Anoka puts lacrosse program in former players’ hands

Not long ago, Brad Sundem, Jesse Penman, Willie Barnett and Michael Jordan were Anoka High School lacrosse players. Now they’re steering the ship as the coaching staff of the Tornadoes boys’ team.

Avery Pint works his way toward the goal when Anoka hosted White Bear Lake April 13 for the Tornadoes second game of the season. Photo by Bill Jones
Avery Pint works his way toward the goal when Anoka hosted White Bear Lake April 13 for the Tornadoes second game of the season. Photo by Bill Jones

The coaches, all in their early 20s, will try to guide Anoka toward the upper half of the Northwest Suburban Conference standings. It will not be an easy task. Sundem, the head coach, said this year’s team has the potential to be the best Anoka has ever had, but the Tornadoes lost two of their first three games, including a 19-6 loss at Champlin Park on Monday.

“That was a game we went in expecting to win,” Sundem said. “Even after the game, we thought we were the better team, but we didn’t play anywhere close to our potential.”

Turning that potential into performance is the biggest challenge facing Anoka’s youthful coaching staff. Sundem is in his first year as head coach after three years as an assistant. Penman is in his fourth year as an assistant coach. Barnett and Jordan joined the staff this season.

In addition to playing for Anoka, Sundem played club lacrosse at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Penman was an All-State player for the Tornadoes, and Barnett and Jordan played junior college lacrosse in Maryland.

All the coaches are invested in the Anoka program and want to help it continue growing – assuming they can stay in the area.

“All of us have jobs, but none of us has his big-boy job coming out of college yet,” Sundem said. “Between myself and the three assistant coaches, we’d all like to stay with the program for a while.”

The coaches are five or six years older than most of the players, making it difficult for Sundem and his assistants to take on traditional authority figure roles.

“I think that has been an area of concern for us coaches,” he said. “All of the players are great guys. We’re not that much older than they are and it would be easy to befriend guys instead of being their coaches. I think we’ve done a good job of keeping it professional.”

Sundem took over as head coach for Josh Belanger, who stepped down after last season. Sundem said it wasn’t until he took over the program that he realized how much behind-the-scenes work Belanger had to do.

“Josh handled all the administrative stuff; the assistants just had to show up and coach,” Sundem said. “It was overwhelming for me at the start. I have a great deal of respect for anybody who’s a head coach.”

The Tornadoes didn’t lose any of last year’s starters to graduation, but they have lost one to injury. Junior midfielder Dan Horsch was hurt in a preseason scrimmage and is not expected to return this year.

Senior captain Lane Kocovsky, a fourth-year varsity player, leads the Tornadoes in scoring with eight goals and two assists through three games. Anthony Fritch (five points), Avery Pint (four points), Branton Fleischman (four points) and Josh Werness (four points) also have shown offensive potential.

Sundem said the team installed a new offense toward the end of last season and the players appear to be more comfortable with it this year.

Midfielder Landon Mathis, defender Travis Weight and goalie Austin McNallan also are captains, and Sundem said the Tornadoes will have to lean on their captains to lead them through a tough stretch of games.

Anoka trounced Forest Lake 14-0 in its season opener, but lost 11-1 two days later to White Bear Lake, a 2011 state tournament qualifier.

“We’re going through a difficult part of our schedule right now,” Sundem said. “Blaine and Maple Grove are excellent teams, and so were White Bear Lake and Champlin Park. But I still think we have the potential to play with those teams.”

Mike Shaughnessy is sports editor at Sun ThisWeek newspapers. Shaughnessy can be reached at
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