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John's Journal: Small-Town Backgrounds, Big-Time Basketball

DeLaSalle, Orono Coaches Share History With Their Teams

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2023 - 6:38 PM


Singers from Eastview High School performed the national anthem prior to the Class 4A state semifinals at Target Center.




Orono coach Barry Wohler.

There was quite the coaching contrast during the second Class 3A boys basketball state semifinal Thursday at Target Center. Orono’s Barry Wohler is in his 25th year as a head coach and DeLaSalle’s Todd Anderson is in his first season after a quarter-century as an Islanders assistant.

But they have some important things in common. They both hail from small towns in rural Minnesota and they treasure the relationships with their players.

Wohler was a multi-sport star in high school, leading Bird Island-Lake Lillian to back-to-back state titles in football and basketball between 1979 and 1981. He played basketball and baseball at the University of Minnesota and reached Triple-A baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Anderson grew up in Audubon, Minnesota, and played college basketball at Minnesota Morris. He and Wohler are well-acquainted through their lengthy coaching careers.

“I know Barry very well,” Anderson said after DeLaSalle defeated Orono 67-61. “He’s a great coach and a great guy. And I go way back, I’ve been around for a while.”

DeLaSalle will face Totino-Grace in Saturday’s 3A championship game at 5 p.m. at Target Center. The Eagles beat Alexandria 70-59 Thursday. It will be a rematch; last season, Totino-Grace defeated DeLaSalle 50-44 in the state championship game.

If there was a postgame theme to the 3A semifinals, it centered around teammates and families.

Alexandria coach Forrest Witt had a son and a nephew on the court. His son Mason is a ninth-grade point guard who played 24 minutes, and his nephew Talan Witt is a sophomore who played 11 minutes. To see a freshman point guard handling the ball in such a high-pressure environment is rare at the 3A level.

“We have multiple guys that are capable of bringing the ball up,” the coach said. “I thought we did a very good job in the full court against their pressure defense. I think for all of our guys in this situation, it's just about composure, being confident in what you're doing and dictating the pace. I think a lot of that, with Mason and all of our point guards, was just resetting the confidence button and knowing, ‘I can get this. I can handle this.’ ”

Wohler was joined at the postgame media session by seniors Isaiah Hagen and Grant Gunderson. Hagen scored 23 points against DeLaSalle and Gunderson had eight points and five rebounds.

“Isaiah came here as a sophomore,” Wohler said. “And Grant was at my basketball camp as a kindergartener and he was there through the last day of camp this summer as a senior. I think that's the toughest part in coaching these guys; it's hard to see them go. We have eight seniors and four to five played most of the year. We’re going to miss them but on Saturday (in the third-place game vs. Alexandria) we're going to play more guys and go deeper with seniors. I know they'll compete.”

Orono was 21-8 last year, losing a one-point game to Mound-Westonka in the Section 6 championship game. Getting to the state semifinals this year was special for the Spartans seniors.

“It never gets old,” Wohler said. “I told the coaches that I've wished every player I've coached could experience the elation of winning a section title and seeing a dream come true. These guys were so close (to state) last year, and this is a feeling nobody can take away. There's only one feeling better, but we came knocking on the door. As a coach, it's seeing the players experience that. You forget about games and things but it’s the camaraderie.”

Players also spoke about their close ties with their teammates and coaches, which is always part of a successful formula.

“In my sophomore year I came here and they welcomed me with open arms, they’ve treated me like family since day one,” said Orono’s Hagen. “I’ve built lifelong relationships with these guys. I wouldn't wanted to have done it any other way. I'm just blessed.”

Gunderson, the kindergarten-through-12th-grade Spartan, said this season has been “a dream come true, for sure. I’ve played with some of these guys since kindergarten, first grade. I'm just so happy in my senior year to at least get here and experience this.”

DeLaSalle senior Isreal Moses V, a senior who scored 10 points while missing much of the game due to injury, looked at Anderson and said, “He also is preparing us for life. He makes sure that every player matters. He's always checking in. He's always making sure that we're good.”

--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] 

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