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Nate Johnson has wanted to be a head basketball coach for a long time.

He has enjoyed the 12 seasons he’s spent as an assistant and varsity reserve coach in the Holmen High School girls program. He is also excited at the opportunity to continue building on what friend Duane Vike did with the Vikings for 30 years after being named as the team’s new coach on Tuesday.

Nate Johnson mug

Johnson

“If he wanted to coach another 30, I’d stay here and coach under him,” Johnson said of Vike, who stepped down after last season and more than 400 victories with the program. “I’ve wanted to be a head coach since my college days were done, but (Vike) is a great friend and was great to work with the last 12 years.”

Johnson moves forward with an ability to apply lessons learned as a coach at many high schools in both boys and girls basketball.

His education started as a player for Randy Storlie at Blair-Taylor — Johnson was there during the consolidation of the two schools — and continued as a player at Mount Senario College for future UW-Stout coach Eddie Andrist in Ladysmith, Wis. He coached as an assistant for Forrest Larson at Ladysmith, at D.C. Everest and Wittenberg-Birnamwood before taking a job as an at-risk teacher at Holmen High School 12 years ago.

Johnson’s one season with Larson’s Ladysmith program resulted in a trip to the Division 3 state tournament in 1996. Ladysmith beat Westby in the semifinals that year.

“I think I’m kind of glad that it took this long to become a head coach,” Johnson said. “There have been so many coaches that I have been able to watch up close, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from them all.”

Johnson will lead a staff that includes assistants Brian Valiska and Caitlin Russell as the team transitions to a new look after the graduation of a very good senior class.

Seniors Brooklyn Paulson, Kendra Leis and Caitlin Young were responsible for 43 of the Vikings’ 56 points per game last season, so Johnson will have to build with younger players in a conference that includes powerhouses at Aquinas and Onalaska.

“We will be pretty young and have only six to eight juniors and seniors next year,” Johnson said. “We had good numbers with our freshman class this year and should have good numbers with our freshman class next year.

“I think it’s good to start this season because we can try some new things after a natural break with the senior class.”

Johnson said he is open to different styles of offense and said his teams will be prepared to play multiple styles to change things up during the season. He also said that defense will be emphasized.

“Defensively, I think we need to bring our level up play up,” he said. “If you look at teams that go to state, they play at a high level on defense. We will be a team that plays like that starting next season.”

Johnson feels fortunate to become the fourth coach in team history and take over a program that is nearly always a contender in the MVC. The Vikings have had two losing conference records over the last 15 seasons.

“It will be a bit of a rebuilding year, but we plan on making things difficult on the teams we play against,” Johnson said. “We’re in a good league, and the better the league is, the better we can become as a team.”

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Assistant Sports Editor

Todd Sommerfeldt has covered sports for the La Crosse Tribune since 2003 after doing the same previously in the Fox Cities and Rock County.