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Traditions and transitions: Culbertson adjusting to life as Thundberbolts head coach

Longtime assistant coach John Culbertson is in his first year as head coach of the Thunderbolts, after taking over for Denny Larson.

When longtime Thunderbolts head coach Denny Larson called it quits, he was nervous about who would take the reins of a program he'd spent 15 years running.

However, he was relieved when John Culbertson got the call.

"The best thing is to take somebody who has been with the program already and for the program to not skip a beat," Larson, 65, said. "My first choice was John, because he's been there for a long time and he knows how to deal with kids with special needs. I'm very pleased John got it and we kept it in-house. That's the way it should be. The transition worked out just wonderfully."

Culbertson has been with the South Washington Thunderbolts program - a mix of student-athletes from East Ridge, Park and Woodbury - for the past 10 years as an assistant coach under Larson, the Thunderbolts' soccer and softball head coach the past 15 years.

Under "coach Denny" the Thunderbolts soccer team reached 14 straight state tournaments from 1996 to 2010 and was state runner-up twice (in 2005 and 2006). The Thunderbolts softball team qualified for 11 state tournaments and has two state championship titles (in 2005 and 2006).

Larson had heart surgery over a year ago and retired from teaching shortly thereafter. Larson - who lives in Inver Grove Heights with his wife of 42 years, Shirley - said he's keeping tabs on the Thunderbolts, but mostly he's just taking it easy.

"It's been enjoyable. I'm doing what I want when I want," Larson said. "It's a different feeling. It's like every day is Saturday."

When Larson was forced out of action with his heart condition, it was Culbertson and fellow Thunderbolts assistant coach Bruce Fiedler who picked up the slack.

"John is a great teacher, a great coach and a great friend," Larson said. "He's very good at keeping kids in line, working with them and listening to them. I give him a lot of credit."

Culbertson has a B.A. in media communications and a master's degree and teaching license in developmental disabilities. He worked in the St. Paul public schools system the past five years. Prior to that, he worked at Woodbury High School. He's currently trying to get a teaching position in District 833.

"I really wanted this job," Culbertson said. "This is something I feel I'm good at and I'm comfortable with it. This is kind of the perfect opportunity and experience for me - working with high school aged kids with disabilities and who are competing in athletics."

The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association first formed in 1984. Its mission is to "provide youth with disabilities the same opportunity as other students to enjoy the benefits of a quality high school sports program." In 1992 the MAAA was accepted into the Minnesota State High School League.

Culbertson said Minnesota is the only state in the country with a high school sports league for kids with disabilities.

"It's about transition, it's about learning how to be an adult and work together - all the things that are good about sports - but even more so for kids with special needs," he said.

There are "teachable moments" every day, according to Culbertson.

"There's never a shortage of problem solving and that's exciting," he said. "Especially with kids with special needs, you find that there are a lot of plateaus - getting a driver's license, finding a job, having a relationship with a girl or a boy - all the things we almost take for granted. They need to work extremely hard on those things."

Off the field, Culbertson said he's still getting used to being the center of attention and being the one responsible for the program.

On the field, he's taking a different angle at the role of the head coach. For the most part, on game day, Culbertson has decided to work more with the Thunderbolts JV team, leaving the varsity team to Fiedler.

It's unusual, but not unprecedented. In the summer, varsity baseball coaches tend to coach the area VFW team - comprised of freshmen and sophomores - rather than the senior-laden Legion ball clubs.

The idea is to spend more time developing the players who may need more help.

"We wanted to flip things around and have a good, intense instructional program for these JV kids," Culbertson said. "I think Bruce is better suited in dealing with the higher functioning kids. I think my education and teaching background gears me more toward the developing player and younger player - the kids with the greater needs."

This way, Culbertson said, they're not leaving kids behind.

"I see the younger kids as needing that role model," he said. "We only have three coaches. It's a challenge. We have to figure out where we're going to be and who is going to work with you. But, I think the kids respond when they know that you care."

In practice, Culbertson and his staff, which includes Fielder and Lindsay Bolin, are trying to teach the Thunderbolts players to react instinctually and be more anticipatory rather than thinking too much.

He said the practices are a little more structured this year and there are more individual drills.

He said the team has "adjusted pretty well."

Aside from being an assistant coach with the Thunderbolts, Culbertson's resume includes one year of coaching JV girls hockey at Tartan High School in 2002 - the year he started with the Thunderbolts.

"I feel very blessed," Culbertson said. "There are only so many coaching spots. To have the confidence of a district and a school system and parents, it's a nice feeling."