New Gophers coach Plitzuweit has core freshmen 4 staying put
The four Minnesota freshmen recruited by Lindsay Whalen all decided their loyalty to the home-state program was stronger than the disappointment of seeing their leader — and Gophers legend — depart.
Now that they've got a new head coach, Amaya Battle, Mara Braun, Nia Holloway and Mallory Heyer are feeling even better about staying.
When Dawn Plitzuweit was introduced as Whalen's successor at a news conference at the team's practice facility on Monday, the heralded quartet was in attendance as part of a healthy turnout from the current roster.
There will be some departures, with the light of the transfer portal perpetually glowing, but as long as the Twin Cities area natives Battle, Braun, Holloway and Heyer are in place Plitzuweit will have a solid starting point.
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“It’s been kind of chaotic, a little sad when we first heard about coach Whay, but we understand,” Battle said. “We all committed for the reason to turn this program around and since we’ve been here we’ve all grown really close, so it’s not even just necessarily for the school, for Minnesota, but it’s for each other just as well.”
Plitzuweit has a six-year contract that will pay her a base salary of $800,000, about 45% more than Whalen was making, after guiding West Virginia to the NCAA Tournament in her lone season.
“What’s really special about them is they have chosen to come to the ‘U’ to represent themselves, their families, the program, our athletic department, but the entire state of Minnesota in a lot of ways," Plitzuweit said. “You can feel it when you’re around them.”
The native of West Bend, Wisconsin, who has 16 years of experience as a college head coach and deep ties to the region, had a get-to-know-you meeting with the players on Saturday night that made a strong impression.
“She just radiates energy,” Braun said.
Whalen led the Gophers to the Final Four as a senior in 2004. They went to the NCAA Tournament seven times in an eight-year span from 2002 under Brenda Frese (then Oldfield) to 2009 under her successor Pam Borton, winning a total of 10 games. They reached the Sweet 16 in 2003 and 2005.
Borton went just 84-79 over her last five seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance and was fired in 2014. Marlene Stollings had three 20-win records and two NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons, but she left for Texas Tech.
That created the opening for Whalen, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member who had no previous coaching experience, five years ago. Whalen went 71-76 with Minnesota, including a 32-58 record in Big Ten play and no NCAA Tournament appearances. The Gophers tied for 12th in the Big Ten this season with a 4-12 record, their fewest wins in 12 years.
Whalen’s departure was described by Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle as a mutual decision, but it seemed like she wasn’t ready to leave. Plitzuweit said she has “tremendous respect” for Whalen during her prepared remarks.
“Lindsay is one of our own, and I look forward to honoring her and all of our alumni,” she said.
Coyle, who sits on the NCAA men's basketball committee and spent last weekend immersed in the selection process for the field of 68 on that side, kept an eye on the West Virginia women's games as much as he could. This hire was bound to be someone with significant experience as a head coach, and the 50-year-old with a career record of 356-141 — including time at South Dakota, Northern Kentucky and Grand Valley State — clearly has that.
“The fact that she has such strong connections back here is just a huge positive,” Coyle said. “We felt it was important to find a coach who's won at a high level.”
Coyle was asked if he had concern that Plitzuweit stayed at West Virginia for just one season. He said he encouraged her during the interview process by pointing out that he only stayed at Syracuse for one year, after leaving Boise State and before being hired at Minnesota.
The chance to coach in the Big Ten and be closer to family was too strong to pass up.
“This is home for me,” she said. “This is a dream opportunity.”