Staying in the Game

A passion for sports ? and mentoring young athletes ? attract alumni to coaching

The history of the athletic program at St. Thomas reads like a sportscaster’s dream: undefeated seasons, conference championships, national titles, All-American athletes and academic excellence. This legacy of success is due, in part, to the leadership and team building by the long list of coaches. Whether they knew it or not, the coaches also acted as mentors as they honed their players’ skills.

Taking a different road

Tonja Englund ’94 wanted to be a teacher. But when she started playing high school basketball, she felt called to stay involved in the game. "Playing basketball changed my life for the better. I took a different road in my life because of it and I’d like to give that back to other kids," Englund said.

When Englund transferred to St. Thomas during her junior year of college, she joined the basketball team coached by Ted Riverso. Although she joined midway through the year, she felt a sense of belonging: "Ted really brought the team together and set the team’s relationship." That team pulled together fast enough to win the 1991 NCAA Division III championship.

Now in her second year as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Englund also focuses on building relationships. The team’s spirit runs strong and close; Englund likens the atmosphere to "having 17 daughters."

She works to find the best way to motivate each individual and seems to have found the right combination. The Blugolds are coming off a 23-6 season in which they shared the regular season conference championship and won the post-season conference tournament title. If results are any indication of success, Englund brings the same passion she had as a player to her role as a coach.

Passion for the game

Another member of the St. Thomas Division III championship team is also successfully coaching women’s basketball. As head coach at Binghamton University in New York, Laurie (Trow) Kelly ’93 loves going to work.

Since Kelly joined Binghamton, the team has moved from Division III to Division I. It’s a challenge that Kelly is ready for: "When you change levels, different things start to be emphasized. There are more demands and you are really only as good as your next game."

Kelly’s favorite part of being a coach is time in the gym with her players. Part of her coaching philosophy depends on consistency and hard work from the coaching staff and the players. In addition, "to bring success, you need good chemistry and mutual respect on the floor."

This combination of hard work and camaraderie has worked to Binghamton’s advantage. Last season was the third consecutive championship season for the team under Kelly’s guidance, and in her second year as head coach, she was named as coach of the year after guiding BU to the first undefeated New England Collegiate Conference season in nine years.

The greater goal

Last year, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Con-ference recognized Nick Whaley ’88 as coach of the year.

As a dedicated coach, Whaley puts a lot of time into his baseball team and it shows. In 2001, his St. Mary’s University baseball team shot up to second place in the MIAC. Whaley also coached the team to an appearance in the conference’s post-season tournament — a first for the university’s baseball program.

Even with those honors, Whaley acknowledges what is more important than a win/loss record: "As a coach, you get to be a part of the development of young athletes into men, both mentally and physically. It’s a daily gift."

While attending Cretin-Derham Hall high school, Whaley had two major influences: his baseball coaches and the Christian Brothers. He knew he would either become one or the other.

As he continued his baseball career at St. Thomas, Whaley realized that coaching was his calling. He credits Dennis Denning and Mal Scanlan, his coaches at Cretin-Derham, as his inspiration. "They showed a tremendous passion for their sport, for coaching and for their players," he said. Now in his sixth year at St. Mary’s, Whaley incorporated their philosophy into his coaching style.

The role of a coach

Peter Roufs ’88 takes his role as a coach very seriously. He maintains two goals for his coaching philosophy: "Put the best team on the floor and help my players grow into young gentlemen."

After seven years as head coach of the boys’ basketball team at St. Mary’s High School in Sleepy Eye, Minn., Roufs admits that his philosophy didn’t come with the job. "I started out too competitive," Roufs said. "I took losses extremely hard and placed too much emphasis on winning. I now realize that I need to accept losses with class and be humbled by wins."

Roufs made the decision to become a coach while in junior high. As he continued to play basketball through high school and into college, Roufs took note of his coaches’ methods. "They all seemed to really enjoy their jobs — not only the aspect of playing the game, but also striving for higher values in that environment. It was a lifestyle I admired," he said.

While a senior at St. Thomas, Roufs experienced that lifestyle firsthand. Basketball coaches Steve Fritz and Jerry Fogerty asked Roufs to become an assistant coach for the men’s team. That experience showed Roufs how to develop a basketball program and how to become competitive without compromising his values.

The big picture

When Gary Ales ’62 graduated from St. Thomas as a four-year letter winner in football, he faced an interesting decision.

Both the Chicago Bears and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had invited him to try out, but he also had received an offer to teach psychology at Johnson High School in St. Paul. After considering his two choices, Ales realized that teaching presented the better alternative: stability for his family and an opportunity to remain involved in sports.

So for the next 37 years, Ales taught psychology and coached nearly every sport available: football, track, gymnastics, tennis, soccer and cross-country. After hundreds of athletes and nearly four decades of coaching, Ales felt that the athletes taught him as much about the games as he taught them.

Another of Ales’ contributions to the students (and city) of St. Paul is the Friendship Club. Started in 1964, the club brings together students from across St. Paul to encourage leadership and public service through volunteer work. On their own time, students in the club have cleaned up litter, planted trees, raked leaves and shoveled driveways for senior citizens. Ales’ efforts to encourage an awareness of community in the youth of St. Paul have not gone unnoticed. Both Gov. Jesse Ventura and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman have praised Ales for his efforts.

Although Ales retired from teaching in 2001, he continues to coach boys’ and girls’ cross-country at Humboldt High School. "I feel that coaching is an extension of teaching," Ales said. "Not only do you meet the nicest kids in the world, but when you spend a couple hours a day, five days a week with them, you develop a more personal relationship."

Lungs of steel

Coaching track and cross-country at high altitudes presents its own set of challenges — some good, some bad. While Shari Sullivan-Marshall ’89 endures blizzards during spring practices in Crested Butte, Colo., her athletes have lungs of steel.

When Sullivan-Marshall arrived in Crested Butte to teach first grade, the town had no public high school. When the new high school did open, Sullivan-Marshall built the girls’ and boys’ track and cross-country teams from scratch, with no funding and few resources.

Starting with only eight track and 13 cross-country athletes, she now coaches more than 50 students and has taken both teams and individuals to state meets. "It’s taken several years to build the programs, but I established a plan and stuck to it. I also had to trust that it would work," she said.

Sullivan-Marshall drew her inspiration for coaching from her high school and college coaches. As a student athlete, she looked to Jack Zahr (Visitation High School) and Joe Sweeney (University of St. Thomas) for the motivation that kept her running. "They were able to get to the core of what each runner needed," Sullivan-Marshall said.

Now a coach herself, Sullivan-Marshall enjoys the building process. "To be a four-year influence in someone’s life is so special," Sullivan-Marshall said. "It’s a privilege to watch kids grow to believe in themselves."

With the track and cross-country tradition an established member of Crested Butte’s athletic program, Sullivan-Marshall’s next goal is to raise funding for an indoor track to get her spring practices out of the snow.

Experience counts

Being a head coach requires experience and knowledge. Curt Kietzer ’91, who coaches men’s basketball at Macalester College, has both.

As a student at St. Thomas, Kietzer was selected conference player of the year in 1988. He also was named all-conference and academic all-conference in 1987 and 1988. After graduation, Kietzer played professional basketball in Denmark as a member of the Horsens Professional Sports Club team for two years, and helped to coach the Danish Junior National Team before returning to Minnesota.

While finishing his teaching licensure at St. Thomas, Kietzer coached the Richfield sophomore boys’ basketball team. He then found a job as head coach at Bemidji High School for four years. He became an assistant coach at Macalester in 1995 and head coach two years later.

After years of coaching players with differing skill levels, Kietzer developed his philosophy that "coaching people is more important than coaching basketball." He believes that by focusing more on the needs of the players than on the intricacies of the game, any coaching program can succeed.

Teach them early

"The best part about coaching is when someone ‘gets it,’" said Kelly Weyandt ’99. She treasures those moments.

"When one of my girls has been working and working on a part of her game and it finally clicks, she gets excited. Then I get excited," Weyandt said. "It’s very rewarding."

Weyandt is in her second year as head coach of varsity girls’ fast pitch at North St. Paul High School. Weyandt was a member of the 1997 St. Thomas softball team that almost made the College World Series and was the school's all-time strikeout leader when she graduated.

Weyandt credits her St. Thomas coach, Cindy Zelinsky, as a major influence to her coaching style. "Cindy knew so much about the game and really taught us the fundamentals early in the season." Weyandt has incorporated some of Zelinsky’s methods into her own program at North High. "Teaching those important things in the first week makes coaching so much easier," Weyandt said.