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Struck Strikes Out:Toughest part of this job is...

Monday, June 11, 2007

All good things must end, they say. Autumn leaves must fall...


It was with deep regret and sadness a few weeks ago when I learned that Cherokee Washington High girls basketball and volleyball coach Curt Klaahsen was leaving Cherokee to accept a lucrative job offer in Mason City.

In the nine years Curt has coached and taught in Cherokee, and beyond the outstanding, historic success of his basketball teams, I became not only a sports reporter who covered his games, but a devoted fan of the man, his coaching methods, and his incredible perspective of the games our kids play.

"Coach K"

Now, Curt is the first who will quickly jump up to say that he was fortunate to inherit a pretty darn good batch of talented players with great genetics during his sojourn at Cherokee.

Curt's teams earned a berth in the state tournament in two of the last four years, including the 2004-2005 squad that finished 26-1, Lakes Conference, District, and Regional champions, and a single loss in the state semifinal game that was marred by terrible officiating God and the whole world witnessed.

All told, Klaahsen racked up an enviable 133-80 basketball record at Cherokee, while also coaching varsity volleyball for nine years, assistant softball for two years, and Middle School girls track and field eight of his nine years here.

A George native and Morningside College graduate, Curt had no plans to leave Cherokee after turning down a job offer at Charles City earlier this year. However, the Mason City boys did their due diligence and put together an impressive salary and benefits package after Klaahsen was recommended for the Mohawks' head job by none other than Troy Dannen, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.

Still, Curt, 42, and wife Margo stuck with the decision to stay in Cherokee where they had bonded with a wide circle of friends and eventually had fallen in love with their home and our community.

But those Mohawks had targeted their man, contacted Cherokee superintendent John Chalstrom for permission to negotiate with Curt, and continued sweetening the kitty until the Klaahsens had little choice.

Besides being a cerebral, caring human being fully submerged in his Christian Faith (he even started his own church here), Curt Klaahsen is so chock full of decency on all fronts that, if you didn't really get to know him, you would think he's one of the squarest guys on the planet.

In our hundreds of late-night visits while getting his game statistics, NEVER did Curt Klaahsen say one thing bad about his players, his opponent, the crowd, or the officials.

In a way, Curt will have it easy at Mason City, coincidentally the home town of Margo, a fact that also factored into their ultimate decision. He will coach varsity girls basketball and teach Middle School Geography. That's it. No more multiple sports and their year-around, four-days per week, school bus rides. And, significantly more money.

"This was one tough decision," said Curt in a recent interview in my office. "We will miss the people we're leaving behind so much that it's almost unbearable. Cherokee has great people and great kids. They're hard working and wonderful to be around and be a part of. We cried a lot of tears while making this decision, and there will be more to come, I can assure you of that. And, telling the kids I was leaving was the toughest thing I've ever done."

The Mason City girls basketball team has experienced very little success for many years in the tough three-division Central Iowa Metro League (CIML). The team has never been to state or won the CIML conference in its history, while competing against traditional division powers Ames, Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, Waukee, and West Des Moines Valley.

Already, 45 girls have registered for the 2007-08 Mohawks' high school basketball team and are excited about their new coach.

The plan by the Mohawks faithful is to get Klaahsen on board, watch him work his magic, turn the program around, and run with the Big Dogs.

"They made no bones about that," said Curt. "This is a tremendous challenge for me and maybe I just needed a new challenge. Margo and I weighed everything big and little - especially leaving our house and the Cherokee people.

"And I just love the Cherokee Middle School. I started there when I moved to town, we got married there, and we started our church there. It's traumatic to be leaving that place and all the faculty and staff there too.

"But at my age, you begin to question your legacy and ask yourself, 'Are things getting stale? Is there something else out there?'"

Although highly animated and on his feet during his games but never boorish or loud like many other Lakes Conference girls basketball coaches, I kidded with Klaahsen about the new IGHSAU rules starting next season, including coaches must sit on bench and no longer can parade up and down the court during the game; girls teams can no longer practice against boys teams, a practice previously invoked by many Iowa teams; and no eighth-graders can participate in high school with the exception of softball played in the summer.

"I've done it all," laughed Curt. "The coaches' seat belt rule might be a little tough for me, but I'll have to learn to put up with it."

Nine years of working with one hell of a guy whose teams kicked butt, and we end up talking about his ability to sit on his as we say goodbye.

When I first learned nine years ago that Cherokee had hired Curt Klaahsen, at the time the girls basketball coach at Atlantic, I called my buddy, Denny O'Grady, the now-retired sports editor in Carroll. I asked him about Curt.

"Cherokee, count your blessings, said Denny. "You're going to love the guy."

Little did he know.

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