John's Journal
Taking Some Time Off, And Taking A Look Back5/10/2011
The John’s Journal staff is taking some time off this week to attend to a regular rite of spring: graduation.

In the meantime, feel free to take a look at some of the recent stories posted here. Scroll down until you see “More of John’s Journal” and click away.

Here are just a few of the stories you’ll find…

--St. Francis sophomore Maggie Ewen, who recently set a new state record in the discus.

--A program at Spring Lake Park in which high school athletes spend time helping first- and second-graders improve their reading skills.

--Remembering 9-11 and how high school sports can help us heal.

--A big night for track at the Hamline Elite Meet.

--Terry Steinbach, former major league catcher now coaching high school baseball (including his son).

--Wrestling weight changes and more.

See you next week!
In A Few Quiet Moments, A Great Lesson In Sportsmanship5/6/2011
Thanks to a grateful parent and an administrator who understands that we need to share great stories from school activities, I am proud to pass along a wonderful lesson in sportsmanship as well as friendship.

The stars of this story are Hannah Barrett, a senior at Verndale High School and a member of the Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale track team, and Alexa Hoffarth, an eighth-grader on the track team at Osakis. They had never met until they were preparing to run the 300-meter hurdles at the recent Osakis Lions Invitational.

I’ll let the email from Gina Hoffarth (Alexa’s mom) tell the tale in just a moment. But my thanks also go to Bertha-Hewitt athletic director Steve Riewer. Steve and several others at Verndale and Bertha-Hewitt received the email below from Alexa’s mom, and Steve was kind enough to forward that email to me. Enjoy …

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to express my appreciation to one of your female athletes who participated in the Osakis Lions Invitational last night. Our eighth-grade daughter ran the 300-meter hurdles for the first time last night and was literally terrified.

“Hannah, a senior” from your school approached her while they were waiting to get on the track. I’m not sure of the exact conversation, but she basically asked her if she was OK (nerves must have been obvious) and then reassured her that she would do fine. She went on to tell her how long she had been working on them and that after much practice she now loved that race.

“Hannah” encouraged her to persevere even if the first time didn’t go perfectly and reminded her that God had a plan for her. Our daughter hit the first hurdle and almost went down, but did go on to finish the race. This short conversation that “Hannah” may not even remember made a significant impact on our daughter.

Our daughter was disappointed with herself for taking sixth place and hitting the hurdle, but she recalled her conversation with the kind girl who not only understood her fears, but was able to help her look at running hurdles in a positive way. It was the one solace that our daughter fell back on last night that may help her in other future athletic endeavors. From another athlete, these words of encouragement went much further than any encouragement we gave her as parents.

I am not one to write letters on a whim, but I wanted to thank this athlete from your school. It is impressive that she took the time to visit with an opponent. My husband and I believe this experience will stick with our daughter. We will challenge her to “pay it forward” to another athlete in the future. Please commend your athlete(s) and coaching staff for taking the time and making a difference in the life of another athlete.

Sincerely,
Gina Hoffarth
Osakis Track parent
Meet Minnesota’s Newest State Record Holder: Maggie Ewen5/4/2011
There’s going to be some construction and landscaping going on at St. Francis High School. It seems that the area where the discus lands after Maggie Ewen throws it isn’t quite roomy enough.

Ewen made history Tuesday in a four-team track meet at St. Francis. She threw the discus 165 feet, 9 inches, which broke the previous state record of 162-4, set by Jessica Cagle of Grand Rapids in 2008.

There are two “wow” factors in this story. The first is that Maggie isn’t the prototypical thrower. She stands 5-foot-9, making her sort of a mid-sized thrower. And she’s only a sophomore, which portends even greater lengths to come.

St. Francis coach Andy Forbort said three of Ewen’s throws Tuesday surpassed 160 feet. Asked how far she might go before her high school career is over, he said, “I’m not sure how far she can throw. But we need to revamp our discus area, because it only goes 170 feet. I joked with our football coach that we might use the football field because it’s 300 feet.”

Tuesday’s record throw came midway through Ewen’s six attempts in the discus ring. “I’m pretty sure it was my third or fourth throw,” she said Wednesday morning. “The throw didn’t particularly feel like the best it could be, but when I let it go and saw the arc and the flight of it, it was like, ‘Oooh, this is going to be a good one.’

“At first I was like, ‘Hey, a new p.r. (personal record). Awesome.’ Then it was like, ‘Oh wait, a new state record, too.’ ”

In her last competition prior to Tuesday, Ewen won at Friday's Hamline Elite Meet with a toss of 147-3. She also won the shot put at Hamline at 45-11 ¾ (that's where this photo was taken). She won the Class 2A title in the discus at last year’s state track meet (159-4) and placed third in the shot put. As an eighth-grader she placed third in the discus and eighth in the shot put at state.

There are genetics at work here. Maggie’s father, Bruce, was a college thrower at Illinois State and came within a quarter-inch of making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team in the hammer throw. Her mom, Kristi, played volleyball at Columbia Heights and Ohio State.

Maggie began tinkering with the discus when she was in fifth grade and her older sister Alicia was throwing on the high school team.

“I didn’t really take it very seriously right away,” Maggie said. “I suppose it did come pretty naturally.”

Forbort called Maggie’s feat “unbelievable” but in the same breath said her success is not a real surprise. “Our throwing coach said as a sixth-grader she would have finished in the top 10 in our section.”

The national high school record in the girls discus is 190-3, set by Anna Jelmini of Shafter, Calif., in 2009. The best throw in the nation in 2010 was 180-9 by Alex Collatz of Stockdale High in Bakersfield, Calif.

That leads to a question for Maggie: How far can you throw?

“How far? I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t really set any long-terms goals for myself. Right now I’m just worried about 166.”

In the meantime, somebody better get started on expanding that landing area.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 627
*Miles John has driven: 9,604

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
Reading And Role Models: Spring Lake Park Finds Perfect Formula5/3/2011
Steve Brady will never forget the magic that took place when students from Spring Lake Park High School began visiting his first-grade classroom. The high school kids’ mission was simple: spend one-on-one time with struggling readers and help them improve their skills.

One little boy quickly became enamored with Jorde Ranum, a senior three-sport athlete.

“This boy plays sports and he wanted Jorde’s autograph,” Brady said. “And Jorde was such a nice guy to give it to him, and that really made a nice bond between those two. Every day the kid would ask, ‘Is Jorde coming today?’

“It’s just that little nudge, just one more effort that we can do to make sure the kids can read.”

Since January a group of about 20 Spring Lake Park high school students have been working with first- and second-graders at nearby Woodcrest Elementary, using a rotating schedule that has two, three or four students visiting three days each week. The high school students are invited to participate in the program and they go through training sessions.

“We wanted to give our children more opportunities to read, and to create relationships and to feel connected,” said Woodcrest principal Judi Kahoun. “We’re seeing gains in reading, and the kids love the connections. It’s real important for our kids just to have another person they can connect with who can make a difference in their lives.”

The process is not complicated. The high school kids (Bria Jones is pictured at right) and their reading buddies sit together in the hallway outside the classroom, and the children read as the older students help them. The high school students will offer advice, such as “Look at the first letter, make the sounds. Does it make sense?”

First-grade teacher Nikki Pudwill said, “They have a positive impact, the kids are excited to see them and they know them by name. I’ve overheard them using strategies, helping kids figure out the words. They interact and work together and it’s very, very positive.”

It’s so simple in its execution, yet so important in its benefits.

“It has really motivated the kids,” first-grade teacher Curtis Horton said. “It’s the same books they’ve read with me and other volunteers, but to be with the high school kids, they are so psyched to read to them.”

The positives work both ways.

“I just think it’s really good giving back to the kids,” said Courtney Nelson, a senior member of the hockey and golf teams. “It’s fun to see them and how much they progress. Going back each time and seeing the smile on their faces is just awesome. They love the experience, and I think it’s very humbling and good for us as well. I enjoy it a lot.

“I think it’s important that we have athletes going over to Woodcrest because it shows that you can excel both academically and on the field. It encourages both, but it shows that school definitely comes first and having those basic skills is necessary.”

The idea for the program sprang from Homecoming week last fall, when Spring Lake Park football players visited all the elementary schools in the district (which is in the northern Twin Cities suburbs).

“We saw the reaction from the kids,” said athletic director Mike Cunningham. The reading program began with team captains in January and has expanded to other students.

“The term I’ve been using with them is, ‘You guys need to leave a legacy here,’ ” Cunningham said.

Amy Bjurlin, a former Woodcrest teacher who now helps staff there improve their skills, trains the high school students before they begin working with young readers.

“We’ve gone through some strategies for coaching elementary students in reading,” said Bjurlin (pictured below). “It’s pretty simple texts that the students are reading, and I’ve modeled for them how a student might read that text, the errors they might make and how they can coach them without telling them the word, so the students have the chance to practice some of those reading strategies on their own with the student sitting with them. The goal is for them to be independent when the coach isn’t sitting there.

“And we remind them to just really encourage the kids in their reading, to offer praise and feedback for the good reading they do. What we’ve seen is the elementary students are pretty excited to read with the high school students. When we started this we really hit our first-grade students hard with a lot of volunteers, and their oral reading scores have gone up a ton.”

The high school students will often wear a sports jersey or other attire that identifies them as Spring Lake Park Panthers. The young readers receive stickers that say “I Read With a Panther.”

It’s a perfect win-win situation.

“The high school kids have really picked up on the coaching. They’re doing a great job of interacting with the students,” Bjurlin said. “Staff members will walk by and say, ‘Wow, these guys are the real deal.’ They picked up the training quickly and they’ve been super responsible and reliable. It’s fun to see them doing such a great job.”

--For more photos, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 626
*Miles John has driven: 9,544

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
Remembering ... 5/2/2011
In the wake of Sunday evening's news, I began thinking about 9-11 and what happened in the days and weeks that followed.

I recalled writing about a monument to Flight 93 victim Tom Burnett at Bloomington Jefferson, where Tom was a football team captain in the class of 1981. That story found it way to Tom's widow, Deena, who sent me a very nice thank you note.

I recalled writing about Gordy Aamoth Jr., who was killed in the Twin Towers. He was a football player while a student at Blake, where the stadium now bears his name and a section of beam from the World Trade Center is displayed.

Then I recalled a column I wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the day after 9-11. It seemed to touch people at the time, and it might be worth reading today...

Headline: High school sports can help the healing

In the horrible wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all after-school activities were canceled Tuesday in the Jefferson County (Colo.) School District. This didn't surprise Ed Woytek, the athletic director at Columbine High School.

The day's events hit Columbine hard, especially the senior class. They were freshmen on April 20, 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

"Our coaches and all of us are on kind of a fine line, especially with what happened here previously," Woytek said.

Columbine still is recovering from that day. Recovery also is an ongoing process in Osceola, Wis., where twin brothers Eric and Aaron Kipp, 18, died in a car accident on the way to football practice 30 days ago.

With thousands of innocent people presumed to have perished this week, what do you say? How do you heal? Maybe it's best to listen to the kids. That's among the lessons learned at Columbine and Osceola.

"Pretty much all of them are saying to us, 'We need to be a family,'" Woytek said. "Because that's what happened a few years ago; they got with family. And that's where we need to be, that's where our American people need to be, is with family."

After the Kipp brothers died, football practices were stopped for a short period. But soon, everyone wanted to return -- or try to return -- to some sense of normalcy.

"Very soon, the kids were ready to go back," said Osceola coach/principal Mike McMartin. "They said, 'Coach, I need to keep busy.' And they were right. When we jumped back into it, although they weren't the best practices in the world, there was almost a big sigh of relief that they could start moving forward and take with us all the good things that the boys had shared with us for so many years, instead of thinking about the bad."

Activities went on as scheduled Tuesday in Osceola, the day of the attacks.

"We just really felt during that time it was massively important that we show to the kids, 'Hey, we're going on. We're not going to let these people defeat us or take us off our feet here. We're going to move forward and be proud,'" McMartin said.

At Columbine and Osceola, tragedy struck a specific community of people. This week, tragedy struck us all.

The Columbine Rebels take a 1-1 record into tonight's game at Dakota Ridge. Osceola is 3-0 and the homecoming opponent for rival St. Croix Falls. The games go on, as do our lives.

"Everybody keeps saying we'll never get back to normal, just like our nation will never get back to normal," Woytek said. "But hopefully we're going to get as close to normal as we can."

So if sporting events are part of your normal routine, stick with it. If you haven't been to a high school game in years, tonight would be a wonderful time to go. Get away from the television, escape the headlines. Find a seat in the bleachers and take a break, however temporary, from all that's gone so wretchedly wrong in this world.

Watch the team captains shake hands before the coin flip. Hold your hand over your heart during the national anthem as the flag flutters at half-staff. Bow your head during the moment of silence to honor this week's victims. Get on your feet for the opening kickoff. Watch our young people -- players, cheerleaders, fans -- as they smile, holler and laugh together during this evening that is tradition both athletic and social. Buy popcorn, listen to the band, cheer first downs, simply celebrate.

Maybe administrators at every school can find a recording of God Bless America, and across our states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and beyond -- we'll sing together when the game ends. Just like a family.