Women’s basketball coach Tonja Englund named WIAC Coach of the Year

Englund named the recipient for the second time in her career

Having coached at UW-Eau Claire for 21 years, Tonja Englund is taking home the WIAC Coach of the Year award for a second time.

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Having coached at UW-Eau Claire for 21 years, Tonja Englund is taking home the WIAC Coach of the Year award for a second time.

Tonja Englund, the head women’s basketball coach at UW-Eau Claire, was awarded Coach of the Year by the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference on March 10. 

Since the start of her basketball career, nearly 40 years ago, Englund said she has developed a thorough understanding of not only basketball as a sport, but how to unite people under it — players and community members alike. 

Englund began her basketball journey in the fifth grade. She took advantage of every opportunity to play, going so far as to participate in both the girl’s and boy’s teams. 

“When I was younger, I was one of those tall girls, and at the time, there weren’t many of us who wanted to be division one players — it wasn’t normal,” Englund said. “It was the boys, my parents and my coaches who urged me to follow that dream. And it was life-changing — it put me on a completely different path.” 

She continued to play throughout high school and was later signed to play division one basketball at the University of Wyoming. She played there for two years before transferring to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where she later graduated from. 

During her junior year, her team won the national championship. 

When her time as a player came to an end, Englund said she thought back on her experiences with basketball. She realized how important opportunities are, particularly for female athletes. 

“I’m pretty passionate about making sure we continue to create those opportunities for girls to play sports. It changed my entire path in life,” Englund said. “Sports made me a better student, increased my self-confidence — I believe that we need to create those opportunities for girls.” 

Englund said she kept this in mind as she graduated from college with a degree in K-12 physical education teaching with a coaching minor and when she got her master’s degree in coaching administration. 

“My whole career path has been getting me ready to be that person who could pay it forward. I look back, and I know that I have been very, very fortunate to have had those opportunities,” Englund said. 

She took a position as a high school basketball coach and was in that role for eight years. She said the importance of giving back was instilled further during her time there, but she wanted to do more. 

Englund applied for a coaching position for UW-Eau Claire’s women’s basketball team 21 years ago and has been with the team ever since. 

There is a popular phrase Englund asks her players: “what is your why?”— essentially asking them why do they play basketball and why do they do anything at all? 

Englund’s ‘why’ is dedicated to the notion of giving back. 

“My ‘why’ is to make sure we positively represent UW-Eau Claire through the basketball program. It’s to ensure that we help our community, that the players give back and that we create strong, female role models who will go on to impact the next generation,” Englund said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these community activities were vital for the bonding of the team. Englund said it was through these events and volunteering that first-years, specifically, were able to collaborate with their teammates off the court for the first time. 

The connection the basketball team has with the community is one Englund is grateful for. 

“I’ve been here 21 years, and there are so many reasons why I love Eau Claire and why I’ve been here that long. We’re so close to the community and to the players who want to become Blugolds someday,” Englund said. 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has managed to connect in other ways. Part of that process was revisiting the reason why they were there at all: for the love of basketball. 

“To tell you the truth, this year with COVID-19 was even closer to our hearts,” Englund said. “We came to rely on each other as a family and as a team. But also, we got back to the reason why we play: the joy for the game.”  

Katie Essen, a fourth-year center, said she often reflects on the role Englund played in helping the team through the unusual season. 

“She had a positive attitude and kept reminding us that we were lucky to be able to play,” Essen said. “She also made it a fun and enjoyable environment, even though we were only playing ten games that season.” 

Essen said Englund began implementing more competitions during practices with rewards as incentives. On occasion, she would buy the players meals to thank them for their hard work. 

“She’s so devoted to her players and always put us first. She always made sure we were taken care of before she ever thought about herself,” Essen said. 

Maizie Deihl, a fourth-year guard, transferred to UW-Eau Claire for her junior and senior years — similar to Englund a few decades prior. Among other reasons, she had been dissatisfied with the amount of playing time she was receiving at her previous school. 

Deihl’s decision to come to UW-Eau Claire was heavily influenced by Englund and her coaching status. She is well known throughout the WIAC and is highly esteemed. Deihl said she knew Englund would help her reach her highest potential. 

That potential, however, is not limited to only basketball — many of Englund’s lessons apply to real life as well. 

“My favorite quote from Coach Englund is ‘pretty good is pretty bad.’ What she means by that is, you should always strive to be your best self, not just average, in everything you do,” Deihl said. 

Englund said she was able to use basketball as a facilitator for philanthropic goals, using her position to affect not only the lives of her players but of the community in positive ways, too.

UW-Eau Claire ended their season in the semifinals after losing 74-62 to UW-Whitewater. Englund, however, was not disappointed by the results. 

“This was one of my professionally most satisfying seasons because the team loved each other so much. It changed me as a coach,” Englund said. “I think, while it has been challenging for us, it has brought out a lot of good things in each other, as human beings.”

The team recently had a meeting to discuss the next steps for the upcoming season. Englund said they are setting their sights on getting back into the NCAA tournament, winning the conference and becoming one of the best teams in the country. 

Coach Englund would like to thank her team for being a group of strong leaders and for positively representing UW-Eau Claire. 

Schutte can be reached at [email protected]