Bob Motzko and Lindsay Whalen, high-profile coaching hires at the University of Minnesota just 16 days apart, fueled expectations in two high school athletics camps.
To boys’ hockey and girls’ basketball coaching leadership, Motzko and Whalen represented a fresh start. Both have local ties and past successes with their respective Gophers programs. But it’s their potential as ambassadors throughout the state that intrigued high school coaches.
Boys’ hockey coaches want the coach of what they consider the state’s premier Division I program to lend his voice and help sway top prep products not to leave high school early. In addition, they hope Motzko recruits like he did at St. Cloud State for 13 seasons and welcomes players from greater Minnesota.
Building a stronger connection with Whalen is a priority among girls’ basketball coaches, which in turn should help keep more local talent home.
Whalen, hired in April, has made the bigger impression so far.
She received a verbal commitment from Stillwater junior guard Sara Scalia, the first Minnesota high school player to commit to the Gophers in five years. And though she couldn’t attend because she plays for the Lynx, Whalen helped set a June meeting between assistant coach Kelly Roysland and leaders within the girls’ basketball coaches association.
Whalen recently announced her Lynx retirement, freeing her to be even more visible in her coaching role.
“They already exceeded our expectation just being willing to meet with us,” said Liz Carpentier, Farmington girls’ basketball coach and coaches association president. “They asked, ‘What can we do to build a relationship?’ We all walked out feeling refreshed.”
Former Gophers coach Marlene Stollings, who left to take the Texas Tech job, spoke at a high school coaches clinic last fall, but Carpentier said “there wasn’t a sense of engagement, a relationship between coaches at the U at the high school level.”
Whalen said she wants to “work together because that’s the only way to get things done. We want to grow the game and inspire the girls who look up to players on the Gophers or on the Lynx.”
Basketball coaches were encouraged by the symbolism of Scalia becoming Whalen’s first committed recruit.
“When Sara verballed it paved the path,” Carpentier said. “It was a big deal because it showed that this coaching staff is making Minnesota players a priority.”
Stillwater coach Willie Taylor said: “The previous staff was interested but were kind of back and forth a little bit. Lindsay came in right away and said, ‘We want her.’ I know her coaching staff on a first-name basis. With Marlene, I didn’t know the coaches. I met one. But I can call Danielle [O’Banion], Kelly or Lindsay any time.”
Whalen and Roysland were two of 10 Minnesota natives on the Gophers’ 2004 Final Four team, and coaches believe the state’s talent pool has only gotten deeper. Nationally sought Hopkins junior guard Paige Bueckers leads the way. The Gophers got a late jump in the battle for her services, which is fierce.
Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, an 11-time NCAA champion, “has been in our gym more than Gophers. He had dinner afterward with my staff and I, and was real open and warm. No offense to Marlene, but there was no connection there.
“It’s important that the University of Minnesota staff be visible, so I think the U hit a home run with Lindsay. Our Minnesota athletes are being recruited nationally so it will be interesting to see how she handles it.”
Motzko’s challenges are different. Coaching the Gophers, a destination program in men’s hockey akin to UConn in women’s basketball, means having your pick of virtually all top players in Minnesota. But the high school coaches association hopes Motzko, an assistant coach on the Gophers’ 2002 and 2003 NCAA championship teams, will be more vocal in his encouragement of those players finishing their prep careers at home.
When both of Don Lucia’s sons left high school hockey to play elsewhere before their senior seasons, some coaches felt it contradicted whatever Lucia said in support of high school hockey as a development model.
“We had a very professional relationship with Don and any time we needed him to speak, he was there,” said Mike MacMillan, association president. “I hope Bob goes above and beyond in terms of lifting up the high school model. We need his support that it’s OK to play high school hockey and that Minnesota offers one of the best development models in the country.”
Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said: “At times, I felt the U didn’t see high school as the best place for their players. We need Bob to be an advocate, someone who will tell parents, ‘You can reach your goals by staying home. There’s no need to rush.’ ”
Motzko, a former coach in the United States Hockey League, took a measured approach.
“I’ve never told a player that they have to leave early,” said Motzko, whose son, Mack, will be a junior forward at Minnetonka this season. “I’ve seen the benefit from leaving and staying. It comes down to the individual. There’s not one path.”