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Storied softball coaches say it's time to retire

Tondryk and Rodd started, ended careers together

 

October 11, 2019

File photo

Cloquet softball coach Ron Tondryk coached up his team this past spring. He is retiring after the team took third at state. Assistant Kerry Rodd, behind Tondryk, is also hanging it up. "It was time," Tondryk said last week. "We both have grandchildren that we want to watch and it just was a good time to do this."

An era came to a close last month when Cloquet softball coach Ron Tondryk handed his resignation letter to activities director Paul Riess, just a few months after the Lumberjacks took third place at the Minnesota State High School softball tournament.

It was not only the end of Tondryk's decade-long tenure as head coach for Cloquet, but also the end of a 25-year coaching relationship between Tondryk and assistant coach Kerry Rodd.

"It was time," said Tondryk last week. "We both have grandchildren that we want to watch and it just was a good time to do this. One of the things that made it an easier decision for us was the fact that there is a very good nucleus coming back. Whoever comes in as coach will have a very good team and good kids coming back."

Tondryk and Rodd began coaching summer softball together and have proved a formidable duo on the diamond. Their first full year together saw them coach an undefeated team to the state tournament U-12 championship. A year later they did it again, in the U-14 state tournament with a team of all 13-year old players. Those were the first of the four state tournament championships the pair would win between them.

"We've come a long way since those early days," Rodd said. "For whatever reason, our coaching styles clicked and we were almost always on the same page. It just made for a good fit."

While they've been together on the sidelines for years, the pair took different, but similar, paths to where they are today. At one point Rodd moved on to be an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and head coach at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Tondryk assisted for nine years at Cloquet High School before becoming head coach a decade ago.

"During that time we were still coaching together in the summer and fall in the Cloquet youth program," explained Tondryk. "For years we coached two teams, at two different age groups, and we practiced a lot."

The pair started coaching together when their older daughters were in the youth ranks and both found a passion in fast pitch softball. Long after their children graduated, they continued to coach and found it hard to leave the coaching ranks.

"I've tried before, but Ron talked me out of it," Rodd said. "The past six years have been fun at the high school and I am glad I came back - especially with the great kids we have in our program."

An interesting side note is that both have had a hand in all three of Cloquet's state tournament appearances. Tondryk was an assistant high school coach for the 2002 team and then head coach of the 2012 and 2019 teams.

"People might know that I've been either the head coach or the assistant coach for the three trips to state, but they probably don't know the role Kerry played in those trips," Tondryk said. "He was coaching the kids in the summer and getting them prepared for the varsity team. So for me as the head coach, I give credit to Kerry because he had a hand in all three of those state tournaments."

Watching the pair engage in back-and-forth exchanges, one can only imagine some of the dugout conversations through the years. Their conversation is light, yet both have a great deal of respect for the other. Interestingly, through the years Tondryk has always been the head coach with Rodd carrying the assistant tag.

"One of the things that an assistant has to remember is there can only be one lead dog," Rodd said. "What Ron did with his assistant coaches is what a lot of coaches can't do - that is, to allow an overbearing assistant coach to fit in. When you have two alpha males, that can be really tough. And Ron did a really good job of letting me be me. For that matter, not just me, but an alpha female assistant coach like Brenda Gigliotti, who is not afraid to speak her piece either. So you give your input, but then you need to let him make the final decision."

Gigliotti was the former head coach of the Lumberjacks. She led the 'Jacks to their first state tournament in 2002 with Tondryk as an assistant coach.

"I realized I couldn't do all this stuff by myself," Tondryk said. "I knew I had to have assistant coaches who were not afraid to give their input, and when you have Kerry and Brenda they weren't afraid to say what needed to be said. Then you add in Andrew Miller ( the former head coach in Moose Lake-Willow River) and Stacie Starner, who was a great player in high school and college, and that is a pretty good group. We had some interesting discussions and I think that helped me make a more informed decision when those decisions needed to be made."

According to both coaches, the fact that they started coaching at the youngest levels and worked their way up through the ranks while learning the coaching ropes was a huge advantage.

"We just tried to learn everything we could by going to clinics, watching videos and talking to the coaches who had been around a long time," explained Tondryk. "We tried to learn everything we could and we practiced the things we learned. You eventually find out what works and what doesn't."

Rodd echoed Tondryk's sentiments.

"We always said 'the little things become the big things,'" Rodd said. "If your players are technically correct, the wins will come. So many times coaches just throw a ball out on the field and hit grounders and expect the kids to get better, but if the kids don't work on technique they can only advance so far. We had plenty of success with four state titles in the summer, but that was because we worked on technique and focused on that and not the wins."

At the first practice of the 2018 season the 'Jacks coaching staff told players to write down a date - June 6th, 2019 - because that would be the date of this year's state tournament.

"The girls asked what I was talking about and I told them that is when we were going to go to the state tournament," Tondryk said, recalling how the team beat No. 2 North Branch the year before. "Then [North Branch] had to beat us twice to go to the state tournament. That made the girls believe that we should be the team to beat in 2019 and that was something that really carried these girls through this season."

Perhaps the most defining moment of the season for the longtime friends and coaches came during the team's emotional extra-inning section championship win over Chisago Lakes. After beating Chisago Lakes earlier in the tournament, the Wildcats needed to beat the 'Jacks twice in Chisago Lakes. Chisago Lakes won the opener with their pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Cloquet rallied to win the second game on an extra-inning walk-off play at home plate, causing a wild celebration.

Contributed photo

Kerry Rodd, left, and Ron Tondryk, right, celebrate a third-place finish at the state tournament last spring with their wives Roni and Teresa.

"I really wanted Kerry to experience the high school state tournament as a coach," Tondryk said. "When the game ended and Kerry came walking across the field to our dugout, I looked at him and said, 'This one's for you.'"

Fittingly, the coaching careers of the pair came to a close on the field at the state tournament with an 11-1 win in the third-place game over Becker.

"For me, it's the culmination of 25 years of coaching together and being together for all that time," Tondryk said. "To do it at the state tournament was special for me. It was a perfect ending for Kerry and me, for our coaching career and for our friendship."

As the pair walked off the field they were joined by their wives - who were in the crowd cheering them on - for a picture with them, as they held the third-place trophy: a fitting end to their coaching careers.

 
 
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