The Hutchinson Tigers were hosting New Ulm for the start of the Class 4A football playoffs on Wednesday night. There were several reasons to suspect the crowd would not be up to the usual standard for a Tigers home game:
There was the whole Wednesday night thing, due to the annual conference of teachers that creates the wonderful, four-day “MEA weekend’’ for students around the state.
There was the fact the Tigers, at 5-3, were not deemed to be in their usual position of being state title contenders, and the fact the first-round opponent, New Ulm, was bringing a 0-8 record to town.
And, there was also the Lindsay Factor:
The Minnesota Lynx were playing the Indiana Fever in a decisive fifth game of the WNBA championship series at Target Center. Point guard Lindsay Whalen has been dealing with an Achilles injury that knocked her out of the last four games of the regular season, and has slowed her to an extent in this playoff run.
This was a chance for the Big Three of the Lynx – Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Whalen – to win a third title in five years. And the curiosity level over that certainly caused a quandary for Hutch sports fans:
A home football game or watching Lindsay on ESPN trying to win another title?
It might be 15 years since she graduated from Hutchinson High School and headed off to the University of Minnesota, yet Whalen, 33, remains Hutch’s favorite daughter.
For sure, with all the outstanding football players that Andy Rostberg has dealt in his 17 seasons at Hutch’s head coach, there’s no athlete that has surpassed Whalen when it comes to admiration.
Whalen's jersey was retired at Hutchinson in 2006.
Andy was a football assistant to his father Grady and the girls basketball coach when Whalen first started causing a stir in Hutchinson as a seventh grader 20 years ago.
“She was a phenomenon here, as a young girl with her ponytail bobbing,’’ Rostberg said. “And if wasn’t for her friend Emily Inglis, it might never have happened. Linday might have stayed a hockey player.’’
The legend in Hutch is that Inglis was on a fifth-grade basketball team that had so many conflicts with its members that there were only four players available for a weekend tournament.
Emily’s father told her that they were going to have to bow out of the tournament.
“I could call Lindsay,’’ Emily said to her father.
“She’s a hockey player,’’ her father said.
Emily made the call. Lindsay said: “Why not? I’ll play.’’
The rest became Hutchinson – and Minnesota women’s basketball – history.
“Lindsay got out there and started stealing the ball and making layups, dishing passes for layups and making shots,’’ Rostberg said. “She was a holy terror.
“And two years later, when she was in the seventh grade, they were putting extra bleachers in the junior high gym for the townspeople who wanted to see her play.’’
Whalen played in jayvee games as an eighth grader and dressed for the varsity. “We played her in varsity games later in the season, but not a lot,’’ Rostberg said.
The next year, the crowds started to come to watch Whalen and her teammates. “We would have doubleheaders, with the girls playing at 6 o’clock and the boys at 8,’’ Rostberg said. “During Lindsay’s career here, it got to be that the gym was full for the girls game and then a good share of the crowd would leave.’’
Hutchinson solved that some nights by playing the boys game first and the girls at 8 o’clock. People would fill the gym to get good seats, cheer for the boys and then be ready for the main event.
Whalen went from there to be the main force in another phenomenon – the popularity of women’s basketball at Minnesota in the early 2000s. And now, with the wonderful Moore and the prolific Augustus, the Lynx have become a WNBA power, in the standings and at the gate.
For this, Minnesota sports fans owe a large thank you to Emily Inglis for making that call.