Three-time Olympic women's hockey medalist Natalie Darwitz had been an assistant for two years at the University of Minnesota, where she had set collegiate scoring records and won two national championships as a player.

She ran her own hockey school and helped her father with the youth and high school programs in Eagan, the former scoring machine's stomping grounds.

But when Lakeville South came calling, the 28-year-old had a big decision to make.

"For people to look as an outsider and justify why I made this decision, it probably crashed their heads a little bit," she said.

Ultimately for Darwitz, who wants to be a college head coach, the opportunity to take over the Cougars program proved too appealing. It was announced in August that Minnesota's icon would take over Lakeville South girls' hockey.

"It was really tough. It was a big decision where I'm at in my life right now," said Darwitz, who is also going back to school to get her teaching license. "Just turning 28 and to have a pretty good job with pretty good pay at a good institution. But I saw this as a great opportunity to better myself and gain some head-coaching experience."

Lakeville South activities director Neil Strader got a tip that Darwitz, the youngest player ever selected to the U.S. Women's National Team at age 15, might be interested in a head coaching job. He called her in June and she agreed to interview.

"It was just a chance obviously worth taking," Strader said.

Darwitz thought about it long and hard. The University of Minnesota didn't want her to leave, and the feeling of loyalty was mutual.

"To stay at the U I think would have been the easy route so I decided to challenge myself here and take a program head-on," Darwitz said. "I decided to follow my heart and take a leap of faith and take the Lakeville South job."

Not only did Darwitz leave her alma mater, she joined up with an Eagan rival. Most everyone knows her name when she walks into Eagan High School. She could have coached with her father, Scott, and enjoyed it thoroughly, but Darwitz wanted to make her own mark.

"That was the big selling point: starting my own program," said Darwitz, who lives in Apple Valley, between Lakeville and Eagan. "It's going to be real weird to face the Wildcats, especially with my dad on the bench and knowing those girls really well."

Strader said the Lakeville community couldn't be more excited to have Darwitz coach the Cougars.

"It's a big-deal hire," he said. "She's going to change the way our hockey team and program is looked at around the metro and probably around the state with the coaching staff that she's going to be able to bring in."

Assisting on varsity will be coach Tom Osiecki, who has nearly 50 years of experience at the high school, collegiate and national levels. Former four-year Gophers player Jaimie Horton will lead the junior varsity with Rob Laden. Hamline women's head coach and former Gophers goalie Steve DeBus will help out with the goaltenders.

"If the girls don't listen to those four, we're in trouble," said Darwitz, who aims to lead a fun but disciplined program.

The Cougars begin practice on Monday and will open their season against Edina on Nov. 17.