25 years strong: Justin Wegleitner honored for his commitment to Detroit Lakes soccer for two and a half decades
Detroit Lakes has had a good run of youth soccer programs for 25 years, and that's in large part due to Justin Wegleitner. After moving to the area in his early 20s, Wegleitner helped start the growth of a youth organization and tow high school programs.
DETROIT LAKES– Justin Wegleitner showed up to the Detroit Lakes boys soccer banquet excited to celebrate the 2021 season and send off a special group of seniors. Little did he know the players, parents and coaches had a surprise for him.
This fall marked 25 years since Wegleitner and David Carter started the Detroit Lakes soccer programs. Carter manned the girls head coaching position while Wegleitner took over the boys. For the last two and a half decades, Wegleitner has been the face of boys soccer in Detroit Lakes.
At the banquet, the team gave him a plaque to celebrate his achievements in the area.
"It was an honor," Wegleitner said. "The banquet has always been a chance for me to honor the kids for the long season they put in. For the group to come out when I was about to hand out some student awards and give it up for them, they interrupted my program. It was a big surprise, and it was really cool to see that happen at the end of the night."
In the mid-1990's Wegleitner moved from St. Cloud to Detroit Lakes to finish his education in his early 20s. One night, he took a bag of soccer balls to the park by himself to take some shots on the empty soccer goal. It was there he met Carter.
"I saw a set of goals down at the Lincoln fields. I never saw anybody using them," Wegleitner said. "I guess I was just bored. I didn't know anybody here. David Carter was on the other end of the field playing around. That's where we met. He was in the process of trying to get the youth program going some more. He and I turned the youth program into a competitive team. We started scrimmaging teams from other towns and playing in a league. Our numbers grew exponentially."
The growth Wegleitner and Carter saw led to the idea of a boys team at the high school level. To do that, a girls team would also need to start because of Title IX. Both programs began in the fall of 1997. Cater retired two years ago while Wegleitner is still going strong.
"David agreed to be the interim girls head coach until they found someone else. He ended up coaching for over 20 years," Wegleitner said. "It's something that kind of sticks with you. You meet all of these great kids, and you start to be part of their lives. You get invitations to their graduations, which, down the line, they turn into weddings and all of that stuff. It's a big soccer family. It's just really hard to walk away from, which is why I'm here after 25 years."
Building a program from the ground up comes with rough patches. There's a lot of losing and lessons learned before teams catch up to the rest of the already established programs. For Wegleitner, the biggest challenge was managing his own expectations early on.
"It was a bit of a culture shock for me to see the level of soccer I was coaching," Wegleitner said of the early Laker teams. "I know I had a lot of talented kids, but nobody had a competitive background. I played at St. Cloud Apollo in high school. We came up this way and beat Fergus Falls 14-0 my senior year. Five years later, I'm coaching a Detroit Lakes High School team, and we lose to Fergus 13-1. I'm going, 'How in the heck can we be that bad?'"
"I was 22-years-old and wanting to have that competitive excitement again," Wegleitner said. "The emotional part of the game always takes over. I've learned the control that a coach needs to have. I've been the coach that gets too excited and too vocal on the sidelines. I learned that developing great athletes into great soccer players takes time. That time needs to be in practice. It was hard to make the change from being a player to a coach on the sidelines."
Growing as a coach was hard, but seeing the youth soccer programs amass numbers was fairly easy. Kids were excited about the prospect of a new sport in the area, and Wegleitner helped deliver.
"I think kids were just looking for another outlet," Wegleitner said. "Kids wanted to keep coming out and trying. Detroit Lakes has been an awesome community for this. We boast more programs than any other town of our size. Not everybody can be your prototypical big and strong football player or a volleyball player that's super tall that can jump through the roof. There are other positions in those sports, but soccer offers another place for kids to be competitive."
"We've seen so much growth in this sport in our community," Wegleitner said. "We started with around 120 kids in the youth program way back in the start. That grew to 500. Now we have kids playing from ages 3-18, and it's just incredible to see how far it's come. To think that I've had a part in this is something special."
The Lakers are still searching for their first trip to state. While each season has ended in heartbreak, Wegleitner appreciates his chances to be a part of the emotional moments.
"My favorite days are the first and last days of the season," Wegleitner said. "It's just so exciting to see a fresh start every year. The last game is always so much fun to see all of the hard work that you and the athletes have put in. I remember playing my last game as an athlete, and I remember thinking that it was it for me in soccer. There are a lot of tears and hugs, and now I do that every season. It hurts every time, but it's good to see the pride of these kids."
Wegleitner has kept an open mind for the future. He's not sure when he'll decide to hang up the clipboard.
"The future hasn't really written itself," Wegleitner said. "A lot of times, you get asked as a coach about which kid is yours. I started coaching when I didn't have kids. My son and daughter came through the program when they were young. My daughter decided not to play soccer, but my son played on the varsity team. He's off having a life of his own now. I'm still going, and I don't know what the next step is. I'm just taking it one year at a time."
Wegleitner didn't get into coaching for the accolades or the recognition. He saw it as an opportunity to stay attached to the sport to which he devoted much of his life.
"I love teaching the passion and love I have for this game," Wegleitner said. "I love seeing these kids grow and become great Laker citizens. We want these kids to be successful in life, not just on the soccer field. You kind of learn what's important over the years. It's not about a winning record all the time. It's about seeing great kids become great men."