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What’s buzzing, and what should be buzzed about, in the wide world of Minnesota high school sports.

Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey coach Ken Pauly achieves 500th career victory

When Ken Pauly became a high school hockey coach in 1990-91 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, his calls to coaches seeking scrimmage opponents went unreturned save one – Duluth East’s Mike Randolph.
 
Schools weren’t shunning Pauly because he coached a private school program, though that would come later. No, the simple fact is Benilde-St. Margaret’s, located in St. Louis Park, stunk.
 
The Red Knights were 15 years removed from winning a conference title. And it showed on the trip north to face Randolph’s Greyhounds.
 
“They pounded us,” Pauly said. “The only way we could get shots on their goalie is when we practiced our 5-on-3 power play.”
 
By season’s end, however, Pauly coaxed his new team to the Missota Conference title with an undefeated conference record. The conference went away but the milestones kept coming. Class 1A state tournament champions in 1999 and 2001. A Class 2A title in 2012.
 
And on Thursday, Pauly won his 500th game, a 6-3 victory at Bloomington Jefferson.
 
“What’s been touching to me is how proud everyone is to be a part of it,” said Pauly, who in his 30th season became the 15th coach to reach the mark. “It’s not about you; it’s about something you built.”
 
Pauly took over the Red Knights at age 26. He wasn’t yet married, nor a father of two children. He wasn’t yet a social studies teacher at the school. His current assistant coach Chris McGowan was a senior and the team’s top line center.
 
McGowan was a transfer from Edina. More players arrived in similar fashion as the Red Knights became more successful and less appreciated.
 
“I was totally naïve about the level of rancor people had toward private schools,” said Pauly, a Wayzata graduate. “I walked into a coaches clinic wearing a Benilde sweatshirt and [former] Mound Westonka coach Pat Furlong says, ‘You stole a bunch of our guys.’ ”
 
Pauly, 55, who coached three seasons at Minnetonka before returning to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in 2007-08, noted the symmetry in achieving his milestone at Bloomington Jefferson. He said all his heroes were coaches, including the Jaguars’ Tom Saterdalen, who retired with 545 career victories.
 
“When I was coming in, Jefferson was the best team and we were a program that could not compete at that level,” Pauly said. “To know that over the years we had teams as good as anyone in the state is pretty cool.”

Led by new coach, South St. Paul boys' basketball reaching new heights

South St. Paul coach Matthew McCollister giving instructions during a timeout.

Matthew McCollister saw something no one else could even imagine seeing.

Through last season, McCollister was the head boys' basketball coach at Brooklyn Center, leading the Centaurs to their first state tournament berth in 35 years in 2018. An attorney by trade, McCollister was not unhappy at Brooklyn Center, but he lived and worked out of his home in Mendota Heights. He sought a coaching position nearer his home.

Enter South St. Paul. Not a particularly desirable job, but McCollister, who has also coached at Breck and St. Croix Prep and is the coach of the Tanzanian mens’ national team, wanted to see for himself. And what he saw intrigued him.

“I realized there was potential there,” McCollister said. “There was a chance to rewrite history.”

Basketball history at South St. Paul for the last 58 years had traveled hand-in-hand with losing. The Packers have had just one state tournament appearance since 1962, a runner-up finish in 1970. It was the losingest Class 3A program in the state from 2010 through 2019, posting a record of 38-229 over the decade, an average of fewer than four victories per season. They won a total of just seven conference games over that span.

McCollister took the job. “It was a unique challenge,” he said.

So far, the Packers in his first season have more than met that challenge. They’ve exceeded it.

Their come-from-behind 71-69 victory over Mahtomedi on Tuesday improved their record to 10-4. It was their first victory over their Metro East Conference rival in 14 years. The last time South St. Paul won 10 games in a season was 18 years ago. The last time they were 10-4? That state tournament season in 1970.

“I saw there was young talent here but I didn’t think that talent was being maximized,” McCollister said. “They needed a fresh voice.”

With the whole-hearted support of Athletic Director Chad Sexauer, McCollister set about changing the basketball culture. On the court, he employed an up-tempo style, pressuring opponents on both ends of the court.

South St. Paul players Josh Osborne, Max Wilson, Alonzo Dodd and Marquise Gleb.

He put more responsibility in the hands of his younger players. Just two players in the Packers’ regular rotation are upperclassmen. The rest are freshman and sophomores, led by freshman sharpshooter Max Wilson and sophomore Alonzo Dodd, the team's leading scorer.

But most of all, McCollister said, the improvement was due to the players' belief in the system and in themselves.

“It’s 100 percent testament to these young men,” McCollister said. “They’ve totally bought in. They’ve taken their knowledge of what we’ve been doing and run with it.”

In a season already awash in high points, the victory over Mahtomedi has been the pinnacle. The Packers trailed by 14 points early in the second half, an insurmountable deficit to previous teams. This time around, however, they never wavered, rallying for a season-defining victory.

“I almost got emotional in the locker room afterwards,” McCollister said. “I was so proud of them to be down like than and stick together to pull it out. They made clutch play after clutch play.”

The school, long known for its hockey pedigree, has taken taken notice. The basketball team’s success has elevated it to must-see status. “We’re getting awesome crowds,” McCollister said. “Every time I come to the school, a teacher or an administrator stop me and tell me they can’t believe the buzz around the school.”

With still almost a half the season yet to play, McCollister acknowledges his team hasn’t accomplished anything meaningful yet. “We’re still very young and we’re still South St. Paul,” he said. “We have to battle every single night.”

While his job is keeping the Packers train moving forward, McCollister wants to make sure his players are enjoying the ride.

“We want to continue to strive and get better,” he said. “But I’ve also reminded these young men to stop and smell the roses. How many opportunities do you get to rewrite history? This is pretty cool.”