Summer is winding down, and that means students are getting ready to head back to the classroom. The volleyball, football and cross-country teams are beginning their first practices, and us sports-writers of the world have nothing to do but sit and wait for their first contests.
So, before the nets are put up in the gym and the Friday night lights are flicked on, we thought we’d do a little something fun this week. It’s not exactly a new concept – sports shows often argue about this kind of stuff when there’s no sporting events going on to talk about. But the Mt. Rushmore game is fairly simple – pick a profession/sport, then name the four best people in that profession.
So we thought – what ‘if St. Ansgar had a Mt. Rushmore of its greatest coaches, and who would be on it’? Now, looking at the four we picked, I just don’t think you can exclude any of them from the ‘mountain’.
Now, there’s no right or wrong answers here. St. Ansgar has had a plethora of great teachers and coaches, and many also deserve to have their mugs carved into stone – but we can only pick four. So here are the four we picked, and why:
If there’s one name synonymous with St. Ansgar basketball, it has to be Merlyn Thorson. The teacher and coach spent 34 seasons leading the boy’s basketball squad, posting a record of 432 – 273.
Thorson lead the Saints to a whopping 10 conference and 3 district championships, including a state-runner up finish in 1997.
A great coach for many years, Thorson was also a tremendous St. Ansgar athlete himself in the mid-late 60s. His sophomore year, he hurt his hand so that summer he taught himself to shoot left-handed. “A player without a shot is like a soldier without a weapon,” Thorson would say.
“It was an emotional victory for the team, coaches, parents and the fans who filled the gym an hour before the game started. Celebration filled the gym bringing brilliant smiles, shouts of exhilaration, tears of joy and a long awaited net-cutting ceremony. With glistening eyes, head coach Merlyn Thorson said simply, “We did it.” Yes they did. Thorson was given the honor of cutting the last string of net from the hoop. He raised it above his head and everyone on the gym floor began cheering.”
– From the EJ, Mar. 13, 1997, after defeating Algona to advance to the state tournament.
It must have sucked playing girls basketball in the Cornbowl Conference during the 1990s and early 2000s. Unless you were a Saint, that is.
In the decade when girls basketball switched from 6 on 6 games to 5 on 5, St. Ansgar was the team to beat in the area, with Coach Townsend leading St. Ansgar to 7 conference championships in the ten years from 1991-2001.
St. Ansgar also made four straight state tournament appearances from 1997-2001, finishing runner-up in the final year of that run.
Townsend owns a 257- 120 record coaching the Saints, winning an impressive 68 percent of his games coached. Even after stepping down from his head coaching duties, he’s sort of become St. Ansgar’s resident expert when it comes to sports – whether that be coming back for stints as an assistant coach, teaching his signature match-up zone defense, or helping out with the golf team.
Townsend could be fiery, but also had a whimsical sense of humor that made for some colorful post-game interviews throughout the 90s.
“When the ball goes in the hole, you look pretty good,” Townsend said. “We looked pretty!”
– From the EJ, Feb. 11, 1999 Coach Townsend after beating 4th ranked Rockwell.
FOOTBALL, TRACK & FIELD
The only active head coach on our list, Clevenger took over the football program in the year 2000, and has continued St. Ansgar’s tradition of success.
Clevenger has amassed 145 wins in his 19 years with the Saints — an average of 7.7 wins per year. That’s quite impressive, considering that the regular season has only 9 games.
He has delivered 6 district titles over his tenure and a state championship in 2011, and has coached his team to a playoff birth in 14 of the last 16 seasons.
Like Rich Sherman before him, Clevenger also coached the boys’ track and field squad, and has earned multiple conference championships and has sent several athletes to the state meet. With an intense, laconic demeanor, Clevenger has shown an ability over the years to get his players to really buy in to the program.
“Many Athletes, not just football players, have made tremendous strides in terms of strength in large part due to the commitment the athletes have shown and the updated weight room facilities that are available at St. Ansgar. During the summer, the football players lifted three times a week and took part in a running/agility program twice a week.”
-From the EJ, Sep. 21, 2002 an article about some of the new facilities and improvements Clevenger was implementing in his third year as head football coach.
FOOTBALL, TRACK & FIELD
Sherman didn’t win a single game in his first year coaching Saints football back in 1966. In fact, Sherman had to dress two managers just so the team could practice.
Fast forward four years, and the Saints would go undefeated en-route to Sherman’s first of 11 conference championships.
With 181 wins over his career, Sherman helped establish the winning culture that St. Ansgar football has become known for. Sherman is also an inductee of the Iowa Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
In addition to football, Sherman coached track and field, but we’d probably have to buy another barrel of ink if we were going to list all of the students that qualified for state track under Sherman’s direction.
“We asked our kids to lay it on the line for this game. Don’t hold anything back – use all that ability that the good Lord has blessed you with. Play with emotion, be intense, do the things your teammates, your coaches, your fans are expecting you to do on each and every play. As i look back on this game, we did all those things and still didn’t win. Sometimes football, like life, just isn’t fair. Hopefully our young men will gain from this experience and use these memories when they are challenged in their adult life.”
– From the EJ, Nov. 12, 1992 Sherman after the Saints’ loss in the playoffs.