Not often does a coach with international and collegiate championships take over a high school program, let alone a relatively new team like Spring Lake Park girls lacrosse.
But that’s what happened for Panthers coach Vernon Letourneau.
The new head coach comes to Spring Lake Park with 12 years experience on the sidelines, including 10 years leading the University of Minnesota women’s team from 2001-2011, after playing for the men’s team until graduation. He helped the women’s team to two conference titles (Upper Midwest Women’s Lacrosse League) and three national tournament appearances (National Collegiate Women’s Lacrosse League). Later, he spent two years at Holy Angels in Richfield before a move to Europe.
He coached two different German club-level teams before joining the European Lacrosse Federation to help with camps and clinics in Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. After that LeTourneau was asked to help coach the German under-19 boys national team at the 2012 Federation International Lacrosse World Championships in Finland.
On a trip back to Duluth, Letourneau’s father had a stroke and Letourneau decided not to return to Europe so that he could care for his dad. Letourneau began looking for another coaching position in Minnesota and found several openings.
“I wanted to see a good community support and that’s what I found here in Spring Lake Park,” he said. “I’d like to start a middle school team and get some youth camps going because that’s the only way to build a solid varsity program, from the ground up. And fortunately we have a lot of people on board and it’s been exactly what I was looking for.”
To bolster the staff, Letourneau added Panthers longtime assistant wrestling coach Bob Dahline to the staff.
Dahline grew up playing a variation of lacrosse called Native American Stick Ball in the Cherokee-style, which is a more physical form of the game, a cousin to lacrosse.
“He’s helped us introduce and honor the history and beauty of the warrior’s game,” Letourneau said.
Stick ball was known as a war game to prepare men for battle, and is still played today. Two sticks are used to control the ball and there are fewer rules or infractions. The goal is to hit a pole with the ball and a different scoring system than lacrosse is used.
“(Stickball) is a very brutal and tough game,” Dahline said. “After two hours of that you are really beat up.”
“I was asked to coach the team before but I really don’t know much, other than watching a few (Minnesota) Swarm games because it is so different from stick ball,” Dahline said.
Fellow wrestling coach Jovany Lopez asked Dahline to rethink coaching this spring and he jumped at the chance.
“It’s been really fun so far. They work very hard and are fun to be around,” said Dahline, who finished his 28th season coaching Panthers wrestlers.
Assistant lacrosse coach Adrienne Schneider played in high school and at the University of St. Thomas.
Five-year varsity player and senior captain Ali Kowalzek echoed those positive vibes early into the season.
“Having Coach Vernon and all the other coaches with us feels absolutely amazing,” she said.
Dahline has been able to educate the team about the origins of the sport and how the philosophy behind the game is team-based instead of individual.
“(Dahline) is teaching us that we all are warriors and the real meaning behind the game. How we should cherish every moment we have to do that and that we all have blood in us that makes us warriors and a real lacrosse player,” Kowalzek said.
During a recent team dinner, Kowalzek said Dahline gave each member of the team a bracelet that he and his wife made and blessed from bison tusks.
“(Dahline) said he wouldn’t have given us them unless we were warriors and that was only after the second game,” she said.
The show of confidence trickles down from the coaches to the team.
“Because it was a war game, it was an honor to be selected to represent your tribe and we still have that same respect for the game,” Letourneau said. “We expect (team members) to be well-dressed and respectful and take this seriously and they really have embraced the whole thing and learned a lot.”
Before each game, instead of the typical “Win on three” or “Go Panthers” the team screams the Cherokee word for warrior as a way to get fired up.
The first day of tryouts showed Letourneau how much work players needed to learn the basics of the game.
As a result, he has focused more on classroom work than a typical season, but the payoff comes on the field.
An outside practice was moved into the classroom after an early April snowstorm where the team had to write down as many lacrosse terms or strategies they could on a white board.
Letourneau wanted to know how much knowledge was retained after the first few weeks together.
“They came up with 30-35 and that’s a lot,” he said. “I told them, ‘First of all. I’m proud that you learned a lot but secondly I feel embarrassed because I threw too much to you in such a short time.’”
Through six games, the Panthers have been outscored 86-71 to record a 2-4.
The wins came on back-to-back days in the form of 17-12 scores against Andover and Cooper April 21 and 22, respectively.
The losses came against some of the best teams in the state – Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Totino-Grace.
Spring Lake Park narrowly lost to North Suburban Conference rival Totino-Grace in overtime 16-15, May 1.
Maggie Ronning had four goals and two assists while senior captain Deanna Edwards added three goals and one assist to highlight offense.
Finding the right fit in goal has been a struggle for Letourneau until freshman Katlyn Jones stepped in between the pipes Thursday night.
The converted attacker made 15 saves in her first varsity action.
Letourneau pulled her from the JV game at the half so she could play the full varsity game.
While the result wasn’t a win, he was quite happy with her performance.
“She was a hockey goalie until eighth grade so she has some natural ability to see the ball and not be afraid of it,” he said.
To keep the pressure off the goalie, Letourneau is taking a mature approach to the offense and wants to set up quality chances instead of scoring as quick as possible.
“We get behind the net and set up for a more settled offense,” he said. “We have athletic midfield(ers) and it’s tough to say ‘back off and slow down.’ Whenever they go on a run, I give them the green light … and then settle it down after that.”
Jason Olson is at