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Two-of-a-kind coaches center Thunder basketball

FDLTCC's Jaiden Cofield drives by Gogebic Community College's Darian Vinkemeier during the Dec. 2 matchup. Gogebic defeated the Thunder 69-44. Dave Harwig/ 1 / 3
FDLTCC's Donald Gordon shoots a 3-pointer over a Gogebic Community College defender during the 69-56 Gogebic win last Wednesday. Dave Harwig/ 2 / 3
FDLTCC point guard Nick Marshall makes a layup between two Gogebic Community College defenders during the team’s Dec. 2 basketball game. Dave Harwig/ 3 / 3

CLOQUET—While they’re not identical or even related, Damien Paulson and Laura Sylvester are like twins.

As the 42-year-old Paulson graduated from the former AlBrook School in 1991, Sylvester, 32, also did so in 2001. Each was an effective player for the Falcons: Paulson as a productive post presence and Sylvester as a gifted guard.

Both then took their talents to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where as Bulldogs, Paulson played for the since-retired Dale Race, and Sylvester for Karen Stromme.

Over time, the pair of basketball enthusiasts entered the coaching world and you can find both heading the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community college basketball programs nowadays, Paulson in his fifth season with the men, and Sylvester in year three with the women.

“It’s like a big brother and little sister, I guess,” Paulson said with a laugh outside the Lester Jack Briggs gymnasium during practice Monday afternoon on campus in Cloquet.

While watching from the sideline at Paulson’s practice, Sylvester agreed, noting they have a great friendship. Sylvester added that while they get along nicely, she has also learned a lot from her elder coaching partner — who is nearly a foot taller than her, at 6-foot-6.

“I look up to Damien in many ways,” Sylvester said.

As their backgrounds are near identical, so are their coaching styles. Both are player-first coaches, always keeping the “student” in student-athlete. Sure, they preach Xs and Os, and offense and defense with their Thunder athletes, but one can’t overlook the passion they have on display from the sidelines and the smiles they wear while talking of their players. They love seeing new recruits come in and couldn’t enjoy more when their players graduate from their programs.

Both coaches are trying to revitalize those programs. The men’s team, in its eighth year, is 3-6, and the women, in their seventh season, are 1-7. The men were 5-19 last winter and the women 6-19.

And although their records may be below-average, both clubs have been competitive thus far, in many of their affairs.

That was surely the case in their latest tango Tuesday night in Cloquet, as the men edged Leech Lake Tribal College 90-85 in overtime. The women meanwhile — with just six players — led 34-29 at halftime, before fading in a 62-57 loss.

Despite the defeat, Sylvester is particularly upbeat. Also the college’s head volleyball coach and athletic director, she’s marked the school’s only official wins ever — 13 in its existence — and has done it with a lack of depth.

Sylvester said Monday that their lineup of six players, featuring plenty of locals in sophomores Jaiden Cofield and Drewrez Budreau of Cloquet and Carlton’s Taylor Klassen and Moose Lake’s Tayler Dixon, isn’t something she’s at all worried about.

“Everyone thinks we don’t have a lot of depth, but I think we have exactly who we want,” said Sylvester. “This is a group of women who show up every day and want to play. They’re a tough group that is very interchangeable. They all can produce, they all work hard and they are all valuable.”

Perhaps the most valuable, however, is Cofield. The 5-foot-8 right-hander was a 1,000-point scorer at Cloquet High School. As a FDLTCC freshman last year, Cofield led the conference in scoring and rebounding en route to All-American honors. Averaging 20 points and 15 boards a night, she’s doing the same this season.

“It’s gone too fast. I don’t want it to end yet,” said Cofield, who one day hopes to be a nurse. “It’s tough to lose, but all of us have a passion here. I love it.”

The same can be said of sophomore Donald Gordon, who not only hit six 3-pointers for 18 points Tuesday, but has learned to be a better person under Paulson’s program.

The 6-4 Gordon, of Red Cliff, Wis., gave blood Monday, missing practice. He is one of 10 (out of 12) players from out of state who have plenty of talent. He said he’d like to coach someday.

“It’s kind of like our family tradition,” Gordon said.

“He’s the kind of guy you want around,” added Paulson.