Thunderbirds co-op fulfills lifelong dreams of players and coaches

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On the first day of practice this season, the first as a co-op, Mahnomen-Waubun boys basketball coach John Clark Jr. told his team they were no longer Mahnomen kids and they were no longer Waubun kids. They were not Indians or Bombers. They were Thunderbirds.

“We were a team completely from Day 1,” Clark said. “I tried to really stress that team aspect and get them to buy in from there.”

Like any co-op involving two schools with a lot of history, the M-W co-op in all sports had its bumps. Tense school board meetings, complaints on social media and all the other things that come with the fear of a team losing its tradition came with the making of this co-op.

Only eight Class 1A teams are still playing basketball in Minnesota. The Thunderbirds are one of those teams. They will take on top seed Mayer Lutheran at 11 a.m. Thursday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis in the state quarterfinals.

“It’s crazy,” M-W senior guard Dion Bower said. “Never really thought we’d be in this spot at this point.”

Bower admitted he was one of the people who didn’t like the idea of the co-op. He was going to be a senior and wanted to play with his Waubun teammates.

“I was used to playing with the same boys I always played with,” said Bower, who averages 13 points and five rebounds for the Thunderbirds. “I didn’t know what to think about it, becoming friends with Mahnomen kids.”

Clark is fully aware of the history between Mahnomen and Waubun. He played for Waubun and lost to Mahnomen in the district championship in 1990, the last time Mahnomen went to the state tournament for boys basketball. One of his assistant coaches, Jon Syverson, played in the 1994 region championship game with Waubun, one game away from the state tournament. Waubun would never get closer to the state tournament until this season.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Syverson said. “It was a sense of relief when that horn went off (in the section championship game).”

Players from both schools weren’t the only ones who had to get used to new roles. Syverson was the head coach for Waubun for four years before becoming an assistant to Clark on the co-op. Clark immediately handed the offense to Syverson.

“It’s almost eerie how much we see the game the same way,” Clark said. “I wanted the team to see the coaches were going to be on the same page and hopefully they’d follow our lead. We’re here as a coaching staff, not as a Mahnomen staff and a Waubun staff. We’re a coaching staff together, and we’re going to try to build something together.”

Coaches on both sides said there would be no girls basketball this season at Mahnomen or Waubun and boys basketball for each school would be in jeopardy in two years if the schools didn’t co-op.

“There’s a difference between being able to put a team out there and having a successful program,” Syverson said. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted a successful program from ninth grade to 12th grade.”

Mahnomen junior Jon Starkey got excited immediately when the co-op was being discussed, especially when it came to football.

“More kids, more competition, it was good,” said Starkey, who averages eight points and seven rebounds a game for the Thunderbirds. “It got me excited knowing we’d have more kids and younger kids don’t have to get exposed at the varsity level.”

Clark’s high school coach, Steve Pache, brought him to Williams Arena when he was an underclassman at Waubun. Clark knew he wanted to be on that floor one day. When the dream of playing on it ended, the new dream was to coach on it.

This isn’t how Clark envisioned it. He never imagined a team with no player over 6-foot and a No. 4 seed in a subsection would get him there. He certainly never imagined he’d need Mahnomen, a team he couldn’t get past as a player, to get there.

“I remember walking into that place, the barn, the mystique, the atmosphere,” Clark said. “It’s a lifelong dream that came true and with these kids it happened the perfect way. There wasn’t an undefeated season where we were expected to go. We struggled early, but you could see them click toward the end of the year. It’s overwhelming. Every coach on our staff, it was our dreams to play in that place. It’s going to be so fun to go down there and walk on that floor as a coach.”