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Feeling right at home: Former Raider star Carney returns as coach

Former Raider Jess (Vadnais) Carney watches the action in her first game as head coach of her old team Tuesday, Nov. 21. Carney won a state championship with the Raiders in 2003 before going on to become the all-time leading scorer at Gustavus Adolphus College. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Jess (Vadnais) Carney wasn't sure how much she wanted to get into coaching. But when the chance to coach her old high school team opened up, she jumped at it.

Carney was a three-time All-Big Rivers Conference player at Hudson High School, winning a state championship with the Raiders as a sophomore in 2002. After an All-American career at Gustavus Adolphus University, she started her own business as a personal trainer, but remained close to the Hudson basketball community as director of the Hudson Area Youth Girls Summer Basketball Camps and Hudson Basketball Association Girls in-house coordinator.

Now she's the Raider girls head coach, replacing Joe Behnke, who gave up the job to become principal at Hudson Prairie Elementary School over the summer.

"It's kind of surreal actually," Carney said after the Raiders' season opener against Colfax last Tuesday, Nov. 21. "Even though I've coached my first game I don't know if it's really hit me yet."

As a high school sophomore, Carney helped the Hudson High School girls win the 2002 Division 1 WIAA state championship. Her free throw with four seconds left in a semifinal game against Oshkosh West gave the Raiders a one-point victory, allowing them to advance to the title game, in which they routed Waukesha South, 65-46.

Carney led the Raiders back to Madison her junior year, where the Hudson girls defeated Kettle Moraine in the quarterfinals of the 2003 state tournament, but lost to Oshkosh West, the eventual state champion, in the semifinals.

She went on to become the all-time leading scorer at Gustavus Adolphus, earning Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior in 2007.

She said it feels good to be back in her old high school gym.

"Looking up at those banners and being a part of those banners, it's special," she said.

Carney said her familiarity with the Raider girls' program made her decision to take the head coaching job an easy one.

"I've been behind the scenes, doing individual workouts in the summer and coming into practice once a week," Carney said. "I've been doing that about three years now. So I was very familiar with all the girls, including the freshmen coming in because I run all the youth camps in the summer. And it really helped a lot because they know what I'm about and my expectations, and I know their skill sets and strengths and how to put the puzzle pieces together."

The Raiders made Carney a winner in her coaching debut, defeating Colfax, 54-38. She said she hopes the determination she portrayed as a player will be reflected in her coaching style, but there are plenty of differences as well.

"It's funny because I didn't really know what to expect," she said. "Being a coach you have a lot less control of what goes on. A lot of the competitiveness comes out, definitely. The will to win comes out. I try to portray that to the girls, that we want to come out with a great attitude and a lot of confidence. These are really a great group of young women and I want to help them succeed."

Now that she's taken the leap from player to coach, she said she's in it for the long haul.

"I didn't know how much I really wanted to get into coaching, but this is the only place I want to coach," she said. "People ask me, is this a stepping stone to something else? I say no, I'd like to be here for as long as I possibly can."

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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