A head coach for 33 years, road to 500 wins was a long and successful oneOKABENA — As a coach, Les Knutson always taught his players to differentiate between dreams and goals. The two merged Thursday night for the Southwest Star Concept girls’ basketball coach.
By: Matt Huss, Worthington Daily Globe
OKABENA — As a coach, Les Knutson always taught his players to differentiate between dreams and goals. The two merged Thursday night for the Southwest Star Concept girls’ basketball coach.
For 33 years, Knutson has been living a childhood dream. On Thursday night, after the Quasars defeated visiting Ellsworth 52-39, he reached a career milestone.
Knutson became just the 10th girls’ basketball coach in Minnesota to record 500 career wins.
“I think it means a lot,” Knutson said. “It means you stuck with it for a long time.”
Knutson’s journey began in 1976, when, after a year as an assistant coach, he took over as Heron Lake High School’s head coach. In his first season, he led Heron Lake to a 22-1 record and a third-place finish in the state tournament.
In the 32 years since, he’s led a varied combination of schools to 10 conference titles, six runner-up conference finishes, six subsection titles, three section titles, two section runner-up finishes, three state tournament appearances, and a state championship.
Heron Lake High School consolidated with Okabena in 1978. In 1987, Lakefield joined the mix before consolidating with Jackson High School 10 years later to form Jackson County Central. In 1997, Heron Lake-Okabena became Southwest Star Concept.
No matter the name or the towns involved, Knutson was a constant. And success followed.
In the beginning, however, it was only a dream.
“I was intrigued by teams like that Edgerton team — even though I never really saw them, I heard so much about them,” Knutson said, referring to the 1960 Edgerton boys’ basketball team, which won the state championship. “And I saw Luverne go all the way in ‘64.
“Watching the state tournament on TV, it was a big, big highlight in our family. I always kind of thought it would be neat (to be involved).”
Knutson dreamed of being televised while playing in a state tournament, but he lacked size and was cut from the basketball team in his junior year at Windom High School. He soon developed the dream of coaching a championship team.
He never thought it would be a girls’ basketball team.
“I had been a cross country and track runner, and that was my thing; I thought I’d coach track and cross country when I got out (of college),” Knutson said. “I was the head boys’ track coach right away, and that’s what I wanted to do.
“When they hired me, they needed some help with girls’ basketball. I always thought I’d coach boys, but I got the head job, and we had a lot of success early on and I just stayed with it.”
He’s stayed with it long enough to lead both a mother and her daughter to significant success.
Cathy Henkels (then Cathy Garoutte) was a junior guard for Knutson in 1976 who helped the first-year head coach notch his first career victory — a 53-25 win against Welcome.
On Thursday, junior guard Luanna Henkels, Cathy Henkels’ daughter, had 12 points and four assists to help Knutson record victory No. 500.
“Girls’ sports had basically just started; we hadn’t been going very long, and we were just thrilled to have somebody who thought they knew something that was going on, and he was really enthusiastic and really pushed us to run and work hard,” Cathy Henkels said. “We were ready to do whatever he said because we knew he had our best interest at heart and we wanted to get to the state tournament.”
Luanna Henkels’ older sister, Linnea, played for Knutson two years ago.
“The biggest thing is I know they’re in good hands; and that’s why I’m happy,” Cathy Henkels said. “I know he’s there and I know he treats the kids well and I know he puts the best of what he has into what he’s doing. And that’s all somebody can ask for.”
Said Luanna Henkels, referring to her role in helping Knutson reach 500 victories: “It’s special for me because I get to be part of the team and help try getting it for him. It’s a huge milestone for him.”
Cathy Henkels described Knutson as a master motivator. Knutson, who gave much of the credit for his teams’ success to his players and assistant coaches, agreed.
“I gave a speech about how much a guy wanted a boat, and then the kid decided that the boat wasn’t really that important, that it was just a dream — it wasn’t really a goal,” Knutson said. “And what he came out saying was that, if it was a goal, you had to have some sacrifice involved.
“I remember in 1979 telling my (1981 team) that story, and I used myself as an example. I said I wanted to be a rock-n-roll guy — that was my dream — but I never could sit down and practice the guitar, so it was just a dream. I said that, maybe next year or in two years, we can win the state championship, but we have to realize that it has to become a goal and not a dream, and we have to give up some things.”
Knutson’s teams practiced hard, and, in 1981, his childhood dream became a reality.
Heron Lake-Okabena finished 26-0 and defeated Moose Lake to win the state championship.
“After we won it, it just kind of hit me: ‘This is what I’ve always dreamed about,’” Knutson said. “I didn’t get to play in the state tournament, but I got to coach in it — and we won.
“That was quite a feeling, and it meant a lot to me that we won every game.”
Of course, it didn’t come without sacrifice.
“When I first started playing for him, he was a very aggressive person,” said Chris Robinson (then Chris Ferguson), who was a standout on Knutson’s championship team. “After wins, he’d have us out in away gyms running lines after winning a game.
“He was really aggressive, but we all respected him. And we had a lot of fun with him, too.”
Robinson said that she and her teammates embraced Knutson’s coaching style and that it helped them become both better athletes and persons. She laughed when recalling Knutson’s demeanor in the locker room.
“He was never calm, and if he didn’t come in and throw something or kick something, it wasn’t Les Knutson,” she said, laughing. “The very first (postseason) game we played, I remember him walking in and throwing down some papers and saying, ‘You guys aren’t supposed to be here,’ when we all knew we should have been. Once we won that first game, it was over for me — I knew we were going to win it all.
“I knew what he instilled in us, and, to me, it just gave us an edge. Teams may say they have better strengths, player to player, but I knew we had the heart, by far, because he had given that to us.”
Southwest Star Concept High School will host a reception following Saturday’s game against Harris-Lake Park in recognition of Knutson’s 500th victory. A new state championship banner recognizing Knutson’s 1981 championship team also will be unveiled.
Former players of Knutson are invited to attend and be part of the ceremony.
The B-squad game will begin at 1 p.m., with the ceremony following shortly afterward.