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Willmar Notebook: Legendary coach, star player make Wildcats tick

New London-Spicer senior guard Taylor Thunstedt goes up for one of her 22 points in the Wildcats’ 57-25 victory over Minnehaha Academy in the last year’s Wild-Card championship game on Dec. 29, 2012. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.

The second annual Wild-Card girls basketball tournament features the Minnesota coach with the most victories (796) and one of the state’s premier players.

Mike Dreier’s New London-Spicer Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start in his 36th season. Only Myron Glass at Rochester Lourdes, the Cats’ nemesis in the 1990s, is close with 709 victories. Glass, it was announced in May, will retire at the end of this season after 31 years. Brad Atchison, now retired from coaching and doing radio commentary, is fifth on the list with 589 wins at Clara City and Willmar.

Taylor Thunstedt, the Wildcats’ whirlwind senior guard signed by North Dakota State, crested 2,000 career-points earlier this month. It’s almost certain she will surpass Hancock’s Bree Holleman (2,305) as the Tribune-area’s top career scorer.

Thunstedt’s a snappy passer whether prowling the arc or driving the lane but is the most fun when she locks in her 3-point shot. Still, it’s New London-Spicer’s regimented 2-3 zone that so often destroys the opposition. No team has yet to surpass 40 points this season against the Cats.

The girls tournament starts Friday and the boys tournament begins today. Both events are at Willmar Senior High School.

The first round match-up for the Wild-Card, sponsored, ahem, by the West Central Tribune, features Minnehaha Academy (5-1) and the Wildcats. They are the No. 3 and No. 2 teams, respectively, in Minnesota Scores’ state rankings. The Redhawks have won 5 straight since a four-point loss to Totino-Grace in their season opener.

Last year, NLS stunned Minnehaha Academy in the Wild-Card championship game, not so much by winning — NLS was 9-0 following the victory — but by the ease of winning. Minnehaha was 7-0 and ranked No. 10 in Class AA entering the tournament, but the Wildcats prevailed 57-25.

This year’s game is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Next is the Willmar Cardinals (3-2) vs. Albany (5-0), now in the AAA class, where the Huskies rank No. 10. Last year it was the Wild-Card that had a weaker foursome of the two tournaments, with a new program, Heritage Christian, filling in when no other team could be found.

The NLS/Willmar tournament management’s first goal is to get a competitive area team, meaning greater gate receipts. If that doesn’t work, a top-notch team from out of the area is sought. This time neither option worked despite a long search.

This year’s fourth team for the boys’ Bremer Bank Holiday Classic is New Century Academy of Hutchinson. The private school is early in its second decade and in its first year of Minnesota State High School League competition. Enrollment is listed at 74 in the top four grades. Superintendent and basketball coach Glenn Klaphake tells me there are 150 students in grades 7-12, with a curriculum emphasizing technology, engineering and math.

Klaphake just joined NCA this past summer and immediately began adding co-curricular activities, starting with cross-country this fall. Other additions were dance team, robotics and speech.

The Spartans’ hoops team is 0-2 and has lined up an eight-game schedule.

The Spartans must take on New London-Spicer (5-0) at 6 p.m. today in the tipoff of the Bremer Holiday Classic. The Wildcats are big, well-seasoned and athletic. This will not be pretty.

So this is a good time to remind ourselves of the value of athletics in education. Klaphake puts it quite well: “We, of course, want to be competitive, but the primary goal for NCA is to expose students to as many opportunities as possible. In addition, our goal is to teach life-long lessons through our activities. The lessons of teamwork, discipline, persistence, privilege, generosity, appreciation, and support for each other are the main tenants of our participation philosophy.”

In the second Bremer game, Willmar (6-2) and Benson (5-4) face off at 7:30 p.m. today.

Friday will be a hoops carnival at the senior high with JV games starting at 9 a.m. With Christmas at mid-week and the Wild-Cat set for Willmar in the yearly rotation, everything doubled-down.

After the girls games, the gym will be cleared and the boys will follow with third-place and championship games.

Willmar A.D. Ryan Blahosky hopes to see the four varsity games completed in 90 minute slots, which would translate to third-place boys at 7:30 p.m. and championship at 9 p.m. Of course, given the sleepy 25-minute delay between games and then all the timeouts and fouls, it seems quite unlikely that schedule can be maintained.

Additionally, on Friday, a 3-point/free-throw contest will be held at halftime of the Willmar girls vs. Albany game and the boys championship game. Proceeda from the $1 for one shot contest will go to the Salvation Army in Willmar. The Tribune and Bremer Bank will match the funds. Also new this year is a five-player all-star team and MVPs for each tournament.

Tournament trail

n The Willmar boys hockey team will measure itself against section rival Hutchinson (4-2) at the Little Falls invite today. The Tigers are a favorite along with New Ulm in 2A. But it’s already obvious Luverne must be considered a contender. The southern Cardinals are 10-0 (7-0 vs 2A foes) and have the top six scorers and the stingiest goalie. Some will point out that their schedule is all that beefy but still, Luverne can play. Willmar also gets a shot at the Flyers (1-8) on Friday and Doug Runke’s Mound Westonka White Hawks (4-3) on Saturday.

n Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa’s boys basketball team has done well the last four years playing larger schools but the Jaguars really face a tall order taking on Class AAA Sartell (5-2) on Friday at 12:30 p.m. at St. Cloud Apollo High School, and then Class AAAA state champion Apple Valley at 8:30 p.m. at Halenbeck Hall on Saturday in, the final game of the Breakdown Sports 14-game Granite City Classic. The Eagles (7-1), led by Duke recruit Tyus Jones, do have a loss but it is to a Chicago powerhouse Whitney Young. As good as the Jags are and as tantalizing as a small-school vs. big-school match-up seems, it’s a lot to expect the Jaguars (6-0) to stick with the Eagles for very long, which is why Minnesota finally came around and adopted multi-classes in 1972. Regardless, fans will get to see the Jaguars’ exceptional 6-foot-4 guard Brian Goodwin go head-to-head with the 6-2 Jones.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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