John's Journal
Seeing Is Believing: The Amazing Julia Stenberg6/10/2016
NORTH MANKATO – Imagine you are a softball pitcher. You stand 43 feet from home plate and you must be able to read the catcher’s signs, know the strike zone and fire the ball to exactly the right spot.

Now imagine doing that with one working eye.

That’s what Julia Stenberg does every day. The senior from Badger/Greenbush-Middle River finished the season with a 15-2 record on Friday when the Gators were defeated by Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian 12-0 in the Class 1A state championship game at Caswell Park.

Julia lost the sight in her right eye as the result of a sledding accident when she was in first grade. The injuries resulted in a detached retina and the gradual loss of vision.

“I don’t even remember when I lost sight totally, but my whole softball career has been with one eye so I really haven’t had to adapt to anything. I’ve practiced pitching pretty much from when I was this big,” she said, holding one hand about belt high.

She has been pitching since ninth grade for the Gators, who are nearly regulars at the state tournament. Their 2016 appearance is their seventh since 2000 and they were the 1A state runnersup last season.

Julia's fastball is not dominating and her changeup is not thrown often, but she relies on the ability to hit spots. She came into the state tournament with an earned-run average of only 1.46, striking out 55 and walking just 12 in 86 1/3 innings.

“I rely on my accuracy, and once in a while I’ll get a changeup in but I’m not really consistent with that,” said Julia, who also was a member of Greenbush-Middle River’s state championship robotics team this spring.

Fielding can be a challenge, as well as hitting. Julia said depth perception is an issue in those instances.

“Anywhere else in the field I’m slow to my right side,” she said. “In the outfield, I have zero depth perception so it’s like, uh …” And then she laughed.

Fun is part of the game plan for the Gators. And Julia’s vision is something everyone who knows her is used to.

“I think they know but everyone kind of forgets,” she said. “My teammates will just joke around; I’ll miss something and somebody will say, ‘Julia, geez. What are you, blind?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, I forgot! I’m sorry!’ ”

--Friday’s softball state championship games were delayed by storms. The fields were cleared at 3:11 p.m. – all games were underway -- when lightning flashed, followed by heavy rain, high winds and hail. The North Mankato Police Department was well-prepared and fans took shelter in nearby Dakota Meadows Middle School. Teams returned to their fields at 7 p.m. and play resumed soon after.


Championship Games
Class 1A/ Edgerton/SW MN Christian 12, Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 0
Class 2A/ Zumbrota-Mazeppa 7, Pequot Lakes 0
Class 3A/ Mankato West 4, Winona 3
Class 4A/ Chanhassen 5, Buffalo 3

Third-Place Games
Class 1A/ Mankato Loyola 6, Cherry 2
Class 2A/ Rockford 3, LeSueur-Henderson 0
Class 3A/ Hermantown 18, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 6
Class 4A/ Woodbury 12, Hopkins 0

Fifth-Place Games
Class 1A/ New York Mills 13, Pine River-Backus 1
Class 2A/ Pipestone 8, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 3
Class 3A/ Alexandria 5, Becker 1
Class 4A/ Park 8, Forest Lake 0


The state track and field championships began Friday with mostly preliminaries and will conclude Saturday at Hamline University in St. Paul. Here are some of the highlights from Day One:

--East Ridge senior Karina Joiner set an all-time state record in the prelims of the girls Class 2A 100-meter hurdles. Her time of 13.94 seconds shattered the previous record of 14.13 set by Ann Harlos of Eden Prairie a year ago.

--Forest Lake senior Emma Benner won the girls 2A 3,200 meters, holding off Alexandria twins Megan and Bethany Hasz, who were second and third. Bethany won the race last year, and Bethany and Megan have finished first and second at the last three Class 2A state cross-country meets.

--The top three finishers in the Class 1A girls 3,200 meters were two seventh-graders and an eighth-grader. The winner was Winona Cotter seventh-grader Grace Ping, who also won the 1A cross-country title last fall. Second was seventh-grader Tierney Wolfgram of Math & Science Academy and third was Breck eighth-grader Morgan Richter.

--Weather also was an issue at Hamline. After the Class 2A portion of the meet concluded, the Class 1A events were delayed by storms.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 770
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,956
Two Sports, Two State Tournaments For Esko Athlete 6/9/2016
NORTH MANKATO – Esko senior Alexis Smalley is running all over as her high school athletic career comes to a very busy end. While most kids are thrilled to be competing at either the state softball tournament or state track meet this week, Alexis has qualified for both. Which is a tough thing to do.

Track is her true spring sport; she has earned 12 varsity letters in track, soccer and hockey. She qualified for state on relay teams as a freshman and sophomore and will run in the Class 1A preliminaries of the 4x100 and 4x200 relays Friday in the hopes of qualifying for Saturday’s finals. So after spending Thursday at the state softball tournament, she will be at Hamline University in St. Paul on Friday for the state track meet.

On a whim, she joined the softball team well into the season, and on Thursday she was with her Eskomos softball teammates at Caswell Park. They lost to LeSueur-Henderson 6-0 in the opening round and and fell to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 8-2 in the consolation bracket.

At the track championships, Alexis (pictured) will run the two relays with Ashlie Johnson, Olivia Rengo and Suntina Spehar. On the softball field Thursday, she didn’t get into the first game. That’s almost standard procedure; her main role is pinch-running.

After track practice this spring she routinely walked next door to the Eskomos’ softball field and watched her friends work out. She admits that joining the softball team started out as little more than a prank.

“I’ve always joked with my friends about wanting to play,” she said. “One day I just signed up. I talked to the coach (Jeff Emanuel) . I’m pretty close with his family, I asked him if I could play and he said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

She’s not in the team photo that’s published in the state tournament program, but that doesn’t matter.

“I’ve gotten in more games than I expected,” she said. “I just wanted to enjoy it and have fun.”


--Hopkins sophomore Natalie DenHartog didn’t waste a moment at the state tournament, driving the first pitch of the Royals’ Class 4A quarterfinal game over the fence for a home run. That sparked the Royals to a 4-3 victory over Spring Lake Park. They fell to Chanhassen 10-1 in the semifinals. Buffalo beat Woodbury 3-1 in the other 4A semifinal; Chanhassen and Buffalo will play for the state title Friday.

--Kimball lost to Mankato Loyola 7-3 in an eight-inning Class 1A quarterfinal, but the Cubs’ Mackenzie Leither did all she could. She drove in all three Kimball runs on a two-run homer and a solo homer. She tied the single-game tournament record for homers, set seven times before, and joined 17 others who have hit two home runs in the tournament. Jenny Nelson hit two home runs and drove in three runs in leading Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian to an 11-0, five-inning 1A quarterfinal win over Pine River-Backus.

--Hermantown matched a long-standing tournament record in defeating Simley 18-12 in the Class 3A quarterfinals. The Hawks’ 18 runs equaled the record set in 1978 by Hopkins Eisenhower in an 18-4 win over West St. Paul Archbishop Brady (the first state tournament was held in 1977). The 26 total runs in the Hermantown-Simley game broke the previous record of 25 set in 1983 when St. Agnes defeated Rockford 13-12.


Championship Games
Class 1A/ Edgerton/SW MN Christian vs. Badger/Greenbush-Middle River, 2:30 p.m.
Class 2A/ Zumbrota-Mazeppa vs. Pequot Lakes, 2 p.m.
Class 3A/ Winona vs. Mankato West, 1:30 p.m.
Class 4A/ Chanhassen vs. Buffalo, 1 p.m.

Third-Place Games
Class 1A/ Cherry vs. Mankato Loyola, 11 a.m.
Class 2A/ LeSueur-Henderson vs. Rockford, 11 a.m.
Class 3A/ Hermantown vs. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 11 a.m.
Class 4A/ Hopkins vs. Woodbury, 11 a.m.

Fifth-Place Games
Class 1A/ Pine River-Backus vs. New York Mills, 9 a.m.
Class 2A/ Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton vs. Pipestone, 9 a.m.
Class 3A/ Becker vs. Alexandria, 9 a.m.
Class 4A/ Forest Lake vs. Park, 9 a.m.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 770
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,886
Columbia Heights Boys Tennis Reaches The Heights 6/7/2016
When the boys tennis team from Columbia Heights High School qualified for this week’s Class 1A state tournament, it was major news. The school, located directly north of Minneapolis, hasn’t exactly been a hotbed for state qualifying teams in recent years.

Historically, the Hylanders are best known for volleyball success. Between 1977 and 1998 Columbia Heights went to state in volleyball 19 times, winning Class 2A state titles in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990.

Most recently, the boys basketball team was Class 3A state runner-up in 2011; its only previous trip to state had been in 1930. The Hylanders were Class 2A state football champs in 1979 and went to state in 1980 and 1991. The boys hockey team went to state in 1983 and baseball did the same in 1978. And that’s the bulk of the state-tournament pedigree for the Hylanders.

When the boys tennis team won the Section 5 championship last week, coach Ya Yang said it was “a very big deal. I’ve gotten a lot of texts from past administrators, and people on Facebook who went to Heights are cheering us on. It’s a big deal. It’s a big thing for the community. Going to state hasn’t been something that’s occurred often, especially with the tennis team.”

This is the first time a Hylanders boys tennis team has gone to a state tournament, an event that is 66 years old. The team is senior-laden, including trailblazer Blake Kuether, who broke a two-decade Hylanders drought by qualifying for the state individual tournament two years ago.

“It’s history for our school,” Kuether said Tuesday at Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. “On paper it’s obviously the biggest thing that we’ve done as students in our whole high school. And as individuals, working for this for the last six years, personally it’s one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve had in my life. For the whole team, it feels great.”

Kuether will be joined in the singles and doubles competition later this week by teammate Manij Ghishing in singles and the doubles duo of Elyazid Chiboub and Mahir Ibrahim.

The Hylanders lost to four-time Class 1A champion St. Paul Academy 6-1 in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, then fell to Luverne 5-2 in the consolation bracket, ending their season.

Yang, who has been on the coaching staff for seven years, knew this season could become something special. The goals included winning the Tri-Metro Conference championship as well as the section title. Yang was excited about the possibilities, but he didn’t want to seem too overly optimistic.

“I tried to hide it from them, to be very honest,” he said. “We did very well last year in our conference, so with all the guys returning I knew we were going to be very competitive in the conference. With the section reassignments, I knew we were going to be competitive, as well. I said we had a chance to do something really special. I tried to share that but also tried to hide that a little bit.”

Michael O’Leary, one of the senior leaders, said the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the season was winning the berth at state.

“Winning the section was huge,” he said. “The section tournament for the team was actually really scary, facing St. Anthony and Fridley. The biggest sigh of relief was when we won the section final. That was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been.

“I’m almost not as nervous for this match (at state). There’s nothing to lose now. Getting here was the hardest part. We knew that this year we had the best chance we’ve ever had to get here. Everyone put in all the work all year to get here. It was huge.”

The school year is complete and graduation was held last Friday. But the Hylanders have created some sweet memories.

“We’ve been talked about in school,” said senior Nick Hosch. “A lot of people actually started to know who we were. That’s the truth.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 738
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,761
Aitkin High School Honors Fallen Hero6/6/2016
(I'm happy to post this news item, sent from Aitkin High School.)

This past year the community of Aitkin experienced a loss felt throughout the country as Deputy Steve Sandberg was killed in the line of duty in October of 2015. On May 20 the Aitkin High School baseball team continued the healing process by celebrating the retirement of jersey number 15, which was worn by Steve Sandberg and will never be worn again by another Gobbler player.

Steve was quite an athlete as he brought ability, commitment and passion to the game every time out on the court or field. That is a trio of pretty good attributes for life, as well, and he brought them to his routine every day.

The only major league baseball player who has had his number 15 retired is the late Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees, but the inscription on Munson’s plaque in Yankee Stadium is a perfect way to describe Steve. It reads, “Our captain and leader has not left us, not today, not tomorrow, not this year or next...our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.”

Steve loved Aitkin, loved athletics and was a big contributor to the Aitkin baseball program. Steve played high school baseball in Aitkin from 1971-1973 and helped lay the foundation for Aitkin’s baseball program. He was coached by baseball legend Truman Buisman. Steve also played baseball for the Aitkin Stags town team in the late 70’s and early 80’s; current head coach Jeremy Janzen was the bat boy for that town team.

Number 15 will never be worn by an Aitkin varsity baseball player again. Steve’s character, commitment and passion will be remembered by this. His number 15 jersey is on display at all home baseball games and in the Aitkin high school showcase.
Surprise! Chanhassen’s Caldwell Sets Another State Record 6/1/2016
ST. PETER – Jedah Caldwell became the inarguable fastest female sprinter in Minnesota high school history on Wednesday, but nobody knew it right away. After she won her 100-meter preliminary race in the Class 2A Section 2 track meet on a cool, overcast day at Gustavus Adolphus College, the Chanhassen senior said to me, “It's not the best day to run.”

I agreed. Everyone agreed. Most sprinters like very warm, even hot conditions in which they can work up a pre-race sweat, get loose and go.

Caldwell’s big splash came a few weeks ago in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At the Dakota Relays, she set an all-time Minnesota high school record by winning the 200 meters in 23.59 seconds. She narrowly missed setting another record in the 100 on that warm day, but that one finally fell on Wednesday.

Jedah’s time in the 100 prelims (the finals will be held Friday at Gustavus) was 11.67 seconds. Sure, she blew past the field in her time trial, but until the results were posted on a wall (with other events) and people began peering, no one knew history had been made.

But there it was: 11.67. Upon learning of the record, Chanhassen coach Chris Schriever found Jedah and told her the news. She was thrilled … and surprised.

Did she expect to break the record Wednesday? “No, not at all,” she said after also winning the 200-meter prelims. “I actually felt really good. The track is bouncey and it’s really good running on this track. It was fun. But I didn’t expect to do that. It was like, ‘Yes! I finally got that record.’ ”

The previous state record in the 100 was 11.69, set by Alexandria’s Wensia Johnson in the 2013 Central Lakes Conference meet. Caldwell ran 11.71 in Sioux Falls; that day at the Dakota Relays was a big confidence boost, she said.

“It brought a lot of momentum to my life. It was like, ‘OK, I hit this time. Maybe I won’t do it in the next race or the next race, but I know I can do it again.’ ”

She has three days of racing remaining in her Chanhassen Storm career; Friday’s section finals and the state championships June 10-11 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Caldwell is no stranger to the state meet or the medal stand. She first qualified as a ninth-grader at Centennial High School and placed eighth in the 200. As a sophomore she was fourth in the 100 and third in the 200 at state. After a family move to Chanhassen, she won state titles at both distances last spring.

Her faster times this spring can certainly be attributed to more experience and maturity, but she also credits a commitment to the weight room. During the winter she was lifting at 5:20 a.m. three or four days a week, and during the season she has done so twice a week.

“I did lifting last year, too, but not like this,” she said. “Training really, really hard and kind of making my body fatigued, has made me realize I’m tired. My body’s just drained but I’m still running well. Some races I’m like, ‘My legs hurt but I’ve got to stay positive.’ ”

Schriever said, “The big thing is she isn’t afraid to go into the weight room and do what she needs to do. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize this year with the younger kids.

“She’s naturally fast, obviously. Her top-end speed is ridiculous. But what has caused her to move out more and more is that she’s willing to do what she needs to, especially with weights. And that’s a big deal; she’s not worried about getting too big or too bulky. She knows it’s going to help an awful lot. And she’s willing to be coached, that’s huge.”

Jedah began the season aiming for state records in the 100 and 200. With both of those accomplished, no one knows what the future holds.

“She came in hoping to get both records. That was her overall goal,” Schriever said. “Everything she’s done this year was part of her goals. Now it’s seeing what she can do on the biggest stage. Can she not only win, but can she set additional records there?”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 730
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,711