Holy Family Girls’ Basketball Goes Up Tempo Under New Coach Adrian Turner

Holy Family Fire Girls’ Basketball Burning for a State Championship

Having just finished the final exhausting drill, Fire Girls’ Basketball Head Coach Adrian Turner signaled practice was over. How did the players react? They broke out into a raucous round of clapping. It’s a daily celebration of the hard work the team put in that day and what’s to come tomorrow.

Photo by Kemmetmueller Photography

It’s one of many new traditions Turner has brought to the program in his first year at the helm. During a season filled with success, the celebration doesn’t end with practice.

The Fire, ranked No. 5 in Class 2A, is aiming for its first state championship in program history. The team has reason to be optimistic. They won a share of the Wright County Conference championship, a Holy Family girl’s basketball first.

“Coming in from Day 1, the talk was state. We’ve embraced it,” Turner says about the team that just finished the regular season 20-5. “We haven’t run from the expectation. We knew what we had coming back. We knew where the program has been the last couple of years. And it was like, ‘What are we going to do to get to that next level?’”

Picking Up the Pace

Hiring Turner was the first step to that goal. He replaced Head Coach Ellen Thompson, who cemented her place in Holy Family history when she took the team to the State Tournament in 2016.  With the tradition of winning now established, Turner has brought a more up-tempo style of play.

“It definitely was a little tough at first because the style of play was a lot different,” says senior Julia Geurs, one of the team’s three captains. “I feel like our big thing last year was structure, structure, structure. This year we’ve tried to transition into more of a faster pace and getting up and down the floor as quick as we can.”

The result? Many more points in transition, in part sparked by an aggressive defense.

Senior Grace Conroy drives to the hoop. Photo by Rich Fink

“Last year we focused on fundamental defense,” senior captain Grace Conroy recalls, “and with steals, it was more of, ‘You’ve got to be very confident that you’re going to get that steal.’ This year it’s always go for the steal, and that’s made the biggest difference.”

Having an experienced senior team doesn’t hurt, either. The Fire’s seniors have played together since eighth grade and the team has reached the section finals each of the last two seasons and the state tournament the year before that.

This season includes a perfect 12-0 mark at home and win streaks of eight and 12 games.

Amid all the winning, though, came two difficult stretches:

  • The Fire lost its first two games to open the season – against Hill-Murray and DeLaSalle, both which now rank in the top 10 of Class 3A.
  • January brought a tough stretch of consecutive conference losses at Hutchinson and New Prague. In that stretch, junior guard and key contributor Grace Elander broke her nose and missed the New Prague game.

Turner said the season-opening losses were eye-opening. He expedited implementing his system, which included an aggressive trap defense. The other side of it was learning more about his players’ skills and using those to exploit opponent weaknesses.

“I thought we’d have some more hard knocks,” Turner shares. “Really, the reason we’ve avoided them is that the girls are just really good at adjustments. And their leadership is outstanding.”

Building Future Leaders

Turner didn’t have to move far when he accepted the Holy Family head coach role. He was the assistant girls’ basketball coach at Chanhassen High School, where he was named the 2014 Section 2AAAA Assistant Coach of the Year.

When Turner learned about Holy Family’s Convocation, the daily student-led event where the entire school gathers in the gym, he was all in.

“That’s building strong leadership in these kids,” Turner says. “That’s something that I cherish and enjoy—being involved with people who are leaders. You can get a lot of things done with folks who know how to lead.”

 That’s a trait Activities Director Nick Tibesar recognized in Turner as he interviewed for the position.

“It’s really important for us when we’re looking for people that they understand the balance between being a high school coach and the opportunity to have a transformational impact on young people’s lives,” Tibesar says. “It’s not just about winning games. It’s about changing lives and inspiring and empowering young people.”

Faith On Fire

Being a man of faith didn’t hurt Turner’s candidacy either. While playing baseball at Grambling State University, which is a public institution, Turner shared his coach-implemented chapel services, which helped bring his team together. That’s something he’s now implemented with the Fire.

“That’s been a fun thing for us,” Turner says of “Chapel,” which includes singing and scripture. “A lot of messages get introduced to the girls to try to set a tone going into our weekend or our next games.”

Tibesar says this team tradition is a “phenomenal” addition to the program.

“It’s no surprise when you go take those extra steps to build strong bonds between coaches and players and between players and players that it translates to positive results on the court,” says Tibesar.

Turner also impressed Tibesar by organizing an alumni night early in the season.

“It really helps to further the message to our kids that you’re not just here to help us win games right now,” Tibesar says. “It’s not just a four-year transactional relationship. We’re trying to build relationships for a lifetime, and we hope that you want to come back and cheer on the team and maybe even send your kids to Holy Family someday.”

And someday, Leigh Steiner hopes she can return to Holy Family, look up and see a 2019 girl’s basketball state championship banner hanging from the rafters.

“I feel like we knew we’d be really good this season,” says Steiner, a senior captain. “But the fact that it’s actually happening and that we’re ranked and we’re doing so well just kind of made us all realize that those dreams we had are coming true.”

Update: Holy Family Girls Basketball won the Section 5AA Championship, earning a trip to the MSHSL Class AA State Tournament. The team was defeated in the quarter final round and moved on to the Consolation Bracket. The girls defeated St. Peter in OT to move on to the Consolation Championship at 2 p.m. on Friday, March 14.  A tweet by Coach Turners says it all, “One of our goals as a team was to never give up. We have met that goal every step of the way!”

Holy Family Girls Basketball Weekly Chapel from Holy Family Catholic High School on Vimeo.

About the Writer: Mike Nelson graduated from Holy Family in 2008. He is an editor and writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Since graduating from Marquette University with a degree in journalism, he has also written for Bleacher Report, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MLB.com. Nelson lives in Burnsville with his wife, Kim.

Behind the Scenes: Girls’ Hockey

Holy Family Girls’ Hockey Is Fire on Ice!

At a recent Friday morning Convo, a daily event where Holy Family students gather as “family” in the school gym, everything was going as planned. First daily prayers, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. And then, the customary rundown of upcoming weekend sports events.

Boys’ basketball at Breck. Girls’ basketball at Hutchinson. Girls’ hockey—the Fire vs. the Wildcats at the Waconia City Ice Arena. The immediate reaction to the last announcement: applause and a few enthusiastic cheers.

And so a new and very natural rivalry has formed. For 11 years (2007-2018), Waconia and Holy Family girls’ hockey players suited up in the same locker room, sharing jerseys that reflected the 50/50 split of a co-op team called the Wildfire—a combination of Waconia’s “Wildcats” nickname and Holy Family’s “Fire.” Now, each school has returned to its respective team names, shedding the complexities of juggling a program to fit both schools.

Holy Family Activities Director Nick Tibesar says the former co-op team was naturally working against how the two schools were wired as fellow Wright County Conference members. He knew coming to Holy Family in 2016 that it was a matter of “when,” not “if,” the change would come to girls’ hockey.

“There was some natural rivalry already with Holy Family and Waconia, just being neighboring schools in the same conference,” Tibesar says. “We’re rivals all year long in every other sport, but for girls’ hockey, we expected them to share a locker room. ”

So in 2017, Holy Family and Waconia agreed to end their co-op girls’ hockey team, with the 2018-19 season marking the beginning of a new era with two independent teams.

“The reality of it was we knew we were going in that direction,” Tibesar adds. “If you’d asked me when I started three years ago, ‘Are we going to be looking to dissolve this co-op?’ I probably would have said, ‘Yeah, it’d probably be better if we can do it sooner than later.’

 “What they want for their program is the same thing we want for ours: They want to be able to do it their way, have it align with their activities office and their school and their culture,” Tibesar says. “We want the same thing.”

Transition to a New Order

With the co-op over, Holy Family has implemented a plan to stand on its own in the competitive world of girls’ high school hockey. Even before the season began, coach Randy Koeppl decided every skater would play at least one period in a junior varsity game. That made it easier to schedule opponents looking to build their own programs through JV competition.

Fifteen games into the Fire’s inaugural season, Koeppl is proud his plan is working, with all 23 skaters (excluding three goalies) having played JV this season.

“In a normal situation, you’d have 28 skaters on a varsity team,” says Koeppl, who hopes to field 30 to 32 players next year. “Maybe two or three would overlap (between varsity and JV). When I talked to the girls and their families before this season, I said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ I said everybody is going to have to chip in and there aren’t going to be any egos.”

The plan worked. Sure, there were some hurdles to overcome. For instance, many Holy Family players live in Waconia, and for them it meant lining up on the opposite side of the ice from teammates they played with for years.

“It was a big surprise to me because I played with those girls my whole life,” says junior captain Lauren Hickey, who transferred from Waconia High School to Holy Family her freshman year.

“It’s hard, but I think it’s better for both of us because it makes us one team from one school,” adds sophomore Sadie Long, who’s also from Waconia.

Junior captain Caitlin Rock heard rumblings that the co-op would end, but that still didn’t make it any easier to handle the news.

“I was kind of shocked,” she admits. “We didn’t know what was going to come out of it. It’s been going on for a while and then it finally happened.”

Eventually, the excitement of representing Holy Family as Fire girls’ hockey began to set in. After all, the Fire boys’ hockey program has become a legitimate force in Minnesota high school hockey. The belief is that Holy Family girls’ hockey could and should do the same.

Sophomore goalie Alex Pellicci recalled, “I think everyone got a lot more excited and realized how good this was going to be for our program and how much growth we were going to have.” Photo by Graham Miller

“As the summer went on,” sophomore goalie Alex Pellicci recalled, “I think everyone got a lot more excited and realized how good this was going to be for our program and how much growth we were going to have.”

Quick Results Built on Youth

The early results reflect players and parents are buying into Koeppl’s vision. He brings 15 years of coaching high school and club hockey to the program. With a roster featuring no seniors and just three juniors, the Fire roster is young but competitive. At 12-3-2, Holy Family finds itself as roughly a top-20 Class AA team, according to Koeppl. (Update: The Fire finished the regular season with a 16-6-3 record and seeded #5 in the very competitive Class 2A, Section 2. They play #4-seed Shakopee Sabers at Shakopee on Friday, February 8, at 7 p.m. at Shakopee Arena.)

“They can see our talent level,” says Koeppl, who played at the University of Minnesota. “It’s always easier when you’re winning. If we’re sitting here 0-12, it’s a different story.”

Plus, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with recording a number of program firsts, he says. It’s something no other Holy Family girls’ hockey team will have a chance to experience.

“It’s not often you get to do something for the first time: the first goal, the first win, the first shutout, the first penalty. This is stuff that people are going to remember,” Koeppl says. “You’re going to look back and say, ‘Jeez, their first year they were that good?’ ”

Photo by Graham Miller ’21

And then there is the natural chemistry surrounding this team. Success doesn’t hinge solely on wins and losses. It goes deeper.

“When I talk to these kids, I keep it to under 5 minutes because usually they’re just goofing around or they’re laughing at each other, making faces at each other; they’re having fun,” Koeppl says. “But they understand when it’s time to be serious. They have those personalities where they like each other, which is huge.”

Ultimately, that results in more time together beyond scheduled games, practices and in the locker room. It leads to friendships built on:

  • Study groups after school
  • A Secret Santa gift exchange
  • Pond-hockey games
  • Volunteering as a team at Feed My Starving Children
  • Weekly pasta dinners after Monday practices

“Being at a different schools, you could feel it in the locker room,” says Pellicci, comparing this year’s team to last year’s. “We can walk the hallways as a team. And people tend to come to more games because they know who we are.”

Koeppl notices a difference too. After all, he coached the Wildfire co-op team last year during its final season.

“There’s a certain pride of playing for Holy Family,” he says. “They wear school stuff. They carry their bags around. They’re proud of it and that’s something I am proud of.”

And the Rivalry Begins

December 4 marked history with the drop of the puck at Victoria Ice Arena, the Fire’s home ice. It was the first conference girls’ hockey game between Holy Family and Waconia. Holy Family cruised to a decisive 8-0 victory. Many players on Waconia’s roster were under Koeppl’s guidance just a year ago. That wasn’t lost on the Waconia players.

“Three or four of them came over and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing Coach?’ ” Koeppl says.

For the Holy Family players, it was a game between friends as much as it was a time to be competitive.

Holy Family Girls Varsity Hockey vs. Chaska/Chanhassen Nov 27, 2018: Kayla Woytcke ’22 (28) Photo by Collin Nawrocki

“It was a weird thing because we didn’t want to beat them, but we didn’t want to lose to them,” said Pellicci, who has committed to playing in college at Harvard. “But it was a good outcome. I think everybody on both teams had a really good attitude about it.”

The anticipation to play against former teammates amplified the pregame nerves for Rock.

“You didn’t know how they were going to come out and play. You know every single girl on the team,” Rock said. “During the game it was fun, because you make jokes with each other on the ice.”

Holy Family traveled to Waconia City Ice Arena on January 11 for their second meeting. Rock scored her 50th Holy Family goal that night, as the team cruised to an 11-1 victory and a 2-0 game lead against the Wildcats.

Those early games set the tone for what could be a budding rivalry.

“Obviously Waconia is a natural rival,” Koeppl says. “Chaska-Chan I think is going to end up being a big rival. I would like it if Minnetonka and Eden Prairie would be too.”

Koeppl may just get his wish. When the co-op ended, Holy Family had the option to move from Class AA to Class A because without Waconia’s student body, Holy Family’s enrollment dropped below the threshold that once forced it into Class AA. After consulting Tibesar, parents and players, Koeppl said everyone agreed Holy Family girls’ hockey should remain in Class AA.

“The kids wanted to play AA,” Koeppl says. “It’s better hockey. It’s faster. They want to be challenged, and that’s the type of kids they are. They want to play the best.”

It also comes at the cost of short-term success, with Koeppl noting Holy Family would likely be a top-six team in the state in Class A. But Holy Family girls’ hockey is building for the long term.

“We want to be consistent state championship contenders,” he says. “That’s the goal of the program. We want to be able to run with the Minnetonkas, the Edinas, the Blakes and the Brecks. We’re not there yet, but we think we have a good core that in a year or two we’ll get there.”

That optimism doesn’t just reflect Koeppl’s belief. He hears it from others well connected in the Minnesota hockey community.

“What I’ve heard people say is, ‘It’s going to be fun to watch where your program goes in the next three to four years,’ ” he shares. “I think even people outside of our program are excited to see a new team on the rise.”

 

About the Writer: Mike Nelson graduated from Holy Family in 2008. He is an editor and writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Since graduating from Marquette University with a degree in journalism, he has also had work appear in Bleacher Report, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MLB.com. Nelson lives in Burnsville with his wife, Kim.