John's Journal: The New Kid On The Block Vs. The Seasoned Veterans
New Life Academy (In Coach’s 64th Game) Tops Spring Grove (Combined 1,645 Games)
Posted: Friday, March 24, 2023 - 8:35 PM
It would be easy to forgive New Life Academy boys basketball coach Robbie Whitney if he felt just a little bit intimidated when he looked at the coaching staff from Spring Grove before Friday’s Class 1A state semifinals at Target Center.
Spring Grove is led by giants in the profession. Wade Grinde has coached in 732 games as a head coach, with a career record of 539-193. Assistant coach Tim Vix spent 33 years (and 913 games) as head coach at Rushford-Peterson before stepping away from that job in 2018.
Vix’s career record as a head coach was 684-229 and he took 16 teams to state tournaments (the only boys coach with more appearances is Ken Novak Jr. of Hopkins with 18). Rushford-Peterson won state championships in 1989, 2015 and 2017. Vix was inducted into the Minnesota High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.
So between Grinde and Vix, they have been involved in 1,645 games as head coaches. Add in assistant coach Al Lochner, who was the coach before Grinde, and the number is even higher.
And then there’s Whitney. Saturday’s game was his 64th as a head coach. He took the Eagles to state last year as a rookie head coach and will carry a career record of 55-9 into Saturday’s state championship against Russell-Tyler-Ruthton.
New Life defeated Spring Grove 51-35 Saturday, and Russell-Tyler-Ruthton held off Cherry 61-57. RTR is the No. 1 seed in the 1A field and New Life is No. 2.
New Life is one of the tallest teams in the tournament, with starters standing 6-8, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-0. The Eagles had 20 more rebounds (41-21) than Spring Grove, which is at state for the first time since 2019.
Whitney would never argue that he outcoached the legends from Spring Grove, because he has nothing but respect and admiration for the Lions leaders.
“It’s not necessarily intimidating, because I'm pretty confident in myself as a coach, but I respect Wade so much,” he said. “I met him this summer at a Breakdown event in Hayfield. We drew Spring Grove in the first game and they just smoked us because it was summer and I did no research. They were ready to play.
“I respect what Coach Grinde does over there and between him and Coach Vix, I mean, that's who you aspire to be as a high school coach.”
Whitney graduated from St. Francis High School in 2016 and played basketball at Bethel University in St. Paul. He didn’t grow up wanting to coach. When he was a senior in high school, his father, Mike, said to him, “I could see you being a coach.” Robbie wanted no part of that.
“I said, ‘I'll never be a basketball coach. It’s too stressful.’ And then I got to Bethel and I was always kind of in that seven-eight-nine (off the bench) range in my sophomore, junior and senior years. And so I would play every position at practice and always be ready to go. Sometimes I would get in the games and sometimes I wouldn't. But I realized that my biggest asset to that team at Bethel was helping the guys on the court see what I was seeing and in the right way.
“I think I realized that I love coaching, I love helping guys, I love connecting. And then I always had a passion for mentorship, so I knew I wanted to come back and mentor high school and middle school kids.”
Asked to describe the coach, New Life’s Erick Reader, a 6-8 senior who had 11 points and 15 rebounds against Spring Grove, said, “He’s Robbie to us. Officially he’s Coach Whitney, I guess, but we also think of him as a friend.”
New Life won eight games in each of the three years prior to Whitney’s arrival. Last season, the Eagles finished third in the state tournament with a record of 28-4.
“We talk to him outside of basketball, too,” said senior Tyler Huebsch. “He’s not just a coach, he’s a friend.”
Russell-Tyler-Ruthton’s Daren Gravley is also in his second year as a head coach; his career record is 49-7. The Knights are at state for the second year in a row; they finished sixth in Class 1A a year ago.
If there’s a team that wished it had made it to state, it’s Dawson-Boyd. The Blackjacks defeated both Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and Spring Grove during the regular season. They beat Spring Grove (the Lions’ only loss prior to state) in late December. Dawson-Boyd defeated RTR in the final game of the regular season, but the Knights flipped the script by defeating the Blackjacks in the Section 3 title game.
--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]