In her court: Pederson takes reins of Eagles
For the first time in her coaching career, Ruth Ann Pederson has her own program.
This winter, Pederson -- most recently an assistant coach at St. Croix Lutheran and for the Minnesota Jaguars semi-pro women's basketball team -- has taken the reins of the New Life Academy girls basketball team.
A resident of Inver Grove Heights and as a coach of one of the Eagles' section rivals, Pederson said she has been "keeping an eye on" the New Life girls team the past few years.
"I really wanted to run a basketball program. It was just a great opportunity when the job came up," Pederson said. "The girls are awesome here. They really work hard. I love the school and I love my players."
New Life Academy is a faith-based school based in Woodbury with an enrollment of 239 from grades 9-12.
Pederson said she wants to be "a transformational coach" at New Life.
"I'm trying to not only teach the game and the fundamentals, I'm trying to teach life skills," she said. "In life you have to work hard and results will happen. Also, it's about looking out for your teammates on and off the court. We're trying to develop a true team concept on and off the court. I want the girls to work together."
To help the girls bond, Pederson has been holding team-building sessions and devotions before practice. She said the team's theme this winter is "faith, focus and finish."
"I want to build a team of ladies that is faithful and that has determination to focus and to follow through and finish. That's our focus this year," Pederson said.
Longtime New Life Academy Activities Director Curt Wetsel said there were "several good applicants" for the position. He said one thing that separated Pederson from the group was her energy.
"She's a high energy person and she comes with a lot of knowledge. She's a great fit for our school and we're excited to have her," Wetsel said. "I really enjoyed her energy. Plus she came in and had a plan. In our situation being a Christian school, you need to be a good spiritual fit and she is. She understands that even more important than x's and o's and wins and losses is to develop Godly young ladies. That's our mission as a school and she understands that."
Pederson said leading a program is "a huge responsibility."
"You have to dedicate a lot of time. There's a lot of preparation and planning," she said. "You have to continue to learn about basketball and about coaching. I try to take skills from good leaders and coaches."
Pederson takes over as the Eagles' coach for Minnesota coaching legend Paul Mork, who is also the New Life football coach.
Wetsel said Mork stepped down as girls basketball coach, because it's time consuming to lead multiple programs.
"The difficult thing with coaching two sports is you need to do so much in June and July these days," Wetsel said. "Football was taking a lot of time and energy and it was hard to do both. That was the big thing. If you're going to build two programs you have to take a lot of time to do that. He puts in a lot of time with the football program, to spend that same amount of time and energy with the girls basketball program is probably more than one guy needs to be doing."
The New Life Academy girls basketball team has two state tournament appearances - in 2008 and in 2009. The Eagles took third place in the 2008 Class A state tournament.
However, this offseason, New Life had to say good-bye to a pair of longtime stars who were integral to the Eagles success the past five years in Rebekah Schmidt and Cara Lutes.
Last year, New Life closed its 2010-11 season with a 44-37 Section 4A final loss to defending Section 4A champion Maranatha Christian Academy.
In addition to the loss of Schmidt and Lutes, key players Reagan Baar suffered a season-ending injury during the fall and Mikayla Diers moved out of the area.
Pederson said she realizes the team is rebuilding and her goal is to grow the program from the bottom up.
"It's exciting. Everyone is going forward," Pederson said. "We're really trying to get the girls excited about basketball at the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade."
In addition to its ninth and 12th grade students, New Life also houses elementary and middle school students. Pederson said she wants to implement a big sister/little sister program this winter.
"It's a small school. You have to get them interested when they're young," Pederson said. "We're going to work with the kids and the varsity players on drills and fundamentals to get the school excited about basketball."
Pederson said she is focused on teaching the basics to her players currently.
"We have a lot of young girls that haven't had a lot of playing time," Pederson said. "At practice, we work on fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. There's a little bit of scrimmaging, but we need to learn how to dribble, pass and shoot."
To help her out, Pederson brought in assistant coaches Amanda Behnke and Melinda Cathey.
Behnke was the Women's Basketball Player of the Year in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in 2006-07 as a dominating post player for the Concordia Bears. Cathey also starred as a college player.
"I've tried to surround myself with good coaches," Pederson said. "You have to surround yourself with good people. We have a great post coach and a great guard coach. I don't have to do everything as a head coach."