Two Detroit Lakes coaches had to wait to get the first practice under their belts in new head girls basketball coach Rachel Johnson and new gymnastics coach Leesa Lindgaard.
Both were featured by the Tribune at their time of hire nearly nine months ago and both have intriguing matchups early in the season.
Lindgaard is no stranger to her team having been integral in leading the Lakers to state titles under former head coach Steve Zamzo.
Lindgaard took last season off after nine years coaching with the program helping lead the Lakers to six years of section dominance and five consecutive state championships.
“I needed some extra time to hang out with my family and that was perfect; we had a wonderful season,” she said.
After opening this year on the road at Bemidji Jan. 23, the Lakers will see a stiff test in defending section champions Perham at Minnesota Flyers gymnasium.
Gymnastics has been a family affair for the Lindgaards. Leesa’s husband Joe has also played a pivotal role as an assistant with the program over the decade of success.
“Joe and all my girls are so excited,” Leesa said. “They missed the season and missed the gymnastics girls. They’re already talking about how they’re Lakers and they’re going to be on the gymnastics team.”
From her own children to kids who have progressed through the Flyers’ program, Lindgaard brings a welcome familiarity to the team.
As a Minnesota Flyers coach, she has built lifelong relationships with her gymnasts. She’s been a part of the team’s training from the beginning.
“A lot of those girls, I’ve seen them since they were five,” she said. “It’s always hard to step away because you miss those girls; you spent so many years and hours with them.”
Lindgaard is no-nonsense when it comes to her coaching style. Her pre-meet speeches at section and state meets can be felt by seeing the intensity on the faces of the gymnasts listening to her.
“We have such a strong, good team that they will be just fine," she said. “I 100 percent believe in them and we’ll be back where we’ve always been.”
Perham advanced to state in a close three-team race this year defeating Melrose Area and the Lakers in the Dutchmen’s first year in the section. Those three teams are synonymous with Class A state championships.
Perham won eight straight state titles from 2004-11. Detroit Lakes held the crown from 2015-19. In between those two runs, Melrose Area had two titles in 2012 and 2014 with New Prague taking gold in 2013. New Prague has since moved to Class AA.
Competing in 8A is as big of a challenge as the state meet.
“In a sense it sucks being in that section because there are three of the best teams in the state, but it’s also fun because it makes you work hard and keeps us on our toes,” she said.
Rookie head coach Rachel Johnson has the luxury of three home games to start the season beginning Thursday, Jan. 14 against Mid-State foes Crosby-Ironton.
Johnson was an assistant last season under Tom Vagle. She is a 2015 Fergus Falls graduate and a 2019 Concordia College alum. She takes over the Laker program with a playing career and background of coaching stops under well-known and successful coaches.
She played for the Otters under Brand Strand and was an assistant coach with Jay Hartman on the Moorhead boy’s B squad under former Laker and newly-hired Concordia College head coach Tyler Bormann. She started with Bormann’s Spuds program as part of her practicum in college before moving to a volunteer position.
“It was nice to see all aspects of the upper class program,” said Johnson.
Her history with Strand will be the highlight of the third weekend of the season when the Lakers face the Otters in Fergus Falls Saturday, Feb. 6 in the only meeting between the two teams.
Laker fans may recall Strand recorded his 500th career coaching victory in late February of 2018 in a first round, come-from-behind playoff victory over DL in Fergus Falls.
Since that game, Strand’s Otters have gone 49-12 to put him halfway to 600 victories with a section finalist team returning to Class 2A.
Strand may see some familiarity in Johnson’s Lakers from her time playing for the future hall of fame coach.
“I learned a lot from him, especially in how to run a practice,” Johnson said. “I always appreciated how well practices were run - the structure to them and the attention to skills within different drills we did.”
Under Bormann at Class 4A Moorhead, a former Laker player and now head coach at Concordia, Johnson got plenty of big time experience to bring to the Class 3A Lakers.
“I almost got to see a little bit of what the college sphere looks like,” she said. “Just seeing how, not only as a coach in encouraging and mentoring student-athletes, but making sure all that administrative side of stuff was done really solidly to make sure the program was successful was huge.”