Private schools rise in athletic prowess

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2013 - 8:57 PM

Wealthy boosters have helped pave the way to increasing athletic success by private schools.

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Frank Lang, the head of Lang Nelson, one of Minnesota’s largest property management companies, does not brag of what he did for St. Thomas Academy — but he did plenty.

He has been the president of the nonprofit that runs — and built — the $4.4 million ice arena in Mendota Heights for the private high school’s hockey team, which won its third consecutive Class 1A title in March. Lang is so intertwined with the school that the sales manager for the indoor arena — a school employee — occasionally works out of Lang’s office. “It’s not about money — it’s just about somebody that wants to have passion,” Lang said.

Frank and Elaine Lang are among 14 donors who gave at least $20,000 to the project, and the ice arena is only one item that separates the all-boys institution from most other high schools in Minnesota. A school fundraiser has flown as far as Guam to raise money from alumni, and bestselling author — and alumnus — Vince Flynn has given more than $1 million. Parents and alumni last year alone gave $2.7 million to the school, and hockey players pay a $600 activity fee.

Infusions of cash from well-heeled donors have helped make private high schools a force in Minnesota athletics. Private schools have already won 11 state team championships this year, with the spring season yet to come. This year’s state titles include winning three of the four classes in boys’ basketball — DeLaSalle in 3A, Minnehaha Academy in 2A and Southwest Minnesota Christian in 1A. Public schools, many facing changing demographics and shrinking budgets, are struggling to compete, not only at the state level but within conferences that often include both public and private schools.

“It seems like the overall game is becoming more lopsided,” said Pam Feske as she sat in mid-January watching her son’s St. Paul Johnson hockey team get shut out 4-0 at St. Paul Academy, a private school with 21 state titles in all sports, three times as many as Johnson. Even though Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks graduated from Johnson — his picture hangs in the public school’s ice arena — the team’s coach had doubts he would have enough players for a team this past year.

The success of private schools can be seen across the high school sports landscape, particularly in soccer, a sport where youth elite club teams offer the best feeder system. The state’s small-school boys’ soccer tournament last fall was dominated by private schools — three of the four semifinalists were private schools, and the champion was Rochester Lourdes, a Catholic school. Similarly, three of the four semifinalists for the girls’ small-school state tournament were private schools, with Catholic Benilde-St. Margaret’s winning the title.

Private schools have fared even better in Minnesota’s ultimate high school sport — boys’ hockey — winning both the small- and large-school state hockey titles in 2006, 2008 and 2012. Twelve of the past 15 small-school boys’ hockey titles in Minnesota have been won by private schools.

But some private school officials bristle at having helped create — or benefited from — a have and have-not world. Hill-Murray, a private school in Maplewood, has won three boys’ hockey state titles and has been runner-up the past two years. The school’s annual report last year showed that fundraising totaled $2.5 million — Hill-Murray had 26 donations of $10,000 or more — and tuition and fees brought in $7.5 million. Tuition at the high school is $12,260 annually.

“We don’t want to be perceived as the school that has tons of money, like a Breck or a Blake,” said Sheri Lunn, Hill-Murray’s spokesperson and marketing director, referring to two other high-profile private schools in the Twin Cities. “We don’t have our own hockey rink, we don’t have a tennis court, we don’t have a swimming pool. So, we feel like we’re the ones with no facilities.”

Sitting in the baseball stands at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park, Patty Studsrud also downplayed the sports advantages at private high schools and said large, public schools such as Eden Prairie make it difficult for smaller schools to win. But she sympathized with the overall plight of many public high schools. “No one has budget anymore — that’s the landscape,” said Studsrud, as she watched her son, Keaton, the shortstop on the Red Knights baseball team, score in an eventual 7-4 victory. Heading into this year, Benilde’s 19 state sports titles placed it 25th out of the 393 high schools that have won state championships.

Watching as Hill-Murray cruised to an 11-0 shutout over Richfield in baseball this month, Richfield athletic director Todd Olson said what many now see as obvious. “Do they have an advantage? Well, sure,” he said. “Do public schools and private schools have commonality [anymore]? Probably not.”

‘Losing our way’

It is no coincidence to many that St. Thomas Academy has won 27 state athletic titles, moving up to 13th among the nearly 400 high schools in Minnesota that have won state championships. The school has won two state titles this year — for hockey and swimming — and the school is moving to Class 2A in hockey in search of stiffer competition.

In addition, St. Thomas Academy’s former conference, the Classic Suburban, has voted to dissolve, the catalyst being the desire to remove St. Thomas as a member.

But officials at the school downplay any link between money and athletic success. “We’re a private school, so we have to raise money,” said Chris Ritten, St. Thomas Academy’s director of institutional advancement. Outside the school a large sign showed that St. Thomas Academy had raised nearly all of the $18 million needed for its latest project: a new student activities center, which is nearing completion.

Most schools that compete against St. Thomas Academy — tuition at the Catholic school is $17,950 annually — can only look on with envy.

But Mark Zobel, a St. Thomas graduate who is sending three sons through the school, said many students get financial aid — and that the school’s affluence and image as an athletic factory are both overstated. “It’s not like we’re all sitting here with tons of money and writing big checks,” he said. “That [financial aid] is going to people like me, [who’s] got a third-string football player” at the school. He believes the school could have had more success in football — the school has not won a state title in football since 1975 — but in the interest of fair play regularly inserts backup players “while the game still is in the balance.”

Still, the differences between a high-flying private school and a scuffling public school — on and off the field — can be stark. At Columbia Heights, John Alt helped win a state football title in 1979 before moving on to a Pro Bowl career in the National Football League.

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