Zander Culver stood in the lobby of the activities center at Eden Prairie High School last week, surrounded by scores of student-athletes and their parents who were waiting patiently to meet the new boys basketball head coach.
Culver was not merely shaking hands and moving on to the next in line. He spent several minutes with each player and family member. The afternoon marked the first official meeting between coach and community with a large gathering in the small gymnasium.
“Today was all about just introducing myself. Some people don’t even know what I look like, so just kind of putting a face to the name,” Culver said. “The most important part is just giving them a chance to see me and then for me to get the opportunity to meet individuals who I haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet.
“And for the community to meet my assistant coaches and my family.”
Culver spent the past four seasons as the head coach at Roseville High School, but comes to Eden Prairie acutely aware of the turbulent season which concluded in March.
“My main priority is making sure the players understand and know that I’m here for them, that I’m here to serve them and I’m here to support them,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of listening. Try not to speak as much because right now it’s about learning what has gone on. How do you feel? What can I do to support you?”
Culver replaces longtime head coach David Flom, who resigned on March 31 after a season marred by controversy. Flom’s resignation was precipitated by a suspension he incurred after reading a racial slur to players in a classroom session about social media. Flom was subsequently reinstated, sparking protests by some, as well as ongoing turmoil among some players, parents, and community members.
As the newly-hired head coach, Culver said he is fully aware the boys basketball program is still going through a healing process after a season of unprecedented conflict and instability.
“And that healing, who knows how long it’ll go on? But I’m coming in with a lot of grace,” he said. “Having to rebuild relationships, having to rebuild trust. Some people may have lost trust for an adult that they felt like they trusted. So definitely a healing process with the entire program.”
Several players left the team last season after Flom’s reinstatement. Freshman Hamze Yusuf saw considerable playing time as a freshman on the varsity squad but exited the program after Flom returned to the team.
Yusuf attended Monday’s event and welcomed the beginning of a new era.
“It felt good. It was welcoming,” he said. “I like how it was all set up, and how welcoming they were to all the people. And I liked how the coaches really cared about how the player was developing as a person.”
Yusuf, who is recovering from a fractured wrist suffered during a recent training session, is eager to get back to the team next season and looks forward to getting back on the floor.
“I’m just here to play basketball,” he said. “I just want to play somewhere I feel comfortable with the coaches. And just where they really care.”
Culver’s tenure at Roseville was preceded by three seasons as an assistant at Wayzata High School, where he served as the freshman coach and varsity assistant. He was a member on a staff that led the Trojans to a Lake Conference championship, and back-to-back state runs.
Last season at Roseville, Culver coached the Fox to his first winning season with a 14-13 record. Over four seasons at the school, he compiled a 29-70 record.
“I can’t promise a state championship or 20-win season,” he said. “But I’m just hoping to bring a positive experience for the student-athletes, to families, the coaches that I work with. We just want people feeling positive and that doesn’t mean playing a lot.
“But they’re gonna leave learning a life lesson. They’re gonna leave with relationships, things like that.”
Culver’s staff is a mix of new faces as well as current coaches. Brett Pederson will enter his fifth season as an assistant with the EPHS boys program and sees no shift in priority under new leadership.
“Of course we want to win,” Pederson said. “But I think everybody agrees that serving others is what we always prioritize and academics and just making sure that we grow leaders and people that are going to be prepared for all aspects of life. So I’m excited for that.”
Mike Landers served as an assistant for Edina High School before coming to Eden Prairie last year. The upcoming season will be his first as an assistant at Eden Prairie, where he’s eager to help restart the program.
“I’m not looking back or even focusing on what happened last year,” he said. “I’m just excited to help move this community forward, working with these kids in the community.”
For the time being, the new head coach will do double time, teaching in Roseville during the early part of the day before making the trip across town to attend to his Eagles head coaching duties. He’s not complaining about the hectic schedule and feels fortunate for the opportunity.
“It’s a huge job. That’s no secret,” he said. “It really doesn’t get any bigger than this. So yes, it’s a lot of responsibility. But I have great support. I have great people to lean on. So I feel confident that I can handle whatever is to come.”
For the time being, that involves helping the community recover from a tumultuous year and move forward with new purpose.
“I want to bring us together,” he said. “We’re gonna focus on the people first and then basketball will take care of itself.”
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