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Woodbury head boys basketball coach and Willmar native Scott Swansson addresses his team during a recent practice. Swansson enters his 35th season with Woodbury, likely his last. Mike Longaecker / Woodbury Bulletin

Swanny’s song: Retirement beckons for Willmar grad in 2014

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By Mike Longaecker, Woodbury Bulletin

Nobody gets on a Scott Swansson basketball team by accident.

You follow his rules. You work hard. You play defense.

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Matt Ambriz knows what it’s like.

The Royals senior learned the hard way as a sophomore on the Woodbury basketball team. When he didn’t tuck in his jersey, Swansson was on him like a full-court press.

“He will get at you if you don’t do what’s right,” Ambriz said. “You have to earn your spot.”

The Willmar native — known around the Woodbury High School gym as “Swanny” — knows his style has an impact on players, and he likes it that way.

“I’m competitive,” the coach said. “They know that I’m going to want to win. I get them to play the way my personality is.”

Swansson’s approach has refined over the long basketball seasons, and as he enters his 35th – and likely his last, with retirement on the horizon – the coach admits he’s softened over the years.

Learned to pick battles, be patient

“I think that I have,” Swansson said, adding with a laugh that alumni have told him in recent years, “You’ve mellowed a lot.”

That might be hard for Reid Peters to imagine.

A senior on the Royals team this year, Peters entered the program as an open-gym type who thought he could play his own brand of hoops. Swansson had other ideas.

“You’ve got to play the way he wants you to play,” Peters said. “He hated the way I played when I first started. I was the whipping boy for a while.

“I really just learned to crack down and play Swanny basketball. It seems to work for us.”

There’s evidence to support that claim.

Swansson’s teams have reached the state tournament in four of the last eight seasons. In 2012, he was named Co-Coach of the Year by his peers.

It’s shaping up to a strong finish to Swansson’s career in coaching, though his convincing coda comes as little surprise as he reveals a symbolic secret to success: “It’s a long season. Be playing your best hoops at the end of the year.”

The path to much of that late-season success is paved by the way Swansson’s teams practice, said Kevin McDermott, an assistant coach for the Royals. He said practices under Swansson are a lively mix of drills and game-like competition that keep the kids engaged during the long season.

“If you can find his records in February and March, you will find that his teams consistently have strong finishes, because our kids have not lost interest, whereas other teams have had enough of the same tedious practices,” McDermott said.

Roots

Swansson’s path to coaching was virtually foretold.

The son of Al Swansson, a member of the junior college coaches’ hall of fame, young Swanny spent his childhood as a ballboy for his father’s basketball teams in Willmar.

Over time, the younger Swansson would realize that he’d been surrounded by coaches all his life and that they had become his role models.

“I kind of wanted to be like them,” he said.

Swansson accomplished that goal and first became a coach in nearby Clara City.

It was there that Swansson reached a pivotal moment in his life: He stepped away from coaching and teaching for a year that he spent selling office furniture and supplies.

“It was the best and worst year of my life,” he said.

The worst because, though he found the job lucrative, he couldn’t stand it. The best because, in hindsight, it was the year he made up his mind that he’d return to teaching and coaching.

Shortly after, he took a job at Woodbury High School and hasn’t looked back.

“It made the next 33 years very enjoyable,” Swansson said.

Unforgettable

For many, plucking one moment from a career that spans 35 years is a chore.

Not so for Swansson.

The first time his Royals won a section title and reached the state tournament is his favorite hard-court memory. Woodbury topped Cretin-Derham Hall in 2006 to earn the berth.

“As a coach, you never know if you’re going to get there,” Swansson said, noting that he keeps a framed photo at home of him hugging former Royal Max Hintz after the game. “That was a big deal.”

There’s a lot to look back on for Swansson. Not all of it was fun. He admits cutting kids is always one of the hardest things he has to do.

And then there’s the game-day anxiety and the off-season stuff that can be a grind.

In fact, Swansson said he found himself momentarily daydreaming during a game last season. He wondered why he subjects himself to the grind when he could be plopped on his couch watching television instead of being out on the court in his trademark sweater-vest.

Then he looked up at the game clock and realized it was gut-check time. He had to ask himself, “Do I like this or not?”

The daydream was over.

“Hell yeah, I like this,” Swansson remembered thinking. “This is awesome.”

Final season

So he’s got another year left to see what the latest crop of players can do in his system.

This year’s team brings experience in seniors Matt Ambriz, Isaiah Codden, Nick Yan, Charlie Olson, Ben Meyer, Ben Rizzardi and Reid Peters.

Though all the seniors, including back-up post man Griffen Runze, gained varsity experience last season, Ambriz is the only returning starter.

Swansson said he expects big things from the senior this season.

“Matt’s one of the best shooters we’ve ever had at Woodbury,” the coach said.

Not that it’s going to be easy. Ambriz will likely see more double teams than the open looks he was able to draw last season, when defenses keyed on standout 2013 graduate Renard Suggs.

Swansson admitted that this year’s Royals will have to play even harder in the competitive Suburban East Conference since they’re not as athletic as last year’s squad — a claim that Ambriz agreed with.

The solution?

“Team defense,” Ambriz said. “Communicate on defense and we’ll get there just through lovin’ each other.”

Swansson agreed defense will be key, but said that won’t be enough. In lieu of athletic gifts that allowed players like Suggs or fellow 2013 grad Diallo Powell to play varied roles on the floor, Swansson said this year’s Royals must embrace their individual roles and execute.

“We have to put those guys in situations where they can do what they do,” he said.

That, Swansson said, will keep them in games against teams he identified as this year’s conference heavyweights: Cretin, Roseville, East Ridge and Mounds View.

He expected a season of parity in the conference.

“I’m thinking that maybe four or five losses could win the conference,” Swansson said.

The Royals kicked off the season with an 81-70 home win over Shakopee on Nov. 26. They return to the court Dec. 3 in a road game against St. Paul Johnson before traveling Dec. 6 to Edina.

If there’s one thing that isn’t changing this year, it’s Swansson’s approach. He said the likelihood that this is his last season won’t impact the way he approaches the game.

And now that he’s bought in to Swanny Ball, Peters said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you’re in there, you’ve got to be sweating,” he said.

Mike Longaecker is editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. Swansson is a 1974 graduate of Willmar High School where he played on state tournament teams in football, basketball and baseball his senior year.

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