If Activities Director Neil Strader could entice Michael Jordan to coach the boy’s basketball team or recruit Joe Montana to take over the football squad, he would. But that’s close to impossible, isn’t it?
Well that’s what most people would think. That’s even what Strader thought. But when looking this summer to fill the open head coaching position on the , Strader got a tip that ultimately landed the program the Michael Jordan of women’s hockey: Natalie Darwitz.
“It was one of those things that you don’t feel like you have a shot at, but you would kick yourself later if you didn’t take a shot at it,” Strader said. “When she applied, I can’t tell you how excited I was.”
Strader and the rest of the Lakeville South girl’s hockey community have a right to be excited. One look at Darwitz’s resume will melt your eyes while making your jaw drop.
As a player, she was the youngest ever to be named to the United States National team at the age of 15. She was a member of the 2002 Olympic team and led the team in goals scored on their way to a silver medal. She was also named the 2005 and 2008 U.S. Hockey Player of the Year, and captained the 2008 and 2009 gold-winning world championship team, while leading both tournaments in scoring. She was also the captain of the U.S. Women’s Hockey team that won a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
She spent her college career playing for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. She was a 2003, 2004 and 2005 All-American selection, and is currently the all-time leading scorer in Gopher history, with 246 points.
For the last couple years she has been the assistant coach for the Gopher women’s hockey team, which made its way to the frozen four during the 2008-2009 season.
It’s no surprise then—with the resume that Darwitz has built—that she stood out amongst the group of six candidates for the coaching position.
“We knew who would bring the biggest impact, not just to girl’s high-school hockey, but to the entire Lakeville South girl’s hockey community,” Strader said. “It was just a matter of being patient enough to wait out the process.”
The process was lengthy when compared to a normal hiring process. It started back in mid-June when Strader heard from Darwitz’s former high-school coach that she might be interested in the position if the opportunity was given to her. So Strader contacted Darwitz and encouraged her to come in for an interview.
But the process wasn’t that cut and dry for Darwitz. Coaching at Lakeville South would mean giving up her position at the University of Minnesota. It would also mean giving up a day job with full-time salary and full-time benefits for meager pay while heading a high-school squad.
But Strader was persistant, and Darwitz soon realized she wanted to develop young athletes.
“They kept coming at me,” Darwitz said. “At first I was thinking that I was happy where I was at, but as I went through the summer and was on ice more with high-school age kids, I realized that I am passionate about that age group.”
Even when realizing she wanted the job at South, Darwitz still had some reservations about cutting ties with Eagan—where she grew up and where her dad coaches the high-school team. It was one of the toughest decisions she has made, she said. But after hearing words of encouragement from her dad, she knew she was making the right decision.
According to Darwitz, she’s also at a point in her life where she is looking to settle down. She said Tuesday that she wants some normalcy and wants to be home for moments on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Family is important to her, and having the opportunity to be a part of a community pushed her toward coaching high-school hockey.
And Lakeville wasn’t the only community that offered her a chance to take over the girl’s hockey program. After word got out that she was considering the position at South, other programs also made offers. But the idea of taking over a young Lakeville South program was enticing.
“It’s an up and coming program,” Darwitz said. “For me to have the opportunity to establish a relatively new program and create some new traditions is really intriguing to me.”
Although one of Darwitz’s goals is to be a head coach at the collegiate level, she said briefly on Tuesday that she would love to become a mainstay in the Lakeville South community. She plans on going back to get her teacher’s license and would eventually like to teach in the school district.
But for this upcoming season she will be concentrating solely on South girl’s hockey. A big part of her success as a coach will be dependent on the coaching staff she surrounds herself with. According to Darwitz, she plans on bringing in the best. She plans on having her coaching staff finalized by the end of September.
“She has connections that not many people have,” Strader said. “I think we are going to be able to put together the best known staff in the state.”
Strader and Darwitz have yet to talk about expectations for the coming year, but Darwitz plans on being successful right away. Success to her doesn’t just mean a state championship, it means instilling core values in her players.
“We are going to become better hockey players, better teammates and better people.” Darwitz said. “Having the right core values and then bringing that to the ice will bring success.”
Darwitz met briefly with the varsity and junior varsity teams on Tuesday night to introduce herself and expressed her excitement to start the season in late October.
And although it has been a process full of difficult decisions and life changes, Darwitz is excited to start her life as a member of the Lakeville community.
“It was a lengthy process,” Darwitz said. “But for me, at the end of the day, my passion is at Lakeville South and coaching the high-school hockey team.”