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Willmar Notebook: Touch of home for Gophers coach

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Cheney, Kansas, is a farm town in the wheat fields of southern Kansas. Around 1,700 people live there, not many more than live in Clara City.

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It's the hometown of Jerry Kill and he's proud of it. The Gophers new head coach, a boy off the farm, spoke affectionately of growing up there in the 1970s.

Cheney is also the home town of Kathy Fleegel, the main office secretary at the Willmar Middle School.

Fleegel took her lunch break last Thursday to attend the Gophers' tour stop at American Legion in Willmar. Along with here husband Steve, Kathy waited patiently for her chance to greet Kill before he spoke to the crowd numbering over 270.

This is how the meeting went down.

Kathy: "I said 'I want to introduce myself because I'm from your home town.' I think he was taken aback for a moment. He said 'You're from Cheney?' ''

Kathy graduated in 1969 from Cheney High School, whose sports teams are the Cardinals, and Kill 10 years later, before going on to play linebacker and captain the football team at Southwest (Kansas) State.

But Kathy pointed out that her sister, Shirlene Kohler, was a sophomore when Jerry was a senior. Kill responded that the two were good friends in high school.

Kathy has a brother who makes his home in Cheney. Kill's mother still lives there.

During his talk at the packed luncheon, Kill mentioned what a surprise it is to be greeted by someone from his home town. He tried to introduce Kathy to the audience but she had already left to return to work.

Steve also had an in with the former head coach at Northern Illinois. He works in production for Fox Sports North which provides TV coverage of Gopher hockey and some football as well as the Twins.

Is Kill a favorite son of the little town? I asked Kathy.

"Oh, they are very proud of him. We're all rooting for him to turn the team around," she said.

More for Smith

More honors for Jordan Smith, the 2009 WHS grad. The NSIC Player-of-the-Year has been named to the College Baseball Line-up DII All-Star Team, one of 36 nationwide and the only player from the NSIC.

He's also the Daktronics Central Region Player of the Year and on their NCAA DII first team. He's again been named to the Rawlings-American Baseball Coaches Association DII All-Central Region Team.

Smith started every game at third base on a Husky team that won a record 43 games while losing 11. The Huskies season ended at 1:10 a.m. Monday at Putz Field in a 7-6 loss to Winona State in a rain-delayed game in the Central Region elimination bracket.

Smith finished his second college season hitting .382 with 57 RBI.

Barry's back

Barry Nelson graduated from Willmar High School in 1982 with all-conference honors and went on to play hockey in the New York Rangers farm system, reaching their top rung at Denver before a serious foot injury ended his professional career.

He was out of hockey for a dozen years. Last fall, he answered a want ad and was hired to manage the Koronis Hills Civic Arena at Paynesville, co-home ice with Richmond of the River Lake Stars.

He's brought in some heavy hitters for his first Elite Hockey Camp June 13-25. On the list is former Cardinal Lee Smith, whose Eden Prairie Eagles won the Class AA state championships in 2009 and again this year; Barry's younger brother, Brian, former UM-Duluth Bulldog and NHL draft choice; and Todd Elik, Barry's former minor-league teammate who had an eight-year career in the NHL.

Barry also expects Peter Stahnke, who led Willmar to the 1983 Region 5 semifinals at the Met Center and now coaches the boys hockey team at Park Rapids, to be on hand for a part of the camps.

Golf tourneys heat up in June

Besides the many fundraising events, June is the big month on the local tournament calendar.

Little Crow County Club and Eagle Creek again hold their Shortstops back-to-back on June 4 in New London and June 5 at Willmar.

The Lakeland Tournament runs June 25-26. Former touring pro Aaron Barber broke the 54-hole record last year shooting a 207.

Another Shortstop that attracts some of the top players is at Paynesville where Koronis Hills holds its 27-hole tourney on June 26.

In other golf news, Andy Jacobson has qualified for the MGA Mid-Players Match Play Championship June 14-16 at Olympic Hills. The Willmar insurance man shot a 33-38-71, winning by six strokes, at Lynx National on Monday to earn the single qualify spot among nine competitors. Jacobson reached the final four in the 32-player field last year.

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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