In a small town, Whalen is a big name

by Dan Miller

If it weren’t for the houses on top of the flat prairie of central Minnesota, the sign “Lindsay Whalen Day 2/20” would have been visible from Highway 7. Welcome to Hutchinson, population: 13,080.

In honor of the University’s all-time leading basketball scorer, the mayor of Hutchinson declared Friday the second Lindsay Whalen Day in the last two years.

During a 20-minute ceremony in the high school gymnasium, Mayor Marlin Torgerson announced the holiday while Hutchinson High School retired Whalen’s old jersey.

The 22-year-old received a rock star’s welcome as she retired her No. 13 jersey during halftime at a high school basketball game.

As Whalen entered, 6-year-old Madison Mueller rushed down to the front of the bleachers holding a sign above her head. She tried to point to the number 13 painted on her cheek.

“This morning she asked if she could wrap her arm so she could be like Lindsay,” said Chelle Mueller, Madison’s mother.

Whalen – who injured her hand last week in a game against Ohio State – ended her acceptance speech with the same honest and steely look she wears on the court.

“Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Enjoy the second half,” she said.

Whalen’s name will likely become a permanent fixture on the Hutchinson welcome sign next to “Birthplace of Les Kouba,” a well-known wildlife artist.

“This is a big day for our little Hutch,” said Darrel Vanderhieden, a school board member.

Whalen’s notoriety is unchallenged (except maybe by Kouba) and everyone in town seems to have a story about her.

At the Hutch Cafe on Main Street, waitress Angie Kletschka paused from scooping ice cream Friday to talk about Whalen. She sat in front of her in social studies class in high school and joked that she tried to get answers from her.

“My nephew knows her,” Hutchinson resident Darlene Barrich said. “He wanted her jersey, but he couldn’t get one.”

Another local resident, Chad Sykes Sr., had no connection to Whalen but knew of her and her reputation.

“I’ve never met her,” Sykes said sipping his coffee at the cafe’s bar. “But it’s kinda neat. I have a 4-year-old girl and it’s kinda neat for her to have a mentor.”

This is the kind of respect Whalen draws in the small, tight community and why she has quickly become Hutchinson’s most famous resident.

The story, and now legend, states that Whalen started her athletic career playing hockey with boys and found she liked basketball the most. The 5-foot-9 guard only received an honorable mention in statewide basketball recognition in high school, but blossomed in her Minnesota uniform.

With a fast-paced, exciting style of basketball, she became the poster girl for the Gophers’ program that struggled to average 1,000 fans per game her freshman season. Now, the Gophers pull more than 14,000 fans into the Barn.

The Gophers’ all-time leading scorer, Whalen is a two-time All-American and will likely be selected in the first round of the WNBA draft later this year.

It has been rumored that Minnesota’s professional women’s basketball team, the Lynx, might try to draft Whalen in the upcoming WNBA draft. They have the seventh overall pick.

“(The Lynx) don’t draw as well as the Gophers are drawing right now,” Jerry Carlson said. “If they could get her, you’re going to automatically get a crowd to come and watch.”

For Sykes, Whalen reminds him of the great Minnesota Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who played his high school career in the metro area.

“It would be like Hrbek,” he said. “I’ll tell you Hrbek came to play; Lindsay comes to play.”

But it’s more than her basketball achievements that draws respect in Hutchinson.

People have noticed the recent news of Whalen’s personal successes and her team’s emergence as a national contender. Despite the hype and pressure, they are impressed by how she has behaved under the spotlight.

“I just heard about on the radio seven football players in Colorado were charged with rape,” Sykes said. “It’s neat to see this Lindsay gal all straight and narrow.”

Carlson, who has coached swimming in Hutchinson for 43 years, said Whalen’s rap doesn’t follow the norm.

“She doesn’t fit in with the athletes we have today. I’ve never seen anybody who has been as successful as she is and still be a great role model, and I’ve watched ‘U’ sports for years,” Carlson said. “She sure is a gift to this community.”