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NLS' Wendlandt coping after family lost home in fire

Karli Wendlandt of New London-Spicer eyes the basket after grabbing a rebound against Albany in a West Central North Conference game Dec. 4 in New London. Tribune photo by T.J. Bartelt

Generally soft spoken by nature, Karli Wendlandt has been even more close-mouthed in recent days after her family's home was destroyed by fire on New Year's Eve.

Wendlandt, a three-sport athlete at New London-Spicer, lost all of her possessions by the blaze that took firefighters nearly five hours to extinguish on a frosty evening with the temperature at minus-10.

The exact cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but the family believes it was instigated by the fireplace and chimney. 

Among the many sports items that Karli, the youngest of Tim and Lisa's three daughters, lost were her state basketball tournament medal, her section volleyball medal, All-Area certificates, scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, both current basketball game jerseys, basketball shoes, two softball mitts, volleyball knee pads and her knee and ankle braces.

"Losing the state tournament items bothers me the most among the sports items I lost," she said calmly, in an interview in the school's office on Wednesday. "I had bought a sweatshirt and some other things at state ... and I also lost my medal." 

Many of those items can be replaced. Some already have been. The West Central Tribune issued her new volleyball and basketball All-Area certificates. NLS school administrators are working to replace some of her medals and awards. Activities director John Vraa sent two unused jerseys to a manufacturer to have Karli's number 41 sewn on them. And Karli's friend and teammate, Justine Dammermann, bought her a new pair of basketball shoes.

"Everyone has been so good to us," Karli said. "My friends have helped me a lot."

Wendlandt's oldest sister, Katie, 22, lives in her own home in New London and is now playing host to the other family members. Her other sister, Jenn, also lives with the family while attending Ridgewater College. Jenn's All-Area basketball certificate from 2007 has also been replaced. But what can't be replaced are the Wendlandts pets, two dogs and a cat that perished in the blaze.

"Yeah, that's the hardest part," said Karli, bowing her head slowly. "It's hard to talk about. My mom had put the dogs in the house because it was so cold. They normally are in the garage. Then she left for a little while."

Karli and some friends were following in a car behind her mother on their way home about an hour later.

"I saw smoke right away, but I thought it was the neighbor burning something," explained Karli. "I couldn't see right away because there are some little curves before our house. Then I saw the flames. It was such a shock."

Karli was a four-year letterwinner and three-year starter in both volleyball and basketball at NLS. And she lettered last spring in softball as a first baseman.

Despite the tragedy, Karli hasn't missed any practices in basketball.

"Basketball gets my mind off what happened," she said. "It's helped a lot. It's good that we have our first game (today against Melrose). But I still can't get the image of the fire out of my mind. I think about it all the time."

She is a 5-10 forward and captain this season for the 8-1 Wildcats, who finished third in the Class AA state tournament last winter. She is averaging nearly a double-double per game this season with 9.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game average, both team highs. She also averages 2.5 steals per game.

"Karli is very aggressive and a relentless competitor that backs down to nobody, even though she is undersized for an inside player," said NLS girls basketball coach Mike Dreier. "Given her on-court demeanor, it might surprise some people how sensitive and sweet she can be off the court."

Dreier said the news of the fire hit him hard because of his closeness to the family.

"Getting the word that their house was burning and that it might be a total loss ... sickening and a feeling of helplessness. The only relief was being told that the family was safe.

"I coached their mother briefly when she moved to Spicer in tenth grade from Maynard," said Dreier. "She was moved up to varsity for tournaments, but she decided not to go out as a junior. And I've had the pleasure of coaching one or more of the Wendlandt girls for the last eight-plus years. All were hard-nosed competitors."

Karli also helped the Wildcats qualify for the state volleyball tournament this past fall. She was a fixture at the net four four seasons and finished her senior year with 309 kills and had 672 in her career. 

The Wendlandts will live with Katie before eventually relocating into the vacated home of a family in New London that invited them to stay while they live in Arizona the rest of the winter. The Wendlandts plan to rebuild on the same property that they built their former home on 17 years ago.

Throughout the ordeal, the Wendlandts have received an enormous outpouring of support from friends, family, neighbors and church community.

"It's amazing all the support and help we've had here," said Lisa. "We feel very fortunate to live in a community where everyone looks out for each other."

A fund for the Wendlandt family has been established at the Lake Region Bank in New London. Donations can be sent to 51 Main St. NW, New London, 56273 or call 320-354-2011 for more information.