John's Journal: A Thousand Games For Alexandria’s Kohler
Girls Basketball Coach Honored For Career And Life-Changing Influence
Posted: Sunday, February 4, 2024 - 10:01 PM
ALEXANDRIA – In this, her 39th season as head girls basketball coach at Alexandria High School, Wendy Kohler takes a brief, quiet moment before games to remember some special people. She did this on Saturday before the Cardinals hosted Fargo Davies, an event which also included another important moment, a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The game was the 1,000th of Kohler’s coaching career and that milestone was marked with a brief ceremony before tipoff. The current Cardinals players stood alongside their coach, holding a banner that read, “Congrats Wendy! 1,000 Games Coached.” Many of her former players, including several mothers of current players, cheered from the stands.
The numbers are remarkable. Kohler has coached – and won – more basketball games than any female coach in Minnesota high school history, but her impact on the game and her players since the early 1980s has been profound in a manner that goes way beyond numbers.
She smiled during the ceremony and shared lots of pregame and postgame hugs, grateful for the opportunities that teaching and coaching have brought, along with the relationships that have been possible.
But some of the most important people were not there. During a lengthy telephone conversation the day after Davies defeated Alexandria 65-61, Wendy talked about her parents. Charles and Marge DeVorak supported Wendy and her three sisters in their early sports endeavors and that support never wavered.
Charles died 17 years ago and Marge passed away last April. Before every game, usually while the national anthem is played, Wendy looks up to the stands where her parents, and later just her mom, sat.
“They let me foster who I was going to be,” she said. “This is the first season not having them there.”
When Wendy’s mom died, her obituary included these words: “Marjorie was a faithful supporter of her daughters’ activities which was in the emergence of the Title IX movement - and they proudly never missed a game, concert or activity. In later years Marjorie was a mainstay at Alexandria Girls Basketball games supporting the Cardinals and daughter who is the coach.”
Wendy, who graduated from Bertha-Hewitt High School in 1979, didn’t take the opportunities afforded by Title IX for granted.
“We were all excited to get uniforms and play,” she said. “(Our parents) let us be in anything we wanted to be in. They didn’t miss any games. They really empowered us to follow our dreams and our passions.”
Kohler was a multisport athlete in high school and a basketball and softball player at Minnesota State Moorhead. She was small in stature but with more determination and fire than almost everybody else.
Her memory is a little fuzzy on her team’s first opponent in her first season as head coach in 1983-84. She was actually promoted to head coach nine games into the season, and if she can’t recall the competition in game No. 1, she vividly remembers how she felt … because she still feels the same way before games now.
“I was 22 years old, and I was thinking, ‘OK, let’s get going.’ I wanted our girls to compete as hard as they could. We lost our first game that I coached. I remember being not really nervous because I was such a fierce competitor in high school and college. I just wanted to compete. I had that intense desire.”
That competitive urge remains as strong as ever, and Wendy knows that what she teaches her players – and the students she worked with as a physical education and health teacher before retiring a few years back – means much more than passing and shooting and defending.
“Before my dad passed away, he told me, ‘It’s a beautiful life. Take it as it comes.’ That’s what I try to tell the girls; one day at a time, take things as they come. Give it your best every day, whether it’s sports, school or your family. I try to find joy in life and find joy in the kids. We keep things fun, we find a balance yet hold the kids accountable. We love them unconditionally, we work through things, we try to bring out the best in people.”
This year’s team is the latest in a long line of talented groups. The loss to Davies, a highly ranked North Dakota squad, gave the Cardinals a record of 17-3. Kohler has led 12 teams to state tournaments, including the 1997 Class 2A state champions. The starting five on Saturday were juniors Hadley Thul (whose college offers include Wisconsin and Northwestern), Chloe Scholl, MaCee Linow and Allie Haabala, and sophomore Kate Hennessy.
Kohler’s career record is 694-306, and her 1,001th career game will be played Tuesday at Rocori. That will be followed by five more regular-season games and the Class 3A Section 8 playoffs. If all goes well for the Cardinals, they will be back at the state tournament for the fourth time in five years.
Only two girls basketball coaches have won more games than Kohler. The leader is New London-Spicer’s Mike Dreier with 1,057 wins, followed by Myron Glass of Rochester Lourdes (719, retired). Wendy’s current total of 694 is followed by Pat Bowlin of Winona Cotter (692), Gary Lembcke of Norwood-Young America (689, retired) and Ron Gunderson of New Prague (684, retired).
Kohler’s 12 trips to state also rank high on the all-time list. Dreier’s teams have made 20 appearances, followed by Glass with 15, Faith Johnson Patterson of Minneapolis North and DeLaSalle and Brian Cosgriff of Hopkins with 14, and Kohler and Jeff Buffetta of Mountain Iron-Buhl with 12.
Of the 15 girls basketball coaches with the most career wins, 13 are men. Erin Herman, who is in her 34th year as head coach at Hill-Murray in Maplewood, has 575 wins. She and Kohler are close friends and Herman was in the Alexandria gym for Saturday’s game to honor Wendy.
“For any women who coach girls, it’s just about so much more than the sport,” Herman said. “She’s such an unbelievable role model. The life skills she stresses and teaches, that’s what those women remember. Basketball is important, but that’s not what they talk about when they get together.
“I don’t like playing Alexandria and I don’t think (Wendy) likes playing us, either. But we know it will make our teams better. She’s been such a leader, and you have to use the term legend or icon when you talk about her. You have to look up to her. I’m really fortunate and proud to call her my friend.”
Saturday’s pregame ceremony was meant to be a secret, but on Friday Kohler knew something was up when she received an email that wasn’t supposed to include her among the recipients. Her children, daughter Kendall and son Chase, were on hand to honor their mom.
Wendy can’t remember a time when she didn’t plan on being involved in athletics. She still has a paper she wrote in a seventh-grade English class. The assignment was to write about career goals.
She wrote, “I want to be a P.E. and health teacher and a coach because I love love love sports.”
“I knew from then on,” she said.
“It’s the relationships, being with your teammates, I think that’s part of my DNA. That feeds my fire. The Lord has enabled me to chase my passions all these years and I’m able to relay that to hundreds of young women. I tell them that their families will be the biggest accomplishments in their lives.”
Asked about her favorite coaching memories, Wendy doesn’t talk about state titles or state tournaments or wins or accolades.
“When I look back, I think of all the faces of the girls and young women,” she said. “I do what I do for these kids. I love the kids and year after year they work so hard. I’m so proud of them. The numbers aren’t important to me. What’s important is watching them come together toward a common goal.”
Whenever the subject of retirement is broached, Kohler has an immediate answer.
“I always tell everybody, ‘I’ve already been here forever, why not go forever?’ ”
Indeed. Why not?
--MSHSL senior content creator 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]