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<b>Photo by Scott Thoma</b> New London-Spicer volleyball coach Margaret Essler, left, and her husband, Dan, the Wildcats' football coach, are both headed with their teams to the state tournament.

Esslers guide NLS teams to state

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A day after Dan Essler's New London-Spicer football team qualified for the state tournament, the Wildcats' volleyball team followed suit and won their section title to earn a spot in the state tournament. And it so happens that Essler's wife, Margaret, is a co-head coach of the volleyball team.

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Talk about competitive spouses.

Margaret is in her third stint as head coach of the volleyball team and is in her 15th season as a head coach. She first coached at NLS from 1986-96 and guided the team to a state tournament in 1993 and '95. She then stepped down before taking over again for two seasons in 2003. When Kay Czarnetzki resigned two years ago, Essler and one of her former players, Mimi (Harrier) Knutson, decided to become co-head coaches. Knutson was a highly-successful coach at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa before resigning three years ago. Margaret, meanwhile, recently won the 300th match of her career. Knutson, now in her 10th season as a head coach, won the 200th match of her career earlier this season.

"It just means I've been coaching a long time," Margaret laughed, when asked about her 300 wins. "It also means I have been around many good volleyball players and teams. It was nice, but something I hadn't thought about. You have to give Kay a lot of credit for this team's success because she is the one that made up her mind to start many of our current players when they were very young."

Dan and Margaret were high school sweethearts at Brooten, graduating in 1981. Well, actually, the bond may have started a few years before that as they were in the same class in kindergarten.

And sports began running through their veins at an early age. Dan's three siblings (his older brother was killed in the Vietnam war) and Margaret's five siblings all were competitive in sports. In high school, Dan was in football, wrestling, baseball and track. Margaret competed in volleyball, basketball and track. They both went on to Fergus Falls Community College by pure chance with Dan playing football and baseball and Margaret playing volleyball and softball. They were married in 1986.

"That's all we did growing up was play sports," said Dan. "Almost every day we were playing some kind of sport."

The Esslers have what it takes to be a coach; a competitive desire, intelligence, an ability to motivate and a love for the sport. And both have achieved success at their profession.

And when one is coaching and the other is a spectator, they are very supportive of one another.

"We don't always agree, but we don't critique each other," said Margaret. "We talk about each other's practices, but we really don't give too much advice."

And the two have different personalities during a game or match.

"He seems to be one of the calmer coaches on the sidelines," said Margaret.

But during a match, calm isn't exactly the word that pops into Dan's head when describing his wife's demeanor.

"Margaret is pretty relaxed when she's not coaching," Dan said. "But put her in a coaching/game situation and she is pretty intense."

Dan was upbeat about the idea of having a story written about the rarity of spouses coaching teams into a state tournament in the same season. Margaret, who admittedly does not enjoy the limelight, balked at the idea at first. And getting her to agree to a photo to accompany the article, was, well, like getting an introvert to give a speech in front of a large group of people.

The two currently coach track and field together at NLS and they also team-teach high school physical education. Margaret has also been an assistant girls basketball coach since 1986, the year she started teaching health and physical education at NLS. Dan was the head track coach at Belgrade-Brooten and was also a volunteer football coach at Willmar Community College (now Ridgewater).

"We take advice from one another," said Dan, who is currently 39-37 in his 8th season as the head football coach at NLS, including an 11-0 mark this season. "We don't agree with everything, but for the most part, we're on the same page."

Their son, Jake, is a 1,000-yard running back on the current Wildcats' team and has been on varsity track since seventh grade. The senior missed most of the section football title game last Saturday against Albany after suffering a concussion in the first quarter. He was hit in the head twice during that game. A running back, defensive back and long snapper, Jake wasn't cleared by his doctor to play in Saturday's state quarterfinal against Minneapolis North until Wednesday morning.

"We won't use him at running back (Saturday)," said Dan. "But he'll play safety and be our long snapper."

NLS and Minneapolis North play at 3 p.m. Saturday at St. Cloud State's Husky Stadium.

The Esslers also have another son, Adam, an eighth-grader.

The Wildcats' volleyball team opens at state today against Hibbing in tthe quarterfinals at 5 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. As it turns out, if the Wildcats are in the state volleyball final, it would be played at 3 p.m., the same time the football team begins its quarterfinal game.

"If that happens, I'll probably have someone text me with what's going on in the football game," said Margaret.

And Dan will probably do the same thing.

Wildcats? More like copycats.

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