After playing days end, Dufault discovers new track as Lakers coaching associate

NOTE: This story is scheduled to appear in the March issue of the Heart River Voice, of which I am a contributing sports feature writer.

After Austin Dufault scored an interview to be a coaching associate for the Los Angeles Lakers, it took him about 10 minutes to realize the job opportunity was with one of the most storied franchises in professional sports, not its minor-league affiliate.

The confusion, laughable now, was created by the job history of the people who connected Dufault and Lakers head video coordinator Will Scott. Not to mention the National Basketball Association team shares a nickname with the G-League’s South Bay Lakers.

“For about the first 10 or 15 minutes I was on the phone, I just assumed he (Scott) was with the South Bay Lakers,” Dufault said. “We were talking for a while and he kept saying, ‘Luke likes things this way.’ … I’m like, ‘Wait, are you talking about the Los Angeles Lakers?’”

Dufault, a Killdeer High School graduate, didn’t hesitate when Scott eventually asked him to join Lakers head coach Luke Walton’s staff as a coaching associate. He handles video preparation and some scouting duties alongside two other coaching associates.

“It’s a paid internship,” Dufault said, describing his position. “We work all of our practices and all of our home games. We’re on the court helping guys out with pre-game workouts. They throw me in drills a lot. I’m used as a defender a lot when guys are working out.”

Continue reading “After playing days end, Dufault discovers new track as Lakers coaching associate”

Twins Stop in Rothsay Home to Comfort 8-Year-Old Fan

ROTHSAY, Minn. — The look in Cole Fielder’s eyes said more than words.

When two Minnesota Twins baseball players and two of the team’s all-time greats walked into his bedroom Wednesday afternoon, the eight-year-old didn’t move.

But his eyes did.

“When his eyes go up, that means yes,” said his mother, Dori Fielder.

Twins Michael Cuddyer and Mike Redmond, along with Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew and twotime World Series champion Dan Gladden, visited Cole as part of the Twins Winter Caravan.

Cole has Type I spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a motor neuron disease which causes the muscles to atrophy, and can’t leave the house during cold months.

Doctors diagnosed Cole with SMA when he was just five weeks old.

Today, Cole is in a wheelchair, on a ventilator, has no motor functions and can’t speak. His eyes are his only form of communication.

“I’m sure it’s a little overwhelming for him,” said Redmond, a catcher entering his second season with the Twins. “On the other hand, I’m sure it’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”

The caravan spent more than 30 minutes at the Fielder’s house in Rothsay, speaking with Cole and his family, taking pictures and signing memorabilia.

“I don’t think they realize what they really did for him and did for us,” Dori said.

The players said they do very few house calls during the regional goodwill tour, which also stopped in Duluth, Wadena and Fergus Falls on Wednesday.

“It’s very unique,” said Cuddyer, a third baseman entering his sixth season. “We don’t necessarily get to single homes.”

While the family rubbed shoulders with the players, the youngest members of the Fielder family, 5-year-old Tori and 4-year-old Noah, enjoyed playing with “T.C.”, the Twins mascot, who brought memorabilia items for the kids.

However, the most surprising moment for the Fielder family was the appearance of Killebrew, who wasn’t scheduled to be with the team.

“To come to a home like this, I think, is a pretty special thing to do,” said the 69-year-old Killebrew. “They’re real Twins fans here.”

That may be an understatement.

Everything in Cole’s room is associated with the major league team.

The pennants on the wall, the blanket on his bed and countless other Twins items show the family’s dedication to the baseball team.

The allegiance began when a Twins baseball game caught Cole’s attention four years ago.

“My brother just started watching it a little bit and he started liking it,” said 13-yearold Nick Fielder. “So we started watching it.”

Today, it’s his best outlet and a bonding tool for the Fielder family.

“I didn’t even start watching baseball until Cole started watching baseball,” said his father, Rick Fielder.

Kay Siebert, one of Cole’s former nurses, spent the past two years urging the public relations staff that handles the caravan to make a stop in Rothsay to visit Cole.

Siebert could hardly hold back tears of joy when she saw Cole with the players.

“I was just tickled,” Siebert said. “This is the kind of thing Cole really lives for.”

Bud Grant Greets Fans

Nick Guse hasn’t been a Minnesota Vikings fan his entire life. He said it’s been about seven years.

But the 41-year-old Fargo man said he wasn’t going to pass up a chance at meeting legendary former Vikings coach Bud Grant and have him autograph a miniature Vikings helmet.

“That’ll finish the helmet,” said Guse after Grant signed the replica that was already sealed with the names of several former Vikings players who played during the 18 seasons Grant coached the team.

“It’s always fun to finish something up,” Guse said.

The 78-year-old retired coach, who led the Vikings to four trips to the Super Bowl in the 1960s and 1970s, signed autographs and met several fans at the Link Recreational boat liquidation sale Saturday at the Fargo Civic Center Centennial Hall.

Always willing to stay in touch with fans, Grant has been working hard advocating the construction of a new Vikings stadium in Blaine, Minn.

“Our fans are putting up with an inferior stadium,” Grant said. “If we are going to compete in this generation, it’s a necessity.”

When asked what the latest stadium news was, Grant responded candidly.

“I don’t know, I haven’t listened to the radio in the last hour,” he said.

The Vikings keep an office for Grant at their Winter Park Training Facility in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Although he believes the team has taken the right steps lately, Grant is still very neutral when asked about new head coach Brad Childress. But he’s quick to offer owner Zygi Wilf some words of advice.

“He’s working hard on the stadium and he’s working hard to sign free agents,” Grant said of Wilf. “But you’re limited. You’ve got to work within certain parameters that don’t apply to business. They can’t run a football team like they run a business.”

Two fans, Ruse Crume and his daughter Lily, received an autograph from Grant and came back later and spoke face-to-face with the former coach for about five minutes.

“It was fun to see him and get a chance to chat with him,” said Crume, who bought his daughter a football to have Grant sign.

Aside from signing autographs, Grant also sold prints of nature paintings he had originally sketched.

He joked that he isn’t much of a painter and collaborates with friends who bring out color in his sketches through shadows and perspective.

“Otherwise, it’d look like a hatchet job,” Grant said.

Rock Gullickson Fulfills Dream With Packers

Rock Gullickson knew he needed to look for a new job.

He didn’t know he’d be fulfilling a boyhood dream when he found it.

The Green Bay Packers have named the Moorhead native and life-long Packers fan to be the team’s new strength and conditioning coach.

Gullickson, who graduated from Moorhead High School and Moorhead State University, spent the past six years in the same position with the New Orleans Saints.

But, a call from Green Bay’s new head coach, Mike McCarthy, and a visit to the team’s facilities was all Gullickson needed to make his decision.

“As I was walking through the hall of their facility, I saw all my boyhood heroes on the walls,” said the 50-year-old Gullickson. “I broke down. I was so emotional.”

Gullickson said McCarthy was instrumental in tapping him to replace Barry Rubin as the team’s strength coach.

McCarthy was the Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2000-2004 and coached with Gullickson for five years before taking the offensive coordinator position with the San Francisco 49ers prior to this season.

Gullickson said he and McCarthy developed a strong work relationship in their time with the Saints.

“He’s the best person for this job, and I consider this position as important as any on my staff,” McCarthy said in a Packers press release.

“I’ve seen first hand what he can do with professional athletes. Our players will be impressed.”

Gullickson said he plans to implement a new conditioning program in an attempt to avoid another season filled with injuries.

The Packers placed several starters – Javon Walker, Ahman Green, Bubba Franks and Robert Ferguson – on the injuredreserved list this season.

“They had a number of injuries very early in the season that got them down,” Gullickson said. “One of the things we’re trying to improve upon is the offseason program. A lot of those injuries are fatigue related.”

Although Gullickson was an undersized offensive guard (6-foot, 240 pounds his senior season) when he played for Moorhead State, he made up for his size with strength and work ethic.

“He was one of our integral parts of our team,” said former Moorhead State offensive line coach Ron Masanz. “He was a pretty gung-ho kid.”

As a senior in 1977, Gullickson earned Associated Press Little All-America first-team honors. The Little All-America team is comprised of the best players from NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA.

Gullickson went to New Orleans after stops at the University of Texas and the University of Louisville.

Things were going well for Gullickson in New Orleans until this season.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late August, it forced the Saints to relocate to San Antonio.

“We had to put up a temporary weight room in a tent,” Gullickson said.

The tent, in a parking lot adjacent to the high school baseball field where the Saints practiced, was far from ideal for a professional football team.

The team’s workout troubles were complicated by an often changing schedule.

“These guys would thrive off knowing the schedule, knowing what to expect,” Gullickson said. “That threw a wrench into everything.”

Despite the Saints’ hopes that they’ll be able to play their home games in the Superdome next season, Gullickson was guarded as to whether he wanted to return, even though they offered him a two-year contract extension.

“There’s a lot of sadness in the city,” said Gullickson, as he and his wife, Terry, packed up their home in Destrahan, La., a suburb southwest of the New Orleans metro area. “There’s a lot of work being done. You can’t comprehend what work is being done.”

The house escaped extensive harm from Hurricane Katrina, suffering only easily repairable wind damage and no water damage. On Friday, the Gullickson’s received an offer on the house.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking for homes,” Gullickson said. “A lot of people are just coming back to the city.”

Gullickson believes he’s found his new home in Green Bay.

“It’s taken a while to sink in,” Gullickson said. “It still doesn’t seem real. They (the Packers) assured me it is.”

Soaring to New Heights: F-M Acro Team Providing Halftime Fun Since ’70s

As the background music paces their steps, Maggie Orseth and Amanda Kankelfritz shake off nerves and one after the other, run full speed down the basketball court toward a nine-foot-high human pyramid.

The packed Shanley High School gymnasium braces for a big finale.

“Is she going to make it? She has to make it,” Orseth said, imagining what the crowd must be thinking.

The two girls bounce off a mini-trampoline and soar gracefully over the pyramid, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.

“In a way, it (the crowd) makes us go higher,” said Kankelfritz, a senior at Fargo South. “It gives us more energy.”

As the crowd offers a standing ovation, Kankelfritz, Orseth and the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team smile and wave back enthusiastically.

Since the 1970s, the Acro Team has become one of the top halftime entertainment groups in the country, performing in small high school gyms and large professional sports arenas.

What separates the Acro Team from other acts?

While others merely fill a gap between two halves, the Acro Team prides itself in keeping fans in their seats throughout the performance with one objective.

“Our goal is to bring people to their feet,” assistant coach Mike Ceyner said. “Always leave them wanting more.”

For more than 36 years, that’s what Jim Simle’s innovation has done.

The former high school basketball coach started the Acro Team as an opportunity for girls, including his daughter Stacey, to have another extra curricular activity.

“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for girls,” said Stacey Simle-Askew, now the team’s head coach.

At first, both the performances and the teams were small. But as the team’s reputation grew, so did invitations to perform.

The team regularly performs at the North Dakota boys basketball state tournament and has been to the Minnesota Gophers basketball games at Williams Arena since 1975.

This year, the Acro Team will perform in eight major sports arenas and showcase its talent for local fans at high school and college basketball games.

Although it receives money to perform at professional and collegiate games, and has several area corporate sponsors, the Acro Team won’t accept any money or donations from the fans at any small town it visits.

Simle sees the event as more of a way to bring the team’s talents somewhere it would rarely ever go.

“If they have more people in the stands, we’ve helped them,” said the 66-year-old Acro Team director.

After all, the team didn’t get its start performing for the Milwaukee Bucks or Wisconsin Badgers – whose arena’s the team will visit in January.

“We had some humble beginnings,” Simle said. “If you forget where you come from, you’ve lost it.”

It would be hard for Simle and the team to forget their roots. They’re surrounded by the team’s history on a daily basis.

Tucked away in the American Gold Gymnastics building in south Fargo is a spiral staircase leading to an office with more than 30 years of Acro Team history on its walls.

Nearly every girl – and one boy – lucky enough to be selected to the Acro Team’s top squad is immortalized by photographs on the walls.

The photos show how the Acro Team became the nationally known entertainment group it is today.

Of the hundreds of photos, there are four with Michael Jordan, another with Julius Erving after his final regularseason game, and several others with music and movie stars and politicians.

“You get to see things kids my age never see and go places you wouldn’t get to go,” said West Fargo senior Jenessa Olson.

That outlook has kept the Acro Team fresh over the years.

Even though many Acro Team members remain through their senior year of high school, for every one who leaves there are several junior members vying for the spot.

Assembling the team and choosing new members requires countless hours of scouting and decision making by the coaches. Much of it begins the day a child joins the Fargo-Moorhead gymnastics program. From there, a few are asked if they’d like to be a part of the team. Today, there are five Acro Teams for different age groups.

“Right now it’s so full, with each team it’s difficult to add people,” Simle said.

The meticulous process has paid off. Each squad has the opportunity to bring its own flavor and skill. The 2005-06 Acro Team is no different.

Orseth and her twin sister, Mary, have been involved in gymnastics since they were in the sixth grade, the gymnastics equivalent of jumping into high school football as a senior.

“I’ve done track,” said Maggie Orseth, a Fargo South senior. “You can’t compare it. It’s so much more time consuming. We do so much more.”

Kankelfritz started the gymnastics process when she was 3. By the time she was 6, she was on an Acro Team.

Mallory Griggs, a freshman at Minnesota State Moorhead, has been with the team for seven years. Simle-Askew was the only other member to stay with the team into college.

Griggs said although she loves the team, her commitment to classes and the team had to be weighed.

“You just get swamped,” she said. “This kind of gets you away from it all.”

Griggs is leaning toward this being her last year with the Acro Team, even though she knows she might regret stepping away.

“It’s just a big part of my life,” she said.

Every metro high school is represented on the Acro Team, but there is one who makes devotes the majority of her after-school time to the team.

Katie Jensen drives an hour from her home in Chaffee, N.D., to practice.

“In the winter it’s longer,” said the Central Cass High School freshman.

Jensen said the opportunity to be a part of the Acro Team is second-to-none, even if it interferes with friendships, school and social lives.

“It’s hard sometimes,” she said. “I want to go do something with my friends, but I have to go here instead.”

Despite logging more miles than any other team or activity group in North Dakota will this year, the team manages to keep up with school work.

“We’ve never had to hold a kid (out of a performance) for grades,” Simle-Askew said.

As a reward for the hard work, the team gets to perform on some of the biggest stages in professional sport.

Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks – and some of the National Basketball Association’s rowdies, most vocal fans – is an every-other-year stop for the Acro Team.

When the team finished its last performance there – they’ve entertained at the Garden five times – the reputedly harsh New York fans showed a side no one on the Acro Team expected.

“We had people telling us we were better than the game,” Maggie Orseth said. “They were so warm and receptive.”

It’s not a bad place to spot and meet celebrities, either.

Team members said catching a glimpse of movie star Brad Pitt in the audience at the Garden and meeting country music star Toby Keith at a University of Oklahoma men’s basketball game are among the high points of traveling with the team.

Keeping some of the most famous entertainers in the world in their seats at halftime takes time, hard work and a great routine.

Although it often leaves fans breathless, the choreography has its limits.

The Acro Team performs with two 72-foot springfloor runways, five crash pads and five mini-trampolines. The runways and trampolines were specifically designed by Ceyner, who also works as an electrical engineer.

“There’s only so many ways you can put the equipment,” Ceyner said.

Each year, new handstands, backflips and jumps are worked into the routine.

“I still get the chills up my spine when I see them perform,” said Sharon Jackson, mother of 14-yearold Acro Team member Lexi Jackson, a West Fargo freshman.

The team also has taken advantage of technological advances to improve its choreography and coaching.

If a team member feels one of her moves isn’t up to par, she can check out the replay on a digital video recorder that runs during practice.

When Ceyner joined the team as a coach in 1979, music for performances was played on records. Now, Ceyner uses an MP3 disc jockey system on a laptop computer.

“In the last two years, the technology existed where we can plug a computer into an arena,” Ceyner said.

As the team matures technologically, coaches have taken steps to ensure they mature socially. An etiquette exercise takes place at nearly every practice.

It’s all in an effort to live up to the team’s title as official goodwill ambassadors for North Dakota, a title given to the team by Gov. Allen Olson in 1981.

“You’re trying to build a good athlete,” Simle said. “But moreso, you’re trying to build a good person.”

As the team gathered for a post-performance meeting in Shanley’s practice gym, three young members of the Acro Lites team – none taller than the waist of anyone in the room – practiced summersaults off to the side, laughing and critiquing each other.

It brought a smile to Simle.

“The thing that has never changed are the kids,” Simle said. “They lead you.”