Wealthy boosters have helped pave the way to increasing athletic success by private schools.
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.
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.
To try to make that happen, St. Thomas Academy announced Sjoberg — who previously led the Cadets to six state tournaments — would return to coach the boys’ basketball team.