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.”