Panka promoted to Vikings' head girls' basketball coach; assistant still sought
After 21 years with the same head coach, the Minneota girls' basketball program officially has a changing of the guard.
Al Panka, who has been an assistant coach under Chad Johnston for the past eight seasons, has been a part of two state titles and six state tournament trips with the Vikings.
Johnston resigned his position as head girls' basketball coach recently to become the head boys' coach here.
"Al's the right guy for the job," said Johnston, who won three Class A state titles and 478 games for the Vikings during his 21 years as head coach. "You always wonder how the kids will handle the transition of a new coach, but he's familiar with the girls and knows their capabilities, and they are familiar with him."
Panka and his wife, Brittany, live in Ivanhoe with their daughter Elizabeth and son Barrett. Al was born and raised in Ivanhoe and graduated from Lincoln HI in 1997. Brittany teaches fifth and sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary in Ivanhoe.
Panka has taught school for 22 years, the first 13 in Ivanhoe and the last nine in Minneota. Over the years, he has taught all levels of mathematics from grades 7-12. He earned his Masters in 2017 and currently teaches eighth grade math and geometry, as well as College Algebra and Statistics through Minnesota West.
Panka has also coached several sports at various levels, including football, volleyball, track, boys' basketball and girls' basketball. Besides being an assistant coach for several sports, Panka was head boys' basketball coach for one season at Lincoln HI, head volleyball coach there for two years, head boys and girls track coach there for four years, and head girls' basketball coach there from 2008-2014.
"I enjoy being around the kids," Panka said, when asked what he likes most about coaching. "I like helping them learn. Coaching has a family aspect about it. With all the time spent on bus rides and at practices and games, we are together all the time and we become like a family."
Panka inherits a team that went 28-5 last season and finished second at state. That team graduated six seniors, but Panka feels there is still plenty left in the tank.
"We've got a good group of players coming back," he said. "Some of the girls played a half on B team and a half on varsity, so they have varsity experience and will continue to get better."
Panka's B squad went 21-5 last season at Minneota. The school district is still searching for a B squad coach to take Panka's place, as well as a junior high girls' basketball and junior high volleyball coach.
Even though he has big shoes to fill by following a highly successful coach like Johnston, Panka admittedly is not nervous.
"I'm not trying to replace one of the best coaches ever," Panka said. "I don't feel nervous. I learned a lot from Chad about preparation for practice and games. I don't think we were ever thrown a loop that we weren't prepared for. I'd say I'm more excited and ready to get going than I am nervous."
When Panka heard about Johnston resigning as girls' basketball coach, he decided to apply for the position. He interviewed last Thursday, July 21 with new Activities Director Patty Myrvik, new high school principal Heather Anderson, school board member Tom Skorczewski, Kailey Buysse representing the teachers, and Matt Myrvik representing the coaches.
After the interview, Panka got in his vehicle to drive back home to Ivanhoe. Soon after, his drive was interrupted with a phone call.
"I hadn't made it home yet and they called to told me I had been approved," Panka said with a laugh.