Once Kent Dernbach was hired as the interim head coach of the UW-La Crosse men’s basketball team, he had a long list of things to tackle.
The first obstacle, Dernbach noted, was figuring out how to order the ink in order to print that list.
“The most comfortable part of this is being on the basketball floor and coaching,” said Dernbach, whose tenure officially started on Oct. 15.
“In terms of the logistical stuff — practice gear, and how to order ink and get a computer and get keys to the office — those are all things that just take time to get done.”
With many of the unforeseen hurdles buttoned up, the Dernbach Era will officially begin today as the Eagles travel to face UW-Milwaukee in an exhibition game at 7 p.m.
Dernbach was announced as the interim coach on Oct. 3, two weeks following the surprising resignation of longtime coach Ken Koelbl.
The rapid nature of the transition, with the season fast approaching, forced Dernbach to quickly find some shoulders to lean on.
He was able to keep Kris Risch on staff, who will be in his sixth season as assistant, and he had Kenny Finco, a player for UW-L for the past three seasons, in place as two of his assistants.
“I wanted somebody that really knew La Crosse and knew the program, and we were able to find that with coach Kris Risch,” Dernbach said. “Kris is someone who is from the community, knows the area, his son (Noah) plays football here, and he understands a lot of the logistic things.
“With Kenny (Finco), he knows what has been done in the past. That doesn’t mean we want to do it the same way, or that we have to change it, it’s just an understanding of what can be changed and what we can keep the same because it was working.”
That left one more opening, which Dernbach filled with former UW-Eau Claire standout Adam Hjelter, who had most recently spent time training players at Impact Basketball in Sarasota, Fla.
Dernbach said that he called and offered Hjelter the assistant job at 8:30 p.m., and when he talked to Hjelter the next day at 4 p.m., Hjelter had already packed up and made his way from Nashville, Tenn., en route to Wisconsin.
“He was already ready to be here,” Dernbach said of Hjelter. “Hopefully, that’s a really good statement for Adam, and for our coaching staff as well about how excited we are to work with these young men.”
The combination of young, hard-working coaches like Finco and Helter, plus the experience of Risch, is about as good as Dernbach could have possibly hoped for, given the tight timeline.
“With Adam, I wanted to bring in somebody that would grind, much like Kenny is right now,” Dernbach said. “We’re really lucky to have Kenny on staff. All three of those guys are working a full-time job for less than part-time pay. Kris is coming over here more because he loves the game and loves the guys, and he certainly isn’t doing it for the money either.”
Dernbach, having served as an assistant at UW-Stevens Point for the past six seasons and briefly as the Pointers’ interim head coach last season after head coach Bob Semling was suspended, brings a familiarity and understanding of how the super-competitive WIAC is.
With two recent former players in Hjelter and Finco on staff, plus the return of Risch, the ins and outs of the WIAC should not catch the Eagles by surprise, but Dernbach said that it still comes down to the basics.
“Good basketball knows no level,” said Dernbach, who also had coaching stints at George Mason and Northern Illinois. “I’m not the first person to say that. If you can take care of the ball and if you can defend, you can give yourself a chance to win, and that’s what we’re going to do here.”
While expectations might not be high — the Eagles were picked to finish seventh in the WIAC by league sports information directors — that only serves as a catalyst for coaches and players alike.
“If you’re looking at who we return and the record we finished with last year, that’s probably fair,” said Dernbach of the seventh-place projection. “These guys, we’re going to use that as motivation. We probably don’t even need that because they all have a chip on their shoulder already because this is their time.”
UW-L will have plenty of minutes up for grabs this season, with the departure of last season’s seniors — Clint Rihn, Ryan Kruser, Austin Fritz, Zach Schradle and Finco.
One mainstay from a year ago is junior Ben Meinholz, who led the team in both minutes (31.3 mpg) and scoring (14.8 ppg). Meinholz agreed that while people might not be high on the Eagles’ chances, the potential is there.
“I think graduating five guys and then having a new coach come in a month before the season, people aren’t going to have high, or really any expectations of us,” Meinholz said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. One of the things he’s talked about is overachieving and I think with this group, the amount of work we’ve already put in the first few weeks, that is something that we are extremely capable of doing.”
While Dernbach has had limited time as a head coach, he’s aware of what is expected.
“I understand that guys care about three things,” Dernbach said. “Do you know the game, can you communicate it well, and do you care about them? In my opinion, I can score really high in all three of those areas.”
“I’m very comfortable and confident in what we’re teaching in all three of those areas, and the culture that we’re creating right now with this group.”
CALEDONIA — The execution was flawless and the impact of the play significant.
Caledonia High School senior Jordan Burg is no stranger to making a difference in football games, but a blocked punt that turned into a touchdown during last week’s 35-7 MSHSL Section 1AA championship win over Triton was different.
The top-ranked Warriors (10-0) had to battle back from a 20-point deficit when they beat the Cobras during the regular season, and they trailed Triton 7-6 after stopping it short of a first down in the first possession of the second half.
They didn’t have to wait to get the ball back after Burg blocked the ensuing punt and returned it 41 yards. One Owen King conversion run later, and Caledonia was starting a 29-point run that gave it a spot in tonight’s AA quarterfinals.
“That’s when we started to get our mojo back,” Caledonia coach Carl Fruechte said of the play. “We felt better after that for sure.”
The Warriors play second-ranked Minneapolis North (10-0) in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Burnsville, Minn., to determine which team gets a semifinal game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 16.
Burg’s return of the punt and two interceptions highlighted a Caledonia defensive effort that forced the Cobras (9-2) into four second-half turnovers after the blocked punt.
“We needed a spark and someone to make a play, and that’s all I did,” said Burg, who also leads the team in receptions (46), receiving yards (630) and touchdown catches (9). “It got us fired up, and we started rolling after that.”
The 6-foot-1 wide receiver and linebacker leads the Warriors, who have won 38 consecutive games and are trying to win their third consecutive state title, with six interceptions and has 26 tackles and a fumble recover this season. He had three interceptions and returned one of those for a touchdown as a junior.
While he has made big plays in many scenarios, the blocked punt even made Fruechte smile when recounting it during a break at Thursday’s practice.
“He split the defenders just like we coach and extended for the ball just like we coach,” he said. “Then he got the scoop and score.”
Burg takes seriously the defensive tradition that preceded him. Caledonia has a long history of game-changing plays through turnovers, and his performance against Triton will have its place when such things are discussed.
But he’s more concerned with how the team plays tonight against the Polars, who won their section with a 44-30 victory over a Maple Lake team that completed its season with a 5-6 record. North’s defense has held five opponents to eight points or less and an offense that averages 47 per game.
“They are fast, athletic and spread the ball out a lot,” Burg said of the Polars, who won last year’s Class A state championship by beating Rushford-Peterson 30-14 in the title game and was state runner-up in 2015. “Our corners, safeties and outside linebackers have to play great in coverage, and our line has to get a push up front.”
The Warriors allow averages of 105 rushing and 65 passing yards per game and have surrendered 11 touchdowns all season. North passed for 181 yards last week and scored 44 straight points after Maple Lake scored the first two touchdowns.
Quarterback Armon Dalton only completed 10 passes, but they went to six different receivers.
In addition to helping contain Dalton, Burg hopes to connect with King on a big play or two to keep the offense rolling.
King, last season’s All-Tribune Co-Player of the Year, is averaging 219.4 passing yards per game and has completed 34 touchdown passes to go with four interceptions.
Like last season, he’s been effective with solid options among his group of receivers. Andrew Goergen (597 yards, 9 TDs) and Sam Barthel (405 yards, 6 TDs) have also had big games while passes have been completed to 14 receivers.
“All we have to do is get open, and Owen will find us,” Burg said. “Goergen gets double coverage a lot, and others get it sometimes, and Owen always seems to know where to go with the ball.”
Beating Triton twice was a big deal for the Warriors, who struggled during long stretches of both games before taking over. North will give Caledonia new challenges as it tries to win a third consecutive AA state championship.
“They will be bigger than we are, but that’s always the case for us,” Fruechte said. “I know our guys will be ready to play, and we’re excited for the game.
“If you aren’t excited to play in a game like this, what are you doing this for?”
Their relationship started out as roommates, but Viterbo University volleyball seniors Amelia Grahn and Natalie Geidel hope it ends with a national title.
Viterbo received a first-round bye in this weekend’s North Star Athletic Association tournament that the V-Hawks will be hosting at Beggs Gymnasium.
Grahn, a first-team NAIA All-American setter, feeds near-perfect passes to her former roommate, Geidel, and it’s been that way for four years.
“It’s very easy to set Natalie, and she makes it very easy,” said Grahn, who leads Viterbo with 1,329 assists. “She does the rest.”
The V-Hawks (32-1, 16-0 NSAA) clinched their third volleyball NSAA championship with a three-set sweep over Bellevue (26-10, 11-5) last week. The NSAA tournament begins today, and Viterbo will await the winner of No. 5 seed Presentation College (19-12, 7-9) and No. 4 seed Valley City State (15-12, 9-7) at 7:30 p.m.
Jamestown holds the second seed for the tournament, and two of Viterbo’s opponents last week — Bellevue and Dakota State (12-23, 6-10) — fill out the rest of the NSAA bracket.
Viterbo is ranked second in NAIA, but it wasn’t always that way and Geidel remembers being the underdog.
Granted, the V-Hawks have had just one losing season under coach Ryan DeLong, which was in his first season in 2005.
“Sometimes I think we take winning a lot for granted,” said Grahn, a Madison LaFollette High School graduate. “Going to nationals, and winning conference, things like that. To go out my senior year and having a successful season, it’s a great way to end it. I’m trying not to take this year for granted.”
The V-Hawks have made it to the national tournament four times, including each of the last three seasons.
A fifth trip is almost set in stone for the V-Hawks, which did not lose a single NSAA match.
“We’re handling the pressure well,” said Geidel, a two-time first-team All-American hitter. “We have to make sure we’re playing well against ranked teams. The pressure is building, because nationals are soon.”
No matter the case, the two former roommates are happy to get at least one more match at home. Before that, however, there was one last regular-season bus trip.
Grahn says when the V-Hawks are about a half hour from La Crosse, the girls will start singing before the bus parks on campus.
“I feel a little sorry for the bus driver,” Grahn said with a smile. “We have to enjoy it now. Eventually, we’re not going to have any more.”
Grahn did the singing and dancing her freshman year when she lived with Geidel, but Geidel admits: “I’m actually the calmer one.”
Their careers have been showered by accomplishments. Both seniors were christened as All-Americans last season as part of a V-Hawks quartet.
Geidel is the defending two-time AVCA North Central Region Player of the Year, and her senior season has been just as successful.
Geidel has 508 kills entering the conference tournament after recording 514 last season when she played with a sprained ankle.
“It’s been a whirlwind (senior) year,” Geidel said. “We started off the year in Europe and that’s the first time Viterbo volleyball has ever done that. Coming in with a good freshman group, that’s really picked us up and carry us through.”
The V-Hawks’ only loss this season was against Rocky Mountain College at the Grand View Tournament last month. They’ve played in four five-set matches, but the most recent one came in NSAA play against Jamestown, the No. 2 seed, on Oct. 21.
ST. PAUL — The UW-La Crosse volleyball team was in a familiar gym and a familiar position in its first-round NCAA Division III national tournament match on Thursday.
The Eagles were ahead late in the first set, looking to close it out — an area in which they’ve been simply dominant the past two weeks. But their opponent, The College of Saint Benedict, overcame the deficit and took the game.
After a fiery talk from coach Amber Dunn in between sets, UW-L blasted the Blazers out of the gym, winning 23-25, 25-17, 25-14, 25-13 and advancing to the second round at University of Northwestern-St. Paul.
The Eagles (22-6), seeded fourth, will play No. 1 seed Northwestern-St. Paul (33-6) in the second round at 7 p.m. today.
Despite playing at NW-SP for the second straight year, the Eagles had to burn off some jitters in the opening set. Some uncharacteristically sloppy hitting allowed CSB (19-9) to hang around in the first set. UW-L cleaned things up enough to get a 23-20 lead, but then allowed the Blazers to score the final five points of the set, including two from blocks.
"Overall we just weren't executing," said Dunn, who's in her first year with the Eagles. "What we do well has to click. I think it came down to relaxing a bit, playing in a different gym than we had in two weeks, and knowing St. Ben's was going to be a good team. It's only the best from here on out."
The Eagles made 11 attack errors in the first set and finished with a .150 hitting percentage, but they quickly rebounded in the second. After it was close early, but a small run by UW-L gave it a 14-12 lead and it kept that momentum rolling to a 20-15 advantage.
"At times we were thinking too much big-picture and not point-for-point," Dunn said. "Once we started just playing in the moment, we got going."
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Henk had six of her 15 kills in the second set.
Using a nearly-perfect offense and lights-out defense, the Eagles pulled away quickly in the third set, holding a 17-10 lead that quickly went to 20-11. UW-L hit .368 in the third set with just one error, and then hit .265 in the fourth — a set that the Eagles controlled throughout.
"We got Steph rolling in the second set, and I think all our players would agree it makes the game easier when we do that," Dunn said. "They had a hard time defending her, we just have to have to discipline to get rolling."
Sophomore middle hitter Kathryn Maas led the charge late in the match, tallying six kills in both the third and fourth sets and finishing with 15 to tie Henk for the match high. Henk also had 10 digs, and Johnson ended with 10 kills and 10 digs. Senior middle hitter Jessica Jablonski had eight kills and five block assists, while Maddie Entinger added four kills, eight digs and 51 assists.
The Eagles played Northwestern-St. Paul in early September, and were swept 23-25, 23-25, 21-25. UW-L was without Maas and Johnson in the matchup as they dealt with injuries, and Dunn said the team is playing much better now than it did two months ago.
"They're going to see a different style of volleyball from us," Dunn said.