John’s Journal: “The Other Side of Glory” Is A Glorious Read
A Season Inside The Waconia High School Girls Basketball Team
Posted: Sunday, December 5, 2021 - 6:06 PM
I am in the midst of reading a Hemingway novel and it involves some heavy lifting. That fellow believed in using a massive amount of detail in his writing and it takes commitment – at least for me – to conquer those 470 pages. I will get there, but in the meantime a book arrived in the mail that I have been looking forward to reading.
In 2011, Carl Pierson wrote “The Politics of Coaching: A Survival Guide To Keep Coaches From Getting Burned.” It’s basically a manual for coaches, explaining lots of circumstances that coaches face and offers methods for dealing with them. I found it to be very well done.
Pierson’s next project, which I just received, is “The Other Side of Glory: A Team’s Quest for High School Girls Basketball History.” It is a compelling read about the Waconia Wildcats in 2019-20, the first season after Pierson stepped down as the team’s head coach.
While on a weekend family trip to Iowa, I began reading the book on Friday night and I didn’t put it down until I finished the last of its 242 pages. It is fast-paced, fun and extremely insightful.
I found it fitting to have read the book in Iowa, where I grew up watching high school girls play six-on-six basketball. (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube and type in “Iowa six on six girls basketball” and prepare to have your mind blown.)
Iowa girls began playing six-on-six in the 1920s and never stopped. In fact, for most of the 20th century, including during my formative years, the Iowa girls state basketball tournament was bigger than the boys tournament and the state’s best female players were household names statewide. In Minnesota and most of the rest of the country, girls sports were shut down long ago and revived only with the passing of Title IX in 1972.
Pierson – a social studies teacher at Waconia High School, member of the Waconia City Council and executive director of the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association -- does a great job of describing the history of Minnesota girls basketball, specifically in Waconia, where teams had so many state tournament near-misses over the years that the term "curse" was used. The book is a start-to-finish chronicle of Waconia’s 2019-2020 season and the Wildcats’ dream of becoming the first girls basketball team in school history to reach state.
Pierson offers plenty of superior behind-the-scenes storytelling and drama, from the locker room to the practice floor to bus rides and beyond. The book also includes lots of play-by-play details from games, which sometimes are literally basket-by-basket breakdowns. There are several references to officials and controversial calls (oddly, none of which apparently worked in the Wildcats’ favor).
There are precursors to this line of books, of course, most notably Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” in 1990. Another one I enjoyed was Joe Drape’s “Our Boys” about a Kansas high school football team and published in 2009. I am aware of few books chronicling a season for a high schools girls team. If “The Other Side of Glory” is breaking new ground, it’s doing so in an impressive way.
There was something in the book that caught me by surprise: No players are identified by their real names. Instead, Pierson used the nicknames that all members of the team went by: Bird, Mel, Raptor, Salsa, Scrunchie, Snake, Ozzie, Rookie, Dozer, Sauce, etc. This was a bit disconcerting, at least for me, and seemed to make the individual players somewhat less genuine and human. Head coach Dusty Niebauer, assistant coach Ashley Westphal and school administrators are identified in full, but the players are basically anonymous to anyone not familiar with that specific team.
To be honest, I just don’t know what to make of that. I found it difficult to identify with the players when I didn’t know their names. I can’t imagine “Friday Night Lights” without fully identifying everyone in the story and going into depth on each of them, especially off the field. In reading “The Other Side of Glory,” I would have liked to learn more about the key players; basic things like their future goals, their parents’ professions, the size of their families, the classes they liked and disliked … just more depth into their lives.
That being said, Pierson is the perfect person to tell this story. The father of two young children, he stepped down as the Waconia coach after the 2018-19 season, which ended in a heartbreaking one-point loss to Cooper in a section championship game. I wrote about Pierson’s teams on occasion over the years, including a stretch when his players, undersized but quick, raced up and down the court, shot threes with abandon and averaged nearly 95 points per game.
After Pierson stepped away, 15-year assistant Niebauer took over in 2019-20. Pierson knew Niebauer and the players very well and tells a tremendous tale of their season.
The foreward is written by University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, whose hometown of Hutchinson is 35 miles from Waconia. She wrote: “My journey and the journey of the Waconia girls basketball team shows us that if you persevere through adversity, stick together as a team, work through conflict, and have passion for the game you love, then anything is possible.”
That indeed is the great lesson of Pierson’s book.
With that, I’ll take some deep breaths, pack a lunch and get back to Hemingway. I don’t believe I’ll enjoy old Ernest as much as I enjoyed “The Other Side of Glory.”
--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 firstname.lastname@example.org