K.K. Naasz, a junior center on the Lakeville South girls hockey team, heard the rumors last summer. She wasn’t sure if she should believe them, because they simply sounded too good to be true.
“It was a big secret for a long time,” Naasz said. “It started leaking out that Natalie Darwitz was going to be our coach and all of us were like, ‘What?!’ Then people were saying, ‘No it’s just a rumor.’ ”
Senior defender Tori Bailey, however, had the inside scoop. Because she is a team captain, Bailey knew the identity of the Cougars’ new coach before her teammates. And when the team gathered together at Hasse Arena late last summer and the new coach walked through the door, the excitement was evident.
“When we all met here at the arena that day, everyone’s face just lit up when she came walking in,” Bailey said. “Just the whole atmosphere, in the arena, and our team chemistry, everything just took a step forward. It was such a good feeling when she walked in.”
Like all young female hockey players in Minnesota, the Cougars knew all about Darwitz’s pedigree: star at Eagan High School beginning in seventh grade, career points and assists leader at the University of Minnesota, Team USA, the World Championships, the Olympics.
“She was my hero, ever since I was a little kid,” Naasz said. “Knowing her from the Gophers and Team USA, it was exciting. I remember going with my team as a little kid to games at the U and saying, ‘Oh, there’s my favorite player, Natalie Darwitz!’”
Darwitz was an assistant coach with the Gophers women’s hockey team when Lakeville South athletic director Neil Strader learned that she might interested in the coaching vacancy at South. Phone calls were made, interviews were conducted and the 28-year-old accepted her first head coaching job. She also had worked as an assistant under her father Scott Darwitz, the head girls hockey coach at Eagan High School.
When word of the hiring got out, Strader said “There was a lot of ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Is this a joke?’ After I assured people that it was true, everybody was extremely excited, especially me.
“Natalie’s a wonderful head coach, and she’s a better person than she is a coach. She’s an outstanding athlete, she brings to the table everything you’d want. I can’t say enough about her. She’s done a tremendous job leading our program and she’s brought a new excitement to this arena and to girls hockey in Lakeville. The Natalie Darwitz effect is definitely pretty big around here.”
Darwitz took over a team that has known success, reaching the Class 2A state tournament in the last two years (and losing in the state quarterfinals each time). The Cougars are 15-5-1 this season after a 3-1 loss at Eagan on Saturday in a battle of father and daughter.
Natalie Darwitz’s number has been retired at Eagan, and her father knows how important she has been to girls hockey in Minnesota. And he also knows that coaching is a great way to give back.
“Whatever Natalie can give back to girls hockey for the career she had, that’s what I’m so proud of,” Scott Darwitz said. “I go to a lot of Natalie’s games and I talk to the parents and the boosters and they’re really happy to have her there. I’m so proud of her for what she’s giving back to the game. That’s phenomenal.”
Natalie Darwitz has a business degree with an emphasis on sports management from the University of Minnesota, and she currently is working towards a teaching license in physical education at Concordia University in St. Paul. She’s on track to student teach next fall and have her teaching license next winter.
She said she was happy in her coaching role with the Gophers, but the challenge of coaching her own team was part of the attraction at Lakeville South.
“As I kind of evaluated myself and where I saw myself in five years, this was a good opportunity for me to take charge of it and take a step out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I was kind of at a crossroads in my life, making the transition from playing to coaching. I really enjoy coaching, it’s one of my passions in life. Switching gears from playing to coaching was something that really excited me about this job, to come to a newer program that kind of was starting to establish itself, had a lot of promise, a brand new rink. When I get opportunities I kind of want to evaluate them and if there’s something that can make me better and I can grow from it, then I want to take it on with a full head of steam.”
The players at South quickly realized that the person they knew only as a superstar athlete was also someone who was extremely approachable.
“Before this we admired her so much and she was famous. But now that she’s been around, we realize that she’s just another human,” Bailey said. “She is still a big idol in all of our lives and we all look up to her and hope to be like her, and who she is off the ice, too.”
Darwitz (pictured here with her father) admitted there was a learning curve for her, particularly in getting to know her players.
“I didn’t know a lot of the girls and I didn’t know much about the product on the ice,” she said. “Now, to see how far they’ve come, to get to know their personalities, it’s pretty fun to think back to when I had no idea who I was talking to. It took me a while to learn their names. We almost went old school, putting their names on tape on their helmets.
“I just love being back in the high school atmosphere. There’s nothing like high school sports, there’s nothing like school pride and facing a rival, having the band playing. There’s nothing like high school hockey. So when we played our first game, the goosebumps kind of came back. At the same time it feels like just yesterday when I was in high school. It’s just a fun atmosphere and I hope the girls don’t take it for granted, because there’s nothing like playing a high school sport, especially hockey in the state of Minnesota.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 253
*Miles John has driven: 5,605
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