John's Journal
Remembering Sophia: Edina Soccer Team Pays Tribute 10/15/2015
In a well-played postseason game Thursday at Kuhlman Field in Edina, the Edina High School girls soccer team defeated Prior Lake 3-0. With the victory in the Class 2A Section 2 quarterfinals, the Hornets advanced to Tuesday’s section semifinals at Eden Prairie; for Prior Lake the season has ended.

The most memorable moment, however, came before the game started. A handful of little girls, under-8 soccer players from Edina, held large pink balloons and stood next to the Hornets after the players were introduced. All the balloons were released at the same time, and a brisk wind from the north sent them sailing over the south end zone and beyond.

As the balloons rose higher and higher, they sailed above nearby Concord Elementary School. That’s where many of the Edina varsity players went to elementary school, as did Sophia Baechler.

Sophia, a second-grader, died Sunday of carbon-monoxide poisoning while on a boat on Lake Minnetonka. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and it’s unclear what caused the poisoning.

The little girls who released the balloons Thursday were Sophia’s soccer teammates. They giggled with delight – what a joyous sound -- as they watched the balloons sail away. Sophia’s funeral was held Friday morning at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina.

Sophia, who would have turned 8 in December, is survived by her parents, Benjamin and Courtney Baechler, and 5-year-old brother Will.

Edina coach Katie Aafedt didn’t know Sophia, but two of her three children attend Concord.

“We found out the news on Monday when we got an email from the principal,” Aafedt said. “It was a tough pill to swallow. It hit very close to home because she is part of the Edina soccer community, she’s my kids’ age, her parents are my age, she was a soccer player who we had seen at games.”

Sophia and her family had attended several varsity girls soccer games. After her death, the Edina girls soccer Twitter account sent this message: “The entire EHS soccer program was devastated to learn of the passing of a U8 Edina player. We dedicate our playoff run to her. #playforsophia”

Sophia wore jersey number 8, and a jersey bearing her number was on the bench Thursday. It will remain with the Hornets through the rest of the season.

“She supported us at our games, she was part of the Edina soccer community,” said Hornets junior Eva Anderson. “It was really a huge loss for us and it was really hard to hear. She went to Concord, where a lot of us have gone, and she lived really close to me.”

Junior Meredith Stotts said, “I didn’t know her personally but the story was really heartbreaking. One of our neighbors is on her soccer team.”

About the pregame ceremony, Meredith said, “I think it focused us all a lot more and it made us want to go out and win so much more. To know that she was supporting us, to see her parents up there, it makes you much more grateful for a lot of things.”

Eva said, “We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves and we’re playing for a really deep, really important thing. It teaches us to be grateful for every moment we have and we can’t waste any second we have because we are so lucky to have these opportunities.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 114
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,091
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Eugene “Lefty” Wright Leaves A Lasting Legacy 10/13/2015
The track and cross-country community lost a very special friend when MSHSL Hall of Fame member Eugene “Lefty” Wright died at 11:55 p.m. Monday. He was 79 years old and had been dealing with cancer for a lengthy period of time.

Lefty was a bridge from the 1950s to current times in athletics. As a young coach at St. Louis Park High School, he took his cross-country teams to Duluth for competitions via train from the Twin Cities and then a Duluth city bus to the golf course where racing was held. He later became Minnesota’s leading meet official for track and cross-country, creating innovative new methods to plan and hold competitions.

“He was a genius. He was an innovator,” said Scott Stallman, who was coached by Wright at St. Louis Park in the 1960s, became a teacher and coach and now works as a race official.

--In this photo from last spring, Lefty is pictured with several of his former athletes at St. Louis Park High School. All the individuals shown are still involved with track and field as coaches or officials. (Front, left to right) Steve Williams, Dan Dornfeld, Scott Stallman. (Center) R.E. “Lefty” Wright. (Back, left to right) Tom Bracher, Bill Terriquez, Jack Mayeron, Bruce Mortenson.--

Wright graduated from St. Louis Park in 1953. He competed in track and hockey for the Orioles, playing in the 1953 state hockey tournament. After graduating from Macalester College in 1957 he returned to St. Louis Park as a teacher and assistant track and cross-country coach under Roy Griak. He worked at St. Louis Park as a teacher, coach and administrator until 1993.

He was an assistant under Griak for five years, becoming head coach in 1963 when Griak was hired at the University of Minnesota. Griak died earlier this year at 91 and a few weeks ago Lefty was named a charter member of the Roy Griak Invitational Hall of Fame.

“He was a second father figure for me,” Wright said of Griak. “He taught me a lot about organization and about handling young athletes.”

Wright, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2011, worked as a meet official at 47 MSHSL cross-country state championships and 46 MSHSL state track meets, including 23 as a starter. He also worked as an official at numerous Big Ten and NCAA events.

Lefty and his wife Nancy, parents of two children, celebrated 57 years of marriage in August.

Dan Dornfeld, who was coached by Wright in high school and also became a teacher, coach and official, remembers a turning point in Lefty’s early career.

“There was an incident during his coaching time when one of his athletes was shorted in a race. He was one of the top runners in the state at that point but was put in lane one, which was a terrible lane on a sand track. It was really a disadvantage, and that became Lefty’s charge. He took on the mantra that we have to do things that are right for athletes. That’s when he really got involved in officiating.

“Anything he’s done for the sport has always been to make the event better for the athlete. He said, ‘Let’s make sure that the student-athlete has the advantage here.’ ”

Stallman said, “He was meticulous about every detail. In his coaching days there was never anything ruled out or taken as chance. Everything was coached to the finest detail, in terms of everything from how to run a cross-country or track meet to bookkeeping to all those kinds of things.”

In the days before electronic timing, cross-country runners were herded into a single chute after finishing to maintain their order of finish. Wright invented the “swing rope,” using a movable rope to create a second chute when the first one was filled with runners.

“Nobody had heard of that until Lefty came up with the idea,” Stallman said. “It’s little things like that that make the quality of a meet better.”

In cross-country, Wright invented a three-meter stick, which was simply three one-meter lengths of boards hinged together. It was used to measure the exact width of starting boxes as well as the distance between the starting line back to the second line; runners move up to the starting line when instructed by the starter.

He also improved the use of lane dividers at cross-country starting lines, color-coding them to specify whether they were for teams or individuals.

“That was part of his attention to detail,” Dornfeld said. “As a result, you saw that better things just happened. He managed things so well that it looks like there’s never any effort given. It’s smooth, effortless. That’s Lefty.

“The other part was that the man was always the calm one. I don’t think I ever saw him in a group meeting get frustrated at all. He would always maintain that calm, that coolness that you need. He was not a guy who gets rattled.”

At the Edina Invitational track meet last spring, Lefty posed for the above photo with his former athletes.

“What a legacy,” Dornfeld said. “He really has trained many, many people for how that works and what needs to happen.

“Everybody’s been trained the Wright way.”
The Effort, The Atmosphere Of Minnesota’s Best Football Rivalry10/12/2015
SPRING GROVE – With four minutes to play in the biggest football game of the final week of the regular season, one of the head coaches said to the official on his sideline: “I don’t know whether we’re going to win or lose this game, but this is a lot of fun.”

After the game, one of the quarterbacks said, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

The coach was Gary Sloan and the quarterback was Michael Stejskal, both from Grand Meadow. Knowledgeable football fans are familiar with Grand Meadow; the Superlarks have played in the last three nine-man Prep Bowls, winning state titles in 2013 and 2014.

Grand Meadow defeated Spring Grove 21-20 Friday night in what has become tradition in southeastern Minnesota: A meeting between the two teams to end the regular season, with a rematch expected in the Section 1 championship game. That has been the case every year since 2011. Friday’s game pitted the top-ranked Superlarks against the second-ranked Lions, both coming in with 7-0 records.

The teams also came in with a combined record of 100-12 since the start of the 2011 season; Grand Meadow was 54-6 and Spring Grove was 46-6. The Superlarks have now won 30 games in a row, second only to Eden Prairie’s 38 as the current longest winning streaks in the state.

The evening was everything you’d expect from the biggest small-town rivalry in Minnesota. A charter bus brought fans from Grand Meadow, saving them from driving the 58 miles. Grilled pork chops and pork burgers served as supper to folks who filled a couple small sets of bleachers and stood around the field, held in position by a rope that surrounded the playing area.

Across the street from Blayne Onsgard Memorial Field, a cluster of fans sat in lawn chairs around a backyard fire, watching the action from the cheap seats. (But this being a small town where people might talk, those fans also purchase tickets.)

“It was an exciting atmosphere,” Lions coach Zach Hauser said. “You have to give it to both communities for coming out, showing the support. For being a regular-season game, it felt pretty big.”

Spring Grove beat the Superlarks in the regular season as well as the section title game in 2011, and beat them again in the 2012 regular season. It’s been all Grand Meadow since then, and Friday’s victory was the Superlarks’ sixth in a row in the series. But looming on the horizon is the anticipated rematch in the Oct. 24 section title game at Rochester Technical and Community College.

Other games must be won first, of course. Top-seeded Grand Meadow will host No. 8 seed Alden-Conger in Wednesday’s section playoff opener and second-seeded Spring Grove will play at home vs. No. 7 Glenville-Emmons.

Grand Meadow has 95 students in grades nine through 12, and Spring Grove’s enrollment is 77. The Lions’ senior class is the smallest in school history with only 12 students (including four boys on the football team). And here’s a note about the importance of football in these towns: Grand Meadow once moved Halloween trick-or-treating in town to Nov. 1 because the Superlarks had a game on Oct. 31.

Friday’s regular-season finale was a game of big plays, turnovers and stout defense. The rivals came in as the highest-scoring teams in the state regardless of class, but no one expected them to match their offensive averages (Spring Grove 57.6 points, Grand Meadow 56.1).

After a surprisingly scoreless first quarter, Grand Meadow’s Christopher Bain intercepted a pass, switched to his offensive position and ran 66 yards for a touchdown. The score was 7-7 at halftime after Spring Grove’s Chase Grinde, a talented 6-foot-3 junior, hit Dylan Kampschroer on a 62-yard scoring pass.

The Superlarks, known for a punishing rushing game, did exactly that to open the second half, keeping the ball on the ground before a two-yard run by Bain gave them a 14-0 lead. The Lions answered on their first play after the kickoff, with a short pass to Kampschroer turning into an 84-yard scoring scamper to make it 14-14.

A 1-yard touchdown plunge by Bain put Grand Meadow ahead 21-14, which was quickly followed by a 48-yard TD pass from Grinde to Alex Engelhardt on the final play of the third quarter. The key play of the game came on the extra point, which was probably booted a little low and was blocked.

“We knew it was going to be a battle from the start,” Bain said. “They brought it all and we had to fight right back.”

Hauser said, “I was really hoping the extra point wouldn’t be the deciding factor in the game. … I was proud of the way our guys fought all game, and we just came up a hair short.”

The game was intense, the atmosphere was electric. But underneath it all was a strong show of respect on both sides.

“The thing I like about it so much is the sportsmanship among the kids and the coaches,” Sloan said. “We get along great. There’s so much respect.”

Stejskal echoed his coach’s words: “We’ll see them again. We have respect for each other and they always come ready to play. They give us their best effort and we do our best.”

Until they meet again …

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 106
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,651
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Becker’s Alex Meidt: There’s Football In Those Genes10/9/2015
BECKER – One way to look at Becker football player Alex Meidt is numerically. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior is a two-legged stick of dynamite who caught touchdown passes of 71, 26 and 37 yards from quarterback Andrew Stanger on Thursday in the Bulldogs’ 42-6 victory over Albany in the regular-season finale.

For the season Meidt has 24 receptions for 566 yards and 10 touchdowns, usually playing very little in the second half for the unbeaten and defending Class 4A state champion Bulldogs.

But numbers don’t tell the entire story. Meidt has the kind of pedigree that thoroughbred owners drool over. His dad, Chris, is one of the all-time great players in Minnesota high school history, leading Minneota to state championships in 1986 and 1987. Chris still ranks first or second all-time in the state in several passing categories.

Chris’ coach in Minneota was his father, Gerhard, who also coached in Rothsay and Big Lake, had a high school record of 236-79 over 32 years and is in the Minnesota football coaches Hall of Fame. (Pictured are Gerhard, Alex and Chris.)

Alex’s other grandfather is also a Hall of Fame coach, Grady Rostberg of Hutchinson. He coached the Tigers for 34 years, his career record was 277-89-1 and his teams won state titles in 1983, 1984 and 1998. Alex’s uncle Andy Rostberg quarterbacked Hutchinson to two of those championships and followed Grady’s footsteps, taking over as head coach in 1999. Andy’s teams won state titles in 2012 and 2013.

So between Alex Meidt’s dad, uncle and grandfathers, it’s safe to say football is in the young man’s blood.

Chris was an assistant coach at Becker back in 1993 and 1994 before embarking on a coaching journey that took him to Bethel (his alma mater) as an assistant, St. Olaf as the head coach and a stint with the Washington Redskins as an offensive assistant. He left coaching to work for Walmart as a regional manager in Cedarburg, Wis., and two years ago moved back to Becker. He is chief operating officer of North Risk Partners in St. Cloud.

Alex joined the Becker football team a year ago, with Chris returning as an assistant to head coach Dwight Lundeen; he’s the only head coach the Bulldogs have had since the football program began 46 years ago. Lundeen (337-145-3) ranks third all-time in coaching victories behind Brainerd’s Ron Stolski (365-163-5) and Verndale’s Mike Mahlen (360-118-3).

“When I left the NFL and took that job with Walmart, I was able to be with (Alex) in seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade and 10th grade in Cedarburg,” Chris said. “Then to be able to move here and part of the deal is pretty special. I told Dwight when we moved that we were going to try to win two (state titles) in a row. I said I’ll come back, Alex is a great player and I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a two-year run here.”

Things have worked out pretty well. The Bulldogs lost a one-point game to Class 6A Minnetonka in last year’s opener and have won 20 games in a row since then. Alex Meidt wasn't the only spark plug that ignited for Becker against Albany; Tyler Thorson returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, Beau Pauly returned a fumble 32 yards for a score and Gabe Dertinger ran 35 yards for another touchdown.

Going to Becker “was probably the best move ever,” Alex said. “These two years have been amazing. My teammates and coaches have just been great, phenomenal.”

Chris Meidt met his wife, Allison, when she was teaching and coaching in Becker. They also have two daughters, Madeline, 20, and Alex’s twin, Eveline.

Lundeen said, “Chris and I have been friends for a long, long time. I hired a nice young lady to coach basketball and she somehow gave into his proposal and married him. He lived in the community and we became really good friends. Then he coached with me here and coached my sons, which drew us even closer.

“We visited them a number of times and Chris said, ‘I might be looking at getting out and moving Alex back to Minnesota.’ I said, ‘You know where he should be.’ He does a great job wherever he’s at and we’re really blessed to have him on our staff.”

Alex has exceptional speed, runs great routes and is almost impossible to cover one on one. On his touchdown receptions Friday, he was in single coverage and Stanger – seeing the defense -- checked out of the play at the line of scrimmage each time and heaved the long ball to Meidt.

“He’s just a great kid, very coachable, works hard, is fast,” Lundeen said of Alex Meidt. “When they put nobody in the middle, it’s really hard to cover a quick kid with double moves and speed one on one. He’s grown up with football; he’s only played our offense for two years but knows it really well.”

Alex is a rarity in Becker: a star football player who didn’t grow up watching the Bulldogs. Hundreds of such youngsters took the field at halftime Friday as the community celebrated youth football.

“We’ve got them down to kindergarten,” Lundeen said, joking only slightly when he added, “We know who our quarterback’s going to be for the next 15 years.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 104
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,381
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
It’s Hammer Time As Football Regular Season Winds Down 10/5/2015
PROCTOR – The football regular season comes to an end this week, which makes it a good time to reflect on a few things, many of which were on display here Friday night when the teams from Hermantown and Proctor met in the annual Hammer Game.

It’s one of Minnesota’s best rivalries, featuring kids who have competed against each other in various sports since they were little boys. The traveling trophy is The Hammer, a giant wooden hammer that carries the score of every game between Proctor and Hermantown since 1995.

The Rails and Hawks first met on the football field in 1941 and The Hammer has been the winner’s prize for 20 years. Jesse Bodell, a Hermantown junior in 1995, and his father Ron built the thing in their garage. It is modeled after the railroad hammer that was swung in American mythology by steel driver John Henry.

Traveling trophies are found all over Minnesota. One of my favorites is the Battle Axe game between Luverne and Pipestone (what a hoot: the sophomore teams play for the Hatchet and the ninth-grade teams play for the Butter Knife). Another great trophy game pits Blue Earth and Fairmont, who have played for the Little Brown Jug for 61 years.

Friday’s game went the way of the Hawks, who used a 68-0 runaway to even the all-time series with Proctor at 32-32-1. The margin was the largest in the rivalry’s history, but the takeaway from this year’s game went far beyond the scoreboard.

Hermantown has 614 students and plays Class 4A football, Proctor has 474 and is in Class 3A. The schools, which combine to form one girls hockey team, are only nine miles apart and the towns are conjoined twins on Duluth’s western border.

Some people grow up in one town and raise their own kids in the other. Everybody basically knows everybody.

“It’s just a mix of families, and it’s so close that it makes it a really enjoyable time,” said Hermantown coach Daryl Illikainen, who has led 18 teams in this rivalry game.

Friday’s crowd was bathed in pink, especially the student sections. It was a Pink Out, with money raised to battle cancer. Pink lines had been painted alongside the goal lines and 50-yard line. The Proctor band was on hand for musical enjoyment. Members of the American Legion carried the flag onto the field for the national anthem, with the stars and stripes billowing in a cold breeze. This was America on a Friday night, a scene repeated across the country.

The early returns weren’t favorable for Hermantown, which has a 7-0 record and No. 5 state ranking in 4A. On the game’s first series, the Hawks’ Thomas Madison ran for a 47-yard touchdown, but a holding penalty brought it back.

The Hawks didn’t flinch and continued the drive, which ended with James Lindberg running four yards for a score. He added a 26-yard run in a 33-point second quarter and Madison also scored twice, as did Matt Valure. The big booms came when Nick Bostrom threw to Zack Brendon for a 49-yard touchdown and Christian Comstock returned an interception 67 yards for a TD.

Meanwhile, Hermantown’s defense held the Rails (4-3) to single digits in total yards. The Hawks ran for more than 400 yards, with Madison getting 144.

“We have great offensive linemen,” said Madison (pictured with The Hammer). “They come off the ball and they’re smart, they make adjustments on the fly and it’s a lot of fun to run behind them.”

Hermantown is a regular at the boys state hockey tournament and the Hawks made their first trip to the boys state basketball tourney last winter. That kind of success blends into other sports and other seasons.

“A lot of these kids went to state in basketball last year, they’re three-sport athletes,” Illikainen said. “They’re just putting it together. They’ve come in with a mission, they’ve been focused and I’m just so proud.”

Hermantown will finish the regular season Thursday at Moose Lake-Willow River and Proctor will go to Two Harbors the same night. Then section tournament pairings will be set and the second season will begin.

“We came in with the mindset that we were going to work hard this year,” Madison said. “Coach always says we’ll look at the scoreboard at the end of the game. So that was kind of our mindset coming in. The guys have worked hard and put in their time and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.

“I think we can be as good as we want to be. We have to limit our mistakes, we have to stay in check and we’ve got to take it one week at a time. We can’t overlook anyone. I think we’re going to do good things.”

Hard work. Pride. Togetherness. Optimism.

Good stuff.

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

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 102
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,231
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn