John's Journal
Looking Back: Moose Lake’s Inspirational Megan Wegge7/25/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Jan. 1.

Watch Megan Wegge skate. Watch her stride down the ice -- forceful and smooth -- as a member of the Moose Lake girls hockey team. Afterwards, when her helmet and facemask have been removed, watch her smile. Oh, that smile.

As a new year begins, Megan’s smile is something to feel good about. Really good.

Megan is a miracle. When she was born 16 years ago she was placed on life support and doctors doubted that she would survive. But here she is, along with her brother Nick and sister Brooke (yes, Megan is a triplet).

Cancer came later, when Megan was 11. The technical term was stage 3 undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver. It’s rare, it’s vicious and it wins a lot of the fights it starts.

Megan was battling cancer long before she had cancer. Ten years ago, a friend named Johnny Murphy died because of cancer. After that, Megan began raising money to fight the disease. She made chocolate treats and sold them herself. She donated her own hair to Locks of Love.

“My friend Johnny died when I was pretty young and that really impacted me,” Megan said. “I wanted to help, and I never knew that I was going to get cancer.”

She had a tumor the size of a softball in her liver. The tumor ruptured before surgery, which added another layer of complications and concern. Doctors removed the tumor and most of Megan’s liver. That was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She underwent chemo and proton beam therapy treatments, 29 in all, over the course of two and a half months in Bloomington, Indiana.

I asked Megan about her memories from that time. And she smiled.

“I have a lot of memories, most of them are actually good,” she said. “I know that I felt really sick at some points, but I’ve kind of pushed those memories out of my mind. We’ve met a lot of really good people. A lot of hockey people have come together. The Edina team did a lot; they sold lemonade and raised money for me. The Gophers women’s team has done a lot for me. One player in particular, Megan Bozek, has been a huge inspiration to me. She would come visit me in the hospital, she let me come and skate with her team and visit them.

“We’ve made a lot of connections with a lot of people and we’ve made some really good friends from everything.”

Megan won’t be declared cancer-free until the disease has been absent for 10 years. She’s halfway to that mark. Her current medical status is N.E.D., which stands for No Evidence of Disease. Because of the treatments she went through, there are times when she feels tired, when it’s a little hard to get a good breath, when there is pain.

“Other than that, I’m doing super well,” she said, busting out that smile again.

Moose Lake coach Joe Mohelsky said, “One of our team values is being grateful. And Megan really brings that gratitude to the team. She battled that cancer. It was really touch and go there for a while, and a lot of these girls spent a lot of time with her and came up through youth hockey with her.

“She’s a fighter and you can see it on the ice. Her motor never quits running. Megan’s a great kid. She’s smart, she’s a great teammate, she’s a real pleasure to coach.”

Playing hockey and being part of the team is important to Megan. Her mother, in fact, said returning to the ice was a goal that helped Megan get through cancer treatments.

“Her doctors advised her not to skate,” said Jodi Wegge (pictured with Megan). “She had almost her whole liver removed and a lot of things shifted, so if she got run into the boards it could be not good. But that’s what got her through, that’s what she looked forward to. I can’t take away the thing that saved her. We never know what’s going to happen to any of us at any time, so we just enjoy life and let her do what she wants to do.”

The Wegge family is grateful. Jodi and her husband Dan, the triplets and their older sister Lindsey … grateful doesn’t even begin to explain how they feel about all the support they have received.

“We couldn’t have done this journey without our community,” Jodi said. “It was unbelievable. Especially the hockey community and our Moose Lake family. It’s just been unreal. Even to this day they still rally around us and want to know how she’s doing. It’s amazing to me that there are so many people who care. There were a lot of people we didn’t even know.”

While her treatments were taking place, Megan told her family and her doctors that she could not imagine ever being a doctor and dealing with such things on a daily basis. But guess what she wants to do with her life?

“I actually want to be a doctor,” she said. “After becoming N.E.D. and getting better, I realized these doctors had a huge impact on me and I want to be like them.”

Don’t doubt her. The baby who wasn’t expected to survive, the cancer patient who beat cancer. She’s all of 5-feet-4 and not even 120 pounds. And she’s a fighter.

“I always give my all, no matter what I’m doing,” Megan said.

And she smiled that beautiful smile.

Happy New Year.
Looking Back: Homecoming For A Former Shakopee Softball Star7/19/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on May 15.

Neil Johnson has witnessed a lot of memorable events during his 41 years as the only head softball coach Shakopee High School has ever had. The Sabers have gone to the state tournament in three different decades – the 1970s, 1980s and most recently in 2011 – and Johnson has been in the Minnesota softball coaches association Hall of Fame since 1995.

The 2011 season was special, and members of that team were invited back to be honored during a pregame ceremony prior to Friday night’s non-conference home game against New Prague. Seven 2011 Sabers were on hand. During the introductions, one of them walked out of the New Prague bench.

Ashley Walker was a star on that 2011 Sabers team, and now – after graduating from Winona State in December -- she is in her first year as head coach at New Prague. Johnson, meanwhile, has been in charge of the Sabers since 1975 and Walker is the first former player to become a head softball coach.

“It’s kind of a unique thing,” Johnson (pictured with Walker) said after the Sabers defeated the Trojans 7-6 in eight innings on Strikeout Cancer Night. “I’m just as proud as all get out.”

Johnson isn’t the only connection Ashley has to the current Sabers. The top assistant coach is her father, Rob.

Ashley is a physical education and health teacher who is working as a substitute this spring. She’s living at home, or as she put it, “I live in Shakopee with Coach Dad. This was like half a home game for me.”

Ask Johnson about Ashley the high school player and his eyes light up.

“She was one of the best players I’ve ever had in 41 years,” he said. “I still remember her game-winning home run in the bottom of the sixth inning against Mankato West to help us go to the state tournament. She came out in the seventh inning, when they had the potential tying run on third and winning run on second, and she struck the last batter out. She’s a heck of a competitor and she has been the real epitome of Shakopee softball. She’s quite a young lady.”

Ashley was a star at Winona State. She finished her senior season with a pitching record of 21-5 while striking out 106 and walking 38 in 170 innings. At the plate, she set a school record with 23 doubles while batting .372. In her college career, she ranks fourth at Winona State in doubles (53), seventh in home runs (23), eighth in batting average (.362) and ninth in hits (231). She also has the fourth-most career pitching wins with 62 and is sixth all-time in innings pitched with 515.2. She also was only the third player in Winona State history to be named an academic all-American, graduating with a 3.87 GPA.

She was named the New Prague softball coach last fall, and the announcement coincided with an important event in Shakopee.

“I found out she got the job the day the school board named the complex after me,” Johnson said, referring to the Neil Johnson Softball Complex, a fantastically manicured facility with three varsity-level fields. “It was a big day.”

Johnson, who was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame last fall, has had a positive impact on countless softball players as well as students (he retired from teaching in 2014 after 39 years in the classroom). Ashley Walker is among that group. Here’s her answer to this question: Why did you become a coach?

“Honestly, it was probably because of (Johnson), how awesome he was and how he treated us,” she said. “He makes everybody feel special, and I know the impact he makes on the girls’ lives. I wanted to carry that on myself.”

Friday night’s extra-inning loss ended a seven-game winning streak for New Prague (10-4) and gave Shakopee a record of 5-10. Damara Theis had two doubles and four runs-batted-in for the Sabers, Ashley Herold hit a two-run home run, and Cortney Hokanson (who had three hits) drove in the winning run with a single in the eighth inning. Emily Schmitz led New Prague with three hits, including a two-run homer.

After the game ended, both teams put on Strikeout Cancer t-shirts and posed for a photo together. Coaches embraced.

“It was really fun, it was awesome,” Ashley Walker said. “It was fun to coach against Coach Johnson and against my dad. I have lot of respect for them. I couldn’t respect anybody more.”
New Timberwolves Player Cole Aldrich … 13 Years Ago 7/14/2016
Cole Aldrich, 27, is one of the newest members of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was introduced to the Twin Cities media at a news conference Thursday. He has played for six NBA teams since being drafted out of Kansas in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft.

But let’s go back to 2003. That’s when I first interviewed Cole, who was two games into his high school career at Bloomington Jefferson. Then a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I wrote a feature about Aldrich, who as a ninth-grader stood 6-foot-9 (fun fact: he has grown only two inches in 13 years.)

Here’s that story from December 2003, headlined “Basketball big man is still a kid” …

Mozart composed music when he was 5 years old. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed at the same age.

Soprano Charlotte Church was 13 when her first album went platinum. Bobby Fischer was an international chess grandmaster at 15. Fourteen-year-old Freddy Adu is a professional soccer player.

One day last February, I drove to a Twin Cities high school to watch a 12-year-old play basketball. The sixth-grader was the point guard and best player on a ninth-grade team. She is now 13, a seventh-grader playing on the junior varsity.

I didn't interview, nor did I write about the sixth-grader. The question was: How young is too young? The answer was easy: 12 is too young.

Meet 15-year-old Cole Aldrich. He was born on Oct. 31, 1988. He is younger than some of my shoes. He is a ninth-grader at Bloomington Jefferson. He is 6-9 and 225 pounds.

You might not know his name. But Gophers basketball coach Dan Monson does. Kansas coach Bill Self does. Aldrich has been invited by both to watch their teams practice. He already is receiving letters from colleges, the most recent from Notre Dame.

College coaches cannot phone the youngster's home. But a half- dozen of them have called Jefferson coach Jeff Evens. "They just say, 'Let Cole know that we've called to say hi,' " Evens said.

Aldrich is considered one of the top 15-year-old players in the nation. A handful of Division II coaches watched Jefferson play Armstrong on Monday night. They already have drawn a line through Aldrich’s name, however, knowing he will not be available to lower-level basketball programs.

Aldrich admits college is in the back of his mind. Of course, he's a lot closer to junior high than college.

After the Armstrong game, I shook the kid's hand and introduced myself. We chatted for a while outside the locker room. I also met his mother, Kathy, who was waiting to drive him home.

It felt a bit odd, interviewing someone who won't graduate from high school until 2007. When I was 15 and living in a small northern outpost of Baja Minnesota, Dick Nixon declared he was not a crook, O.J. Simpson became the NFL's first 2,000-yard rusher and I was hoping to someday own a letter jacket.

Cole Aldrich owns a future to be envied. He's in the starting lineup for a basketball program that has been to 11 of the past 27 state tournaments and holds four big-school state championships. The Jaguars also have won the past four Lake Conference titles.

There is pressure on the kid, certainly, but he seems to be an easygoing sort. Asked about getting a driver's license next October, he smiled and said, "That'll be scary." He meant scary for the other drivers.

The recruiting process for Aldrich goes beyond colleges. Summer AAU teams are trying to steer him their way, and the Bloomington rumor mill says coaches from other high schools have tried to entice him to leave his home school district and open enroll with them. His father, Walter, a union sheet metal worker, said no coaches have been so bold. But conniving parents from plenty of other schools have leaned in and whispered, "Come play for us."

Aldrich was spotty against Armstrong and its 6-6 bruiser, Everette Pedescleaux. The kid made a terrific baseline move, dribbling under the board and using the hoop to shield the defense on a lefthanded reverse layup. Dropping back to play defense, however, he fell for a head fake by a 5-10 guard and gave up an easy two.

Jefferson is 1-1 and Aldrich has scored 13 and eight points. The Jaguars face Eagan at home Saturday in the conference opener.

The raw material is certainly there. Aldrich has good feet, a soft touch and a wingspan of 7-4. Genes might be a factor. According to Walter, there are rumors of an 8-foot-tall Norwegian lurking somewhere back deep in the family trees.

The freshman isn't quite a human swizzle stick, but he could use some biscuits and gravy. And, most important, some time to grow up. I'm going to try to leave him alone for a while.

It might not be easy.
Miles And Memories: The Best Of John’s Journal From 2015-167/7/2016
In what has become an annual tradition, I have looked through the past year of John’s Journal stories and settled on my personal 10 favorites. In driving more than 2,500 miles around our great state between the start of practices in August and the final state tournaments in June, I posted more than 125 stories; my initial screening whittled that list to 43 candidates. In other words, coming up with my top 10 favorite stories was a tough task. Here they are…

NUMBER 10/ One Officiating Crew, Two Games (Aug. 26)
I spent the first Saturday of the football season with a crew of officials who worked two games that day in St. Louis County. They began with a nine-man game at South Ridge at 1 p.m., followed by an evening game in Virginia. I didn’t watch the action as much as I watched the officials, and they were superb. Jim Johnson, Aaron Lamppa, Dave Troland, Bill Novak and Josh Lamppa are a smart, veteran crew, emblematic of so many dedicated officials in Minnesota.

NUMBER 9/ Mark Hall (Feb. 27)
Anyone who follows Minnesota sports – and not just high school sports – knows the name Mark Hall. The Apple Valley senior made history by becoming the first wrestler to win six MSHSL state championships; he also was part of six championship teams for the Eagles. His high school record was 275-4, with three losses in seventh grade and one in ninth grade. But Hall (pictured) did more than win. He also was a great ambassador for his sport, his school and his state.

NUMBER 8/ Winona Girls Basketball (April 4)
The Winhawks were the state runner-up in Class 3A, but they did much more than simply play basketball. The team, their fellow students, families and fans from the community displayed a special connection that went beyond the score. One example: After each game the Winona players gathered in front of their fans and band, wrapped their arms around each other and swayed back and forth as the band played “Varsity.” The season “was just magical,” said coach Tim Gleason.

NUMBER 7/ Wadena-Deer Creek: Running For Sam (June 13)
“We’re the only relay team with five people. Every single time, he was there with us.” Those were the words of Wadena-Deer Creek’s Konnor Stueve, talking about his friend and classmate Sam Kelderman, who died in January. The 4x200 relay team, which dedicated the season to Sam, broke the school record four times. The fourth time was at the state meet, where they finished sixth.

NUMBER 6/ Craig Anderson Goes Out On Top (June 17)
Everybody in Pine Island knows Craig Anderson, whether they played baseball or not. Anderson coached the Panthers for 41 years, with his final team advancing to the state tournament; they had not been there since 1993. In 2015 the Minnesota High School Baseball Coaches Association awarded the inaugural Craig Anderson Ethics in Coaching Award to St. Charles coach Scott McCready. The award is given to a coach “who, like Craig, has displayed ethics in coaching and teaching the game of baseball. The coach who is selected will be someone who displays class, integrity, character, and respect for the game, the players, the spectators, and the officials.” Well done, coach.

NUMBER 5/ Dealing With Loss In Lakeville (Dec. 9)
Two students at Lakeville South were killed in a single-vehicle accident, a third student was severely injured and a fourth suffered minor injuries. All four had played football. “The toughest thing I have to do is go in the equipment room, get a kid’s game jersey and take it to his mom and dad,” said coach Larry Thompson. Four days after the accident, the boys basketball teams from Lakeville South and Lakeville North met. The color blue had been chosen as a sign of solidarity; the players from both teams wore blue t-shirts over their jerseys, the coaches wore blue t-shirts and most of the people who packed the stands wore blue. South students displayed a large handmade sign that read, “We Love Our Angels.” Before tipoff, the teams gathered in a large circle on the court and held hands for a moment of silence.

NUMBER 4/ Duluth East-Grand Rapids Hockey (Jan. 8)
I chose a dandy game for my first visit to Grand Rapids for boys hockey: Duluth East vs. the Thunderhawks in one of the state’s greatest rivalries. The IRA Civic Center is a must-see for any hockey historian, and taking in a game – especially one against a team like Duluth East – can make your head spin. The building dates from the early 1960s, and the wooden beams and ceiling are a throwback to the glory days of old-time hockey. The Grand Rapids pep band, one of the finest you will ever hear, added to the energized atmosphere, as did the Thunderhawks cheerleaders and mascot, all on skates, and the standing-rom crowd. The finest atmosphere I saw all year.

NUMBER 3/ St. Cloud Tech Gymnastics (Feb. 19)
Colleen Stark-Haws has been dealing with multiple sclerosis since 2005, and she has little control of her body below the shoulders. She and husband Joel Stark-Haws have been coaching gymnastics at Tech since 1997. There were few dry eyes when the Tigers won their first team championship in their 11th consecutive trip to state. The Tech athletes were in tears as they huddled around Colleen in her wheelchair. She told me, “The everyday struggles just get washed away in a moment like this.”

NUMBER 2/ The Miracle of Henry Sibley Baseball (June 20)
Fifty years from now and beyond, people will still be talking about the Henry Sibley Warriors, who were 4-14 late in the regular season and ending up winning the Class 3A state title with a record of 15-15. How to explain this? “I can’t. I really can’t. I wish I could but I can’t,” said coach Greg Fehrman. No matter how or why it happened, the Henry Sibley story will provide inspiration for years to come.

NUMBER 1/ Renville County West Remembers Brandon (Oct. 21, 26)
Brandon Limones, a three-sport athlete at Renville County West, was 17 when he died unexpectedly in March. His football teammates did not forget him. The Jaguars walked onto the field before games carrying his No. 11 jersey, which was displayed on a stand at the bench. After I wrote about RCW and their dedication to Brandon, the story went a step further. Before RCW played at Cleveland in the nine-man Section 2 championship game, Cleveland activities director Rich Kern painted an 11 on the field in front of the RCW bench in place of the 50-yard line. He said, “You think to yourself, How can we as a school show our support to the visiting team, that we care about their team and school? Yes, we have a championship game to be played and competition between each other, but there is more to the game than just the score.”

Indeed there is. Thanks for a terrific year. Have a great summer.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 858
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 12,514
Looking Back: Art Downey Is Going (And Coaching) Strong For 60 Years7/1/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Dec. 13.

In the 1940s, a little squirt of a kid growing up in St. Paul developed a reputation as a pretty good swimmer. The boy did most of his swimming in lakes, and he could really move in the water. He wasn’t the most talented kid in St. Paul, but he wasn’t lacking in athletic skills. The kid’s life centered around sports and he played whatever sport was in season.

When he got to high school at St. Paul Central, some of his buddies suggested he go out for the swim team. And so he did.

That’s where the story begins. Where will it end? That’s a question for the ages, because that little kid who could really move in the water in the 1940s is still really moving as 2015 turns the corner into 2016. His name is Art Downey and he is in his 60th season as the only boys head swimming and diving coach Edina High School has ever had.

It’s quite a story.

“Everybody my age has been doing something for 60 years,” Downey said. “I’ve just happened to do it all in one spot.”

That’s true. In that one spot, his teams have won conference and state championships, and he has coached dozens of individual and relay state champions as well as more than 30 All-America swimmers. But 60 years? How is that even possible?

Downey remembers reading, years ago, an article in a coaching magazine about a fellow who was still coaching at 70. “I thought, ‘Good grief, what’s that guy doing?’ Now I know what he was doing and why he was doing it.”

Downey doesn’t talk about his age, but Edina assistant coach Scott Johnson said it’s not much of mathematical challenge to figure it out. The Edina job was Art’s first position after college and two years in the Army, so …

“He’s been here since 1956, he’s been coaching for 60 years, so you can kind of estimate his age,” said Johnson, who is only the third assistant Downey has had in those six decades.

“Art’s a classic,” Johnson said. “Everybody in the swimming world knows Art. He’s in just about every Hall of Fame imaginable, he’s won just about every award imaginable in our state and at the national level.”

Downey was inducted into the Minnesota Swimming Hall of Fame in 1991, the Edina High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999, the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2000, the University of Minnesota Aquatics Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.

For some perspective on his longevity, consider some other coaching giants in Minnesota high school sports: Bob McDonald coached boys basketball in Chisholm for 59 years before retiring in 2014. Ron Stolski continues to coach football in Brainerd; next season will be his 55th. Also in Brainerd, Lowell Scearcy has coached baseball for 46 years.

Downey earned his first varsity letter as a swimmer at the University of Minnesota in 1953. While in college he pondered what to do with his life. His love of sports made the decision to go into teaching and coaching pretty simple.

After graduating from college, Downey spent two years in the military as the Korean War was winding down. He never left U.S. soil and even spent one summer playing baseball in the Army. He was hired at Edina in the 1956-57 school year to teach physical education and start a boys swimming team.

He retired from teaching in 1990 – that was a quarter of a century ago – and never gave a thought to retiring from coaching. He’s not in it for success, unless you count the success of helping young men grow.

“Art is a man of high morals and high character,” Johnson said. “And he tends to put those qualities ahead of the athletes, even ahead of their ability level. To Art, the swimming and diving team is about being a gentleman 24 hours day, seven days week. The actual sport of swimming itself is the second-most important thing.”

Ask Downey about his career highlights, and it’s pretty clear that he simply doesn’t think along those lines.

“That would be tough,” he said. “My favorite team is always the one I’m coaching. That’s always true. The best part of my job is being with those kids every day. It’s the highlight of my day to spend a couple hours with them.

“I like to think accomplishments were never why I was in it. It was an opportunity to be a positive influence. That’s why I do it. People don’t usually think about it, but when two teams have a contest, three things can happen: one of the two teams can win or there’s a tie. I try to contribute to kids’ lives in either case.”

Before the Hornets’ season began with a Lake Conference meet at Edina last week, Downey took the microphone to address the crowd and the swimmers. He paid tribute to Elmer Luke, who began coaching the swim team at Hopkins the same year Downey began his career at Edina. Luke had died a few days earlier; Downey recounted some of Elmer’s accomplishments (“He was a true pioneer and a very good friend to many of us”) and asked the crowd to take part in a moment of silence.

The swim meet then began with the public-address announcer saying: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Art Downey Aquatic Center.”

Yes, the Edina pool is named after the coach. The facility was christened when it opened in 2006.

“That’s a terrific honor, that’s for sure,” Downey said. “I feel humbled by it.”

Edina activities director Troy Stein knows about long-serving coaches. Stein played high school basketball at Rocori under Bob Brink, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame this year. Brink coached for 50 years, the last 42 at Rocori before retiring in 2012.

“One thing that’s impressed me is Art is truly a guy who is constantly wanting to learn more about the sport, learn more about coaching, learn more about kids, learn more about what’s the best way to do things,” Stein said. “He is open to new technologies and it’s so impressive to get to know him and his passion to learn and grow.

“When we have our head coaches meetings, it’s fun to tap Art whenever we can to listen to his perspective on things that have happened in the past or things he’s seen. When Art speaks, coaches listen, because he has great, valuable insight to share.”

Downey remains busy with coaching, participating in coaching clinics and conventions, and assisting the swimming world however he can.

His first wife, Joanne, died 11 years ago. He remarried seven years ago, and he and his wife Carol have a flock of grandchildren. “They’re both wonderful ladies,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed in many, many ways.”

Downey’s four children all live in the metro area, and the grandkids enjoy hanging out at “Grandpa’s pool.”

Little has changed for Downey over these 60 years. When he was hired in 1956 he wore black eyeglasses and he still wears them today. He wears a polo shirt, shorts, white socks and white shoes at the pool, carrying a stopwatch and clipboard.

Downey indeed seems timeless. But he can tell that time marches on because his former swimmers and students are aging even if he isn’t. Members of his early teams are in their 70s now, and many of them went on to care for their coach as doctors, eye doctors, pharmacists, etc.

And what do you know? Some of them have retired.

“I’m starting to lose these people because of retirement,” Art said with a chuckle. “Doctors, eye doctors, you name it, they’re all because I either coached them or had them in class. It’s kind of a bummer when they retire. I think, ‘You can’t do this to me. What’s wrong with you?’ ”