It has been a long, illustrious tenure for Dragons women’s head basketball coach, Karla Nelson.
The three-time Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Coach of the Year has never missed a conference tournament.
Nelson earned her 200th conference win at MSUM in Jan. 2017 against Southwest Minnesota State; and became the fastest coach in program history to reach 300 wins, which she surpassed in Feb. 2017 against St. Cloud State.
Now, in her 18th season, Nelson has eclipsed the 500-game mark and ranks fourth among NSIC coaches in total wins at their respective schools.
“Well, certainly I think it starts with longevity at the same institution, and I’m extremely proud to have done all the things that I’ve done personally and professionally at MSUM,” Nelson said. “The most important thing is working with quality people who care about the program as much as you, and care about the student athletes who are extraordinary on and off the floor.”
Nelson cited her desire to win and seeing her players do well as her primary motivators.
“I love to win,” Nelson said. “I think I can’t stand failing in anything I do… Fear of failure motivates me and I cannot accept that, and I think that is one of the things that have driven me. The other thing is seeing young people do well; I love seeing that enjoyment and that enthusiasm. It makes you feel good.”
The love of winning has shown on the court, as Nelson has never had a losing season in her 17 years at MSUM.
In Nelson’s coaching philosophy, the keys to winning revolve around playing good defense and rebounding well. The origin of her defensive mindset can be traced back to her collegiate days, where she played basketball for the University of North Dakota. While a member of the Sioux, Nelson was twice awarded UND’s Best Defensive Player.
“I realized my college coach was a great coach,” Nelson said. “He wasn’t interested in my offense at the time, and the only way I was going to play was if I defended well. I bought into that role and took pride in shutting down some All-Americans.”
Nelson still carries that mindset with her. She tells players to not judge themselves on their offense and how much they can score, but rather on how they defend and rebound. If a player is well-rounded in those aspects, Nelson trusts them to play more.
This trust and desire to coach has always been there for Nelson.
In second grade, her teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of them gave answers such as firefighter, nurse or teacher. Her answer? “Basketball coach.”
“There was just something about basketball that was inspiring to me,” Nelson said. “I was never the greatest student, but I was very athletic; so being athletic gave me confidence.”
Prior to moving to MSUM, Nelson was a member of the coaching staff at East Grand Forks and Grand Forks public schools for three years.
Nelson knew she wanted to pursue coaching, but wanted to move up to the college level. An opportunity emerged to advance, as former women’s head basketball coach, Jean Roise brought Nelson on as an assistant. She served as the Dragons’ No. 1 assistant from 1994-2000.
While Nelson was an assistant basketball coach, she was also the head softball coach for five seasons, beginning in 1996. She inherited an MSUM team that had been in serious decline, but posted a 21-19 record, 9-5 in the NSIC.
“I really didn’t know that much about softball,” Nelson said. “I knew how to coach people for the most part, but didn’t know that much about the game.”
Nelson credited her surprising success in the softball program to the athletes on her team.
“Finishing above .500 two or three of the years I coached, when I look back, was pretty amazing,” Nelson said. “And it was because those kids I got to coach, at the time, all they wanted to do was win and do whatever it took. It was a great experience for me.”
Roise resigned in March 2000, and former MSUM Director of Athletics, Dr. Katy Wilson, quickly promoted Nelson to head coach.
In her 17 years, one of Nelson’s favorite moments came in the 2015-2016 season when the Dragons won the NSIC North title.
“When Savannah Handevidt and Heather Strese were seniors, seeing how hard that team worked and seeing them win the title and seeing their faces when they cut down the net was pretty awesome,” Nelson said.
Through the success; the wins, the accolades and milestones, Nelson is most thankful for the people she’s associated with along the way.
“I just really appreciate the people I work with,” Nelson said. “I get a lot of the recognition, but assistant coaches, like my current assistant, Allison Swenson play a huge role in the success of our program. I’ve been really fortunate to coach great young women that have great pride.”
Dragons’ senior forward, Drew Sannes is now the all-time leader in blocked shots for MSUM women’s basketball.
The Hawley, Minnesota native blocked two shots in the first half of MSUM’s 69-58 victory over Sioux Falls on Jan. 27, giving her 211 career blocks. Jessica Fesenmaier (2003-05, 06-08) held the old mark with 210.
“Honestly I thought I only had one that half, so I was surprised to learn that I beat it,” Sannes said. “But it was an honor to be recognized for that.”
Sannes said she’s always taken pride in being a rim protector, dating back to her days playing high school basketball.
“I’ve always loved to block shots,” Sannes said. “In high school I was definitely a shot blocker. It was definitely easier back then because (high schoolers) are smaller girls, but it’s something I always liked to do.”
On her coach’s recent milestone, Sannes talked about the privilege of playing in Nelson’s system.
“She’s tough, she knows what she’s doing, she’s successful,” Sannes said. “She’s an awesome coach and just being a part of her winning culture has been awesome, and that’s the kind of legacy I hope to leave behind when I’m done as well.”