By Rachel Finkbeiner
Special to the Elk River Star News and Mille Lacs County Times
In summer, many young boys pick up their gloves to partake in a game of T-ball. One day in 1963 it wasn’t just boys in the field at Milaca, but also a five-year-old girl named Brenda.
“I’m not sure why my father took me along with my brother that day,” said Brenda Holmgren.
Also surprising, she said, was that the Milaca supervisor let the girl play.
“Mr. (Herb) Claffy said, ‘Go ahead, put on your glove and go to first.’ And so I put my glove on the wrong hand, and ran to third!” laughed Holmgren.
But she had a great time.
“I loved it. It was like a duck to water. From that point on I couldn’t imagine anything better.”
This first exposure to sports turned into a career of 30 years coaching and officiating, including approximately 10 state girls basketball tournaments (she’s lost track).
Holmgen’s dedication was recognized in March when she received two significant awards — the Breaking Barriers Award, from the National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and a Distinguished Service Award, from the Minneapolis Officiating Association. Holmgren was in a small group recognized at halftime at one of the state tournament games.
In high school, the athlete first did track, then took on volleyball, basketball and softball. Her senior year, there was no softball team, so she played on the baseball team instead.
Holmgren went to St. Cloud State to become a teacher, which she wanted to do since age eight. At St. Cloud she did one season each of softball, track, basketball and golf.Holmgren said she just relied on her athletic ability and competitiveness.
The history and physical education major ended up in Elk River because of track. As a junior at Milaca, she competed in a track meet at Elk River, and while waiting to receive her second-place ribbon for hurdles in the cafeteria, all she could think about was, “Wouldn’t this be a cool school to be a part of?” Six years later, she was hired at Elk River High School.
Holmgren was head volleyball coach for 20 years and has served as assistant track coach for even longer. Her late husband Roger was a longtime umpire. Their two daughters played volleyball. Their son Ryan played baseball and is the current Elk coach.
Being involved in female sports for so long has allowed Holmgren to observe how they have evolved over the years.
The initial switch from player to coach was an interesting one. Having grown up in “boys culture” where, when you compete, you leave behind whatever issues you had with teammates, she said, with a chuckle, that “girls hold grudges.” But that attitude seems to be changing, she says, as girls’ sports have become more competitive and not “just for fun.”
There are now more opportunities for women in the college scene.
“When I went to college there were no athletic scholarships for girls, but for my daughter there was. I now look forward to what opportunities my granddaughters will have in sports.”
She observes that number of females in coaching and officiating still lags behind men, but noticed that when the Elk girls won the state softball championship game in June, all three umpires were female and all three Elk coaches were female. “A rarity,” she said.
Officiating basketball is similar to school for Holmgren. The mechanics — how you present yourself during a game — is the science. How you manage the game itself is the art.
Holmgren enjoys teaching this “subject” in her capacity as a Minnesota State High School League clinician. Her service in mentoring referees is one of the reasons she got the award in March.
Holmgren hopes to squeeze in several more seasons.
“A knee replacement surgery gave me a few more years on the court,” Holmgren said.
During a Senior Night game at Maple Grove, Holmgren was “shocked” when a senior guard asked to take a picture with her, which led to other seniors wanting to do the same.
“I was moved to tears,” said Holmgren. “I never considered myself special.”
Holmgren attributes her success in sports in part to her husband, who passed away in 2008.
“God bless the husbands that help their wives succeed,” she said, “and make sure that they tell their wives it’s important you do this.”
Sports haven’t been work for Holmgren.
“I just went out there and had fun for 30 years, and that I’d actually get recognized for that was kinda like, ‘Wow!’”
She adds: “I wish I was young so I could do it all over again.”
When she retires in five years or so, her hobbies will be working on her lake home, spending time with her cats and dogs and reading. But her days will likely start the same as they do now: drinking coffee out of a Minnesota Twins cup, which reflects the passion that began that first day of T-ball.