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Holdingford’s Nathan Brinker: The Best Of All Time
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/27/2015 10:16:53 PM

Ask people around the central Minnesota town of Holdingford about the best male athlete in school history, and the answer is almost certain to be Nathan Brinker from the class of 2015. The tougher question, however, is this: What was Brinker’s greatest athletic moment?

Some will flash a big grin and talk about his performance in last fall’s Class 2A Prep Bowl, when he never left the field, played half a dozen different positions and threw a pass for only the second time in his career … which was caught for a touchdown and the go-ahead points in the second overtime of the Huskers’ 20-18 win over BOLD.

Others in Holdingford will mention the Class 1A state wrestling championship Brinker captured last winter, capping his state tournament run with a pin in the title match at 195 pounds. He is only the second wrestler in Holdingford history to win a state championship.

And some may talk about what Brinker has done this spring in two sports; he led the Holdingford baseball team with a .500 batting average and on Wednesday he qualified for the Class 1A state track meet in the shot put as well as with three buddies in the 4x100 relay.

Not a bad senior year, huh?

“You can tell with Nathan; he’ll do whatever it takes,” said Huskers football coach Luke Mitchell. “He’s a real standup, solid kid. He comes from a great family and he’s had a great upbringing.”

At 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Brinker is a farm boy with a rare mixture of strength, quickness and speed. He will play NCAA Division III football at St. John’s University, a short drive from Holdingford. And long after he graduates from high school, he will be remembered and cited as an example for younger students in town.

“He has nothing to look back on with regret,” said Jason Bruns, Holdingford’s athletic director, baseball coach and an assistant football coach. “If everybody had his work ethic, it would really be fun. He’s a natural athlete and a lot of things come easy for him. But he still put the time in, too.”

At the Class 1A True Team state track meet in mid-May, Brinker finished second in the shot put, sixth in the 100-meter dash and was a member of the winning 4x100 relay team as Holdingford captured the team title.

He added another state championship away from athletics. He was part of a four-person Holdingford team that won a state FFA championship in Agricultural Mechanics and will represent Minnesota at a national competition in Kentucky.

As a junior, Brinker placed second at the state wrestling tournament, then battled asthma in capturing the state title in February. He had never been on the track team until this spring. In the first track meet of his career, he won the shot put. He’s tough and committed.

Football is his favorite sport but he wanted to give track a try as a senior. Working out as a shot and discus thrower, as well as a sprinter, took a back seat during the baseball season, however. Baseball came to a close Tuesday night with a loss to top-ranked and defending Class 2A state champion St. Cloud Cathedral in a section tournament game, but the upside is that Brinker will have time to devote all his efforts to track for the first time as he prepares for the state meet June 5-6 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

“I’ve been going to baseball practice, and then I’d go to track if the coaches were still there,” he said. “That was usually four times a week and sometimes on weekends. Now I can actually come out and practice.”

Brinker had the best shot put effort of his short career during Wednesday’s Class 1A Section 5 championships at St. John’s. His winning throw of 52 feet, 7 ½ inches is the third-best reported distance among Class 1A boys this spring. His best previous mark was 48-4.

“I knew it would be good, but not that good,” he said of Wednesday’s big toss.

Brinker began making an impression as a ninth-grader, seeing some varsity playing time on the football team. He was a running back that year, became an offensive lineman as a sophomore and then returned to running back. He will play linebacker at St. John’s.

“He always had the body but he was a raw talent,” Mitchell said. “He was always a physical kid. Nathan brings something that a lot of kids don’t with his combination of size and speed.”

Around Holdingford, the legend of Nathan Brinker will only grow in years to come.

“His name will come up in every sport, that’s for sure,” said Bruns, a 1990 Holdingford graduate. “I can’t think of anybody like him from our school. He’s probably the best I’ve seen.”

Mitchell, who is an elementary teacher, said there is no question about that.

“The kids go nuts over him. He’s a celebrity. After he won the wrestling title I told him, ‘Nathan, you are going to be remembered around here for a long time.’ ”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 555
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,691
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

Blooming Prairie’s Awesome Athlete/Student/Role Model
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/20/2015 4:12:04 PM

BLOOMING PRAIRIE – When you talk to people at Blooming Prairie High School about John Rumpza, you hear things like this:

--“John’s the kid that I want my boys to grow up to be.”

--“He’s somebody that you’d want your daughter to bring home.”

--“He’s one of those kids you wish would never graduate.”

Rumpza is in the final days of an amazing high school career, which has extended beyond the athletic arena. Yes, he is a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball), but he’s also a top student who played trumpet in the school band program until this year, when his coursework left no room for band.

Sitting in the dugout during baseball practice Tuesday, Rumpza ticked off the classes he’s taking in his final semester: “Calculus, physics, chemistry, college English, and a more general English class.”

Clearly there was no senior slide for Rumpza, who will leave a shadow at Blooming Prairie that extends even further than his real shadow (he stands between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7). He can remember a couple of B-plus grades, but otherwise it’s been straight A’s and a 4.0 grade-point average as a senior. He will attend Division II Winona State University on a football scholarship.

His academic high point was being named not only his school’s male winner of the MSHSL Triple-A Award for academics, arts and athletics, but also winning the same award among all Class A Section 1 schools. He attended the statewide Triple A banquet in Minneapolis and was featured on television at halftime during one of the basketball state championship games at Target Center.

Rumpza was a three-year starting quarterback for the Awesome Blossoms. Football coach Chad Gimbel said, “I’ve been doing this for 20-some years and I’ve had a lot of great kids come through. He’s one in a million.”

Rumpza, a 2,000-point scorer in basketball, was offered a scholarship in that sport by Division II Bemidji State but he made his biggest impact on the football field. He was a finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Football award after a spectacular senior season. The Blossoms finished with an 11-1 record and won the Class 1A Section 1 championship before losing to Minneapolis North 14-6 in the state quarterfinals.

The 2014 season was a record-book battle between Rumpza and Nicollet senior quarterback Dalton Elliott, who will play football at Division II University of Sioux Falls. Elliott finished his career with a state-record 9,100 passing yards, followed closely by Rumpza with a No. 2 all-time total of 8,991. Elliott also set a state record with 113 career touchdown passes; Rumpza had a second-best total of 112.

With Rumpza, however, it’s not the numbers that people in Blooming Prairie will remember most.

“For everything he’s accomplished, he’s a better person off the field,” Gimbel said. “That’s hard to find.”

Rumpza grew up watching his brother Patrick, a 2008 Blooming Prairie graduate, compete in athletics. It might sound farfetched now, but John was unsure if he would be able to play at a high level.

“I always loved sports but I guess the next level always kind of scares me,” he said. “Right now, looking at college, it just makes you nervous a little bit. My brother played high school sports, too, and you always looked up to them, wondering, ‘Could I ever do that?’ ”

He proved he could certainly do that and more. This spring he leads the Blossoms baseball team with a .400 batting average; they will open Class 1A Section 1 tournament play at Hayfield on Thursday.

“He’s down to earth, he’s polite, he’s everything,” said baseball coach Matt Kittelson. “He’s the star athlete, the 4.0 student, the altar boy at church, just a real outstanding community member. He’s a great role model for everybody. He works hard at everything he does.”

The senior class will graduate on May 31; it’s an ending that Rumpza says has snuck up on him.

“It’s kind of weird. You never really think it’s going to come,” he said. “You just don’t think about it very much until it’s actually here. I’m getting ready for the next step, and it will be a big change going to college.”

He knew Winona State was a good fit after his initial campus visit. He plans to major in math education with the goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach.

“That was the first offer I got,” he said of Winona State. “And I was looking for the right educational program. I visited there and it just felt right.”

He plans to redshirt during his freshman football season. Winona State’s current starting quarterback is Jack Nelson, who will be a junior this fall. (Nelson is from Byron, another southern Minnesota small town.) If everything goes right, Rumpza will step in as the sophomore starter after Nelson graduates.

He took a similar path in high school, becoming the Awesome Blossoms’ starting quarterback as a 10th-grader.

“It got to be a lot at first, just the mental aspect of the game,” he said. “I was just kind of trying to ease my way into that. In my senior year I could definitely tell that the game really slowed down and I had a lot better understanding of the game.”

Rumpza ran the scout-team offense as a ninth-grader, and Gimbel said he was impressive at such a young age.

“One guy who had coached with us and moved on stopped by practice one day. I said, ‘There’s our next quarterback.’ ”

He added that Rumpza’s transition to the starting job was an easy one.

“He started out having success right away. There were some trials and tribulations; he would have a good game and in the next game he might struggle. But what really impressed us was how he came back in the next game, really refocused.”

Rumpza threw for 38 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a sophomore, completing 57 percent of his passes. That percentage climbed to 63 percent as a junior and 65 percent as a senior.

“You can see how laid back he is,” said Blooming Prairie athletic director John Worke. “He doesn’t make hasty decisions, he’s very rational. Very rarely can you get him upset. He’ll show emotion with good things like the best of them, with a fist pump after a touchdown, a high five, hugging a teammate.

“He has continued to grow and mature, not only athletically, but academically and emotionally. He’s really become a good role model and good leader for other kids to look up to. We feel that as educators and coaches we’ve all played a part in that. We’re proud that he’s one of ours.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 533
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,245
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

A Simple Act, A Massive Response
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/18/2015 1:44:00 PM

If you have looked at the MSHSL Facebook page in the last couple of days, you have seen a brief story and one photograph that have become huge. Our Facebook page has 18,205 Likes (as I write this), which is a fantastic number. But the story/photograph has been viewed by more than 96,000 Facebook accounts, shared on more than 300 Facebook pages and liked by more than 2,300 Facebook users.

The story is simple. It was submitted by Detroit Lakes girls track coach Mike Labine, who describes how one of her athletes suffered an injury during a race and after finally crossing the finish line was caught by a competitor and helped off the track.

Here is the email Mike sent to me Sunday; I quickly posted it on our Facebook page, along with the photo (seen here) that was taken by talented photographer Galen Bicking.

At the Class AA State True Team track and field meet on Saturday in Stillwater, the Rocori girls and the Detroit Lakes girls, along with Totino-Grace, were involved in a great battle for the true team state championship. As the teams entered the 200 meters, they were separated by only a few points and this race was considered a huge point in the meet for all the contending teams. The young lady that Erin Huls from Rocori is helping off the track is Lindsey Heinecke, a sprinter from Detroit Lakes and Erin's biggest rival in the race. The two girls were expected to battle for first place and the important team points that went along with that. When Lindsey injured her hamstring, you can see that Erin was the first person to help her off the track. After winning the 200 for her team, Erin had the compassion to help an injured opponent off the track and console her during not only great physical pain, but a huge amount of emotional frustration following the injury. Erin Huls is not only a great athlete and runner, but Erin Huls is an amazing person. To me, this is what high school athletics are all about.
Mike Labine
Detroit Lakes Girls Track Coach

Our Facebook page is filled with more than 75 comments about what Mike described, and what Galen’s photo shows so well. Here are a couple typical comments…

“This is what sportsmanship is all about. I am an athlete in basketball, volleyball, etc! Hats off to Erin Huls! You put a big smile on my face!”

“Awesome!! That is what sportsmanship is all about. Proud of this athlete.”

And then there was this comment…

“As Lindsey Heinecke’s mom- I just want to send a heartfelt thank you to Erin for being there to catch Lindsey when she made it across the finish line. Both you girls are incredible athletes and competitors. One of the many things I love about our "track families" we are there for each other no matter what.”

And this response from Erin Huls…

“I am so happy I could be there to catch her, I know she would have done the same for me.”

This offers a simple lesson in being good sports and good people by helping others. And that’s the best lesson of all.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 532
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,105
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

Valedictorians, Multisport Athletes, Teammates And Friends
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/15/2015 2:43:55 PM

Whenever two of Eastview High School’s four valedictorians want to discuss their Advanced Placement calculus homework, their part-time jobs, their college plans or anything else, finding each other in a school of nearly 2,000 students is not difficult.

Julia Luciano and Kara Sjostrom can simply turn to each other on the bench during softball games. They also are teammates on the Lightning tennis team in the fall, and they spend time together in the winter lifting weights and doing offseason workouts. And they indeed do pretty well in the classroom.

Neither one has ever had a grade other than an A … and that includes elementary school, middle school and high school. When they graduate on June 6, it will mark the end of two extraordinary careers. (Pictured are Kara, left, and Julia.)

“It’s nice to be recognized for our hard work,” said Kara, who will attend the University of Denver (which does not have a softball team) and major in biology or chemistry in the hopes of becoming a dentist. Julia will play softball at North Dakota State and major in mechanical engineering.

The other Eastview valedictorians are Taylor Leighton and Anoohya Muppirala. Sjostrom and Luciano are not alone as superstar students on a softball squad with a team grade-point average of 3.92.

“They’re leaders on and off the field,” said softball coach Trevor Monroe. “Those two work as hard in the classroom as they do on the field, and vice versa. I’d say this about all of our girls, but especially those two: they’re better kids, they’re better young adults than they are softball players. And they’re pretty good softball players.”

Julia plays third base and Kara alternates between catcher and left field. The Lightning finished the regular season with a 17-3 record, a 13-game winning streak, a share of the South Suburban Conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Class 3A, Section 3 playoffs. They received a first-round section bye and will open the postseason against either Simley or Henry Sibley on Wednesday.

If Eastview qualifies for the state tournament, it will be the second trip in school history; the 2003 team captured the 3A state championship.

“Obviously we want to get to the state championship, that’s the goal of every softball team,” Julia said. “I think we honestly have the ability and the talent to do it, and I think we can win it. We’ve been together for a long time, we have a lot of seniors on the team. We work well together, we have chemistry and we have enough talent to take it all the way.”

Wednesday was a pretty typical day for Kara and Julia. Kara took an AP statistics test (she had previously taken AP calculus and AP psychology tests; Julia had completed tests in AP psychology, AP calculus and AP physics), and after school the softball team hosted Shakopee. Julie hit a double in the bottom of the seventh inning to tie the score 3-3, and the Lightning rallied again from a 4-3 deficit in the eighth to win 5-4.

From the softball field, Julie and Kara hustled into the school for a ceremony honoring Eastview’s academic award winners. Still wearing their softball uniforms (Kara in tennis shoes, Julia in Crocs), they received their awards.

“Right after the last play of the game, we ran over here as fast as we could and kind of snuck onto the stage,” Kara said. “Our principal was speaking at the ceremony and he didn’t know we were behind him. He said, ‘Our softball girls will be joining us’ and we were waving behind him.”

Afterwards, Eastview athletic director Matt Percival jokingly asked the girls what was next on their agenda for the day. Julia asked, “What time is it?” Then she hustled off to a rehearsal for her seventh-hour dance class show.

Time management has been vital for both girls, who somehow juggle school, sports and jobs. Julia works at a Chipotle and Kara at a movie theater.

“It’s been hard,” Julia admitted. “I’ve taken honors classes every year in high school, and so has Kara. This year I decided to take more than double what I’ve usually taken, and I’ve been able to do it but it’s been really hard. Some days I schedule every single minute of the day. I wake up and go to school, then go to softball. In the winter I have lifting, then softball, then homework, and I work on the weekends.

“I used to watch Netflix all the time, but I think I’ve watched one episode in the past two months. I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy and I finished that a long time ago. I watched one episode of Lost last weekend and I thought, ‘I have not had a half hour to myself forever.’ I like all the things I’m involved in and they’re fun. And if you have a whole weekend with nothing to do, you’re really bored.

“We need like 10 more hours in the day.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 532
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,991
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

A Quiet Day At Golf Practice, Then A Fire Breaks Out
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/14/2015 1:52:53 PM

Underwood High School golf coach Chuck Ross was working with a group of team members on the putting green at Balmoral Golf Course on Wednesday afternoon. When they noticed smoke billowing out of a nearby apartment building, golf was the last thing on their minds.

Fire was sweeping through the seven-unit complex on the southeast side of Ottertail Lake in west-central Minnesota. Ross, along with fellow coach Chad Gronner, senior Chad Peterson and freshman Braydon Consley, took action.

According to Ross, “One of the kids said, ‘I think that house is on fire.’ I ran down there and there were two people coming out of one apartment. I yelled at them, asking if anyone else was inside. They said no, but there were some people on the other end.”

They saw an elderly man trying to help his wife, who had undergone foot surgery and was using a knee scooter.

“There was no way he was going to get her out, there were no ramps, just steps,” Ross said. “Chad was there and we helped this lady down the steps. The guy kept going back in to get mementos or something, and we had to go back in and bring him out again.

“From there we just went door to door banging on doors, making sure nobody else was in there.”

There were no serious injuries and no one was hospitalized. Firefighters responded from Ottertail, Battle Lake, Henning and Perham, and the cause of the fire was not immediately determined, according to the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office.

A school assembly was held Thursday to honor the golf coaches and players who ran toward the fire.

“We want to honor them for their service and their bravery, because this kind of defines what a hero is,” said Underwood principal John Hamann. “When I was growing up, heroes were people like Fran Tarkenton and Harmon Killebrew. But a hero is a person who’s willing to sacrifice themselves. We hope this is a good lesson for our students.”

It was a windy day, which helped the fire spread very quickly.

“It was amazing how fast it spread,” Ross said. “It just fanned that thing.”

The experience was a blur, Ross said. Even after everyone was safely out of the building, there was one more scary moment.

“Somebody who lived nearby came running up and said the building was hooked up to natural gas,” Ross said. “We had our golf kids around the bus, about 100 feet from the building. We got the kids away from there in case the thing blew up.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 512
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,925
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

Oh Brother: Sibling Rivalry On The Lacrosse Field
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/8/2015 11:33:07 AM

Isaac Kuehn is a 16-year-old sophomore on the Farmington High School lacrosse team. When the Tigers played host to Rosemount in a South Suburban Conference game Thursday night, Isaac saw a familiar face on the Irish sideline.

Lance Kuehn, 32, is not only Rosemount’s head coach, he is Isaac’s big brother.

“I guess you could say it’s pretty weird,” is what Isaac said after the game, which ended in the second half due to lightning with Rosemount leading 15-3. Both teams had cleared the field was lightning was spotted and were inside the school when the game was called. After the teams exchanged indoor handshakes, the Kuehn brothers had a private chat.

Lance graduated from Farmington High School in 2001; that was before his school started fielding lacrosse teams. He began playing the game at St. Olaf College and was the first head coach of the Rosemount boys lacrosse team when the program began nine years ago. He teaches chemistry and physics at Rosemount.

“Nine years ago we started with 70 boys who didn’t know how to play and we’ve built it into what we have today,” said Lance, whose team has a record of 8-1 and No. 6 ranking.

Isaac’s top sport is soccer, and he began playing lacrosse after watching his brother play. Thursday’s game was the first time the brothers had competed against each other on a lacrosse field.

“We compete in a lot of things as siblings,” Lance said. “We race together, we run together and play games. This is just kind of fun, to take on a passion that we both have and be able to play against each other.”

A few weeks ago Isaac and Lance traveled together to Boston, where Lance ran the Boston Marathon and Isaac cheered him on. “We talked a lot about seeing each other on the field on opposite sides and the orange and black (Farmington colors), which I wore back in the day, and now I get to see him in it,” Lance said.

The brothers had a brief word before Thursday’s game. Lance asked his brother, “Are you ready?” To which Isaac replied, “Yes.”

Isaac teammates were aware that his brother was the Rosemount head coach. During warm-ups some of the Tigers looked toward the Irish coaches and asked Isaac, “Which one is your brother?”

Farmington opened a new high school building in 2009, long after Lance graduated. The high school he attended is now a middle school, and the new school is a modern educational showplace with first-rate athletic facilities.

“It’s fun coming back to Farmington and seeing this beautiful complex,” Lance said. “This is much better than the old complex.

“And it’s fun seeing my brother and his friends.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 510
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,915
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn

Spring Grove/Caledonia: Where Everybody Is Part Of The Team
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/6/2015 10:53:01 PM

(This is the fourth in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

SPRING GROVE – The school building in this southeast Minnesota town of 1,300 is an architectural showcase that was built in 1922. Ten miles up the road in Caledonia, which has double the population of Spring Grove, is a modern school constructed not in the last century but in this century.

Those two structures form fitting bookends on one of the great stories of Minnesota cooperation. It’s a story of two schools and two communities working together to ensure that all interested students have the opportunity to participate in activities. Caledonia is large enough to field teams in all sports; Spring Grove would struggle to do so.

Spring Grove has its own teams in boys and girls basketball, nine-man football and volleyball. When it comes to baseball, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, track and wrestling, the schools have cooperative teams. The majority of the athletes come from Caledonia, which is not surprising based on Caledonia’s high school enrollment of 241 and Spring Grove’s 90.

The coop teams provide a unique perspective for coaches and kids to learn about the “other” school.

“We fit in really well together,” said senior softball player Samantha Bratland from Spring Grove. “All of us kind of hang out outside of softball. Being only 10 miles apart really helps us be a close-knit group.”

An odd thing occurs every spring. After athletes from the two schools compete against each other in volleyball and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, they often find themselves wearing the same uniform in the spring.

“We are from different schools and it’s definitely interesting when we do different things against each other in other sports,” Bratland said. “It’s definitely weird going against them but we always have fun doing it.”

Most of the coop arrangements go back many years, with baseball becoming the newest coop sport six years ago. The baseball team had co-coaches (one from each school) in the first year, and when the coach from Caledonia relocated after that season, Spring Grove’s Dave Konz remained on as the head coach.

“It’s blended well together,” he said. “We’ve got it down pretty good. Bus schedules can change constantly, and games can be rescheduled. We’ve worked together well and it’s been a pretty seamless transition.”

Some of the coop teams are called Spring Grove-Caledonia and others are Caledonia-Spring Grove. Caledonia’s colors are black and gold, Spring Grove’s are black and red.

“We’ve had these conversations,” said Spring Grove athletic director Michelle Anderson, who also coaches volleyball and softball. “Is it C-SG? Is it SG-C? The kids don’t care. Black is our common color, so we do a lot of things in red with black and gold trim and it looks really good.”

La Crosse, Wis., is the nearest city of any size (22 miles from Caledonia) and many residents of these towns commute there for work. The school in Spring Grove, where welcome signs proclaim it the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, has a stable enrollment, as does Caledonia.

It’s common for graduates of both schools to return home at some point. Among them is Spring Grove superintendent Rachel Udstuen, a 1991 graduate. While attending Luther College in Iowa she was a student-teacher at St. Paul Central, then worked in Mason City, Iowa, and a Twin Cities charter school before spending four years in Saipan in the western Pacific. She returned to Spring Grove in 2003.

Udstuen’s final year of high school was Anderson’s first year on the Spring Grove faculty.

“That’s one of the things we really love; we do seem to have what I would call ‘our kids’ go away to college, go away to start their professions and their careers, and they find their way back sometimes,” said Anderson, who recorded her 300th career victory as a softball coach this week. “They move back and they become superintendents and integral parts of our community, and it’s pretty cool.”

Udstuen added, “We had wonderful experiences, but when we started to have a family we knew this was where we wanted our kids to grow up. We wanted them to experience a small, close-knit community.”

The close-knit spirit is certainly part of the cooperative sports teams.

“It appears to be going really well,” said Caledonia principal/athletic director Paul DeMorett. “I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with the kids.”

DeMorett, in his sixth year at Caledonia, has a unique perspective on life in a smaller town. He is a Twin Cities native who graduated from Armstrong High School in Robbinsdale in 1984. He previously worked at schools in Pierz and Tower.

“Obviously this is a lot more laid-back (than the Twin Cities),” he said. “It’s a slower pace and it’s easier to make connections with kids because there are less of them. That’s one of the great things about it.”

Caledonia is a sports powerhouse, with football leading the way. The Warriors own six state championships in that sport, including five since 2007 in Class 2A. Caledonia’s boys basketball team was the 2A state champion in 1997 and the runner-up last winter; the girls basketball team was the state runner-up in 1998 and won a state title in 2009. In girls golf, the cooperative team won state championships in 1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2003 and 2005.

Success in athletics is no accident. Athletes, coaches and parents are committed to providing quality experiences for all the teams.

“We all put the effort in and it’s always our goal to go far in every sport and do the best we can,” said Devan Heaney, a Caledonia senior and member of the Warriors football team and the coop track squad.

DeMorett said, “The kids work hard, and that’s what’s it all about. We have some great coaches and they’re instilling great values in our kids. One of them is work ethic. My very first day working in Caledonia in July of 2009, I walked in and saw 60 kids in the weight room at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. That right there said, ‘These kids are dedicated and they work very hard.’ ”

That’s a theme in both towns and both schools: people working together and working hard to ensure participation for all students.

“I’m really happy that the kids have an opportunity to do those kinds of things,” Anderson said. “I think they’re happy to share those experiences, as well.”

--To see photos from Caledonia and Spring Grove, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

Hills-Beaver Creek: Community Pride, Growing Enrollment
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/5/2015 10:41:20 PM

(This is the third in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HILLS – The girls and boys golf teams at Hills-Beaver Creek High School provide the starkest example of how deeply this school is tucked into the southwest corner of Minnesota: The golfers live in Minnesota, practice in South Dakota and play their home meets in Iowa.

The three-year-old school building in Hills (which houses seventh through 12th grades; the elementary school is in Beaver Creek) is two miles from the Iowa border and six from South Dakota. The Patriots golf teams practice at Hidden Valley, a par-3 course in Brandon, S.D. Their home competitions are held at Meadow Acres in Larchwood, Iowa. Even though there was no golf practice scheduled on a recent sunny afternoon, most of the team members headed to Larchwood when school let out.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the spring athletes – the boys and girls track teams -- gathered in the gymnasium to stretch before heading outside to practice in a town that has no track.

The school does not have baseball or softball teams, there is no available golf course in its own state, and the track team has no track. And yet, Hills-Beaver Creek is one of the happiest places on earth. Some of that joy comes from athletic success, but much of it springs from a solid sense of community pride in a district with a growing enrollment.

The new school was built after the citizens overwhelming voted to approve it. Many of those citizens work in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., an expanding regional center that has given a big boost to schools on all sides of the state borders.

“Our kids here have everything in Sioux Falls,” said Dan Ellingson, a veteran teacher and coach whose wife is among a large percentage of residents who work in Sioux Falls. The South Dakota influence is strong; all the local television stations are in Sioux Falls, meaning news reports tend to focus on that state.

“The old joke is our students know the governor of South Dakota more than they know the governor of Minnesota,” said superintendent Todd Holthaus, a native of Albany, Minnesota.

Sioux Falls’ most important impact here is on enrollment. People are moving into these small communities to raise their families while working in Sioux Falls, and many of them are Hills-Beaver Creek graduates.

Hills has a population of 650, Beaver Creek has 270 residents and the village of Steen, also in the school district, is home to 150 souls. The high school enrollment is 79 students, with younger grades expanding rapidly. The average class size is 25 pupils, but the elementary school is bursting at the seams; sixth-graders will be moved from Beaver Creek to the building in Hills next fall.

“This is a tremendous community, and they’re so supportive of the school,” said Steve Wiertzema, the athletic director and boys basketball coach. He is a native of Worthington (45 miles away) who has been at Hills-Beaver Creek since 1981. He also is dean of students and is on the teaching staff.

Wiertzema’s multi-tasking isn’t rare in a small school like this. Ellingson, who has been on staff since 1990, teaches junior high and high school social studies, is the guidance counselor, district assessment coordinator and golf coach. He was the head football coach for 19 years and now coaches middle school football and basketball.

The school in Hills is a showplace. The classrooms are spacious, the entrance/cafeteria/theater space is bathed in natural light and the gym is bright and roomy, with a second-story weight room looking down from one end of the court, which bears a red, white and blue Patriots logo.

The school sits on the northwest edge of town, with farm fields stretching off to the horizon. Some of those acres are owned by the school, and the FFA chapter farms that land in a true small-town arrangement.

“Our FFA instructor goes to area businesses,” Wiertzema said. “The (grain) elevator donates chemicals and puts them on, farmers donate their time. He makes his calls and the next day these guys come in with their tractors and it’s done. The FFA and school split the proceeds. What a deal, huh?”

Hills-Beaver Creek won a nine-man football state title in 1990 and has reached the state football playoffs nine other times. One of the greatest athletes in school history is Steve Esselink, a 1999 graduate who played basketball at the University of Minnesota and was a state champion long jumper in high school.

Wiertzema’s son Kale, a 2005 graduate and star football/basketball player, is back in his hometown as an elementary teacher and head girls basketball coach. The same goes for Erin Boeve, a 2004 graduate who played volleyball at Iowa State. She now works at a local bank and is married to Patriots football coach Rex Metzger, another alum.

“Community is so important here,” Steve Wiertzema said. “I taught in Barrett, Minnesota, for three years out of college. I got the call to come down here and it’s probably the best thing that could have happened. Our kids grew up here and they want to be back here.”

Another alum, currently living in the Twin Cities, will be back at Hills-Beaver Creek in the fall. His family includes a talented, young softball player at a giant Twin Cities school who is being recruited by college coaches. The fact that the Patriots don’t have a softball team didn’t get in the way of the families’ decision to move.

“We’re not small, we’re tiny,” said Holthaus, who has worked here for 12 years after stints at Jackson County Central, his hometown of Albany and St. Cloud Christian. “Our size is definitely attractive to me and my family. I never thought in a million years I would come here to a small outstate school. It’s definitely very pleasurable to me and the experience has been fantastic in regards to family values and parental involvement.”

Steve Wiertzema said one of the challenges at his school is travel for athletic contests. The football team used to be in a conference that included far-away southeast Minnesota teams like Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander, but in recent years football travel has been easier. Some basketball opponents can be found a short drive away in Iowa and South Dakota.

The basketball teams belong to the Red Rock Conference with such schools as Ellsworth, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Adrian, Fulda, and Murray County Central. The Patriots football team, which has belonged to the Southern Confederacy Conference, will join most of those conference teams in the nine-man South District when district football begins this fall.

The closeness of Sioux Falls and Interstate 90 makes commuting easy. Beaver Creek is on the interstate and Hills is seven miles south of I-90. Steve Wiertzema lives just outside Hills, where the doorstep of Sioux Falls is only 16 miles away.

“And Sioux Falls is growing in this direction,” he said.

Growth is good.

--To see photos from Hills-Beaver Creek, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Caledonia and Spring Grove

Cook County: Isolated, Committed And A Great Place To Live
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/4/2015 10:49:55 PM

(This is the second in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

GRAND MARAIS – Cook County High School is exactly what the name implies. It’s the only school in Cook County, which is the second-largest county in Minnesota by total area, but has the fifth-smallest population of all 87 counties.

That equation – a macro area with a micro number of people -- means that students come from all over the county in the tip of northeast Minnesota’s arrowhead to attend school. Some live far up the Gunflint Trail, a county road that snakes northwesterly from Grand Marais through Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area nearly to the Ontario border.

“I think the furthest bus ride is about an hour, if you go all the way up the Trail, and they have to go to the very end of the Trail to pick some kids up,” said athletic director and volleyball coach Pam Taylor, a native of Chaska who has worked in the school district for 33 years.

Cell phone service can be spotty in the hilly timberlands that shadow the Lake Superior shore, and broadband internet is relatively new in the county. A trip to the dentist can mean two hours on the road. It’s an isolated, scenic location where summer teems with tourism and winter mean lots of opportunities to sit by a fire or bundle up and explore the outdoors.

Lyle Anderson, who was hired at Cook County as a teacher and coach in 1976 and retired in 2009, came from North Dakota and figured he would stay for a couple years. Now in retirement, he’s still here.

“Heck yeah,” he said, “I absolutely fell in love with this place.”

This part of Minnesota is unlike any other, with the phrase “winter sports” often meaning outdoor sports. The highlight of Anderson’s coaching career was leading the Cook County Vikings to Class A state football championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but he also coached basketball, wrestling, track and, yes, skiing.

The Cook County boys and girls basketball teams, girls cross-country team and one-act play groups have all been to state competitions. Football leads the way with 11 state tournament appearances, most recently in 2007.

Simply putting teams together for practices, much less games, can be a big task due to the distances that athletes must travel. Along the lakeshore, the school district extends nearly 70 miles from Schroeder in the south to Grand Portage and the Canadian border in the north. When a team bus returns to the school from a road game, some kids will drive another hour to get home.

Because of that, when the Vikings play Polar League road games, some varsity contests start at 6:30 instead of 7 p.m. so the teams arrive home sooner.

“Especially on weeknights we can get home a little earlier,” Taylor said. “That eliminated getting back to school at 1 o’clock in the morning and having to be here by 8. A lot of times kids will try to arrange to stay in town but sometimes they can’t.”

Travel can present challenges other than distance. Taylor talks about her son, a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, driving home to Grand Marais on state Highway 1, which winds for 107 miles through the Superior National Forest.

“He had run off the road and went in the ditch. He stood on top of his car in order to get cell phone service.”

When teams ride a bus to Ely and back, they often take extra garbage bags in case anyone becomes ill.

“I hate that road on a bus,” Taylor said with a smile. “There are a lot of times when I get phone calls, ‘So and so got sick on the bus going to Ely.’ If they have any kind of car sickness, they’re in trouble.”

The enrollment in grades nine through 12 is 170; that number has been falling in recent years and is expected to be around 149 in 2015-16. After a history of playing 11-man football, the Vikings will play their first season as a nine-man team next fall.

“That’s going to be a big switch,” Taylor said. “But the last couple of years in football our numbers have been low, and then kids get hurt. Nine-man makes travel easier, too. With 11-man we went all the way to Ogilvie (213 miles each way). I think now the furthest one will be Cherry (132).”

Senior Noah Warren said his high school memories will revolve around football.

“That was what half of my school was all about,” he said. “Playing football with my brother and the guys above me and the guys below me. I think (playing nine-man) is probably a step forward. When we finished last year we had 17 guys on the team. There’s not a lot you can do with that.”

Jami Sjogren, a senior three-sport athlete, said one of her favorite things about the school is that everyone knows everyone.

“It’s pretty small, easy to navigate around. You’re not going to get lost,” she said. “We’re all really close. In my class, I’ve gone to school with most of them since kindergarten.”

Taylor added, “I think one thing that’s unique with these guys is they do all know each other. They know their whole class, but not just their class, they know the whole school. The elementary kids know the high school kids. I think that’s kind of important for these guys.”

One of the newest members of the school staff is Adam Nelson, who is in his second year as the principal for grades six through 12. The 33-year-old is a native of Red Wing, 305 miles to the south; he and his wife have two children. His duties also sometimes extend to officiating junior varsity basketball games and filling in as a middle school coach.

“Coming from Red Wing, we used to complain about driving to Hutchinson or Chanhassen,” he said. “It’s like an hour and 15 minutes to Chanhassen. Here, we have to go about two hours to get just about anywhere, other than Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

“It was a really eye-opening experience when it came to the sports teams. The dedication of the coaches and athletes and parents to do the things they do up here, just to make it happen, is pretty incredible. There are a lot of great people around here.”

--To see photos from Cook County, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Hills-Beaver Creek

Kittson County Central: Small Numbers And Tremendous Pride
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 5/3/2015 8:38:20 PM

(This is the first in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HALLOCK – On a wintry spring afternoon, the toughness of athletes from extreme northwestern Minnesota was on full display. A handful of baseball players boarded a yellow bus at a tiny school in Lancaster, the bus drove 12 miles to pick up the rest of the team at the slightly larger Kittson Central High School here and then motored two hours south for a game against Norman County, a cooperative team with students from Ada-Borup and Norman County West.

Kittson Central and Lancaster also have cooperative sports teams – the Kittson County Central Bearcats – but the story on this day was the weather: a gray sky, swirling snowflakes, temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and a havoc-wreaking wind booming across the Canadian border with a full-throated scream.

This game was only the Bearcats’ second of the season. And nasty weather isn’t the only factor in deciding when or if games will be scheduled or played. With a combined high school enrollment of 143 (90 at Kittson Central, 53 at Lancaster), all hands must be on deck for games to be played. While Kittson Central’s 32 seniors were on a week-long class trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, no games were scheduled because four baseball players were gone. And when the Lancaster seniors went on a trip a week later, two others were absent.

“You’ve got to play sometime,” said Kittson Central athletic director Terry Ogorek, a Lancaster native who has worked at the school in Hallock for 35 years as a teacher, coach and administrator. Much has changed in those years, including the closing of other schools in the area, consolidations and new nicknames.

Team photos on the wall of Ogorek’s office tell the changing tale: The Hallock Bears … the Kittson Central Wolfpack … the Kittson County Central Bearcats.

“The biggest challenge of all is our declining enrollment,” Ogorek said. “We’re pretty small and Lancaster is even smaller yet.”

The athletic teams have done very well. Last fall, the KCC football team advanced to the nine-man state semifinals and the volleyball team played in the state tournament. The girls basketball team won a state championship in 2002 and the football team – with Ogorek as coach -- won state titles in 1988 and 1994. The Bearcats also field a successful BEST Robotics team.

“It’s a great relationship between Kittson Central and Lancaster,” said Steve Swiontek, the superintendent and principal in Lancaster, 12 miles south of the Manitoba border. “Coaches all get along, parents get along, booster clubs get along, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

“Even though the temperatures get very cold in the winter, this is a very warm community. People really love their school, we have a dedicated staff and with the students there are very few behavior problems. It’s nose-to-the-grindstone, old-fashioned values. It’s a great place.”

In order to go to a bigger place for serious shopping, movie theaters or fast food, one of the main options is making the drive to Grand Forks, N.D., which is 75 miles from Hallock. That’s a testament to the isolation here on the flat farmland of the Red River Valley, where the Canadian city of Winnipeg (95 miles from Hallock) is much closer than Minneapolis (386 miles.)

Geography also is a big factor in sports scheduling. Being backed up into the northwest corner, the Bearcats can only travel south and southeast. Lengthy bus rides are the norm.

“I imagine if you take a look at the southwest and southeast corners of the state, towns are probably closer together and they might not have the same problems we have,” Ogorek said.

Kittson County Central offers football and volleyball in the fall, boys and girls basketball and boys hockey in the winter, and baseball and girls and boys golf in the spring. The hockey team, which has athletes from Kittson Central, Lancaster and Tri-County in Karlstad, faces the toughest scheduling challenges. A map of Minnesota on Ogorek’s office wall is adorned with pushpins representing the travel the hockey team has faced in recent years. The pushpins extend deep into southwestern Minnesota to Marshall (365 miles one way) and Windom (411) and all the way to the shore of Lake Superior and Silver Bay (362).

“Hockey is the worst,” Ogorek said. “We don’t have any qualms about traveling pretty much two-thirds of the state of Minnesota to try to get a full schedule.”

Geography can make it difficult to hire teachers, as well. Most of the school employees, in fact, grew up in the area. One who didn’t is Lindsey Gullickson, who is in her second year teaching physical education for kindergarten through sixth grade in Hallock and is an assistant volleyball coach.

Gullickson is a native of Bemidji (155 miles from Hallock) who went to college at North Dakota State College of Science and Bemidji State. The position at Kittson Central was the first job offer she received.

“It’s awesome. The community is awesome, the kids here are great,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start teaching. It was kind of nerve-wracking because it’s kind of far from my family, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I took the chance and it paid off. I like the small town, I like the small class sizes, I like that there’s so much parental support here. I really enjoy it.”

As with most small communities, many high school graduates leave for college and return only to visit.

Kittson Central senior Annaliese Johnson, a winner of the MSHSL Triple-A (Academics, Arts, Athletics) Award, called Hallock a wonderful place to grow up but said she isn’t likely to live here after college. She will attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and major in biochemistry.

“Most people go to college, whether it be Northland (Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks) or one of the Fargo schools,” she said. “Lots of people get their agriculture degree and come back. I want to be close enough to come and visit.”

According to census records, the population of Kittson County hit a peak of 10,717 in 1940. That number has dropped in every census since; in 2010 the county total was 4,552. That trend has meant the end of several schools in the county.

“You don’t talk about consolidation for the K-12 program,” Swiontek said. “If I was to say something like that, they wouldn’t crucify me but they would certainly hang me.”

Senior Caleb Christenson, the male winner of KCC’s Triple-A Award, described life in Hallock – where the population was 981 in the 2010 census -- as quiet and peaceful.

“I would kind of say it’s slow, especially after just being in New York,” he said. “It’s a community. Everybody knows everybody. You drive down the street, everyone knows who you are and what kind of car you drive.”

Johnson added, “Visitors come here and think it’s this quiet little town, but it’s really not. There is something going on all the time. My schedule is usually packed. There’s always food somewhere and a lot of community stuff. They think it’s almost nothing, but that’s not the case.”

Change is as constant as the prairie wind in this corner of Minnesota, and it can take many forms.

“The one thing about the school district here, and you’ll see the same thing in Lancaster, is the metamorphosis,” Ogorek said. “Things are always changing. We’ve got consolidations, we’ve got sports co-ops, job descriptions change, mascots change.

“But the one constant thing is the student body. With our sports cooperatives as they are, the kids get along so great. It’s just like they were in one district.”

--To see photos from Kittson Central and Lancaster, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Cook County High School in Grand Marais

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