Rachel Johnson was named the new head girls basketball coach at Detroit Lakes Tuesday bumping up from an assistant position under Tom Vagle last year.
Johnson 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.
She was involved with the B squad’s practices and able to join Bormann at JV and varsity practices.
“It was nice to see all aspects of the upper class program,” said Johnson.
Johnson is a social studies/world geography teacher at Detroit Lakes. Part of her college coursework included adding different types of coaching scenarios from classroom to the court to round out her expectations for the workforce.
“I figured I might as well get the full meal deal of what my life as a teacher and coach would be like so I decided to do that coaching practicum,” she said.
Under Bormann, she got a taste of FM metro basketball and traveling in the geographically large Section 8-4A.
“As a 4A program, Coach Bormann really ran it at a high scale,” said Johnson.
Off the court, Johnson was assisting in organizing bus trips and hotel stays helping the staff with the unseen admin side of the Spuds’ program.
“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.”
Her own playing background in basketball got her an early look at successful coaching playing under Strand (549 career wins) and making two state appearances with the Otters.
“I grew up in Fergus so I got to see a high-level 3A program,” she said.
Johnson’s time playing for Strand created a core foundation she is building her coaching style upon.
“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.”
Johnson wants to incorporate her plan from the ground up joining forces with youth coaches to help reinvigorate the Laker program.
“From both my time in Fergus and with the Moorhead program, I’m definitely going to emphasize building a whole program K-12, hopefully, working with other community members who have started on that. I want to develop a community culture of basketball in Detroit Lakes,” she said. “If you look at any successful program they have skills, drills and involvement from the high school coaches and student athletes from K up to the varsity level. That’s something that I think is important to implement as we go forward.”
Johnson is not the only person in Detroit Lakes to notice a dip in attendance at games the past few years along with an instability of support behind both programs, especially the girls, who have gone through multiple coaching staffs the past decade.
“I know it used to be there on both sides,” she said. “I feel like it’s dwindled and I want it to come back. This is a town that should have a strong basketball culture and has the ability to have it. It’s all there. Even the amount of fans that are at games; the stands should be packed.”
Johnson is not that far removed from playing against the Lakers in DL and recalled the atmosphere she was accustomed to at the Ralph.
“Just to see the difference in five, six years,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen to any community.”
Assistant Dave Hutchinson remains on the Laker staff with two open positions he and Johnson will look to fill before winter. Hutchinson brings years of experience that will complement Johnson’s fresh take on the job.
“It’s fun for Hutch to be around and I’m super happy that he decided to stay,” said Johnson. “His wealth of knowledge and experience will really help me as I start this new journey. He knows how to get the girls excited. He knows how to phrase what he needs to say in a constructive and positive way. He’s just got a really positive energy that I like to have in anybody.”
Hutchinson is easy to spot at games taking up a seat right in the middle of the players on the bench.
“That’s his spot; he’s not giving it up,” Johnson laughed.
Johnson is not naive. She knows this is a big jump and part of taking over the position was being in the right place at the right time.
“If God wasn’t willing to let this happen for me and I didn’t have people in my life that think I could do it, it wouldn’t be the direction I’m being pulled,” she said. “A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. It’s a very big jump; I’m not going to lie. I wanted to be a head coach. That’s been my goal since I started coaching in college. It just came a little bit sooner than expected. It’s a big undertaking but I’m up for the challenge. Basketball is a big passion of mine and my family’s.”
Laker fans will recall Rachel’s brother Matthew from games against Fergus Falls. Matthew redshirted his first year with the University of Mary basketball program in 2019. He was a 1,000+ points scorer finishing eighth all time in Otters history. He played in the Minnesota All-Star Game and was a Minnesota Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of year finalist.
The Johnsons are well known in Otter sports and are the building blocks to a strong support system for Rachel.
“I know I have the full support of my family and coach Bormann, of course, coach Hutchinson and lots of other people that are in my corner, which makes the task much less daunting,” she said.
Johnson was offered the position Monday and accepted Tuesday, pending school board approval.
“I took the evening and Tuesday morning to sit with it and make sure it was something I was ready to commit to and that I would have a strong support system behind me for it,” she said.
Wednesday she sent out a video message to the team explaining her process of figuring out her new role with the basketball program.
“I was very excited to let them know I would be taking over the program,” she said.
The announcement of her hiring created a buzz on Twitter where she received supportive comments from Bormann, his replacement Matt Ellingson, a former colleague, and many others that had her phone blowing up as she worked her seasonal job at a nursery in Fergus.
In her time assisting our program at Moorhead Rachel was thoughtful, engaged, connected with our players, and had a willingness to learn. Great hire by @rnielsen01 and staff, I look forward to following Rachel’s impact on the student athletes and GBB program at DLHS. https://t.co/NaIOg5T2Bo— Tyler Bormann (@CoachBormann) May 21, 2020
“I was pretty overwhelmed,” she said. “I was expecting some buzz but I was blown away from it. It was so heartwarming to know that I had all the support of all these other people,” she said. “It was comforting and it gave me more confidence that I could do this in a really strong capacity. I’m super excited to set high expectations for these young ladies, not only on the court but in the classroom as well and as citizens in the community. As a social studies teacher, I’m a strong advocate of being really active in the community. We’re going to have a lot of fun, but there will be high expectations and I know all of the girls coming back are fully capable of meeting and exceeding them.”
Five seniors return to the team with juniors and sophomores buoyed by a big freshman class.
“It’ll be so nice to have a strong JV team as well as a varsity team, instead of scrambling for numbers,” she said. “That ninth grade group that is coming up is very strong and athletic. I’m excited to have lots of girls in the program and let them fill those roles as well.”