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UMD chooses neighbor for softball coach

St. Scholastica softball coach Jen Walter had free time in April, so she made the short drive to Minnesota Duluth to take in a softball game at Malosky Stadium.

Jen Walter
Jen Walter of Duluth talks to the media after being announced as the new softball coach for Minnesota Duluth on Wednesday afternoon. Walter was the softball coach at St. Scholastica. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

St. Scholastica softball coach Jen Walter had free time in April, so she made the short drive to Minnesota Duluth to take in a softball game at Malosky Stadium.
Walter wanted to see how the field was configured, so she could apply it to the Saints’ facilities. “I even bought a ticket,” Walter said.
That will be the last time.
Walter was introduced Wednesday as Minnesota Duluth’s new softball coach, just the Bulldogs’ third since the 1981-82 season.
“We looked across the country for the next coach of our program,” UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said, “and we found we have a pretty good one just six blocks away.”
Walter agreed to a three-year deal starting at $41,000 for 2015-16.
Walter, 52, comes to UMD after 16 years establishing St. Scholastica as a perennial winner at the NCAA Division III level. She had a 447-233 record and 234-16 mark in UMAC play, including 15 regular-season championships. Concord University (W.Va.) coach Alisa Tasler, 39, was the other finalist.
Walter wanted the challenge of coaching at the Division II level.
“I’ve looked at the UMD softball program for many years,” Walter said. “I’ve played with and against multiple alums of the program. I feel a connection to it. This is a tremendous opportunity to take UMD softball to the next level. Why not be the first? Why not be the first softball team at UMD to win a national championship?”
Walter replaces Jen Banford, who didn’t accept a new contract offer with the Bulldogs in February after a dispute with administration regarding her previous contract. Banford, who was 306-196 in 10 seasons at UMD, made $53,153 in a dual role last season that included $15,000 as director of women’s hockey operations.
Walter was well aware of the situation and said she will not let it affect her.
“I’m not getting caught up in any of that, because it does you no good,” she said. “I’m going to focus on helping these players get better. I think there is an opportunity to ignite a fire here, and ignite a fire in me.”
UMD graduated only one senior from a team that went 33-22 and 17-13 in NSIC play.
UMD pitcher Cayli Sadler and outfielder Ashley Schilling were part of the search committee.
Infielder Sami Schnyder, one of six UMD seniors, was in attendance Wednesday.
 “I had no idea what to expect, but when I heard her name, I thought it was pretty cool she is coming from just down the road,” Schnyder said. “This past year was a bit rough, but we’re going to keep moving forward. Coach Banford expressed that to us. She just wants the best for us. We’re excited to get things going.”
Schnyder, of Waconia, Minn., has known Walter since high school, often seeing her at softball tournaments while on the recruiting trail.
“The Scholastica program was to the point where Jen was looking at some of the same players we were, and that speaks highly to the job she did,” Berlo said. “Coach Walter really embodied all the criteria we were looking for. It is never an easy decision picking a new coach, but in this case, it was clear.”
Walter’s familiarity with UMD, and outdoor spring sports, certainly didn’t hurt.
“We’re not going to make excuses,” Walter said. “I don’t care if we have to shovel three feet of snow. Bring it.”
Walter’s parents, Dave and Doris, have lived in Duluth since about 1990, and Dave has worked for years as a UMD public address announcer. Walter is familiar with UMD players, coaches and administrators, including a good relationship with UMD Senior Woman Administrator Karen Stromme.
“When I moved to Duluth 16 years ago, I thought I would be here for three to five years, and I’d be back down in the Cities,” Jen Walter said. “But I fell in love with Duluth, and I fell in love with Scholastica. The growth I had there helped prepare me for this. I’m scared, because at this point in my career, it’s not an easy move to make, but I like the challenge.”
Walter, a native of Wadena, Minn., played collegiately for Augustana (S.D.), which like UMD is a member of the NSIC. Her college coaching career started relatively late after Minnesota high school stints at Perham (1989-91), Breck (1991-97) and Robbinsdale Armstrong (1997-99) before St. Scholastica.
Walter never applied for the position Banford got at UMD 10 years ago. She said the timing wasn’t right.
“My goal is always to leave a place better than when you came, and at the time, we still had some unfinished business at Scholastica,” Walter said.
St. Scholastica finished 31-16 and 21-0 in UMAC play last season, making its fifth NCAA tournament appearance.
“The program will probably be better off without me,” Walter said, getting a laugh. “We’ve built a culture there that can grow, and because of that, it’s easier to walk away. It’s always hard to say goodbye. It was a tough decision, but that’s how you grow.”
Walter admitted there might be times she’ll miss her turn to UMD’s Junction Avenue Field and wind up back at Kenwood Field. She certainly will not need to purchase tickets to UMD games anymore.
“How many people can get a new job, in the same profession, and not even have to move out of their home?” Walter said. “I’m six blocks closer, so I’ll save on gas.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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