John's Journal
Lindsay Whalen’s High School Coach: Don’t Bet Against Her8/22/2018
After the Minnesota Lynx lost to the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday night in a one-game WNBA playoff that ended Lindsay Whalen’s playing career, her high school coach sent her a text.

Andy Rostberg wrote: “Congratulations on a great career.” It didn’t take Whalen long to respond: “Hey, thanks coach.”

These days, Rostberg is best-known as the football coach at Hutchinson who succeeded his father, Grady, as leader of the Tigers. Grady coached there for 34 years and Andy is beginning his 20th season. Combined, they have a record of 447-132-1.

Andy also used to coach girls basketball and was Whalen’s head coach throughout her prep career, which ended in 2000.

As a seventh-grader Whalen played on the ninth-grade team. She joined the varsity as an eighth-grader and was a starter from the beginning of her ninth-grade year. She was a four-year all-conference selection but on a statewide level never was chosen higher than honorable mention all-state. And that still bugs Rostberg. (Photo: McLeod County Historical Society.)

“I complained every year,” he said Wednesday. “I said, ‘If you watch this girl you’d go, oh my gosh.’ We never made it to the state tournament where she could showcase herself and people could watch her on TV.”

Whalen’s senior season was marred by an ankle sprain, causing her to miss about half the games. Cheryl Littlejohn, then the coach at the University of Minnesota (a job Lindsay now holds), took a chance on Whalen, and as a Gopher she finally was seen by fans around the state and beyond.

Rostberg can’t remember if he heard from any other Division I coaches, but his discussion with Whalen about the Gophers was brief and to the point.

“I just know it was a quick, ‘Hey, the Gophers would like to offer you.’ And Lindsay said, ‘OK, I’m going.’ ”

Whalen, now 36 years old, left Hutchinson as the school’s all-time scoring leader with nearly 2,000 points. After her senior season, new uniforms were ordered and her number 13 was intentionally left off the order form. Four years later, her number was retired at halftime of a game in Hutchinson with Whalen and her Gophers teammates on hand. Her jersey is now framed inside the school.

During that halftime ceremony, one of the speakers -- school board chairman Dr. Keith Kammrath – said, “You are every kid’s dream and every parent’s pride.”

When Whalen left the Gophers in 2004 she was drafted by the WBNA’s Connecticut Sun. She was traded the Lynx in 2010. Along the way she won four WNBA titles with the Lynx as well as Olympic and world championships with Team USA.

As Whalen’s playing career ended Tuesday night in Los Angeles, her impact on basketball in Minnesota is immeasurable.

“I don’t know if you would have predicted what happened, I don’t think any of us did,” Rostberg said. “I don’t think Lindsay did. But you knew there was something there, that wherever she went she was going to have an impact.”

That impact began when she was a seventh-grader. Normally, the only people in the stands for the ninth-grade games were parents and grandparents. But when Whalen joined the team with players two years older, “All of a sudden our ninth-grade games are packed,” Rostberg said. “Here was this little bobtailed seventh-grader weaving in and out of the ninth-graders, kissing layups off the glass, dishing.”

Weaving, dishing, layups … that’s the Whalen now known by basketball fans all over the world. As she transitions from player to coach, Rostberg has no doubts about her abilities.

“What a great career, and now she gets to start a new journey, being a coach,” he said. “That’ll be all new. That’s just new stuff, new responsibilities, just all new stuff. But I learned a long time ago, don’t bet against her. Just don’t do it. I’m not betting against her.

“One of the things I’ve always noticed with Lindsay, whether she was playing for the Tigers or the Gophers or the Olympic team or the Lynx, the situation at hand was never too big for her. It never overwhelmed her. For some people the situation gets too big. I’ve never seen a situation too big for her, where she hasn’t just handled it. It’s just her. And I’m not thinking anything will change because she’s a coach in the Big Ten.

“The thing Lindsay had was that ability to get the others around her to play. Everybody’s game was elevated when she was there. She brings that out in people. The players she’s coaching, she’ll bring it out in them. There are some good players in Minnesota and you have to be able to recruit. They’ve got the right one to recruit Minnesota.”

The relationship between high school coach and player – even though the player is now a college coach – has never really changed. Texts fly back and forth, and they often are focused on the hometown teams.

“She’ll text,” Rostberg said, “and say, ‘Good luck in the game on Friday.’ ”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Maple Lake Volleyball: Fresh Start, Longstanding Tradition 8/17/2018
As the Maple Lake volleyball team, winners of the last two Class 2A state championships and owners of a 44-match winning streak, opened preseason practice in the school gym this week, something was happening on the gym walls that had absolutely nothing to do with past volleyball success or future outcomes.

Other than two scoreboards and giant lettering that read “Welcome to Irish Country,” the walls were bare. All manner of banner had been removed so a fresh coat of white paint could be applied, and the signage will be back in place before school starts.

It’s the first time such a project has been undertaken in the 20 years since Marty Kiebel was hired as a first-year teacher and volleyball coach. And if anybody looked up at the walls and then down at the volleyball team and pretended to relate the two in a “starting from scratch” fashion, they would be incorrect.

Yes, six of the eight players who competed in last year’s state championship match against North Branch – the third of three matches at state that were won by a score of 3-0 -- have graduated. Yes, the Irish will depend on some fresh faces to fill those holes. But no, they are not starting over.

Maple Lake has one of the strongest volleyball traditions in Minnesota, reaching the state tournament every year but one since 2011. And the Irish also have been a softball power, finishing second in Class 2A at the state tournament four times recently before winning the state title this spring. Of the 14 varsity volleyball players last season, 12 were also members of the softball or track teams.

“Success in small schools often bleeds into different sports,” Kiebel said.

The team slogan this season is printed on t-shirts. On the front it says “WHO KNOWS…” On the back: “WE DO.”

The first half of the slogan can be interpreted many ways: Who knows what it takes to be successful? Who knows what it means to take on responsibility and step up? Who knows what can happen in the course of a season?

There was a time, Siebel said, when the Irish felt like the hunted instead of the hunters.

“We knew when we were getting better. When we started winning those 50-50 matches, and it started to be 60-40 and 70-30, it turned around. I kind of think it’s like our slogan. Who knows how to handle having a target on the back? We do.”

There’s also this: Maple Lake’s junior varsity team had a record of 23-5 last season, finishing second while competing against some much larger schools in tournaments at Blaine and Champlin Park.

“They competed very well and had a very successful season,” Kiebel (pictured) said. “Every one of those kids played club ball and they’re just tremendous athletes.”

Senior Brielle Paumen said, “I’m excited because even though we had a packed varsity team last year, the JV was packed, too. I’m excited to see what we can do this year.”

Another senior, Maddi Maas, added, “I’m excited to see how the season goes, especially after losing so many of our seniors that have been playing on the varsity since they were eighth- and ninth-graders. It’ll be fun to see all the younger kids step up and see where we go with it.

“We’ve kind of always had a target on our backs for however many years because we’ve built such a strong program. But we don’t really think about it because we just play. We don’t think about how other people see our team. I think this year there will be some teams that might underestimate us; we have to prove that we’re still a strong Maple Lake program.”

During this first week of practice, players from seventh grade through 12th grade worked out together, giving younger athletes opportunities to do drills with veterans and allowing older players to offer advice and encouragement.

After the second of two workouts on Tuesday, the players stood in a large circle as Kiebel spoke to them. He invited older players to name younger players who had inspired them that day, and then asked younger players to do the same with veterans.

“The moment the kids are on the C team and above, I say, ‘Whether you like it or not, you are wearing the Maple Lake volleyball uniform,’ ” Kiebel said. “ ‘If you’re on the C team with a bunch of eighth-graders, that C team from the other school, if they beat you that’s a good win for them. Because of the success of our varsity team, it puts a target all the way down with you guys.’ ”

Ella Kiebel, the coach’s daughter who played an important role on last year’s team as an eighth-grader, said, “I think we’re more excited because it’s kind of a whole new team this year. We’ll have people who might say, ‘Oh, they lost basically their whole team so they won’t be as good.’ And we’ll also have people who are like, ‘Oh, they’re Maple Lake and we want to beat them.’ I think if we just play as hard as we can it should be a super fun season.”

Junior Katie Goelz added, “I think that because we’ve had two state championships, it motivates us to be better and work harder in the gym. Our younger girls will step up, also. Is there pressure? A little bit.”

--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Back In The Game: O’Brien Leads St. Thomas Academy 8/15/2018
More than two decades have passed since Dan O’Brien’s last job as a high school head football coach, and no one is wearing a bigger smile than the first-year coach at St. Thomas Academy.

“To be able to wake up every day and enjoy what you’re doing? The older you get, the more important that piece is,” O’Brien said during the first week of preseason practice at the all-boys military school in Mendota Heights.

O’Brien, 55, has been involved in football in Minnesota from high school through NCAA Division I. The native of Winthrop was a team captain and all-MIAC defensive back at the University of St. Thomas before working as an assistant football coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Lakeville and head coach at Bemidji from 1993 to 1995.

He became an assistant coach at Concordia University in St. Paul in 1995, was promoted to head coach and athletic director there and was athletic director at Hamline University from 2002 to 2007. From 2008 to 2016 he worked with the football program at the University of Minnesota in a variety of positions, including defensive backs coach, director of football operations, assistant to the head coach and senior associate athletic director.

He left the U of M in 2017 to work as an executive at Sun Country Airlines and also returned to high school football last season as an assistant coach at St. Agnes in St. Paul. That experience brought him full circle, and earlier this year he was named head football coach and director of community outreach and partnerships at St. Thomas Academy.

“That’s been fun,” he said of the dual roles. “I get to use some of the skill sets I used at the University of Minnesota, with the fundraising piece and outreach.”

On the first day of practice this week O’Brien wore a t-shirt that carried the school logo on the front and “#oldschool” on the back. The Cadets, who finished 6-5 last year, have a deep football tradition. The Cadets have made 22 appearances in the state tournament, with a state title in 1975 and runner-up finishes in 2000, 2006 and 2015.

O’Brien accepted the job in late April and hit the ground running, getting a coaching staff in place, working on a strength and conditioning program and doing countless administrative duties in order to be prepared for summer team workouts and preseason practice.

“I felt like I was cramming nine months into three months,” he said.

The players were excited when they learned that their new coach had extensive experience in the Big Ten.

“You don’t normally get a chance to be coached by a coach of that caliber in high school,” said senior linebacker Luke Herzog. “We were probably a little intimidated at first. He laid down the law right away, I liked him. He’s changed a lot in our program.”

The Cadets, who will open the season Aug. 30 at North St. Paul, have another Gophers connection on the coaching staff in assistant Ricky Foggie, a four-year starting quarterback at the University of Minnesota in the 1980s.

Part of O’Brien’s learning curve after more than 20 years away from high school football is realizing how busy teenagers are. St. Thomas Academy, a college preparatory school, has rigorous academic standards along with a full slate of extracurricular activities.

“What I’ve found out at the high school level is that it’s much different than the college level,” O’Brien said. “These kids are pulled in a million different directions. Some of them play hockey, some play baseball or other sports, we have ACT prep programs, and then I want to talk about football all the time. I’ve learned we have to balance things a little bit and share the kids with other programs.”

Senior running back Brendan McFadden, who like Herzog also plays hockey, said O’Brien has brought a high level of energy to the football team.

“Everyone’s excited. We’re ready to get going. We are lucky here at St. Thomas. All the teachers and coaches here care more about than just sports, and he fits right in. We’re lucky to be able to play here and have a coach like him.”

O’Brien’s family connections, like his coaching experience, have deep roots in Minnesota football. His father-in-law is Mal Scanlan, a former head coach at Cretin-Derham Hall. O’Brien’s son Casey is a cancer survivor who played football at Cretin-Derham Hall and now is a member of the Gophers football team.

O’Brien said a major part of his mission at St. Thomas Academy is to guide young men into adulthood.

“It’s funny how your perspective on what’s important changes,” he said. “When I was younger it was, ‘Let’s figure out a way to win games.’ Now my perspective is it’s my job to make you a better man and a better leader. If I can accomplish those things I can feel good about what I’m doing.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
One Coach, Two Teams: Turk Takes Over In Eagan8/13/2018
It started almost as a joke, a sort of throwaway “what if” scenario. What if Bulut “Turk” Ozturk, who has coached the Eagan High School girls soccer team to three big-school state championships in the last four years, also was head coach of the Wildcats boys team?

“Last year we talked about it during the season with Turk and we kind of laughed about it, saying no way would any coach ever do that,” said senior girls team captain Brooke Peplinksi after the first practice of the season ended Monday. Once the girls finished their workout the boys team took the field, but the head coach remained the same.

Yes, Ozturk is taking on duties that are extremely rare in soccer … coaching both varsity teams. Coaches in sports such as cross-country and track and field frequently coach girls and boys teams at the same time, but soccer is more akin to basketball, with one coach directing two teams simultaneously nearly unheard of.

“I am not aware of any high school coach doing this,” Ozturk said. “Parents, coaches, other people have come up to me and said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

Ozturk is at the forefront of a new wave of coaches. Rather than working as a teacher or other type of school employee, he is a full-time, year-round soccer coach who holds a degree in psychology and master’s degrees in sports management and sports coaching. His non-school coaching jobs include the Minnesota Thunder Academy in the Elite Club National League and the Minnesota TwinStars semipro team, a club of college-age players in the Women’s Premier Soccer League.

“This is my life, soccer 24-7,” Ozturk said. “I coach full time. I’m always working with two, three or four teams at a time. It’s not anything new for me.”

He coached the Lakeville North girls soccer team to three consecutive state tournament appearances before moving to Eagan in 2014. His previous coaching jobs included college stints as an assistant at Hamline University and Concordia University in St. Paul.

When the Eagan boys coaching job opened after last season’s 9-8 finish, the “what if” question started becoming real. Ozturk applied for the job.

“I know this is something I was interested in even a while back,” he said. “Talking to the boys and past player who have graduated, and hearing from some of the girls players, they thought it would be a unique opportunity. I know the boys are wanting to work hard and wanting to achieve some of the goals the girls have been able to achieve.”

Hunter Goff, a senior captain on the boys team, said when the news came out that Ozturk would coach the boys, there was some confusion at first.

“I was like, ‘Wow, does that mean he’s going to stop coaching the girls? There’s no way he’s going to be done coaching the girls.’ Then we found out he was going to be coaching both programs, and it was like wow. It’s going to be a totally different environment this year.

“There’s a lot more pressure, I think. When you see three state titles in four years for the girls and the boys last went to state four years ago, there’s a lot of pressure on us to show up and work hard every day. We’re practicing longer, harder, there’s more fitness, it’s more serious this year and we have to show up to every game.”

The Wildcats girls team has routinely held two-hour-plus practices under Ozturk, while the boys’ past workouts have been more in the 90-minute timeframe. The two-sport head coach will have lots of long days such as Monday, when the girls practiced from noon to 2 p.m. and the boys from 2 until 4 p.m.

Ozturk is relying heavily on his assistant coaches. His brother, Umut, is involved with both teams but mainly assigned to the girls, John Obarski is an assistant with the girls and David Juarez is working with the boys. Student managers also play a major role in keeping things organized and running smoothly. That was apparent Monday near the end of the girls’ practice, as managers holding clipboards assigned practice jerseys to the boys, tracking the numbers on paper.

“The student managers play a very important role,” Ozturk said. “They help me with spreadsheets, they make sure all the coaches have their clipboards and everything is running smoothly. I delegate a lot. It takes a village to have a successful program. It doesn’t just come from me; once these players and parents feel a part of it, they’ll do anything to help. I can’t ever take all the credit for what goes on. It’s a family environment.”

Megan Plaschko, goalkeeper and senior girls captain, said, “There’s a lot of order and responsibility. I think the boys captains will quickly learn that us three (with fellow captains Peplinski and Abigail McKenzie) do so much behind the scenes, and our parents. I think that’s the biggest transition for them; they aren’t used to having so many rules, so many responsibilities and all this stuff that comes with making it work.”

An early issue with game schedules has been ironed out; when Ozturk took the job there were three dates when the girls and boys teams had games scheduled against teams from different schools, but rescheduling eliminated that problem. The focus now is on preparing for the 16-game regular season and, hopefully, deep postseason runs. The Wildcats girls won Class 2A state titles in 2014, 2016 and last year, and the boys hope to have similar success.

“You have to have strong leadership from the kids,” Ozturk said. “They have to have that ownership and accountability. That’s where we really create our championship culture and our winning mentality, it comes from those leaders, those captains. Once we train them in and have that established, it makes life a lot easier.”

The girls captains realized Ozturk was seriously considering taking on the dual role when he asked them how they felt about it during the offseason. Peplinski chuckled as she talked about last season’s “what if” chatter.

“We said, ‘no way would any coach ever do that,’ ” Peplinski said “But when he told us he was actually considering it, at first I was nervous. He kept talking to us about it, and before he even decided to coach the guys he talked to us about the practice times, how it would work. The fact that he was so organized and knew exactly how it would work made us more confident.”

Jake Kolehmainen, another senior captain on the boys side, said, “At first I was kind of surprised, I didn’t know how he was going to do it, kind of like everyone else. How was this going to work, two practices in one day? It didn’t make a lot of sense. Then he showed us everything, the practice plan, and I was really excited for the season.”

Senior captain Ryan Erickson added, “He’s showed us the way he’s going to do it and I know it’s going to be a whole different environment. I know it’s going to be way more hard work but I think it’s going to pay off in the long run.”

That is the ultimate goal: Hard work, dedication, learning and, hopefully, on-field success.

“After we won state last year two guys on the team texted me and said, ‘We want Turk,’ ” McKenzie said. “They’re all really excited.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Day One Of 2018-19: “Rangers! Brothers! Team!”8/6/2018
CROSBY – The night before Bryan Syrstad began his second season as the head football coach at Crosby-Ironton High School, he felt a few nerves. But there was also a lot of excitement.

Monday was Day One of practice for 18 football teams in Minnesota. They will pair up for nine Zero Week games on Aug. 24 and have a bye week later in the regular season. The rest of the state’s football teams (as well as all other fall sports) will begin practice next Monday. Crosby-Ironton lost an opponent when Duluth Marshall chose not to field a varsity team, leading to a Zero Week season opener at home against Two Harbors.

“We’re excited,” Syrstad said at the conclusion of Monday’s workout, with the players wearing helmets and no other pads. “The kids are excited to get going, too.”

The Rangers worked on offense, defense and special teams for nearly three hours on a lush practice field a few blocks from the school; the players walked through a quiet neighborhood to get to practice and back. The weather was dandy: 75 degrees, sun and a few hovering clouds.

There was a lot of encouragement and a few selected barks, as is the case at any football practice. There were frequent water breaks. The kids hustled and listened. Learning and repetition were the themes.

If anybody was in need of an example of commitment, all they had to do was take a gander at Neil Tesdahl, longtime assistant coach for Rangers football and boys basketball. Neil underwent hip-replacement surgery in mid-July, which did absolutely nothing to keep him from the practice field. He used a cane to help get around but it won’t be long until the cane gets tossed.

After drills were done for the day, Syrstad asked the boys to take a knee around him. There were some points of emphasis: If you have a minor injury make sure to see the trainer … let’s work on being efficient in moving from drill to drill … Order forms for photographs will be distributed later in the week.

There were other messages, as well.

“We need to get moving a little bit,” Syrstad said.. “Yeah, you’re going to be tired the first week. That’s OK. You’re going to be uncomfortable. But we need to get in shape, we need to be better when we play in about three weeks.”

The players were reminded that they’ll need three-ring binders to keep offensive paperwork organized. “Let’s do that by Wednesday,” Syrstad said. “If you have a hard time finding one, we’ll track one down for you.” (To which Coach Tesdahl added, “They’re at the dollar store for a buck.”)

There were two final messages from the head coach…

--“We’ll be starting right at 3 tomorrow.”

--“This was a good first day.”

The captains wrapped things up with the hands-together-in-the-center-of-the-huddle tradition, in which a team leader counts to three and the teams responds in unison. This time, the count went to nine…

--“Rangers on three! Brothers on six! Team on nine!” … “Rangers! Brothers! Team!”

Let’s all have a great year.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn