First things first: Ron Gunderson doesn’t want anyone making a fuss. But that’s just too bad, because the New Prague High School girls basketball coach – the only coach the Trojans have had since the program began in 1976 – is deserving of a fuss. A great big fuss.
Gunderson doesn’t worry about records or career victory totals or any other mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with today’s team and the next game. As he told me after the Trojans lost at home to Red Wing on Tuesday night, “We’ve got to look forward, not backward.”
There is plenty of reason for people in New Prague to look ahead with glee. Gunderson is on the cusp of his 600th career victory, which would make him only the fourth girls basketball coach in Minnesota history to reach that mark (five boys basketball coaches have done so). Gunderson’s record is 599-285.
Shortly after the start of Tuesday’s Missota Conference game, it became pretty obvious that victory No. 600 would not come easy. While New Prague’s shots rolled off the rim with tremendous consistency, Red Wing shot the lights out, constructed a 14-point halftime lead and took home a 61-51 victory. The Wingers’ star was senior Tesha Buck, who made eight of 12 three-pointers and scored 31 points. New Prague’s Annie Dittberner had 15 and Lexi Ruehling 14.
“They did what they do and they did it well,” Gunderson, 59, said of the Wingers (11-2), who are ranked fifth in Class 3A and certain to jump ahead of the third-ranked Trojans (9-3) when the next rankings are released by Minnesota Basketball News. The next opportunity for Gunderson’s 600th win will come Friday night at Chanhassen.
When it happens, Gunderson is likely to simply shrug his shoulders and pay tribute to all the players he has coached through the decades, as well as the support his teams have received from the community. And New Prague fans have had plenty to cheer about: The Trojans have won 12 conference championships and played at state tournaments in 1992, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. They were 3A state champs in 2000.
The state’s all-time leader in girls basketball coaching victories is New London-Spicer’s Mike Dreier with 778, followed by Myron Glass of Rochester Lourdes with 700, Randy Myhre of Barnum with 626 and Gunderson. Myhre retired after last season and the other three are still piling up victories.
Gunderson is a graduate of Minnetonka High School and Mankato State University. He was hired out of college at New Prague, where he teaches seventh-grade science at New Prague Middle School. The principal there, Tim Dittberner (Annie’s father) is a former coach who has seen Gunderson in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.
“He would never be a coach without teaching,” Dittberner said. “He’s a teacher first and he’s one of our best teachers, he’s a leader on our staff. He says teaching middle school is the fountain of youth. And he just loves working with the kids.”
One of those kids, in fact, was the person who informed Gunderson that he was one victory away from 600. A student walked up to him Tuesday morning and said, “Coach, I’m going to be at your game tonight and see if you can get your 600th.” Mr. Gunderson’s response: “What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t know,” he said. “Maybe our kids knew and that was a little added pressure, and Red Wing knew and they weren’t going to let it happen.”
Like Gunderson, Tim Dittberner has coached a state championship team; his LeSuer boys won the 1986 Class A title and also went to state in 1985 and 1988. More recently, Dittberner filled in as boys coach in New Prague when coach Jeff Gravon was undergoing cancer treatments. After Gravon died in January 2009, Dittberner remained as coach and led the Trojans to state in 2009 and 2011.
One of the reasons the fans are anxious to celebrate Gunderson’s milestone is because of the sadness everyone went through when Gravon passed away. Those feelings returned in December when longtime Trojans gymnastics and golf coach Matt Shetka – who won state titles in both sports – died of an apparent heart attack while shoveling snow.
If a few tears are shed when No. 600 is achieved, they will be tears of happiness for another beloved coach.
“He’s got great rapport and very high expectations, and the kids love him,” Dittberner said. “He’s very demanding but he’s got a great sense of humor. I’m so happy to have him.
“He can adapt to the kids that he has so well. This team is not loaded with talent but they play so well as a team. He’s made the adjustments that needed to be made to be successful. He’s so darn competitive, and the kids make that commitment and success breeds success. My daughter loves playing for him.”
By the time Annie Dittberner was born in 1995, Gunderson was nearing 20 years on the job.
“He’s one of the most intense people I know,” Annie said. “He really gets after it in practice and it really shows on the court. He really stresses defense, that’s kind of what we’re all about.”
The first MSHSL state girls basketball tournament was held in the fall of 1974, with the first winter season a year later. Gunderson has seen the sport develop from the beginning.
“The game has changed, the athletes have changed, it’s an entertaining game now,” he said. “The kids are bigger and stronger. When I started, if there was a 6-foot kid on a team, and there might have been one in the conference, that was a post and she didn’t move so well. Now that’s a point guard. So many things have changed for the better and it’s been really fun to see this thing evolve.”
I asked Gunderson what his career might have been if not education. In a pretty good sign that he landed in the right profession, he could not come up with an answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t. This is just something I think I always wanted to do. To this day, I don’t know what else I would do. My two older brothers became life science teachers. I don’t know if that made a difference, maybe it was in the genes.”
As with all longtime successful coaches, consistency is important to Gunderson. For example, his top assistant coach, Mike Tschimperle, began coaching eighth-graders in New Prague in 1980 and joined the varsity staff a few years later.
“Ron was probably a little more intense back then,” Tschimperle said. “He’s still intense but I think he’s learned to control his intensity. He’s always been a believer in working hard, the blue-collar type athlete. He’s a team person. Off the court Ron is pretty quiet. He doesn’t like the limelight.”
No he doesn’t, but he’s going to have to put up with some celebrating after the Trojans’ next victory.
The storyline will be different when Gunderson retires from teaching and coaching (which he has no plans to do, he said). He will go out with no fanfare.
“He’s told me when he’s done there’ll be a note in the box and there’s no goodbye,” Dittberner said. “That will be a sad day. And I’m not talking coaching, I’m talking teaching; it will be a sad day.”
For now, however, a big celebration awaits.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 393
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,500
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
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