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No Change In Plans For Minneapolis North’s Future Gopher
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/31/2015 6:28:39 PM

ST. PETER—Tyler Johnson was as shocked as anyone Wednesday morning when Jerry Kill announced his immediate retirement as the University of Minnesota head football coach. Johnson, a Minneapolis North senior quarterback/safety who has committed to play for the Gophers, learned the news when other recruits began trading frenzied texts.

“There were a lot of texts,” Johnson said Saturday after leading the Polars to a 54-29 victory over Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in the Class 1A state quarterfinals at Gustavus Adolphus College. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Johnson had a hand in seven touchdowns, throwing for six and running for one. He finished with 285 passing yards and 186 on the ground, and also had an interception on defense.

Kill’s announcement didn’t affect his college decision, Johnson said.

“I’m still going to be a Gopher either way. It’s just crazy to me, but I’d like to thank him for recruiting me and giving me a chance to play for the Gophers.”

Tracy Claeys, who has been named the Gophers interim coach, telephoned Johnson after Kill’s thunderbolt.

“I talked to coach Claeys and we had a good conversation,” Tyler said. “He called me and he kept me updated about what’s going on. He kept it pretty short and simple. He told me straight up, he’s looking forward to being the head coach over there and he doesn’t plan on changing anything. He told me any way it goes, I will still have the opportunity to play for the Gophers.

“He was there throughout the recruiting process, too. I spoke a few times with him, and I’ve got to say he’s a pretty cool guy, just like coach Kill. I’m looking forward to playing for him.”

The Polars’ victory Saturday moved their record to 11-0. They will meet Braham in the state semifinals next Saturday at St. Cloud State at 8 p.m. Braham advanced with a 44-6 victory Saturday over Mahnomen.

Johnson opened the scoring Saturday with a 68-yard touchdown run in which he scrambled in the backfield, eluded defenders to the left and then to the right as he crisscrossed his way down the field.

His scoring passes went for 37, 32, 80 and 22 yards to Isaac Johnson and 28 and 11 yards to Azerick Rodgers. Tyler Johnson displayed a strong arm when necessary and a soft touch in other situations, sending fastballs to the middle of the field as well as floaters over defenders.

Last season Minneapolis North lost to Dawson-Boyd in the state semifinals. That defeat has helped fuel the Polars this season, Johnson said.

“It was a lot of motivation, losing in the state semifinals last year. We kept that in the back of our heads. We wanted to come out and go further this year and hopefully win a state championship.”

If they win one more game, they will play at the Prep Bowl in Johnson’s future football home at the University of Stadium.

“That would definitely be fun,” he said. “That’s what I hope to do.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 158
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 5,311
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Doubling Down: It’s A Sister Act At State Tennis
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/29/2015 4:05:59 PM

The doubles bracket at the Class 2A girls state tennis tournament looks like a list of law firms: Tarrolly & Tarrolly. Kopfer & Kopfer. Schurhamer & Schurhamer. McLeod & McLeod. Riermann & Riermann. Dorr & Dorr.

Sixteen doubles teams qualify for state, and it’s not rare to see sisters playing together. Paige and Taylor McLeod of Benilde-St. Margaret’s (the only set of twins in the bracket) also played at state last year, as did Brianna and Kelsey Dorr of Princeton. This year’s bracket, however, is packed with similar surnames, sometimes extending the family theme even further into the tournament.

St. Cloud Tech sisters Taylor (a junior) and Katelyn (sophomore) Tarrolly played No. 1 and No. 2 singles most of the season but teamed up in doubles for the postseason (they are pictured here with Katelyn on the left). Both have played singles at state in previous season, but their move to doubles opened up a singles spot for their seventh-grade sister Ashley.

The move worked out nicely: Ashley qualified for state in singles and her sisters are playing doubles. Taylor and Katelyn played in the Section 8 singles championship matches the previous two years (the top two advance to state).

“It was a last-minute decision,” Taylor said Tuesday. “We just kind of wanted to see how the season would work out. And we decided that it would give each of us the best opportunity to go to state if Katelyn and I played doubles and Ashley played singles.”

Katelyn and Taylor estimated that they played 10 matches as a doubles team before the state tournament. The transition from singles to doubles was easy, Katelyn said.

“We’re really close on and off the court so I think that really helps our bond.”

The other sisters playing 2A doubles are Jordan and Taylor Kopfer of Eastview, Delaney and Mackenzie Schurhamer of Woodbury, and Maggie and Grace Rierman of Mahtomedi.

The Dorr sisters of Princeton add another element to the family storyline: their mom, Kelly, is the Tigers coach.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Brianna said Thursday. “I enjoy having her as one of our coaches.”

Brianna (a senior) and Kelsey (freshman) played singles during the season and didn’t pair up in doubles until the Section 7 tournament. Both played several doubles matches with other teammates during the season.

“The team needed one of us at No. 1 singles the whole time,” Brianna said (pictured on the right in this photo with her sister and mother).

Mahtomedi’s Riermann sisters played doubles throughout the season, with other teammates as well as each other. This is the first time they have been to state.

“I think we definitely communicate pretty well,” Grace said. “You know in certain situations where your partner will hit it. We’re comfortable, we know where to be. We can see into each other’s heads a little.”

Fittingly, Friday’s 8 a.m. doubles semifinals (and 11:30 a.m. championship match) will be family affairs: Tarrolly vs. Schurmann and McLeod vs. Riermann.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 154
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 5,055
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

The Inside Story Of Brandon’s No. 11 On The Cleveland Field
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/26/2015 2:19:08 PM

Good news spreads quickly, and good news about high school sports spreads even more quickly. Case in point: A short posting Saturday evening on the MSHSL Facebook page.

The post consisted of four brief paragraphs and one photograph. Together, they told the story of what took place at a football playoff game Saturday evening between Renville County West and Cleveland for the nine-man Section 2 championship. The game was played in Cleveland, and the 50-yard-line numerals in front of the visitors’ bench had been replaced by a number 11 of the same size.

As readers of John’s Journal know, Renville County West’s Brandon Limones – who died in March – wore jersey number 11. The Jaguars carried Brandon’s jersey onto the field with them for every game and it had a special place on their bench.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, that Facebook post has been viewed by 341,450 Facebook users. It had been “Liked” by 5,610 and shared by 1,592. Those are astounding numbers for the MSHSL Facebook page, which has nearly 20,000 “Likes.”

Cleveland won the game 33-19 and will meet two-time defending state champion Grand Meadow in the state quarterfinals on Saturday at 1 p.m. at New Prague High School.

Until Monday, all I knew was that someone had painted the 11 on the field in Cleveland. But I learned more. I contacted Cleveland activities director Rich Kern, whom I suspected may have been in on the paint job. And he was.

Rich told me, “In these small-town schools we all have many roles and wear many hats. Mine include AD, community ed and grounds crew assistant.”

Rich said he had read my story about Renville County West’s season-long tribute to Brandon, and he had been thinking about the Jaguars and how difficult it must be to play without their friend Brandon.

“So 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.”

As Rich was painting the field lines, hash marks, the orange Clippers helmet at midfield and then the numbers on the yard lines, it came to him. He realized, “We can show our Cleveland Clippers support on the field before the game even starts by painting Brandon’s number 11 in the center of the field.”

“I just wanted the players to feel that they are not alone and that during that game he would be right there on the field with them, on the field and in their hearts,” Rich said.

RCW coach Ryan Hebrink didn’t know anything about what Rich had done until the coaches walked onto the field long before game time.

“The AD was showing up what side of field we were on and one of our assistant coaches said, ‘Did you notice the 50-yard line?’I went into the school and told Rich how much that meant to us.”

The coaches didn’t mention the tribute to Brandon to the players before they took the field for warm-ups.

“I just let them see it,” Ryan said. “I think in general, like everybody, they were so impressed that anybody would think about doing that. And when you think about the type of person that Brandon was, it means even more. He really left an impact on a lot of people, even people who didn’t even know him.”

The many comments posted on the MSHSL Facebook page included these:

-- “I am in tears with this story. What an honor for that boy's family to be a part of such a great community and to know that there are some great people out there.”

--“Very classy and thoughtful thing to do. This is the type of thing that people will remember forever. Well done.”

--“Thank you Cleveland -- this meant so much to the Renville community & players. This season has been emotional & inspirational to us all. Your act of respect has shown the sporting community the real meaning behind "why" we play, "why" we believe, & "why" we compete. Wishing you the best of luck in state!”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 130
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,827
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Across The Border, Four Games And Four Trips To State
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/23/2015 12:37:41 AM

FARGO, N.D. – It’s not often that I report on Minnesota high school activities from another state. But this is a special deal: Thursday was football section championship day at the Fargodome, with four teams winning and qualifying for the state tournament. The same thing will happen Friday, with four more games. Here’s how Thursday went for me…

12:35: Cross the state line into North Dakota. Given the skunk eye by border guards. Thankfully no frisking this time.

12:57: Enter the Fargodome through the loading dock, clear security. No skunk eyes.

1:03: Catch my first glimpse of the action, from field level. Waubun Bombers in blue, Ada-Borup Cougars in white. Cougars lead 7-3, and that is the halftime score of the nine-man Section 6 championship game.

1:45: Waubun's Darius Woods-Steichen blocks an Ada-Borup punt.

1:50: The punt block pays off as an 8-yard TD run by Peyton Syverson puts Waubun ahead 10-7 in the third quarter. On the next drive, an Ada-Borup punt snap sails into the end zone, Cougars fall on it for a safety and Waubun leads 12-7.

2:35: Waubun defeats Ada-Borup 18-7 to advance to the state tournament for the first time since 2007.

2:40: Waubun assistant coach John Clark Sr. laughs when I ask him if he’ll stay at the Fargodome for the 5:30 game between Mahnomen and Polk County West. His son, John Clark Jr., is the Mahnomen coach and another son, Paul, is the Waubun coach. John Sr. is an assistant to his son John on the Mahnomen boys basketball team. Mahnomen and Waubun are only 10 miles apart, “and during the basketball season the people in Waubun see me wearing Mahnomen colors and wonder what the heck is going on,” John Sr. said with a big smile.

3:01: Kickoff between Kittson County Central and Stephen-Argyle in the nine-man Section 8 title game.

3:06: Christopher McGlynn gets a short TD run for Stephen-Argyle, Storm leads Kittson County Central 7-0.

3:08: I receive this Tweet from Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who played small-school football in South Dakota: “Loving the 9-man coverage.” Thanks Chad.

3:49: I notice some of the surnames on the Stephen-Argyle roster: five Yutrzenkas (including an assistant coach and cheer advisor), two Szczepanskis, two Gryskiewiczs, two Neuschwanders and a Kasmierzcak. Hate to be the P.A. announcer right now.

3:37: With Stephen-Argyle leading 13-7 at halftime, the Fargo Forum’s Chris Murphy delivers a bag of candied almonds from the concession area. Never had ‘em before, but will buy some to bring home.

4:17: Stephen-Argyle capitalizes on a Kittson fumble as Justin Yutrzenka scores on a short run. Storm leads 21-7 early in the second half.

5:22: After Stephen-Argyle wins 21-14, Storm coach Ethan Marquis talks about the team returning to state for the first time since 2009. Back then, the Storm won a state-record 76 games in a row, a streak ended by Kittson County Central in 2008. “This is everything,” he said. “These kids grew up in the stands, watching those 76 wins in a row. This is a dream come true to get to the state playoffs. It’s everything.”

5:42: Kody Lefebvre scores 3-yard touchdown to cap opening drive for Mahnomen, which leads Polk County West 6-0 in the Class 1A Section 8 title game.

5:55: Mahnomen’s Brian Schoenborn runs into the end zone from 11 yards but a penalty brings it back. Two plays later, Jake Worms scores on a 3-yard run. Mahnomen leads 14-0.

6:14: Mahnomen takes 22-0 lead on 12-yard touchdown run by Lefebvre. Polk County West fans remain positive and loud.

6:23: Having purchased two bags of candied almonds, I eat most of one bag quickly. The other one will leave the building with me tonight.

6:43: Mahnomen leads 36-0 at halftime.

6:55: Personal pan pizza, purchased at the concession stand, disappears quickly.

7:33: I learn that Polk County West – a second-year cooperative team with students from Climax, Fisher and East Grand Forks Sacred Heart – will transform into two basketball teams in the winter: Climax/Fisher and Sacred Heart.

7:40: Clock runs out on Mahnomen’s 44-7 win over Polk County West. Indians are going to the state tournament for the sixth year in a row. They were Class 1A state champs in 2012 and 2013.

7:45: Mahnomen’s Lefebvre, a senior who scored three touchdowns, is the happiest person in the Fargodome. He sat out the entire 2014 season with a knee injury. “That wasn’t very fun,” he said. “Today? This feels pretty good.”

8:10: Kickoff between Pequot Lakes and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in the Class 3A Section 8 title game.

8:15: Someone Tweets me a photo of the Waubun and Mahnomen coaches (brothers Paul and John Clark Jr.) with their mom in the stands. It’s the photo of the day.

8:28: A 24-yard TD run by Eric Watt gives Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton a 13-7 lead over Pequot Lakes in the first quarter.

9:20: With D-G-F leading 29-7 at halftime, a debate breaks out in the press box: How are statistics (pass yards, rush yards) figured on a hook-and-lateral play? Frenzied Googling ensues.

10:02: The day’s action ends with Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton defeating Pequot Lakes 36-13.

10:03: I snap a photo of the DGF Rebels mascot, a kid in a costume (with giant plastic head) along the lines of an old-time southern chap. I ask the kid if the mascot has a name, “Like Ronnie the Rebel or Ralph the Rebel or Richie the Rebel?” No, he replies, it’s just the Rebel. Fair enough.

10:11: Having returned to my car in the Fargodome parking lot, I realize something: My favorite pen is missing. Hopefully someone who picks it up on the football field appreciates it. That was the only less-than-perfect thing that happened all day.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 128
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,818
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Renville County West’s Goal: Take Brandon To State
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/21/2015 11:51:03 AM

RANDOLPH – The phrase “team on a mission” is commonplace at all levels of sports. One team that is truly on a mission, however, is the football team from Renville County West High School. There’s no understating how important the Jaguars’ goals are, because they center around a teammate who is no longer with them.

Brandon Limones was a three-sport athlete at Renville County West, which is located in the western Minnesota town of Renville. He was a 17-year-old sophomore when he died unexpectedly in March. His death was attributed to complications stemming from an unknown condition in which his heart was enlarged.

Brandon, a kicker on the football team and a likely starter at linebacker this season, wore jersey number 11. And his jersey, blue for home games and white for road games, goes everywhere with the team on game nights. The Jaguars walk onto the field carrying his jersey, and during games it rests on a stand at the bench. It’s almost as if Brandon is still there.

“Brandon was an inspirational guy,” said senior Alex Villarreal. “No matter what you did, you’d come to the sideline and he’d keep your head up. He’d tell you, ‘Hey, good job!’ And it’s the inspiration from his jersey that reminds us to keep our heads up and stay positive, like he was.”

The Jaguars played inspired football Tuesday night, defeating a tough Randolph team 28-14 in the nine-man Section 2 semifinals. Renville County West (8-2) will play at Cleveland (9-1) on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.

State has been the goal for a long time. After last season the Jaguars coaches asked returning players to write down goals for 2015. Brandon, like many others, wrote “going to state.” That has been turned into a social media hash tag by the Jaguars and their fans: #TakeBrandonToState.

“Brandon was the center of our team,” said senior Colin Thompson. “He was always positive, never negative.”

Brandon and family members moved from Mexico to Minnesota when he was in seventh grade. He spoke no English and knew nothing about football, but he made friends quickly and fit right in.

“He didn’t know any English so we had to teach him that,” senior Hayden Johnson said. “And he didn’t know anything about football, either, so we had to teach him football. It was fun seeing him have fun. He didn’t know if we were winning or losing sometimes, but he’d say, ‘Good job! Good job!’ ”

If the Jaguars reach their goal of the state playoffs, it would provide a marker to a magnificent turnaround story. Playing Class 1A football, Renville County West went 0-7 in 2010, forfeiting the last four games due to a lack of healthy players.

The Jaguars moved to nine-man in 2011, finishing 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 through 2013. There was a big uptick last season to a 6-4 finish and this year’s 8-2 mark. The team plays fast football, with a typical nine-man spread offense and quick-footed defense.

Johnson was among the leaders Tuesday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, running 21 times for 101 yards, scoring on a 77-yard punt return and making 19 tackles, including one for a safety. The Jaguars had 438 yards of offense and the defense intercepted three passes.

Randolph’s David Speight completed 23 of 41 passes for 303 yards, with Michael Landsberger catching eight passes for 149 yards. The Rockets finished the season with a 7-3 record.

Now, the Jaguars turn their sights to Saturday’s game at Cleveland and their long-held goal.

“We knew we were a good team,” Villarreal said. “It’s been a goal of ours to take Brandon to state with us.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 120
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,288
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

October Means Making Memories That Will Last A Lifetime
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/19/2015 2:33:07 PM

This time of the year – October … section playoffs … state tournament dreams – is one of the best stretches of the high school sports calendar. Last week I watched six games total, four football and two soccer, and this week I may be in attendance at up to nine more contests between Tuesday and Saturday.

Here’s my favorite quote from last week: “This is super fun. I’ve never been part of a game like this. This was really fun.”

Those words were spoken by St. Francis senior quarterback Hunter Trautman after the Fighting Saints held off Chisago Lakes on Saturday afternoon in the Class 5A Section 7 tournament semifinals. The Saints will host Andover for the section title this Friday night.

To see a young athlete smiling wide as he said those words, and then to look across the field and see the Chisago Lakes Wildcats on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, downcast after coming up short in a wild ballgame … that’s tough stuff. But it’s all part of the high school experience on the athletic field and in the classroom, learning important life lessons about hard work, teamwork and never giving up.

After the game, St. Francis coach Chris Lindquist had a positive message for the Chisago Lakes coaches. “I told their staff that they have one of the better-coached teams that we’ve ever faced,” he said. “They do what they do and they do it very, very well.”

It was a heck of a football game. St. Francis led 24-7 midway through the third quarter, but the Wildcats came back hard. Three consecutive touchdown drives, two ending on scoring runs by tall, talented senior quarterback Ethan Hickcox, gave Chisago Lakes a 28-24 lead with 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.

St. Francis began its final possession on its own 35-yard line. Trautman scrambled for 12 yards, threw to Robbie Whitney and Stephen Anderson for 15 each, hit Mason Meadows for 19 and with 28 seconds to go the Saints were on the Wildcats’ 1-yard line. A sneak by Trautman and extra-point kick by eighth-grader Hunter Dustman made it 31-28 Saints.

After a squib kick, Hickcox threw to Anders Brown for 25 yards and then again for eight more. Brown stepped out of bounds to stop the clock on both plays, and the Wildcats lined up for a 52-yard field-goal attempt with 3.3 seconds left. The kick fell short and a glorious sunny afternoon of football came to an end.

Here are a few other vignettes from an outstanding week…

--Brainerd’s Ron Stolski, in his 54th year as a football coach, telling one of the ballboys before a section playoff game against Sartell: “You need to be on your toes tonight.” Right before kickoff, in the locker room (pictured), he said to his players, “We won’t remember 20 years from now how much we played or whether we played, but we will remember we were part of the Warriors.”

--The girls soccer players from Prior Lake bringing gift bags and stuffed animals to their section playoff game at Edina. The gifts were for soccer teammates of a 7-year-old girl who had died earlier in the week.

--A football coach, wearing a headset in the press box, calling out the next play: “Big left double shift 25 zap!”

--The Holy Family football team taking a knee on four consecutive plays deep in Rockford territory while holding a big lead in the fourth quarter.

--St. Francis superintendent Troy Ferguson running the down marker as part of the chain gang at Saturday’s football game.

--Small-town football tradition: Becker fan Shelley Lumley, known as the cookie lady, passing out cookies and similar treats in the stands (and the press box), just as she has done since 2001.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 118
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,243
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Remembering Sophia: Edina Soccer Team Pays Tribute
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/15/2015 7:52:59 PM

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.”

*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
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/13/2015 11:49:38 AM

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 Rivalry
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/12/2015 12:46:05 PM

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 …

*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 Genes
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/9/2015 12:54:35 AM

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.”

*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
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/5/2015 11:35:29 AM

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.

*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

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