John's Journal
Football Rankings: Class 2A10/5/2016
School Total Points
1. Caledonia (6) (6-0) 60
2. Barnesville (5-0) 54
3. Pillager (5-0) 42
Redwood Valley (5-0) 42
5. Eden Valley-Watkins (4-1) 34
6. Maple River (4-1) 26
7. Royalton (5-0) 23
8. Hawley (4-1) 21
9. Zumbrota-Mazeppa (4-1) 11
10. St. Agnes (4-1) 8
Others receiving votes: New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva-5, Eveleth-Gilbert-3, Lakeville-1
Football Rankings: Class 1A10/5/2016
School Total Points
1. Minneota (7) (5-0) 79
2. BOLD (1) (5-0) 65
Minneapolis North (5-0) 65
4. Rushford-Peterson (5-0) 54
5. Hinckley-Finlayson (5-0) 48
6. Fillmore Central (4-1) 22
7. Dawson-Boyd (4-1) 21
8. Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (5-0) 20
9. Pine River-Backus (5-0) 19
10. Wabasso (4-1) 14
Others receiving votes: Mahnomen 12, Goodhue-11, Mayer Lutheran-6, Upsala-Swanville-3, Blooming Prairie-1
Football Rankings: Nine-Man10/5/2016
School Total Points
1. Grand Meadow (5) (5-0) 60
Spring Grove (1) (5-0) 60
3. Waubun (1) (5-0) 56
4. Cleveland (5-0) 48
5. Edgerton-Ellsworth (5-0) 37
6. Nevis (5-0) 34
7. Ely (5-0) 33
8. Verndale (6-0) 27
9. Cromwell (4-0) 19
10. North Woods (5-0) 5
Others receiving votes: Mountain Iron-Buhl-2, Stephen-Argyle-2, Kittson County Central-1, Wheaton-Herman-Norcross-1
In Grand Meadow, Nine-Man Football Is Grand10/3/2016
GRAND MEADOW – When this little town was established during the Civil War era, it took its name from the picturesque prairie landscape of southeast Minnesota. Nowadays, the grandest meadow in Grand Meadow is a field of thick green grass on the eastern edge of town, 120 yards long and 40 yards wide, the home of the best little football team in Minnesota.

The Grand Meadow Superlarks have won the last three nine-man football state championships. They own the longest current winning streak in the state regardless of class, with Friday’s 80-34 victory over West Lutheran extending their run to 41 games. Their last defeat came in October 2013.

Friday’s victory capped Homecoming week, which was filled with the usual array of fun festivities that included themed dress-up days in the K-12 school, float building, an afternoon parade and introduction of Homecoming royalty at halftime of the football game. An unofficial tradition took place very late Thursday evening/early Friday morning when some merry pranksters TP’d the home of head coach Gary Sloan.

His dog, hearing the shenanigans, woke the coach. Sloan flipped on an exterior light “and I saw about a dozen of them out there,” he said with a smile Friday afternoon. “That didn’t even faze them.”

It’s hard not to have fun during autumn in Grand Meadow. Everyone takes great pride in the success of the Superlarks, filling a small set of bleachers and lining up along the fence that circles the field. The town itself is crowded all the time these days, with a growing school enrollment fueled by parents who work in nearby Rochester and Austin and want to raise their kids in a quiet town with a quality school.

The school building is unique: Five windowless monolithic domes that encompass classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab and offices. The structure opened in 2002 and is being expanded this fall with the addition of larger gym, locker rooms, workout facilities and four classrooms. Geothermal energy powers the school via 26 miles of pipe under the practice fields a few steps away.

Grand Meadow’s current high school enrollment is 95 students. When the Superlarks won their first-ever state football title in 2013 the senior class consisted of 17 students; a year later that number was 18 and last year it was 29. The district's average current class size is in the upper 30s.

Many nine-man football schools struggle with numbers and some form cooperative teams with other schools in order to keep football alive. The opposite is taking place in Grand Meadow, where growth may push the Superlarks into 11-man football at some point.

“We won’t get to that 11-man number in the next four to five years but we’re getting close,” said Sloan (pictured during a pregame meeting).

Game nights in Grand Meadow include a few special amenities. Seats in a couch located behind an end zone are raffled off; an auction was held at halftime Friday with the game ball selling for $1,200. The press box is a roomy three-story building that seats coaches, video cameras, scoreboard operator and announcer on the top level, while the second story houses four “luxury suites” that also bring in funds.

The long winning streak means every team wants to play its absolute best against the Superlarks, and West Lutheran – the school is in Plymouth, two hours from Grand Meadow – did just that. The Warriors (enrollment 145) and quarterback Ben Beise had 311 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Grand Meadow is a running team, with senior Christopher Bain carrying nine times for 217 yards and three scores and junior Zach Myhre running eight times for 130 yards and one TD.

“I feel like there’s pressure in every game,” Myhre said. “And I know we’re going to get every team’s best effort, no matter who they are, the No. 2-ranked team or the worst team. We’re going to get their best effort.”

Senior Connor King said, “Pressure is obviously there. There’s not much we can do about it other than just play our best and go into every game the same.”

There is a friendly in-house rivalry between graduating classes. Two years ago the senior football players had a career record of 47-6 and last year’s class went 53-3. This year’s seniors have lost only once in 43 games since their freshman season.

“They’re all trying to beat the class in front of them. It’s a friendly competition. These guys are buddies but there’s a lot of bragging rights,” said Sloan, a native of Ellendale who also is a special education teacher, activities director, transportation director and Title IX coordinator for the school district. This is his 24th year as the head football coach.

Grand Meadow’s first trip to the state football playoffs was in 1986, but the Superlarks have a long, rich history. Bill Severin Sr. was the coach in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1965 the team set a then-state record with 47 straight wins. Severin was named Minnesota’s first coach of the year in 1965 and was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989.

The current Superlarks are 5-0 going into Friday’s game at LeRoy-Ostrander (2-3). Grand Meadow fans can be forgiven for looking ahead to the final regular-season game against Spring Grove, which is also unbeaten in 2015 and is routinely the Superlarks’ biggest rival in the Section 1 playoffs.

Grand Meadow’s streak was in serious jeopardy in last year’s regular-season finale, a 21-20 nail-biter at Spring Grove. In six postseason games that followed, the Superlarks won by an average margin of 24 points; the closest game was a 14-point victory over Underwood in the Prep Bowl.

The Superlarks’ average score this fall is 65-17. They are rushing for 391 yards per game, with Bain averaging 131 yards and Myrhe 93 for a team with starters that go to the bench as soon as the second quarter.

All this success hinges on many factors, of course, but none are more important than coaching. Sloan has only four assistant coaches, and all of them – Aaron Myhre, Deke Stejskal, Anthony Stejskal and Josh Bain – played for him.

“Our coaching staff does a really good job and the players buy in and work hard in the offseason,” King said. “It’s like a band of brothers here. We all get along with each other and we work well together.”

Zach Myhre added, “Obviously there are a lot of kids who get in the weight room in the offseason and work their butts off, but I think it comes down to our coaching staff implementing our game plan and then us successfully playing with it.”

--To see a photo gallery from Grand Meadow, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 72
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,667
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Day Jon Gruden Came To Minnesota High School Football10/1/2016
If you have watched Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football or other programs on ESPN, you know he is passionate about football. The former college and NFL coach has made an impact on the game in many ways, but not all of them are played out in his role as an analyst under the bright lights of prime-time television.

In a rather quiet and private affair on Saturday afternoon at the Vikings’ headquarters in Eden Prairie, Gruden made an impact on players and coaches from four Minnesota high school football teams. They will remember it as long as they live.

Teams from Red Lake, Eden Valley-Watkins, Minneapolis North and St. Paul Como Park were invited to attend a special event headlined by Gruden, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in 2003. Gruden talked to the teams en masse, ran them through drills, shared a meal with them and delivered gifts to each team. He also complied with every autograph request and posed for a photo with every person who asked.

Gruden and ESPN, in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods, hold similar events in every city the Saturday before Monday Night Football games (the Vikings host the New York Giants on Monday night). Each Minnesota team received a $2,000 donation along with new footballs, tackling dummies, blocking pads and t-shirts. The head coaches received gift cards.

In years of writing about high school sports, I have never met anyone who displayed more passion than Gruden. He has taken on the mantle of supporting football and all youth sports because of what they teach.

“I think the lessons that you learn from football are lessons you can’t get anywhere else,” he told me after the two-hour event ended. “Teamwork, sportsmanship, your work ethic, the discipline, accountability, mental toughness, all those things. Things that a lot of people don’t think are important anymore, but they’re wrong.”

Gruden began the session by gathering all four teams (“take a knee”) at midfield on the Vikings’ indoor practice field. The players wore their jerseys: Red for Red Lake, blue for Eden Valley-Watkins, black for Como Park and gray for North. He talked about determination, effort and communication, but first he stressed the importance of a proper handshake.

He had one of the players stand up and shake hands with him, saying “C’mon! I wanna see a good handshake!” Then he had all the players shake hands with players from other teams as they introduced themselves.

He had the four starting quarterbacks stand up and bark out a cadence. Middle linebackers did the same thing, calling defensive signals. As one of the quarterbacks displayed a deep, loud cadence, Gruden shouted, “That’s a great voice there!”

“You’ve got to communicate, and I’m not talking about Twitter, texting and that Snapchat thing,” he told the boys.

He told the players to appreciate every practice, every game and every memory.

“The best times of my life, 53 years, was playing this game,” he said.

Gruden grew up in Sandusky, Ohio. In college at Dayton he was a backup quarterback. His college coaching career took him to Tennessee, Southeast Missouri State, University of Pacific and University of Pittsburgh. He was an NFL assistant in San Francisco, Green Bay and Philadelphia before becoming head coach in Oakland in 1998. He replaced Tony Dungy as head coach in Tampa Bay in 2002.

After he was fired by Tampa Bay in 2010, Gruden helped coach his son’s high school football team in Tampa. He also created an organization called the Fired Football Coaches Association, “dedicated to giving back to the game of football, with a specific emphasis on high school athletic programs.”

“When I got fired we formed this FFCA. The only job I really had was coaching my son’s high school football team,” Gruden told me. “And I realized then that the coaches don’t get paid anything, they don’t have a budget, and everybody complains about everything. And in a lot of places kids have to pay to play football.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods teamed up and they have a program where they’re trying to save youth sports. There are people who are trying to diminish them; no more recess, no more games, no more football, no more anything. And I’m not just talking about football. I’m talking about women’s sports, all kinds of youth sports.”

Gruden smiled when I asked him about his memories of playing high school football.

“I still remember the games. I can remember putting on my pads. I remember pregame meals. I can remember what I did after the games. The great wins, the tough losses, the lessons I learned, the friends I made, the places I got to see. And my coaches and the lessons they taught. And I don’t know where we’d be without those, you know?”

Gruden hands out “Gruden Grinder” awards during NFL games, and Saturday he awarded Gruden Grinder t-shirts to selected players from each high school, based on things like work ethic, grades, and other school activities in which the players are involved. An ESPN camera crew filmed Saturday’s event and excerpts will be televised during Monday night Giants-Vikings game.

Before the four Minnesota teams headed for home, they posed for team photos with Gruden and a ceremonial $2,000 check in front of a Dick’s Sporting Goods bus that carried a simple message in giant letters: “Sports Matter.”

“As long as I’m alive we’re going to try and create some awareness that it’s a problem.” Gruden said of the challenges facing youth sports. “I want my kids and their kids and their kids to have a chance to play the games I got to play. Because there’s no way I am where I am without sports.”

--To see photos from the event, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 72
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,667
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn