to Owatonna in the early 2000s. Cathy works out of their home as an employee of New Flyer, a Winnipeg-based company that manufactures buses. Bill had coached his daughters’ soccer teams, and when the high school began a girls lacrosse program, “They wanted to hire somebody with coaching experience,” Bill said.
With Cathy being the family’s main breadwinner, Bill was free to dive into learning about lacrosse (as well as serve on the Owatonna school board for many years). He attended clinics and leaned on veteran coaches such as Eden Prairie’s Judy Baxter.
“I have extreme gratitude towards Judy, who helped me whenever I asked,” he said. “I would go to her clinics and ask her every question under the sun. She wanted to help lacrosse grow.”
Bernard has done very well. There are 78 high school girls lacrosse teams in the state, and only five coaches have been with their schools longer than Bernard has been at Owatonna
Because many of his lacrosse players also participate in one or two other sports, he has taught skills using methods that he called “a little unconventional.”
“We try to help the girls who play basketball understand the basketball concepts of lacrosse, and it’s the same thing with soccer and hockey. We try to teach and strategize in manners they already understand from playing other sports.”
Rethemeier said, “We’ve gained a lot of athleticism throughout the years. We have a lot of fast players who have played a lot of sports before, so we pick it up quickly. The skill level has increased a lot.”
Senior captain Gabe Zeman said, “There’s a tremendous difference in the skill level of the girls. The catching and passing has gotten so much better and faster. It’s improved a lot.”
Even before deciding he would resign as coach, Bernard knew the 2016 season could be special. There are 12 seniors on the varsity roster, more than any previous season. And finally having enough Big Nine teams to compete for a league championship was a long-awaited goal.
“We’ve been waiting so long to get to the 50 percent threshold to be a conference sport,” he said. “With all these years doing it, we wanted to be the first team to win the Big Nine. We wanted it for our players.
“You really develop relationships and care about the experience these kids get out of the sport. When you have a transition year it’s not always the best of circumstances, but we wanted it to be a good senior experience for them. We wanted to make sure their senior year was a fun one.”
When the season finally comes to an end, whether that’s in the Section 1 playoffs or the state tournament, Bernard will continue a tradition. After the final horn blows and handshakes have been exchanged with the opponent, the coach and his seniors will gather at midfield.
“You enjoy the opportunities you have together and realize sometime it comes to an end,” Bernard said. “That will probably be the toughest point.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 686
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,934