The towns of Pine River and Kingsville, Texas, are on opposite ends of the United States.
But the northern Minnesota and southern Texas cities both have a common link, which is Dina Kangas.
Today, Kangas is 44 years old and teaching special education at a small charter school in Kingsville. She’s not involved in athletics, but she occasionally helps out with the school’s junior high basketball team.
Athletics is where Kangas made her mark in her hometown of Pine River more than 27 years ago, before the Pine River and Backus schools were consolidated. Before graduating in 1987, Kangas was a three-sport athlete whose biggest contribution came on the basketball court. She finished with 1,771 career points while helping the Tigers become an annual playoff contender for the former District 24 title.
“We had some really good teams,” Kangas said in a recent phone conversation. “It seems like we only lost twice a year. The season opener, because we would go far in the region volleyball playoffs and didn’t have much time to practice for the basketball season, and then the final (playoff) game of the year.”
Kangas was a four-year All-Lake Region Conference player and three-time conference MVP. She was also a Class A all-state selection by coaches as a senior. As a young sports writer at the time, I was impressed how Kangas could dominate her sport.
“Dina’s an excellent player,” former Pine River girls’ basketball coach Jerry Johnson said in a Brainerd Dispatch story in April 1987. “Hopefully, after the (high school) all-star games, she will get a good offer from a Division 1 or II college.”
Johnson’s wish came true as Kangas headed north to play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s basketball team. That decision excited former UMD basketball coach Karen Stromme.
“Dina had a tough choice to make,” Stromme said after Kangas’ decision to play for the Bulldogs. “St. Cloud State, the University of Wisconsin and Montana State were among the colleges that wanted her. We originally watched her in volleyball, and I got to know more about her basketball skills after talking to coaches.”
Kangas had an instant impact at UMD. She continually put up impressive offensive numbers and when her career ended in 1991, she was the Bulldogs’ all-time scoring leader with 2,810 points. The three-time NAIA All-American also had more career points than any other male or female player in Minnesota collegiate basketball history.
“I really enjoyed living in Duluth,” said Kangas, who was inducted into the UMD Hall of Fame in 2001. “It was nice that my sister, Jackie, also went to UMD at the same time, and she still lives there.”
Besides talent, Kangas was successful in high school and college because she managed to stay healthy.
“The worst injury I had was a twisted ankle,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm (of Bob and Betty Kangas) where we were in good shape doing chores every day. That also taught me work ethic, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
After college, Kangas furthered her basketball career through coaching. She served as an assistant coach at Duluth East High School, and then in the college ranks at UMD, College of St. Scholastica, North Dakota State University, Bemidji State University and Minnesota State University of Moorhead.
She then headed south in 2003 to accept a head coaching job at Texas A&M-Kingsville, a Division II program in a community of 25,000 people.
“It was a hard situation,” said Kangas, whose teams didn’t have a winning record in any of the four seasons at Kingsville. “When I took over there were only two players on a scholarship, and it was a challenge to rebuild. There was also a lot of traveling. Our closest (Lone Star) conference game was six hours away. It was also hard to recruit because we had 30 Division I schools in our region.”
Kangas has remained in Kingsville since leaving the college in 2007. She enjoys teaching special education, golfing and playing an occasional game of “horse” on the basketball court.
“In hindsight, my (coaching) career might have been better if I stayed in Minnesota,” she said, “but I don’t miss the cold back home. I usually go to Pine River to visit in the summer. That’s when it gets real warm and humid in Kingsville.”