John’s Journal: New Coach, New Success For North Branch Basketball
Vikings Boys On Track For First Winning Season Since 2003-04
Posted: Sunday, February 6, 2022 - 5:44 PM
Todd Dufault was done coaching basketball. When he stepped down as the head boys coach at Chisago Lakes in 2018, that was it. He had been an assistant coach at Owatonna from 2003-2011 before becoming head coach at his alma mater, Waseca High School, for five years. How he got from Waseca to Chisago Lakes is an interesting tale, as well, but let’s start with where he is today.
Dufault, who has worked in the corporate world for more than 20 years, is a nationally known speaker, founder of Todd Dufault Leadership (https://www.todddufaultleadership.com) and has worked with marching bands for nearly 40 years. He is the first-year head coach at North Branch, and the Vikings are turning heads. They begin this week with a record of 14-5 and are on track to finish with a winning record, which hasn’t happened for a North Branch boys basketball team since 2003-04.
“We definitely wanted to find a way to finish over .500,” he said. “We knew we had to be realistic, but we wanted to try and change the mindset and lift the expectations as much as we could.”
After his third season at Waseca – where he also worked as activities director -- he got married; his wife Michelle is a third-grade teacher at Sunrise Elementary in North Branch. Having your home life and work life separated by two hours on the highway is not optimal, but Dufault made it work as long as he could. He was living with Michelle in Lindstrom, staying with his mother in Waseca during the week, and “had to be creative in making it back and forth,” he said.
In his final season coaching the Bluejays, they went to the state tournament for the first time in 14 years. He stepped down after that and returned home to Michelle full-time. Coaching in nearby Chisago Lakes was an easy commute, and when he resigned from that job, he was ready for a life that was not centered on coaching.
“My passion for leadership and working with kids in general is pretty high,” he said. “I had myself convinced that I could stay away from basketball, but it’s difficult. You miss the relationships with the kids, you miss the relationships with the coaches and the people you get to deal with. I missed the challenge of building a team, the challenge of coming together and trying to achieve something that might be very difficult.”
He had been working as a part-time consultant with the North Branch basketball team. When Alex Kuhlman stepped down as coach last year, it seemed like a natural, albeit unplanned, fit
“This fell into my lap,” said Dufault, who played college basketball and baseball at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato before transferring to Southwest Minnesota State. “My wife teaches in the school district, I had a great relationship with the former coach, I was around the team some last year, at games and looking at film, but I had no intention of being the next head coach. I really wanted to see Alex succeed and get this thing turned around. Being around the game and the kids, that was a lot of fun last year. It was unexpected. You never know sometimes.”
This season has been pretty special for everyone. The Vikings won 11 of their first 12 games. Now in the midst of rugged Mississippi 8 Conference play, they are 4-3 in league games. Defense has been North Branch’s calling card, with the Vikings giving up a league-low 63 points per game.
“Defense keeps you in games when your offense isn't going and that's kind of what we rest on,” said senior Trevor Johnson, who reached the 1,000-point career milestone this season.
The team is senior-heavy, and that has also been a major factor in its success.
“We’ve got a team full of guys who have been playing together forever,” said senior Adam Rehm. “We’ve always had confidence in each other and we knew we could have a special season. It's a really tight-knit group.”
Johnson added, “I thought we had a chance to be good with a lot of guys coming back and a pretty committed group of seniors.”
Playing in Class 3A Section 7, the Vikings could be challenged by teams including Hermantown, Hibbing and Cloquet (all with winning records) in the postseason. But they are taking it one game at a time.
“We talk about things that we can control and we’re trying to get better every day,” Dufault said. “We take a look at how we practice and how we approach things, because those are things we can control. We really don’t talk a whole lot about wins and losses. Getting better every day is something we can focus on.”
Rehm said of Dufault, “He brings a very businesslike approach to everything he does. And it's always very intentional, which is very nice to have. He preaches a defensive mentality, and that's something all of us need all the time.”
The Vikings are learning that their success this season means that every opponent is out to sink them. Friday night, for example, North Branch played at Cambridge-Isanti, which was 3-15, and lost to the Bluejackets 77-49 in Cambridge-Isanti coach Mike McDonald’s 500th career victory.
“We wanted a target on our back,” Dufault said. “Now that we’ve accomplished that, we have to learn to embrace that pressure. When you’re in that position you have to work harder because you’re getting everybody’s best shot. … if you’re not ready, anybody can beat anybody.”
Dufault has never been a teacher, at least in the traditional sense. But leadership training, starting with marching bands, shepherded him into coaching.
“The leadership work started with marching bands 38 years ago and I never would have guessed that it would trickle over into basketball,” he said. “I didn’t have any interest in coaching basketball but I realized the principles I used in working in leadership with marching bands could work in other places.”
Now living in Wyoming, Minnesota, Dufault’s commute is about 17 minutes. That’s just one of the many things he likes about his current situation.
“It’s been really enjoyable,” he said. “Even though we’ve got a ways to go yet, it’s sure fun to work with these guys every day.”
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]