John's Journal
Getting Back On Track As A New Season Begins 4/9/2017
The first weeks of the track and field season are all about preparation. Individual athletes and relay teams work on technique, speed and endurance while trying not to overdo things and risk injury. The goal is to be reaching top form near the midway point of the season and pushing through to – hopefully – the state championship meet in June.

A perfect example is Bloomington Kennedy senior Honour Finley, one of the top athletes in the state. She is coming off basketball season and working to get into track shape, with the goal of winning the Class 2A state title in the 400 meters for the third time and lowering the all-time state record of 53.96 seconds she set in 2016.

In her first outdoor meet of the season Friday, Finley won the 400 in 56.83, the 200 in 25.71 and was 13th in the long jump during the 14-team Knights Under the Lights Invitational at Irondale High School.

“I focus on getting back into track shape, making sure my form is still good and fine-tuning the little things,” she said of her early-season goals.

She’s focused less on her times right now and more on transforming from basketball condition to track condition, saying training for track takes more endurance.

“It’s a lot different,” she said. “There’s a lot of running in basketball but it’s not the same.”

Another high-level athlete making the change from basketball to track is Genuine Matthews. The senior from St. Francis placed second at state in the 2A boys 400 meters last year. After running one indoor meet, the Irondale invitational was Matthews’ first outdoor competition of 2017.

Matthews, who will be a college track athlete at North Dakota State, has focused his training on the 400 this year.

“It’s definitely different. I’m doing way more distances than last year, because I didn’t know that the 400 was going to be my main race until the end of the year,” he said.

One of the state’s top returning relay teams is the girls 4x200 unit from Waconia. They were state champs in 2016 with a time of 1:40.79; the state record is 1:40.08, set by Hopkins in 2010.

Allie Marrs was a senior on Waconia’s 4x200 team last year, but the other three runners return: current senior Molly Reighard and juniors Danielle Pioske and Madison Voigt.

“We know we kind of have that target on our back,” Pioske said after the Wildcats won the 4x200 at Irondale. “But it really pushes us to work harder and run better times. We definitely want to stay healthy and just keep working hard in practice and meets to get our times consistent to where they were at the end of last season.”

Voigt said, “Our goal is definitely to be better than we were and keep getting better. I think last year our plan developed through the season, where we just kind of moved things around, tested things out from meet to meet and saw how things went. We showed at the state meet that it worked.”

Another returning state finisher competing Friday was running on her home track. Irondale junior Julia Hayes was third at state in the 2A 100 and 300 hurdles last spring. She won both events Friday.

“I just want to improve from where I was last year at this point,” she said. “I didn’t have the fastest times at the beginning last year and I’m hoping to improve that.”

One of the most experienced state-meet athletes in Minnesota is North Branch senior distance runner Rhianna Rinke. She has qualified for state in track and cross-country every year since eighth grade and won the 1,600 on Friday at Irondale. She will run collegiately at Minnesota Duluth.

“I just want to PR as much as I can,” she said. “It’s my last high school season and I would love to go out with a bang and be happy.”

After running one indoor meet prior to the Knights Under the Lights Invitational, Rinke spoke for all the athletes when asked about competing outdoors for the first time in 2017.

“It feels good. I love the fresh air.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 572
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 9,559
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Baseball History Is Made Under A Glass Roof 4/4/2017
Terry Ryan was trying to do something he has done thousands and thousands of times in his life as a baseball man: enter a ballpark.

The former Minnesota Twins general manager, now a special assignment scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, had recently returned to his Twin Cities home from spring training in Florida, and Tuesday’s plan was to scout some prep baseball in Minneapolis. The only stumbling block was gaining access to U.S. Bank Stadium, which was hosting high school baseball for the first time. Ryan was delayed getting through security, waiting as personnel made phone calls and peered at a computer screen before admitting him.

For Ryan, the day was like many others: he watched young ballplayers, hoping to find someone who may be worth a closer look. For the boys from Moorhead and Sartell-St. Stephen, however, they were making history as the first high school teams to play in the new billion-dollar home of the Minnesota Vikings, as well as MSHSL soccer and football state tournament games.

Baseball is usually the same no matter the location, with balls and strikes and fly balls and groundouts. It’s not quite the same at U.S. Bank Stadium –where the University of Minnesota and other college baseball teams also play -- because the sky is behind a glass roof and no dirt can be found. The entire playing surface is artificial turf, including home plate, the base paths, the pitcher’s mound and the mounds in the bullpens down the left- and right-field lines. Anyone looking for a place to spit or dig in their spikes came up empty.

The Moorhead Spuds arrived a couple of hours before the 12:45 to 3:45 p.m. time slot that they and the Sartell Sabres had been allotted. Coach Greg Salvevold didn’t know what the result of such an early arrival would be, but the Spuds were allowed on the field, giving them extra time for practice before scrimmaging the Sabres for three hours.

“Usually we’re still inside,” Salvevold said. “Being able to be outside for this whole week and coming to U.S. Bank and getting live reps on the field, it’s awesome.”

The Sabres and Spuds brought a total of 56 uniformed players, and everyone got on the field. Two more three-hour time slots followed Tuesday, with Kasson-Mantorville and Holy Family in the stadium from 4 to 7 p.m., and Kenyon-Wanamingo and Medford taking their turn from 7:15 to 10:15 p.m. Other teams will follow throughout April; by the end of the month 60 Minnesota high school teams will have played inside the stadium.

Each team pays the stadium $975 for their three-hour slot; part of those funds go toward paying umpires. Until recently, Salvevold and Sartell coach Jerome Nemanich were not aware that they would be the first high school teams to play at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“We didn’t know that,” Nemanich said. “They gave us the dates, and we just wanted to go during the third week of practice.”

Fans pay five dollars to watch from front-row seats if they wish. There was a smattering of spectators for the Moorhead-Sartell game, protected from foul balls and errant throws by a net that also covered the field-level suites that are used for Vikings games. The teams are housed in temporary dugouts, metal boxes with fenced fronts and rubber floors. Nemanich called them “chicken coops,” which was pretty accurate.

The football markings remain on the field, with additional white stripes put down for foul lines, batters boxes and outlines of the base paths.

The sounds of the game were standard stuff: “Let’s go 11!” and “Way to hang!” A second baseman was told to play as deep as he wanted, because “The ball’s gonna get there quick” on the turf. When the ball bounced, whether off the bat or into the ground on a pitch, tiny shards of rubber were kicked up in a strong imitation of infield dirt. The Sabres wore their full game uniforms while the Spuds were in numberless team T-shirts.The first pitcher to take the mound was Moorhead junior Sam Haiby, a Division I basketball recruit who is in her first year on the varsity baseball team.

As players wearing metal spikes walked from a behind-the-scenes batting cage to the field through a concrete corridor, a stadium employee said, “It sounds like an army marching in.”

Some outfielders and players sitting in the right field bullpen wore sunglasses to protect against the sun streaming through the roof. It was warm in the ballpark, warmer than any Minnesota ballplayer is accustomed to in April. The outdoor temperature was 62 degrees, and it was warmer than that inside.

“You don’t know how hot it is out there,” one of the Sabres said to his teammates after coming off the field and sitting in the shade of the chicken coop.

Afterwards, Moorhead senior Carter Howell said of the stadium, “It was pretty crazy, walking in and seeing it. I thought it would be more air-conditioned, be a little cooler.”

While the teams played, the business of the big stadium continued. Employees put a fresh shine on the floor in the exclusive Delta 360 Club behind the third-base dugout, a place for big spenders to hang out on Vikings game days. Later, a tour guide stood in the Delta 360 Club with a group of visitors. He explained how much club users pay for tickets, to which one of the tourists responded, “HOW much!?”

No scoreboards were used during the scrimmage and there was no stadium announcer. The three-hour time slot was counted down on a digital clock near one of the giant video screens, which are dark during high school play. As the window for Moorhead and Sartell began to close in the final minutes, players sprinted on and off the field as coaches yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”

On their team Twitter account (@SpudBaseball), the Spuds had been counting down the days until they walked onto the field in downtown Minneapolis.

“Ever since day 100, we’ve been counting it down on Twitter so the boys have been getting excited to be here and now it happened,” Salvevold said. “We’re getting our feet wet and getting ready for the season, I think that’s the most important thing.”

As the clock struck zero, the Spuds and Sabres exchanged handshakes and then posed for a two-team photo as parents and others put their cell-phone cameras to use from the stands.

One of the fans said with a laugh, “You don’t even have to rake the field before you leave!”

A few minutes later, the keys were turned in two buses that were loaded with ballplayers and their gear in the stadium’s airplane-hanger-sized loading dock. Everybody went home happy.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 562
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 9,489
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Class 1A Boys Tennis Rankings4/1/2017
Provided by the Minnesota Tennis Coaches Association

CLASS 1A

TEAMS
1 Blake
2 Breck
3 Rochester Lourdes
4 St. Paul Academy
5 Litchfield
6 Foley
7 Holy Family Catholic
8 Hibbing
9 Mound Westonka
10 Luverne

INDIVIDUALS
1 Ben Ingbar, Blake
2 Jack Barker, Blake
3 Joe Mairs, Blake
4 Peter Erickson, Rochester Lourdes
5 Karthik Papisetty, Breck
6 Thomas Metz, Breck
7 Mathew Metz, Breck
8 Ryan Ortega, Winona Cotter
9 Rafait Solaiman, St. Peter
10 Jose Williamson, Minnehaha
Class 2A Boys Tennis Rankings4/1/2017
Provided by the Minnesota Tennis Coaches Association

CLASS 2A

TEAMS
1 Minnetonka
2 Rochester Century
3 East Ridge
4 Mounds View
5 Lakeville South
6 Rochester Mayo
7 Eastview
8 Wayzata
9 Edina
10 Benilde

INDIVIDUALS
1 Ben van der Sman, East Ridge
2 Nikita Snezhko, Armstrong
3 Sebastian Vile, Rochester Mayo
4 Ben Wheaton, Minnetonka
5 Gavin Young, Eastview
6 Maxim Zagrebelny, Eagan
7 Varun Iyer, Century
8 Connor Olson, Orono
9 Chase Roseth, Lakeville South
10 Sam Hochberger, Maple Grove

In A New Baseball Season, The Miracle Of Henry Sibley Lives On4/1/2017
It’s a new season of high school baseball in Minnesota but you have to forgive people who want to talk about what the Henry Sibley Warriors accomplished last season. It’s a remarkable, one-in-a-million saga that will be remembered for a long, long time. Because how many teams in any sport anywhere go from a record of 4-14 to a state championship?

The Warriors – whose school is in Mendota Heights -- began the 2016 season with five losses before stringing together four consecutive wins. But that was followed by nine defeats in a row, giving them a record of 4-14. They closed the regular season with two wins and took a 6-14 mark into the double-elimination Section 3 playoffs.

They opened the postseason by beating St. Paul Highland Park 9-3 and losing to St. Thomas Academy 1-0. One more loss in the section tournament would have ended their season, but the Warriors won four games to claim the section title, then went to state and defeated Northfield, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Mahtomedi to become Class 3A state champs.

Looking back from the doorstep of the 2017 season, returning members of the team can only shake their heads at the memories.

“We had our banquet before the section tournament started,” said current senior catcher Matt Richards. “Coach gave a little talk and said, ‘We’re not done yet. We still have to go out and finish the section tournament and try to make the most of it.’ The timing of that was funny because we were 4-14 and the regular season was done and nobody had any idea what was going to happen next.”

It was remarkable. After the state championship game at Target Field, Henry Sibley coach Greg Fehrman tried to explain, saying, “I can’t. I really can’t. I wish I could but I can’t. It’s one of those things that turned out the way it did.”

Henry Sibley’s only previous baseball state championship came in 1994; the team also went to state in 2005. It’s pretty easy to figure out the team’s goal this spring: Get back to state, but maybe without so much drama and high-wire intrigue.

“I’m one of those people that believes every time you start a new year, ultimately your goal is to win a state title,” said Fehrman, who is beginning his 27th year as the Warriors head coach. “You’re always trying to make sure you play the game as clean as you can play it. Make sure you throw the ball across the plate, get the outs you’re supposed to get and battle as best you can.”

Eight of last year’s 15 losses were by one run, so the Warriors weren’t as far behind the pack as their record may have made it look.

“It looks one way on the outside looking in, and on the inside looking out you get another look at it,” said Fehrman (pictured). “From my perspective, it’s one of those deals where we weren’t that bad. We lost a lot of games by one run. We had some concerns as far as injuries and a couple other issues. In the end, we started cleaning up our game a little bit. Once you start playing good it’s kind of contagious. We had a good understanding of how we wanted to go about the plan.”

The hope this season is that the Warriors’ contagious spirit continues.

“I think last year we just took it one day at a time,” said senior infielder and pitcher Joe Ihrke. “Earlier in the season we were probably trying to do too many big things. When we were unsuccessful at that we kind of took a step back and took it one day at a time, one practice at a time, one pitch at a time. I’m excited for this year. I think we have a chance to be successful this year.

“After the first day of practice (this season), coach Fehrman took us aside and said we made our hay last year but it’s a new year so that’s over with.”

There are six returning starters this year, but other than Richards behind the plate there are players who may be plugged in at several positions.

“We bring back a little pitching, catching, we’ve got to find a shortstop,” Fehrman said. “These kids nowadays, they love to play the game and it’s fun to be with them.”

One of the lessons of last season is that you never know what might happen when you stick together and play the game one pitch, one out at a time.

“Last year was unbelievable, crazy,” said senior outfielder Sam Gantman. “But it’s in the past. It’s a new team this year, a lot of young guys.”

There should be little reason for overconfidence, Fehrman said.

“You’ve always got to guard against kids hanging on to yesterday,” he said. “We talk about it. We make sure that for the kids who had a role in playing the game last year, they have to understand they need to extend themselves from that point. And for the kids filling in, they have to be contributing.”

If all goes well this spring, the Warriors seniors will finish their high school career with an overall winning record. They’re not there yet.

“We’re two games under .500, ” Irhke said, smiling. “We still have a losing record in our high school career but we’re state champs.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 560
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 9,443
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn