Columbia Heights' Willie Braziel: Hardwood to Head Basketball Coach
The Hylanders coach has been to state as a player and now as a head coach, with 36 years in between.
Memories, when played back in our minds, can seem like yesterday.
For Columbia Heights Coach Willie Braziel it might seem like an eternity since, as a player, his school won a state title. After all, that was back in 1976.
But it isn’t nearly as daunting as the 81 years since the Columbia Heights Hylanders were last poised to make a run at a state title. That was 1930.
“For me, I’m more nervous as a coach,” Braziel said about his team’s foray into the state tournament. “I was fine as a player; I knew what I could do.”
Columbia Heights is starting to learn what they can do, too. The 23-6 squad has played well throughout a tough schedule, matching up against bigger schools, beating state top-10 Eagan High School at mid-season, and knocking off a heavily-favored DeLaSalle team in their section final.
But despite the resume, an athletic, uptempo team, and one of the state's most talented offensive weapons in leading-scorer Zach Lofton, the Hylanders are in search of more than tournament wins. They want respect.
Senior guard Keanu Glover says the lack of respect is something the team takes to heart.
“No young man and no older man wants to be disrespected at all. We take that to use that to build our fire.”
Braziel has stressed the importance of this next game on how Columbia Heights basketball will be seen, moving forward.
“If we don’t go out and [win state tournament games], no one will ever respect us,“ Braziel said. “In order for us to get any respect, we have to keep winning.”
The window is small and gone within a moment, as Braziel knows.
“In 1976, I was a sophomore on a team that won it,“ Braziel said, referring to his alma mater, the Marshall-University High School Cardinals, who won the Class A title that year.
“In ‘77, I went back as a junior, and we lost in the first round," said Braziel. "It was our [school’s] first loss in almost three years, man. That was heartbreaking. And the following year we lost a region championship and we didn’t make it back.
"I’ve had the fever ever since.”
Now, as coach, Braziel works to prepare his players for the path he walked more than 35 years ago.
During the team’s final walkthrough before their state tourney debut, the Hylanders stretched, while Braziel, an assuring presence, kept the mood light.
“The bigger picture is to also have fun with it," Braziel said. "I want them to enjoy the ambiance, win or lose."
As media walked around—snapping pictures, interviewing players—senior Bobby Schultz stretched with his teammates, smiling and grimacing as he leaned forward.
“I flex when I stretch,” he said, as a Star Tribune photographer swept through. The photographer leaned in for a closer snapshot. Schultz beckoned to the photographer as he contorted his entire body—“Come on, Star Tribune”—before falling to his side in laughter.
“We’ve got a good group of kids—bunch of goofballs, but good kids,” Braziel said.
Ironically, in Braziel’s return to state competition, he will be facing a squad that's not well known in the metro area but has a similar name to his own alma mater.
Even though the Marshall Tigers of southwest Minnesota aren’t affiliated with Braziel’s Marshall-U High Cardinals, the lessons he learned last century are invaluable to his players in this one.
“Savor this moment, this is our time, this is where you’re going to look back, like I do, wishing that I could play it over.”
On Wednesday, the Hylanders get a chance to walk their own state tournament path and Braziel will get his first taste of watching it all unfold from the bench.
But win or lose, Wednesday’s game between Columbia Heights and Marshall will be played over and over again for those involved, if only in their heads.