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A new start: Bidwell building connections, changing culture

This year, new East Ridge head boys soccer coach Anthony Bidwell is able to teach and coach at the same school, something he said allows himself to be better connected.

Last year Anthony Bidwell lived a bit of a double life. He was a teacher at East Ridge High School during the day, but a coach at Eden Prairie High School at night.

This year, however, as the East Ridge head boys soccer coach he's able to teach and coach at the same school, something he said allows himself to be better connected.

"I know when I'm connected with the kids inside the school I can better control what they do on the field and off the field and help them grow as individuals on the field and in the classroom," said Bidwell, who teaches American history to juniors and advanced placement geography to freshmen at East Ridge. "I'm here for the kids and I want to do what is best for them. I think it's best to be teaching and coaching at the same school."

Most recently, Bidwell was the head girls soccer coach at Eden Prairie High School from 2009-11, where his teams compiled a 46-5-6 record. Bidwell's Eden Prairie girls teams won two Lake Conference championships, one Section 2AA championship, and the 2010 Class AA state championship. His team was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2010.

East Ridge Assistant Principal Trent Hanson hired Bidwell as the Raptors boys soccer coach when he was the activities director. Hanson said he's aware of the asset he has in Bidwell.

"We are purposeful about identifying, attracting and retaining the very best teaching talent that we can. Anthony is the kind of leader we are fortunate to have on staff," Hanson said. "He is an outstanding educator, not only because of his skills and talents in the classroom but also because he is committed to co-curricular excellence. We feel very fortunate to have a teacher and coach like Anthony serve our students and families both in class and on the field."

East Ridge senior defender Merlin Erickson, a team co-captain, has been playing varsity since his freshman year. He said he sees a difference this season.

"There's definitely a different mentality," Erickson said. "We're a lot more organized this year and detail oriented. We have a game plan in mind and know what we're going to do to get the results we want this year. "

Junior co-captain Alec Tostenrud, a midfielder, has also been playing varsity since he was a freshman. He said his role is to "fire up everyone before practices and games" and to help Bidwell "keep everyone organized."

"It's really nice to be organized and to know what the coach wants out of every practice and every game," he said. "We know the game plan and have specific goals to achieve. It's much more obvious this year."

In addition to taking on the challenge of building a burgeoning soccer program and teaching full-time, Bidwell is also pursuing a doctorate in leadership at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

"I stay busy," he said. "It's just opening up possibilities that stem beyond what I have currently. I don't foresee what's down the road. It could be something at the collegiate level as a professor or just extending my lifelong learning, which is a pursuit of mine."

Bidwell, who lives in south Minneapolis, coached high school boys soccer previously and has coached boys teams in the summer. He said taking the East Ridge job wasn't about choosing a boys team over a girls team.

"There's a part of me that was really excited to coach boys again and there is a part of me that was really sad I had to stop coaching girls," he said. "It's a catch 22. It's fun to coach both genders the game of soccer."

Bidwell said many people say there is a stark difference between coaching boys and girls. He agrees there are differences, but said there are similarities as well.

"It's not brought to my attention day-in and day-out," Bidwell said. "Girls, at times, can be a little easier to coach in terms of illustrating a topic for them and having them perform that topic in the game. However, with this group of guys and as intelligent of a group as they are they pick up concepts really quick. Off the field, it's a little different in terms of support needed. Guys are a little more independent. Sometime, with girls you need to have a little tighter bond. But, coaching both is great."

Bidwell is the second boys soccer coach at East Ridge. He took over for Phil Walczak, who led the Raptors for three seasons and is currently coaching a youth soccer team for the St. Croix Soccer Club. Last year, East Ridge had its best record in team history finishing 8-8-1 overall and 4-4-1 in the Suburban East Conference. The Raptors had a five-game win streak at one point and beat Lakeville North, which was ranked seventh in the state at the time. However, after earning the fourth seed in the Section 4AA bracket, the season came to an end with a 1-0 loss to rival Woodbury in the section quarterfinals.

"We haven't gotten the results we've wanted to the past years," Erickson said. "We're definitely looking to improve on last year's record and we have the capabilities of doing that. With the new coach and new mentality I see us going above and beyond that. We have the potential to do well come playoff time. I see us doing big things this year."

Bidwell said above all else, this season is about "changing the culture."

"Ultimately I want to build this into a program that is recognized as a top program," Bidwell said. "I don't want to equate that to wins and losses, necessarily, but I want the kids to understand the importance of playing the game ethically right and playing to the best of their abilities. I want to instill a program that is going to have pride in what they do. Hopefully I'll implement that this year and build on it. I want to bring pride to the program and to the community."

Loses two top players

In his first year as head coach at East Ridge, Bidwell has had to deal with the losses of two of the team's top players from 2011. Because of boundary issues, East Ridge's leading scorer from a year ago, Won Suk Chung, is now with Woodbury. Also, because of a conflict between development academy soccer and high school soccer East Ridge lost midfielder Luke Featherstone to the Minnesota Thunder Academy.

This past winter, The United States Soccer Federation upped its schedule from five months to 10 months, creating a fall season for academy teams, which is the same season for high school soccer. Because of a Minnesota State High School League rule, student-athletes are prohibited from playing on two teams in the same sport during the sport's high school season.

The USSF made the change in hopes of strengthening U.S. soccer as a whole. Bidwell is alright with that.

"It's part of soccer growing and I'm here to promote soccer," Bidwell said. "If it means our national team says we need a national development academy to better USA soccer down the road I'm all for it. I want to make sure soccer improves in the state of Minnesota as well as the nation. The vision is right I believe. We'll see how it pans out."

Erickson played in a development league last year, but chose to play high school soccer for his senior year. He said he decided not to try and play college soccer and to focus on academics instead and that he's happy he's playing for the Raptors.

"It's always great to be able to see the kids you play with in the hallway," he said. "This year and last year I've made great friends on this team. I enjoy playing on the high school team, because if I wasn't I wouldn't see these guys as much as I do. It's great to be around these guys so much."

Just past the halfway point of the season, East Ridge is currently 6-3-1 overall with six regular-season games remaining.

Bidwell said "the kids on the team make or break a season."

"This entire program is just a group of quality young men that are willing to make many sacrifices that extend beyond just playing soccer - they're well-rounded individuals in school and out of school, on the pitch and in the community," Bidwell said. "When you have kids with such great character qualities it's really easy to mold them and get them to understand what you're trying to do and why you're trying to do it. I've been quite fortunate to work with the kids that I have. The progress so far has been just that -- progress. We're headed in the right direction. Complacency is something we're going to try to avoid."