The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

The Saint Thomas Academy basketball season ended on March 12 with an 89-77 loss to South Saint Paul in the Section 3AAA semifinals. However, that did little to dim one of the most remarkable turnarounds in local high school sports in a long time.

Khalid El-Amin took the reins of a program that had won just five games over the previous two winters. By the end of this season, the Cadets had racked up 16 wins, leaving El-Amin fired up and looking forward to next season.

“The players got better as the season went on,” El-Amin said. “The guys caught on quickly. We were able to get them to have the confidence to compete on the court.”

Coming from Minneapolis North to STA would seem like a huge culture change. Instead of playing with guys who’d been successful and a part of each other’s lives for years, El-Amin dealt with the conundrum that faces all private school teams—getting players from different programs on the same page.

Complicating matters was the fact he had a young team with just one senior and his first two games were against perennial private school powers Cretin-Derham Hall and DeLaSalle—both of whom played in the state boys’ basketball tournament last week. The Cadets hung in there against the Raiders in a 63-54 loss, but got squashed by the Islanders 82-50 in their home opener.

El-Amin was unfazed. “I knew we had good athletes,” he said. “The guys who weren’t playing a fall sport had spent time together in the summer, and the fall sports guys caught up in a hurry.”

 

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The evidence of that showed when STA won nine of 11 games from mid-December to late January. One of those was a 63-55 victory in the Capital City Classic over Mound Westonka, a team that also  made the state tournament.

Khalid El-Amin
STA basketball coach Khalid El-Amin.

STA’s lone senior, 6-foot-8 forward Nathan Johnson, averaged 16.4 points per game this season. Junior guards Michael Kirchner and Jack Chamberlain averaged 15.1 and 11.7. What made El-Amin even prouder, however, was how his team improved without the ball. “We put in some defensive rules,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it all came together.”

One of the bigger adjustments for El-Amin was a personal one. His son, Isa, made the varsity squad as a freshman guard and appeared in 17 games. “He could’ve played AAU this year, but he didn’t,” his father said. “He learned how hard you have to compete to play at the varsity level.”

So did the rest of the Cadets, who finished fifth in the Metro East Conference with a 9-7 record, including a 72-70 win over second-place Mahtomedi in early January. “Winning gives you validation and shows you’re on the right track,” El-Amin said.

As for what may lie ahead, El-Amin said he’s already busy working on next year’s schedule. Future non-conference opponents could include such perennial powers as Hopkins and El-Amin’s prep alma mater, Minneapolis North. “To be the best, you have to play the best,” he said. “We’ll be ready.” 

“The players got better as the season went on,” El-Amin said. “The guys caught on quickly. We were able to get them to have the confidence to compete on the court.”

Scott helped put Saints on baseball map

After nearly 30 years, the Saint Paul Saints are an integral part of the local sports scene. Although they won the Northern League championship in their initial season, the reality was that several folks in attendance viewed the baseball being played at Midway Stadium as simply one part—and not necessarily the main part—of an evening’s outing. 

That all changed in 1995 when Marty Scott was named the team’s manager. Scott had an impressive pedigree from his nearly two-decade stint as a minor league player and manager, and later director of player development for the Texas Rangers. Scott played a key role in the development of such MLB players as Pudge Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra.

As often happens, a change of ownership brought a change in the baseball hierarchy and Scott found himself out of work. The Rangers’ loss was the Saints’ gain. Scott understood that there was more than baseball going on at Midway, but he had a knack for getting players to adapt to and ignore what went on between innings. The game between the lines began to interest people more and more during his time running the show.

Scott showed his humanitarian and baseball instincts early in his first season. Doug Dascenzo, who had spent six years in the majors with the Cubs and Rangers, found himself without a job in 1995. At age 31, he came to the Saints’ training camp feeling a bit sorry for himself. Scott pulled Dascenzo aside and told him to work hard and a major league taker would be found. Nine games into the season, Dascenzo was off to the Padres’ system. He made it back to the bigs a year later. Scott then convinced Dan Peltier and Darryl Motley, both of whom had considerable major league experience, to lead the way on the field. They did and the Saints won their second Northern League championship.

The next year brought a bigger challenge. There were a series of ex-big leaguers on the 1996 Saints. Darryl Strawberry resurrected his career in 40 games and was off to the Yankees. Jack Morris didn’t get the offer he wanted and quit after half a season, but he helped a talented 20-year-old southpaw pitcher named Scott Stewart to get his head on straight. Four years later, Stewart was in the majors. As the season went on, other former major leaguers came aboard and – presto! – the team won another Northern League title.

In 1997, left-handed pitcher Ila Borders joined the team in spring training. Scott Leius, who had been with the Twins and White Sox, was in the same camp. In an early intrasquad game, Leius ripped a Borders pitch for a double. The next time Leius was up, Borders snapped off a curveball for a swinging strike. Scott murmured, “She’s smart. She remembered what he hit the last time.”

Borders made the team, but her regular-season debut was rough when she hit a batter and gave up three earned runs. The next night, Scott ran her back out there and she struck out the side. A month later, he did Ila a bigger favor. He traded her to Duluth for the simplest of reasons: The Saints had too many southpaws and she wasn’t getting enough time on the mound.

That same year, Scott took on J.D. Drew, a terrific hitter who needed to learn how to play the outfield on a daily basis. Drew did so and went on to a solid big league career.

But Scott wasn’t all business. One night, he was ejected from a game and found solace underneath the stands from Fargo manager Doug Simunic, who had also been excused by an ump for the evening. The two came up with an idea. Between innings, they came out in sumo wrestling suits, banged into each other and fell down. The crowd went wild. So did league umpire-in-chief Butch Fisher and commissioner Miles Wolff. Both managers got fined $500, but Wolff, a southern gentleman, made a special request: He asked for the TV tape as a keepsake. 

George Tsamis replaced Scott and continued the fine line of playing good baseball and entertaining fans between innings. That has evolved into the current status of the Saints as the Twins’ top farm club.

But none of that could’ve happened if it hadn’t been for Scott, the man with the gruff exterior who also had a heart of gold. 

Sorry about that, Leo

Correction from the last column. Saint Thomas Academy senior Leo Bluhm took fourth in the 285-pound category at the recent state Class AAA wrestling meet, not 185. Fat fingers strike again.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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