John's Journal
Time To Speak Up: A Rookie Competes At State4/17/2016
Steven Fyten likes to talk. The junior at Pierz High School isn’t intimidated by standing in front of a room filled with strangers and talking, having fun and putting on a show.

It was a good thing for Steven and several other like-minded Pierz students, then, when the speech team at their school was resurrected this year. It had been five years or so since speech was an activity at Pierz, and Steven took full advantage of its return by qualifying for the Class 1A state speech tournament.

Steven told me he likes speech because “It keeps you busy, it gives you something to do. And I do like talking.”

He competed in Humorous Interpretation, one of 13 categories in MSHSL speech. Steven was the Section 5 champion in Humorous Interpretation, which was his ticket to state as his school’s sole representative.

Steven was one of 24 individuals who competed in three preliminary rounds, followed by a championship round, Friday at Lakeville North (Class 2A state speech was held Saturday at the same site). His performance of “Finishing School” by John C. Havens is a hysterical monologue centering on a prim and proper British headmaster.

So here was Steven, a tall young man wearing a maroon shirt, striped tie and black slacks, speaking in a British accent in a high school photography classroom. A couple dozen adults and students watched his performance, one of six in the third round in this room. A judge and a room manager sat up front, with the others taking every seat while a few people sat on the floor.

Along with a British accent, Steven also needed to speak with Russian and Scottish accents while portraying other characters in “Finishing School.”

He was wonderful.

“He likes to play different characters, so that makes the characters in his speech come out,” said Sheri Menden (pictured with Steven), who coaches the Pierz speech team with Andrew Boman. “He likes to meet people, he likes to talk a lot and he is incredibly, incredibly intelligent.”

After the first three rounds, scores are totaled and the top eight speakers in each category advance to the championship round. Steven didn’t advance to the finals, but he was pleased with how the day went, as well as the entire season.

He didn’t know anything about speech when the school year began. He was the narrator for a school musical ("Into the Woods”) in the fall, and Boman – who was new to Pierz and brought back the speech team – told him he had a good speaking voice and should consider trying speech.

“I went to a meeting and it seemed interesting,” Steven said. “He gave us a little slide show that covered it pretty well.”

Once he selected “Finishing School” as his entry, he worked with Menden or Boman three times a week or so for about an hour. Since he’s also on the golf team, this has been a busy spring.

He and his teammates took part in around 10 competitions this season, and at no point did Steven expect to be going to state.

“Oh no, I definitely didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t think I would get that far. It was a pleasant surprise, though.”

At the section tournament, the top three speakers in each category advanced to state. Before the awards were announced, Steven didn’t figure to hear his name called among the top three.

“I was expecting them to call my name for fourth or something, but they saved it for the end,” he said. “It was a little shocking.”

Steven may have been surprised, but Menden wasn’t.

“He doesn’t know this but I talked to his dad before we left (for sections) and I said, ‘If he performs the way he’s performed the last week, he will do really well.’ ”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 628
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,387
The Greatest Generation Loses Another Of The Greats 4/14/2016
In the late 1930s, a boy in a small town posed for a photo in his football gear. He played on his local high school team, and despite being undersized he was as tough as nails.

His father died before he was born. His athletic career ended when he graduated from high school in the spring of 1938. He was working on the family farm as America went to war a few years later. He joined the Army and served during World War II in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

He returned home after the war, got married, raised six children and continued farming. He was the epitome of the Greatest Generation. He was my wife’s Uncle Laurence and he died this week.

The old guy was 95 when he passed away inside a nursing home in the town where he grew up. His obituary included this passage: “The Great Depression and his military service were lifelong influences on the way he lived. Hard work, sacrifice and sharing with family and neighbors became a part of him.”

My wife’s late father used to tell her about her uncle’s exploits as a young man. He was a guy no one wanted to mess with, on the football field or off. Laurence grew up in a town that was extremely proud of its Irish and Catholic heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was the biggest holiday of the year in his town, but he was neither Irish nor Catholic.

So on St. Patrick’s Day, when most other young fellows wore green, Laurence would put on an orange tie (the color of proud non-Irish Protestants) and go to town. The orange tie sent a wordless message: “Does anyone wanna mess with me?” No one did.

His wife died 15 years ago. He lived for 95 years and he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 75 years. I joked with one of his kids this week that the old guy single-handedly saved the tobacco industry.

One of my favorite Laurence stories: He was 85 years old and putting a new roof on his house. As he and his sons hammered shingles into place on the hottest day of the summer, he lit a fresh smoke and said, “A job like this makes a guy wish he was 70 again.” And he was serious.

It wasn’t rare to see both a cigarette and a toothpick hanging from his lips, and maybe a blade of grass on occasion, too. We joked that if we saw him in his casket, complete with cigarette, toothpick and blade of grass, we would not be surprised.

He rarely talked about his military service, at least to his family. He may have shared stories with his buddies at the local American Legion hall, but about all he told others was that he had seen some terrible things. When Laurence’s oldest son spoke at the funeral, he talked about the nightmares his father endured for most of his life after the war.

Many photos were displayed at his funeral. A small table held photos of Laurence and his wife, along with hats commemorating WWII and John Deere tractors.

I can’t make an argument that Laurence’s high school athletic experience made him into the man he became. Other than my father-in-law’s stories about his brother’s football talents, no one else had talked about that. One of my wife’s cousins was surprised to hear her mention the football hero. The cousin’s response was: “Dad was a good football player? Gee, none of us could walk and chew gum.”

Be that as it may, I can’t help but look at that photo from (I assume) the autumn of 1937 and believe that being a high school athlete helped shape him. A small, scrappy kid, crouched in his football stance wearing a leather helmet and no facemask. Ready to take on the world.

He was an American hero.

May he rest in peace.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 612
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,371
Winning Is Important But It Is Not What We Focus On4/11/2016
An insightful note from a Minnesota high school coach was posted on that team’s Facebook page this weekend. It offers reminders of what high school sports is all about, and I’m happy to share it on John’s Journal…

Dear Streaks Softball Players, Fans, and Parents

This past weekend has been one of reflection for me, as head of this softball program. My thoughts have run the gamut of directions, first with our program and what we do to the general state of youth sports today. There is much talk today of the "industry" of youth sports. The money generated, the travel, the specialization of the athlete. As my thoughts raced through all aspects of this issue, I kept coming back to what we do in this program, what we offer in this program, and what we value in this program.

First off, let me say that winning is important. It is important for the team to see collective success. It is important for the athlete to see successes and build confidence. It is important for our program to have success to keep the program strong. BUT....Winning is not what we do. It is not what we focus on. We focus on team. We focus on development. We focus on each individuals’ meaning within the team. We focus on the memories we create together. THAT IS WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT!

As a baseball player growing up in this area, I dreamed of playing major league baseball. I was fortunate enough to have caring coaches and great teammates who helped each other succeed and most of us played at the collegiate level of some sort. As I think of it right now, I believe seven of us played college baseball somewhere. We didn't do it through specializing. We didn't do it through paying thousands of dollars and travel all over the country to play the "best competition," and we didn't do it for exposure. We did it by being a team. By collectively improving together. And we share so many great common memories from it.
As a coach today, I am compelled to try to recreate this experience with our players. At the end of their career, the number of medals, trophies, and honors should matter less than the great times they had with teammates. THAT IS WHAT ATHLETICS IS ABOUT! Especially team athletics.

As the head of this program, I want to reassure you of what we are doing with these great young athletes that we get to work with each week. We stress team, goals, hard work, respect, loyalty and commitment to each other, and the concept of family. We want each of these players to realize success, in their own way. We want each of these players to have balance in their lives. That includes time for family, time for friends, time for faith and time for themselves. Too many athletes today are out of balance, and we will not be a part of the problem, we will continue to be a part of the solution.

Myself and the coaches in this program care about these athletes and will continue to keep the best interests of each of them in our minds and hearts. Our commitment to these great young women is strong and will continue to be so. This program has been in existence for 20 years and each year we get stronger in our values and what we believe in. Along the way we have seen increasing success, but what I am most proud of as a head coach is how we approach the sport and athlete. They are not pawns, dollar signs, or wins. They are great young ladies who we are fortunate to coach for a short time period in their lives. Thank you for your continued support of our program!

John Stigman
Head Coach, Osakis Silverstreak Softball
After ‘Devastating’ Ballpark Fire, Waseca Looks To Rebuild 4/7/2016
WASECA – Clinton “Tink” Larson was standing behind the grandstand at Tink Larson Field here Thursday afternoon. To be more precise, he was standing behind the charred ruins of the wooden grandstand, which was engulfed by fire Wednesday night.

Since sunrise people had been slowly driving past the historic ballpark, which was built as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. The fire not only destroyed the grandstand but also turned everything stored under the bleachers into ashes: uniforms, baseballs, all manner of mementos, even the equipment Larson has used to mow the grass and groom the field for decades.

Having just completed an interview with a Twin Cities TV station, Larson, 74, was chatting with me when a pickup pulled up to the curb. The driver leaned over toward the open passenger-side window and had this conversation with Tink…

Driver: “Do you need field equipment? Or a scraper, whatever? To get a game going next week? Let me know, I’ll open the door and you can have it. Whatever you need. Just holler if you need anything.”

Tink: “Thanks, big fella.”

Driver: “This just stinks.”

Tink: “It sure does.”

Driver: “Life’s not fair, my boy.”

Tink: “First Sharon and now this.”

Driver: “You take care of yourself.”

Sharon was Tink’s wife, who died suddenly two years ago. And it’s not a stretch to equate the loss of Tink’s spouse with the loss of his ballpark, where Sharon was a fixture in the concession stand for 44 years and where the Larsons’ children and grandchildren spent countless hours.

Tink looked over the charred wreckage and said, “I had about four sets of jerseys in there, baseballs in there. I had spikes and gloves and everything else in there. You don’t expect it’s going to burn down.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation. A company has been hired to demolish what’s left of the grandstand and haul away the remains; that could happen in the next day or two. Then a temporary backstop fence will be rigged up so the Waseca High School Bluejays can get back to playing on their home field.

The Bluejays were scheduled to open the season Friday at home against Mankato East. That game was moved to Mankato, and a Monday home game with Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton also has been changed to a road game.

“It definitely is devastating,” said Waseca athletic director Joe Hedervare. “With all the history and all the effort Tink put into the facility, it was a beautiful place to play baseball.”

Tink Larson Field and Tink Larson himself are both icons. The graduate of Kasson-Mantorville High School and Minnesota State Mankato was hired as a teacher and baseball coach in Waseca in 1967. During his career with high school, American Legion, VFW and town-team baseball, Larson coached in more than 4,500 games. He’s now a volunteer assistant coach at nearby Minnesota State Mankato.

Larson is a member of 11 Halls of Fame, including the MSHSL and the American Baseball Coaches Association. The Waseca ballpark was named in his honor in 1994.

Tink lives across the street from the ballpark; many foul balls have flown over the third-base fence and landed in his front yard. He was home Wednesday night when the fire broke out.

“My nephew said, ‘Is there something going on at the ballpark? Is there a fire over at the grandstand?’ I looked out the window, and jeepers.”

The ballpark is owned by the City of Waseca, so insurance is expected to cover a portion of the expenses in rebuilding the grandstand. Once temporary fencing is installed behind home plate, a rebuilding project will be put together.

“We’ll have to come up with a permanent plan as to what we’re going to do as far as rebuilding and all that,” Tink said. “That will be a big project.”

Some things simply can’t be replaced, such as several rows of seats that came from Met Stadium, the Twins’ original home in Bloomington.

“The history will be gone and all the memories of all the guys who played here over the years, that will all be gone,” Larson said. “There aren’t many grandstands that have two clubhouses and a locker room and a concession stand and two storage areas. This is a big building.”

The Minnesota State Mankato baseball team will play four games this weekend at University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. That’s a one-way bus ride of nearly eight hours, which Larson said should give him time to start replying to all the emails and text messages he has received in the wake of the fire.

“It’s amazing, all the support that’s coming in,” he said. “Tons of people have said, ‘Let us know how we can help.’ ”

Hedervare said, “It hurts right now. But there’s not a single person in our community who doesn’t believe Tink Larson Field will be back better than ever.”

When Tink walked across the street from his house to the ballfield Thursday morning, one of the local residents was there waiting for him; he had been there since 6:30 a.m.

“He said, ‘You wouldn’t believe the number of cars that were driving by,’ ” Tink said with a quiet chuckle. “The fire chief said, ‘If we would have charged five dollars for every car that drove by, we could rebuild this thing.’ ”

--An account has been set up at Roundbank in Waseca for donations to help rebuild Tink Larson Field. Donations can be sent to Roundbank, 200 2nd St NE, Waseca, MN 56093

--To see photos from Tink Larson Field, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 604
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,315
Lessons From Winona: Why We Play, What We Learn4/4/2016
Spring sports are upon us as the weather warms and playing fields become green. But I want to go back a bit to something that took place during the girls state basketball tournament. It’s important stuff, offering important lessons.

What I witnessed centers on the team from Winona. The Winhawks played in the state tournament for the first time since 2003 and played in their first state championship game, where they lost to Holy Angels 51-43 for the Class 3A title. The last time a basketball team from Winona played in a state championship game was 1914, so this was history that was 102 years in the making.

My favorite moments came immediately after the Winhawks played, at Mariucci Arena and Williams Arena. Following handshakes between the teams, 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 a song titled “Varsity” (the alma mater of the University of Wisconsin).

That scene says something about a special connection between the athletes, their fellow students, families and fans from the community. The Winhawks’ basketball season epitomized that connection.

“It was just magical,” Winona coach Tim Gleason said to me during a Sunday afternoon telephone chat, two weeks after the tournament ended. “Even now, around town people come up and say hi and offer congratulations on such a great run by the girls. It was so neat to see so many people come together. And I really feel music is so important. We’re always going to need music, we’re always going to need athletics, because they bring people together. That was so much fun to be a part of.

“Winona is no different than any other town in Minnesota or anywhere else in the nation. There are so many things that people look at that divide us. And it’s so much fun to be part of something that brings people together. I told the girls that they were part of something bigger than basketball, and they should always remember that.”

After their loss in the championship game, Gleason and his players were as sad as you might expect. But the Winhawks also were proud. In the locker room, Gleason told me, senior and leading scorer Hallee Hoeppner talked to her teammates about how proud she was, saying she wasn’t going to let one loss cloud how she felt about what they had learned and accomplished together.

Hallee said the same thing in the postgame news conference: “I just had such a fun time playing with these girls. I told them in the locker room not to be hard on themselves. I have so many memories on and off the court and they have become my best friends. Even if we didn’t get a state title, I’m so happy to have been a part of this team.”

This takes us to Why We Play, an MSHSL initiative that is used to assist coaches in creating the best possible experiences for their athletes and themselves. Why We Play is based largely on a book by Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and longtime high school football coach. His book is “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.”

All high school coaches in Minnesota have access to Why We Play training. I can summarize Why We Play with this: Teams and athletes strive to be successful and win, but the true purpose of high school athletics is education. Winning is a goal, but education is the purpose.

Why We Play training talks about two types of coaching: transactional and transformational. Transactional coaches view winning as the bottom line. All practices, drills, strategies and techniques are geared toward that result. The means to achieve the win, however necessary, are secondary to winning.

For transformational coaches, however, individual consideration is given to developing athletes as a whole, while understanding that the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Winona’s Gleason has gone through Why We Play training and has heard Ehrmann speak. After the state title game, he talked about what he has learned.

“(This season has) been full of memories,” he said. “The State High School League has done a lot of work on transformational coaching, the Joe Ehrmann-type mindset. This season with these ladies has typified that and it has probably been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

“Whatever happens in these kinds of events, and this goes back to the transformational things, these are things that change lives. I hope it changed their lives because it changed mine.”

Winona athletic director Casey Indra is in his second year in that job. He has been instrumental in bringing Why We Play training to his school’s coaches. That process began by informing local school board members about Why We Play and what Indra hoped it would bring to Winona.

“I said at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, if we were going to go in front of our school board and show our plan, we weren’t just going to say that and be done with it,” Indra said. “And I made the comment at the welcome home for our basketball team that (the state tournament) was a perfect Why We Play moment.”

As part of the Why We Play curriculum, coaches are asked to create their own individual purpose statements. Here is Gleason’s: “With the cornerstones of empathy and love, collaboratively, I will provide opportunities for young men and women to pursue excellence in all that they do.”

Tim also is Winona’s head coach for boys and girls track, so he impacts a lot of students as a coach. He is a band teacher, too, adding to that number and his impact.

He has been the Winhawks’ head girls basketball coach for 10 years, and he was an assistant for 11 years before that. His father, Jerry Gleason, a Winona graduate who also was a band teacher, passed away during the basketball season.

Tim said Why We Play training has been instrumental in how he coaches.

“It caused me to think about things more intentionally. Friends help you get through so many things. It’s probably something that I revisited in the last month or so of the season, with trials in my personal life. There were many days and many times I had to lean on the people I coach with and also on the team to get through the day and keep me in a position where I was helping them as much as they were helping me.”

Nine school buses filled with band members and other students traveled from Winona to Minneapolis for the state tournament. Winhawks fans displayed great sportsmanship and cheered their team until the final whistle.

“They came out in full force and I felt our kids cheered with respect to the other team,” Indra said. “They held true to what we believe in. I told them I wasn’t going to remember the score of the game, but I will remember everyone who put together this run. It was the community.”

Gleason said, “To see the MSHSL go to those kinds of training for their coaches, and to kind of see it lived out ... it was not only transformational for the girls but also for me.”

Well done, Winhawks.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 604
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,195