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Friends and foes

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By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Opposing coaches always talk nice about their counterparts before a big game, often out of fear of giving the other team an edge if some unflattering remarks end up on the locker room whiteboard.

But the pleasantries and compliments are genuine between University of Minnesota, Morris head coach Tim Grove and Coe College's Randi Peterson, whose teams met Friday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament, with the Kohawks winning 78-53.

When the Cougars cut down the nets after winning the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship last year, Grove clipped off a piece of net and sent it to Peterson, who was the Cougars' head coach before Grove succeeded her in 2006.

"She put down the foundation to help us be successful," said Grove, who led the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament last year and was the UMAC Coach of the Year. "It would not have been possible to do what we've been able to do without her influence."

For her part, Peterson, who was the UMAC Coach of the Year in her one season as UMM head coach, said she can take little credit for the Cougars' consistent performances since Grove took over.

"I left a very small imprint on their success," Peterson said. "Tim has done all the work. I got lucky for a year and got to move on."

Friend before competitors

The mutual admiration Grove and Peterson have for one another stems from being friends long before they became competitors.

Grove's brother, Paul, has been UMM's men's basketball coach since 2002. Peterson arrived as a Cougars assistant coach in the 2003-2004 season after a stellar playing career at Iowa. She quickly fit in with the coaching family at UMM and was a regular at the Grove home for poker nights. Tim, then the boys coach at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School, often stopped in to play and also joined the UMM crew for noon pick-up games.

When Jim Hall left the program, Peterson was named head coach. Before she arrived on campus, the Cougars were 1-26. In the next two years UMM won 23 games and Peterson led the team to a 16-10 record in her rookie season as head coach.

But the Iowa native couldn't turn down Coe's offer to return to her home state and coach at a school less than an hour from many of her family members.

"I love Morris, I love the people there," Peterson said. "I had a lot of great times there and some of my best friends are people I met there. But it's still not family."

Grove continues growth

Grove, even as an interim hired in August 2006, seemed a natural for the job of taking over Peterson's team.

"I was sad to be leaving UMM but I was happy Tim got the job," Peterson said.

So have the Cougars' fans.

UMM is 84-49 in his five seasons and is making its second straight NCAA appearance. Last year's team won 14 straight to close the regular season and finished 19-8. This year, UMM has won 17 straight after starting the season 4-6 and take a 21-6 record into its game against Peterson's 24-3 Kohawks.

Peterson's brief tenure made much of it possible, Grove said.

"Randi is an excellent basketball coach, and my brother, Paul, told me when I got here, 'She's done everything that needs to be done for the next person to be successful,' " Grove said.

Players make the teams

Both teams have solid cores, with Peterson's led by seniors - her first Coe recruiting class - who stabilized and then energized the team. Coe, like UMM, hadn't had much success, but Peterson led the Kohawks to a 20-8 record in her second season and four straight appearances in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.

"Bottom line, they are very good," Grove said of the Kohawks. "Two words describe them: athletic and aggressive. They're aggressive on both ends of the court. There's lots of moving, lots of cutting, and Randi allows her players to make plays."

"You learn a lot as a coach," Peterson said. "Those seniors took a chance on us at a time when we weren't very good. You watch players grow up and you get to be a major part of what they do and how they do it, and positively affect their lives. I get to be like this mom to them."

But Grove said the Cougars weren't intimidated by the talented and cohesive Kohawks.

"We've got some pretty good players, too," he said. "When people say, 'Great coaching job,' I turn it right around and tell them you can't do it without players. They're close and they play together."

UMM had a tough task because Peterson wasn't the only former Cougar on the Kohawks staff who knows the program inside and out. Peterson's former Cougars assistance, Nate Oakland, is now an assistant at Coe, as is Jamie Rainey, who started at point guard for Peterson's UMM team and was a graduate assistant for Grove last season.

All the familiarity didn't trouble Grove. It was a given when the Cougars and Kohawks ended up in their first-round draw.

"It's a crazy coincidence," he said with a laugh.