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New-look FDLTCC Thunder begin basketball seasons

Melissa Johnson is the new face of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College women's basketball team. Photos contributed by Tom Urbanski1 / 2
Damien Paulson is the new face of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College men's basketball team. Photos contributed by Tom Urbanski2 / 2

CLOQUET - Sitting with her blue spiral notebook in her lap Tuesday night, Melissa Johnson anxiously waited to coach her first basketball game since the days she helped teach sixth-graders the sport as a collegian in Ely years ago.

Now though, she's coaching college kids.

Johnson is the centerpiece to the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College women's basketball team these days, as the 33-year-old will look to revive a program that's making a return after being non-existent last year.

"I'm real pumped for it," said Johnson, a 1996 Cromwell-Wright graduate who played basketball and volleyball for the Cardinals, as well as at Vermilion Community College and volleyball at Missouri Valley College. "I'm happy to be able to come in and do this, and get things going again."

Johnson was hired by FDLTCC Athletic Director Keith Turner less than two weeks ago, replacing previously-hired coach John Grones. According to Turner, things didn't work out for Grones. That said, Turner went about two weeks without a coach until Johnson returned his offer after a weekend of thoughts.

"I was surprised and told him I need to think about it for the weekend," recalled Johnson. "But I just got more and more excited. I love sports."

Turner explained that Johnson would be a good fit for the job, as he remembered watching her compete during her days at Vermilion when he coached football and assisted in men's basketball.

"I knew she'd be energetic and get after it," Turner said of Johnson, who is also finishing up an internship at FDLTCC. "She was excited. And I just told her our approach is just to have fun, and really, have a great year."

In its two previous seasons, the Thunder program has gone winless on the floor, with their only technical win in school history coming via forfeit. In the past, numbers have been a concern for the program and last season FDLTCC wasn't able to field enough players for a team.

Johnson stepped in knowing her job would be a difficult one.

"It's going to be a challenge, I don't even know some of the players' names," Johnson said, noting she's only been able to have three practices and one with enough players to scrimmage 3-on-3 this week. "I just want to set short-, medium- and long-term goals and initially have fun. I think this could be a competitive team soon."

"The girls are really taking to her," added Turner. "The skill level isn't going to be real high, but you're going to see some kids out there competing and having fun. That's the bottom line. They're not expecting a national championship. They're just excited to get to play."

Facing her alma mater in an ironic exhibition Tuesday, Johnson guided her Thunder to the school's second-best performance ever in a 36-25 loss, including having eight girls suited up.

"Sometimes we barely have enough for practice," said Johnson, "but I heard rumors there might be a couple more."

Johnson isn't the only new coach on campus, however. So is Damien


Paulson takes over for David Wilson who, as Turner explained, parted ways with the school.

"I'm really excited," said Paulson, who coached AlBrook for a number of years following his basketball playing days for the Falcons and at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "I'm just learning the ins and outs, but there's definitely some talent here."

Turner said he was ecstatic about hiring Paulson, who is also employed at FDLTCC.

"We're real excited he's doing this," said Turner. "You go in the gym and there's a whole new vibe with things."

Like Johnson, Paulson began his collegiate coaching career Tuesday night when his Thunder clashed with the Ironmen in Cloquet. Although FDLTCC - which won just three games last year - lost 99-69, the 38-year-old Paulson noted that it's still early on in the building process.

"We have 24 games and might change the lineup 24 times," Paulson said. "With a new system and new coach, we have to work to where we want to be, but I think it's going to be a good mix of the young and the old."

Sophomores Alton Dixon, Tyler Campbell, Carlos Holcey and Kolten Karppinen - who played for Paulson at AlBrook High School - will provide experience, while freshman cousin Bryce Karppinen, Cloquet's Andy Wappes and Cromwell-Wright's Pat Dahl are solid rookies.

"I love it," said Kolten Karppinen of playing for Paulson and with his younger cousin Bryce again. "It feels like yesterday we were playing for the section championship. I'm pumped."

With a large fan base in the stands Tuesday, Wappes agreed.

"I'm extremely excited about this team. We have a lot of good players who have great potential," he said. "As I found out in the first couple minutes of the game, the pace is way more up-tempo than high school, but it'll be exciting to see what we will be able to do."

The Thunder will face Riverland Community College at home Tuesday, with the women's game set for 5 p.m., followed by the men's game at 7 p.m.