Heron Lake's Jessica Pelzel earns national Coach of the Year honors

HERON LAKE -- Just prior to guiding her Madison Area Technical College Wolfpack to a fourth place finish in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division III women's basketball tournament in Utica, New York in the middle of Ma...

HERON LAKE -- Just prior to guiding her Madison Area Technical College Wolfpack to a fourth place finish in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division III women's basketball tournament in Utica, New York in the middle of March, Heron Lake native Jessie Pelzel was selected as the District C National Coach-of-the-Year.

In her second-year as the head coach of the two-year college in Madison, Wisconsin, Pelzel also was named as the Region 13 Coach-of-the-Year, giving her a pair of major coaching awards in the same season.

"We really came on during the second half of the season," said Pelzel, a 1996 graduate of Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield High School (HLOL). "Our highlight game was beating Rochester in the region finals."

The Wolfpack was 8-8 entering 2008 after having competed in a high-caliber tournament over Christmas vacation in Glendale, Arizona.

But after that experience -- which included playing against a pair of Division II teams and one Division I opponent -- the team just continued to get better in the new year.


"I found out later that the girls had a captain's meeting after the Arizona trip," noted Pelzel. "They realized how well we had played against some really good competition and decided that we could become better. I think that was the turning point -- the team became motivated from within."

The fast-breaking, full-court pressing Wolfpack came back to the Midwest and racked up 14 consecutive victories -- including that dramatic, 64-62, Region 13 championship win over Rochester -- and qualified for a trip to New York's Mohawk Valley.

"We press man-to-man fullcourt and run as much as we can," explained Pelzel. "Rochester was 23-3 and ranked third in the nation. The Yellowjackets had beat us by 16 points in our home opener in November."

But in the region finals, played on the Wolfpack's homecourt in Madison, Pelzel's team was ready to play.

"You could just sense in the pre-game warm-up that our team was fired up," she exclaimed. "We seemed to have a special motivation for that game."

The victory over the Yellowjackets sent the Wolfpack to the national tournament where the win streak was stopped in the quarterfinals by Brookdale Community College from New Jersey. The Jersey Blues defeated MATC in a low-scoring game, 63-48.

But Pelzel's charges bounced back well, claiming an impressive 76-54 victory over Holyoke (Massachusetts) Community College in the consolation round.

"We shot very well in that game," Pelzel said about the win over HCC. "With our style of play, the 48 points that we scored against Brookdale in the opener was quite low for us."


The Wolfpack capped the season with a high-scoring victory over Montgomery College (of Rockville, Maryland), 85-79, to claim the tournament's fourth-place trophy.

That win capped a 16-1 late-season run for the Wolfpack, who finished the season with a 24-9 overall record.

The team was 13-12 a year ago in Pelzel's first season as the MATC head coach.

An athlete all her life, Pelzel and her twin sister Becky played summer baseball -- with the boys -- for the Heron Lake Mites and Midgets during their childhood years.

In high school, Pelzel starred in cross country, basketball and softball for the HLOL Silver Bullets. In her junior year, she was the playmaker for HLOL's 1995 sub-section championship basketball team, which finished one game shy of the state tournament with a sparkling 23-4 record.

Pelzel spent four years at Southwest State in Marshall where she lettered four times and started three seasons for the Mustang basketball team.

As the point guard, Jessie led the team in assists her senior year and was the third-leading rebounder on the squad. She was also named the Mustang's defensive player-of-the-year that season.

"I enjoyed my years playing high school and college basketball," exclaimed Pelzel, whose father Brian was a top-notch high school baseball player and is currently one of the best bowlers in the area. "I loved the game so much that I just knew that I had to become a coach."


After spending a year at Kansas University, working on her master's degree, Pelzel returned home to Heron Lake and worked for a while before finishing her degree at St. Cloud State.

While at St. Cloud, Jessie became a graduate assistant coach for the Huskies and then spent two full seasons as an assistant coach for the College of St. Benedict. The Blazers, located in St. Joseph, are a perennial powerhouse in women's basketball.

"I was planning on coming back to St. Ben's for another season," Pelzel said. "But in June of 2006, I received the opportunity to become the head coach at MATC and things have worked out well."

Area fans will get a chance to see Pelzel and her team in action next November, as the Wolfpack will be playing in the Worthington Regional Hospital Classic November 7-8.

"We are looking forward to next season already," concluded Pelzel. "Opening our season at Worthington will be a neat experience."

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