Jan. 8, 2007

Coach Skinner gets 500th win

By Aaron Schultz
Sports Editor

From Indiana, to Florida, to Minnesota, it has been one heck of a ride for Merrill Skinner.

Merrill, the head boys’ basketball coach at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted for the past 31 seasons, has been coaching high school basketball for a long time, in two different states.

One has to coach a long time in order to reach the milestone Skinner reached Dec. 29 against Dassel-Cokato.

In the third-place game of the HLWW Holiday Boys’ Basketball Tournament, the Lakers snuck out a 61-60 win over the Chargers, and there it was.

What might have just seemed like another high school basketball win for a team looking to find its groove, really was so much more.

It was Skinner’s 500th career win coaching high school basketball, a majority of those coming with the Lakers over the past three decades.

On his ride to number 500, there have been some bumps in the road, but overshadowing those few bumps have been countless successes, big wins, and more kids than one could count.

“Five hundred wins is a great accomplishment in this day and age,” HLWW athletic director Dale Decker said. “It’s pretty impressive when you think about the number of kids he has coached through the years.”

“I’ve seen the majority of his games from the beginning, and it has been just a pleasure watching him coach,” HLWW athletics secretary Mary Robinson said.

It all started for Merrill 36 years ago at Cocoa High School in Florida, where he was the basketball and baseball coach.

After three years at Cocoa, he moved on in Florida, becoming the head basketball coach, and assistant baseball coach at Merritt Island.

“I really enjoyed coaching baseball in Florida, and if I had been the head baseball coach at Merritt Island, may never have left,” Merrill said.

After two years at Merritt Island, Merrill was ready to move on, and left the last day of school and just drove to Minnesota.

While he didn’t have a job waiting for him here in Minnesota, he fell in love with the fishing up here, so he decided to look for a job.

Leaving his wife in Florida, he stayed with his in-laws while he looked for a teaching and coaching job.

Every week, he drove to the University of Minnesota to find the postings of available jobs.

One job he interviewed for was in Brainerd, but eventually he found the opening at Howard Lake-Waverly, was offered the job, and took it.

Those early years as a Laker for Merrill were very successful, but by no means easy.

It was after the school fire, so Merrill and the Lakers traveled to Dassel and Cokato every day for practice.

Merrill drove the bus, dropped off the junior varsity in Cokato for practice, then kept heading west to Dassel, where they practiced.

They had to practice from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

While they practiced in Dassel, they played their home games at Holy Trinity of Winsted’s gym.

Even though they didn’t have a gym to call their own, the Lakers, under Merrill, were very successful.

That first season, 1976-77, the Lakers won the district title, and finished third at regions, ending the year with a 16-8 record.

In that first season, Decker was an assistant to Skinner, before moving on to become a head coach.

“He’s such a great teacher, not only for the kids, but also for coaches,” Decker said. “I took everything I learned from him that first year, and used it when I became a head coach.”

Building on that early success, the Lakers went 87-11 over the next four years.

From the 1977-78 season to the 1980-81 year, the Lakers won four straight conference titles, and went to state in back-to-back years, getting fourth in ‘77-’78, and then finishing second in ‘78-’79, when they lost to Lake City and RandyBreuer in the state title game.

In the ‘78-’79 state tournament, Merrill recalled the big double overtime win in the semifinals as one of his most memorable games.

Mark Decker hit a long jumper to give the Lakers a win.

If not for a bad bounce in the opening round of region play in the ‘79-’80 season, it could have been three straight state tournament appearances for Skinner and the Lakers.

“That team was good enough to go to state,” Merrill said. “If we would have gotten past Albany, we would have won the whole thing.”

In the loss to Albany, the Lakers were up by one in the final seconds when HLW blocked a shot, only to have the basketball bounce off the floor and right to an Albany player, who put it up and in to end the Lakers’ season prematurely.

The ‘81-’82 season was the first bump in the road for the Lakers and Merrill, as the teachers went on strike.

In the strike season, the Lakers were 4-10.

Starting with that strike year, the Lakers, under Merrill, went through their first tough stretch, struggling through the early and mid 1980s.

The Lakers had success through late 1980s and early 1990s, with three straight conference titles and a region runner-up finish in the ‘89-’90 season.

Those seasons of success coincided with Chad Gagnon, the current junior varsity coach for Merrill.

Chad, who played for Merrill for three seasons, has been Merrill’s top assistant for the past seven seasons.

“He (Merrill) is a little more laid back, in practice anyways, then he used to be. But he is still intense,” Chad said. “Offensively, he knows the game so well, and understands the game of basketball. Also, he is such a good game coach – from knowing when to call a time-out to when to give a kid a rest. He also is able to change his game plan to the type of defense he is playing against.”

After the ‘89-’90 season, some suspected the Lakers might have a down season with all of the losses they sustained due to graduation, but that wasn’t the case, at least in the ‘90-’91 season.

That year the Lakers went 15-8, and won their third straight conference title.

“I’ve always been impressed how well, no mater how much talent a particular team had, he got them to play,” said Chad Burau, who played for Merrill and is the current Laker head softball coach. “An example for me that always stands out was in 1991 when they won the conference title, even though they didn’t have a start taller than 6’0,” and had just lost a bunch of real good players from the year before.”

After winning the conference title in the ‘90-’91 season, Merrill and the Lakers struggled for much of the 90s, before turning it back around in the ‘98-’99 season.

That year the Lakers finished 17-8, and tied with Pierz for the Central Minnesota Conference (CMC) title.

That season began a run of four consecutive CMC titles, including a 44 game conference winning streak.

The streak came to an end against Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the final conference game of the ‘01-’02 season.

Rebounding from that loss, the Lakers went on to make it to state, and finished third.

At the state tournament, one of Merrill’s best memories was Derek Swedberg canning a big shot that won the game and sent HLWW into the semifinals.

From the ‘99-’00 season through the ‘02-’03 year, Merrill and the Lakers were a combined 93-15.

Andy Gagnon, a 2001 graduate of HLWW and the Lakers’ head baseball coach, was a part of those turnaround years from 1998 through 2001.

“Some of the things that I will carry with me about coach Skinner are his consistency, dedication, and competitiveness. As a young coach myself, I want to strive to reach that level,” Andy Gagnon said. “He displayed confidence in our team at all times, and players could sense that – I think that is the real reason Laker basketball has been successful for the past 30 years. He is a great coach.”

Much of Merrill’s success can be contributed not only to his knowledge of the game, but to his character, as well.

Pretty much anyone you talk to, who has either been coached by him or has followed the program, will tell you his high character and strong morels have as much do with his success as his coaching ability.

“He has such high character, his morals, and sets such a good example for the kids,” Robinson said. Parents are pleased to have him as a coach.”

“The kids that play for him respect him,” Chad Gagnon said. “He has very strong morals, doesn’t swear, and expects the same from his kids.”

“He’s a strict, old-school coach. You always know where you stood with him,” Burau said.

You can also tell a lot about what kind of a coach someone is when talking to some of his peers that he has battled over the years.

“I have a ton of respect for Merrill. He’s a great coach, and is always a challenge when we play them,” Rockford head coach Mike Tauber said. “Congrats on getting your 500th win.”

“It is a great accomplishment,” Lester Prairie head coach Brian Korf said. “Coach Skinner runs a great program, and teaches player skills they will use throughout life.”

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Merrill,” Holy Trinity head coach Dean Neumann said. “He’s been successful for a reason - good kids, a good coach, and good assistants.”

One of those assistants has been a part of Merrill’s staff for nearly his entire time as a Laker.

Steve Gagnon, who has coached the ninth grade team for nearly 30 years for Merrill, and someone he says has really helped him through the years.

Through all the years and all the wins, Merrill has been a class act and a great coach.

When asked how long he was planning on coaching, Merrill said he takes it from year-to-year.

Well, as long as Merrill plans on continuing to coach and racking up the wins, everybody from parents to players to fans will feel lucky to have him.

Racking up titles

With a career 500-365 record, Merrill and the Lakers have won a championship or two over the 30 years.

In his early days with the Lakers, HLW was a member of the Wright County Conference, where they won eight conference championships.

Moving from the Wright to the Central Minnesota Conference, the Lakers added four more titles under Merrill, for 12 total during his time with the Lakers.

Besides conference titles, the Lakers have also claimed nine district championships and three state tournament berths.

In those three state tournament trips the Lakers finished fourth (‘77’78), second (‘78-’79), and third (‘01-’02).

Father, than the son

Over his 30-plus years as a head coach for the Lakers, Merrill has coached several father-son combos.

He coached Mike Gagnon, and sons Andy and Luke; John Zander and son Tim Zander; and Mike Zachmann and son Trent Zachmann.

Also, Merrill coached Bill Ueter, whose son, Joe, is a member of the junior varsity team.

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