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Willmar grad building hoops power in N.D.

It's easy to name a lot of coaches who migrated across the Red River to coach in Minnesota. Occasionally, the flow is reversed.

Jay Kocka, who played for the Willmar Cardinals basketball team in the mid-1990s, now has his own team up in North Dakota. On December 11, he begins his fifth season as head coach of the Maple Valley Raiders. With a young but experienced team, the future looks bright.

"In the preseason coach's power poll, we are ranked 30th out of 115 schools," said Kocka, a graduate of nearby Valley City State University. "Last year, we played a lot of young athletes and lost in the regional tournament. This year we have four starters back but only one senior. We've set some high goals."

Kocka teaches third grade. The Raider girls head coach is Jeff Miller, who played basketball for New London-Spicer, and, like Kocka, graduated in 1996. Miller, a sixth-grade teacher, is in his second year as the Raiders' head coach.

"We often talk about the old days and laugh about the elementary basketball games we played against each other," said Kocka.

The two also met in high school at the holiday tournament in Willmar.

The Wildcats won the 1994 game Dec. 30, 63-61. That was the first meeting of the two schools since the 1965 District 20 Tournament. The next year, when both were seniors, NLS smashed Minneapolis South in the final 80-50 with Miller scoring 17 points. The Wildcats have been a regular part of the Willmar holiday tournament ever since.

Maple Valley is made up of Buffalo, Oriska and Tower City on the interstate not far west of Fargo.

The towns have the same passion for the sport as Willmar.

"These kids are a coach's dream and I get this opportunity for another three years," said Kocka. "They're a bunch of gym rats."

Melby takes helm at River Lakes

Jeff Melby (WHS '88) is the new head coach of the River Lakes Stars boys hockey program. He replaces Jeff Boonstra (WHS '82), who resigned this summer but remains involved with the River Lakes youth program. Brian Nelson, an all-stater at Willmar in 1984, is coaching the River Lakes Squirts.

Melby played hockey for Peter Aus. He was a junior forward on the last Cardinal boys team to win a conference title in 1987. One of his teammates that season was Dan Tollefson, the current head coach at Willmar. Melby was a Stars' assistant coach the last two years. He's been coaching hockey for 11 years.

Willmar, which will host the Stars on Tuesday, will also play Melby's team in the first round of River Lakes' eight-team holiday tournament at Paynesville.

"We've got veterans at forward and will be strong in the nets, but will have sophomores playing defense," said Melby.

He and his wife, Kina, bought out Doug Quick on Nov. 1 and now are sole owners of Play it Again Sports in Willmar.

I count at least eight Cardinal alumni heading up varsity hockey programs in the state this winter. Also new as head coaches are Chad Akerson at Willmar and Gretchen Dahl at Faribault.

Card alumnus set up Hastings tilt

Hastings and Willmar meet for the first time in boys basketball on Friday in Willmar to open the season. Andy Lutz, a three-sport athlete who graduated in 1996, set up the meeting against his former team. He's in his 10th year teaching AP U.S. History at Hastings. It's his ninth year as an assistant basketball coach, commanding the Raiders' JV team.

He is also the quarterback/running back coach in fall and the advisor for the FCA chapter. He and Cardinal coach Steve Grove tried to set up this game a year ago, but it didn't work out.

The Raiders have three seniors who are third-year starters. The Suburban East includes powers like Mounds View, Stillwater, and Cretin-Derham Hall.

On the fly

n The Willmar Cardinal girls got a No. 6 ranking in Class AAA from Minnesota Basketball News. They're one spot in back of Worthington, one of the teams they'll have to beat out in Section 2AAA to get back to state for the first time since 2006.

n Tom Tengwall graduated from Willmar in 1975 without winning a letter, though he was on the swimming team for a time. His sons Chris, now at St. John's playing basketball, and current New London-Spicer senior Erik have been athletic standouts in high school.

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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