That was a long time ago — before Columbia Heights got poorer as a city and became largely a high school sports also-ran. Since then, only one of Alt’s five children has gone to a public high school — three attended private Cretin-Derham Hall, another perennial high school sports power. “I would tell them it’s not the same school,” Alt said of Columbia Heights. The school has won five state titles, but the last one was in 1990.
Mark Corless is the activities director at Columbia Heights, where 80 percent of the students now qualify for government-subsidized lunches. He said students at private and affluent public high schools “have much more access [to] the extras. [There’s] no concern, really, over activity fees, or over the ability to have the ‘right shoes.’
“I think we’re losing our way a little bit,” he said.
Columbia Heights is a member of the North Suburban Conference, which includes private powers Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Totino-Grace. The league will dissolve at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Now even Providence Academy in Plymouth, a private school with only 340 high school students, boasts three small-school state titles despite having been founded only 12 years ago. The school’s nine-member board of directors includes Michael Maglich, the president of MGM Wines and Spirits; chair Robert Cummins, the chief executive of Primera Technology; and Robert Buehler, a vice president at the 3M Corp.
Bill Cooper, a former state Republican Party chair and president of TCF Bank Minnesota, was part of the school’s original board of directors. Tuition at the high school next fall will be $16,555 annually, and there is a $750 fee to play hockey. A $14 million fundraising drive, with some of the money targeted to put artificial turf on the football field, is nearing its goal.
In 2012, the school won the Class 2A girls’ basketball title. This year’s team lost to Eden Prairie and Hopkins but beat Chanhassen, Bloomington Kennedy and Apple Valley and finished third in the state tournament. Near the school’s gymnasium, Providence Academy athletic director Kurt Jaeger pointed to a growing number of plaques that honored the increasing playoff success for a variety of his teams. “So they start here, and go down,” he said. “I think it’s [close] to 40, and there’s four more upstairs.”
This year Providence Academy hired Kevin Tapani, the former Twins pitcher, as its varsity baseball coach.
Jaeger said Providence Academy’s aim is not to go toe-to-toe with Eden Prairie and other elite athletic programs. But he acknowledged that, for several reasons, a have and have-not world is taking shape in high school sports. “The facilities [are] one piece of the equation, but the level of talent and the stockpiling of talent” is another, said Jaeger.
“It sure doesn’t hurt” to have top-flight facilities, he added. “I mean, my goodness, if you have all these gyms. ...”
An upgrade for basketball
As St. Thomas Academy glided to a 7-2 boys’ hockey victory in January against Tartan — an early glimpse into another championship season — Julie Johnson stood in a white North Face jacket in the ice arena’s hospitality room. The room, behind one of the goals, was open for parents and families of St. Thomas players, and the crowd grew in size as the game neared. Hockey “wasn’t a factor in us choosing the school,” explained Johnson, who had two sons playing this year, including Alex, a varsity captain. “[But] I was excited about the fact it was a great hockey program.”
Another St. Thomas Academy parent, Bill Brady, who wore a black jacket with the words “Cadets Hockey” on a breast logo, echoed the feeling. “You always get accused of recruiting [at St. Thomas], but kids are attracted to things that are run well,” he said. In the arena’s lobby, near where Lang’s plaque hung on the wall, there were eight large pictures of former St. Thomas Academy hockey players who moved on to play major college hockey, including Nick Larson, who attended Notre Dame.
A week later, at an early-morning Fathers’ Club meeting at St. Thomas Academy, assistant headmaster Mike Sjoberg reviewed the progress on the new student activities center, and said there was still $1.2 million of the $18 million that needed to be raised. But the roomful of fathers — part of a fundraising and support group — seemed most interested in the project’s details. The new gym, said Sjoberg, would have a wood floor but “it’s not like your old wood floors. [It’s got] suspension systems which everything sits on — it’s really amazing.
“It’s a lot bouncier,” he added.
As Sjoberg paused for questions and the fathers applauded, one father said the new gym was now ready to produce a state championship basketball team.
“I hope so,” said Sjoberg.