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.
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.
“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!”
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.