John's Journal
New Prague Boys Basketball: Small Fish, Big Pond 1/4/2017
Basketball can be a simple game, as exhibited by this message from New Prague coach Bryce Tesdahl to his boys during a timeout Tuesday evening at Farmington: “Take care of the ball! And on defense, stop the ball!”

Sounds simple enough, right? But as any coach will tell you, it’s all in the execution.

The first time I interviewed Tesdahl, he was a senior at Crosby-Ironton High School. His basketball team was the Class 2A state runner-up that year (2008) and he was bound for a record-setting college career at Bemidji State. He set school and conference records for assists and helped the Beavers win the 2012 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title and a berth in the NCAA Division II national tournament. His playing career was followed by three years as a graduate assistant at Minnesota-Duluth. His family basketball pedigree is also special, but more on that later.

Tesdahl was hired as the New Prague boys coach last season and had an immediate impact. His inaugural team was 20-8 and lost to Lakeville North in the Class 4A Section 1 semifinals; North went on to become the 4A state runner-up. This season, the Trojans are 10-0 and one of only four undefeated teams in 4A (the others are Tartan and Wayzata at 8-0 and Champlin Park at 7-0).

New Prague has defeated teams such as Burnsville, Lakeville South, Shakopee, East Ridge and Rochester Mayo. Upcoming opponents include Eden Prairie, Prior Lake and Minnetonka, along with competition from Orono, Delano, Holy Family, Waconia and Hutchinson in the Wright County Conference.

This is where execution comes in. The Trojans are a senior-dominated team that relies on a mix of hard-nosed defense and ball-zipping offense. They also have a bit of a chip on their shoulder due to their status as one of the smallest schools in 4A basketball. There are 64 teams in 4A and New Prague ranks 62nd on that list; only St. Cloud Tech and Henry Sibley are smaller. New Prague is only in its second year as a 4A team.

“Our players work hard, they’re not afraid of anybody, they know we’re kind of the little fish in the big pond,” said Tesdahl, 26. “They’ve taken on the role of underdog as a small school in the big class.”

Tuesday’s 67-43 victory at Farmington was emblematic of the Trojans’ season. They dashed out to an early lead, kept hustling on defense and passing on offense and gave the Tigers (4-3) few chances to get back in the game.

The game began like this: Tylar Lindell hit a three-point shot on New Prague’s first possession and the bench erupted. After a turnover, Lindell made a fast-break layup and the bench erupted. Jacob Milinkovich drained a three, followed by another steal, Milinkovich was fouled on a layup and hit two free throws. By the time the game was less than four minutes old, multiple daggers had been thrown and the score was 12-0.

“They’ve got five seniors who have all been there before, and they play well together offensively,” said first-year Farmington head coach Tharen Johnson. “You watch them, they set each other up. They’re very good. Defensively, they just work very hard.”

The five senior starters are Lindell, Jacob and Jared Milinkovich, Zach Hanson and Jacob Washa. Hanson, a 6-foot-5 forward who will play collegiately at St. John’s in Collegeville, averages 19 points and 18 rebounds. Jacob Milinkovich averages 14 points.

“Our seniors are great leaders on and off the floor,” Tesdahl said. “It’s a fun group to coach and fun group to be around. They have lots of positive energy, enthusiasm and love for the game. And they express that to the younger kids on the team and the younger players in the community.”

Some folks in New Prague might argue that last year’s team was even more talented, but there is always a period of adjustment when a new coach takes over. Tesdahl said he and his team have moved past that stage in his second season.

“This time I got the full summer with the kids and continued to develop that relationship coming off the first year,” he said. “First years are always tough. It’s a scramble to get to know the kids, install offensive and defensive principles, the whole learning curve. We got it down late last year, we had some success, the kids bought in at the end of the season to where we are today.

“There are no real surprises to why we’re having success. The kids bought in all summer and fall, and now we continue to add stuff instead of correcting mistakes.”

Now for the family angle…

Tesdahl is the grandson of Bob McDonald, the now-retired Chisholm boys basketball coach who won more games than any coach in Minnesota history and was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 2015. The family basketball tree has deep roots and extensive limbs.

All six of Bob McDonald’s children became basketball coaches, including Tesdahl’s mother, Sue, a former coach at Crosby-Ironton. Bryce Tesdahl’s uncles are head coaches at Hibbing High School (Joel), Ely High School (Tom), Cambridge-Isanti High School (Mike) and Vermilion Community College (Paul). Bryce’s cousin Rhett McDonald (son of Mike) is the boys basketball coach at Duluth East.

“I don’t think of it as pressure,” Bryce said of coming from such a well-known coaching family. “As a player and coach, I take it as an expectation to not only have success but to seek success through hard work. My Grandpa McDonald and our family did a great job of raising us kids in a successful culture not only on the court but off the court. Those are some of the things I try to instill in our kids here in New Prague. It’s not about you, it’s about the team, and our kids have done a great job of doing that.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 308
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 5,379
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The March to March 11 Is On For Boys Hockey Teams 12/31/2016
As the calendar turns over into a new year, March 11 is a crucial date for boys hockey teams in Minnesota. If you are playing on March 11, you are one of the final teams still on the ice. The dream is to play for a state championship on that date at Xcel Energy Center.

There are months to go before then, of course, but hearts and minds are focused on the biggest day of the hockey season. Players, coaches and teams are working to eliminate their weaknesses and build up their strengths, all in the hopes of lacing up the skates on the second Saturday in March.

Two of last season’s final four teams in Class 2A are Eden Prairie and Grand Rapids. The Eagles defeated the Thunderhawks in the 2015 state semifinals before losing to Wayzata in the championship game; Grand Rapids defeated Stillwater in the third-place game.

It can be safely assumed that those teams are doing everything in their power to get back to state.

“Having made it to the state tournament last year, if nothing else, it raises our expectations,” said Grand Rapids coach Trent Klatt. “We’ve been there and our goal is to go back. This group doesn’t want to just make it there and take fourth place or third place. That’s great, but they want to win.”

In one of the premier regular-season boys hockey events, Grand Rapids went 2-1 at the Edina Holiday Classic. The Thunderhawks defeated Edina and Eden Prairie and lost to Elk River/Zimmerman, which also went 2-1 in the three-day event at Braemar Arena. Eden Prairie and Edina finished 1-2.

Heading into New Year’s Eve, Grand Rapids had a record of 9-1-1, Eden Prairie was 6-3-2, Elk River/Zimmerman 10-2 and Edina 7-3.

The most well-known player in the state is Eden Prairie senior Casey Mittelstadt. He was the only prep player invited to be on the U.S. national under-18 team that won bronze at the world championship tournament last spring, and he was one of only two high schoolers among 42 players who took part in the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Philadelphia in September.

Before the current high school season began, Mittelstadt had options other than returning to the Eagles. He could have enrolled early at the University of Minnesota and started his collegiate career, and he could have played the entire season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. He chose to begin the USHL season in Green Bay and came back to Eden Prairie when the high school hockey season started.

“It’s a great thing for high school hockey to have him back,” Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. “He’s a great kid besides being a great player.”

After last season’s state tournament, Mittelstadt told Smith he would be back for his senior season.

“He’s always been a man of his word,” Smith said. “I know he put himself into a position where he could have been at the university. I’m glad he chose to stay back.”

Mittelstadt’s decision was the subject of a full-page story in the New York Times on Dec. 10. The story said, “Elite American prospects like Mittelstadt, projected to be a first-round pick in June’s N.H.L. draft, usually do not play high school hockey, or they stop after their sophomore or junior year.”

“Obviously it’s a cool thing,” Casey said of the newspaper story. “But the main thing is we have to be better out here and make sure we get the wins. That stuff will be cool when it’s all over.”

Eden Prairie lost in the state semifinals two years ago, so Mittelstadt has come close to two championships. One last opportunity to win it all was a prime reason for his return to the Eagles.

“When it all comes together and you think about it, the guys in the room are the reason I fell in love with the game,” he said. “I think I owe it to them. It was a pretty easy decision.”

If Mittelstadt had not returned, “We would still have a good team,” Smith said. “He’s a difference maker, someone the opponents put a lot of time and effort into. I still think we could have a chance to go to the state tournament, but with him we have a better chance of maybe winning the state tournament.”

Playing in the Edina Holiday Classic was a good test for all four teams. Scheduling top-flight opponents is one way to improve as a hockey team, and Grand Rapids is taking full advantage, no matter the mileage required. Of the Thunderhawks’ 25 regular-season games, 11 of them are in the Twin Cities. Their northern Minnesota opponents include teams like Duluth East, Hermantown, Bemidji and Moorhead,

“We want to play the best teams in the state,” Klatt said. “We need the challenge. We need to see what our weaknesses are. And when you play high-quality teams, that’s when you’re exposed. You make a lot of mistakes, it doesn’t look good, but boom, there it is. Now we can work on it, now we can improve, and hopefully by the end of the year we can fix some of the problems.

“The drive, the determination, the passion, the goals, it’s clearly visible. They’re really hungry.”

The march to March 11 is on.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 306
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 5,367
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Year Of Accomplishment And History In Winona 12/21/2016
Winona High School has been on a pretty strong athletic roll. The Winhawks made appearances at state tournaments last winter, last spring and this fall, with their girls basketball, softball and football teams all finishing as state runners-up.

Not many schools can brag about such things. But people in Winona remember when sports success was, shall we say, less regular than clockwork.

Girls basketball coach Tim Gleason has seen a lot in his 24 years at Winona. He’s the head coach for girls basketball as well as girls and boys track, and is a band director. Gleason also was an assistant football coach for a few years, including a stretch in which the Winhawks lost 37 consecutive games before ending the slide in 2008.

“There were a lot of things that we had to overcome here,” he said. “We had great people we were working with. As unfortunate as it was, things just wouldn’t fall our way.”

That is certainly not the current theme. The football team reached the Class 3A Section 1 championship game in 2015 and made it all the way to the 3A Prep Bowl this year before losing to Benilde-St. Margaret’s. The girls basketball team had a 2015-16 season to remember for several reasons, bracketed by the death of Gleason’s father and a trip to state, where the Winhawks lost to Holy Angels in the Class 3A title game at Williams Arena. The softball team was 22-5 last spring, falling to Mankato West 4-3 in the 3A championship game.

Trips to state have not been common occurrences for those teams. The softball team had never played at state before last spring, the girls basketball team had been to state only once previously (2003) and the football team’s only other trip to state resulted in a runner-up finish in 1987.

“It has changed the culture of our school,” activities director Casey Indra said of the athletic success. “Not only with the athletes but with the kids that are in the arts, too. It’s crazy. We’ve talked about it. It’s like a light switch was flipped.”

Success in athletics and other activities can be a building block to even more good things in a school environment. Casey Moger, a senior on the girls basketball team, was also a manager on the football team for four seasons.

“It brings our school together,” she said of the sports success. “You see people in the hallways that might never talk to you, but they’ll say, ‘Hey, good game. Nice job.’ ”

Gleason said, “It’s really been fun to watch people from different backgrounds, different groups, come together. There are lot of things going on, and to see the solidarity and the community that has been built in our school, and the energy that is translated out to our community. It has been so much fun to watch and it’s been energizing for everybody involved, whether they’re athletes, the teaching staff or the student body itself.”

Gleason’s father Jerry was a music teacher, just like his son. Jerry, a Winona High School graduate, died in mid-February. The Winhawks won a game that night and didn’t lose again until the state championship.

“There were so many things that you look at as a coach that you just dream about,” Gleason said. “Some of the things the team did in honor of my father, some of the things the players said after those games. It’s an emotional time, and to see the composure they had, and how tight that group became, how close-knit they were and still are. I will always remember that and it will always be a part of me. Even now, eight months later, talking about it brings back all those feelings.”

Having a coach who also is a band director ties the school’s musicians even more closely to the teams. The Winhawks pep band has become a fixture at big postseason games, adding to the community spirit.

“Our band is just unbelievable in regards to what they do for us,” Indra said. “I made the comment at our Prep Bowl welcome home that it’s Thanksgiving break and we brought three buses of kids to play in the band. And they were gung-ho to do it. I think we’re the only team that travels with seven tubas. It’s awesome, it truly is.”

The current girls basketball team has a record of 4-1, playing their first five games on the road. Current seniors Abby Winter, Danneka Voegeli, Eden Nibbelink and Justine Schultz all started in last season’s state championship game. Winter has been slowed by an injury but should return before long.

“Through some of the adversity that we’ve had, some injuries and kind of redefining of roles, I’m really encouraged and proud of how far we’ve come in such a short time,” said Gleason (pictured). “I hope we can keep going. I hope we can keep trying to get better.”

Schultz has a unique perspective on what has happened in the last year. Not only is she on the basketball team, but she also was the catcher on the softball team.

“With our basketball season last year it kind of gave confidence to our team for future years and for other teams,” she said. “It got the softball team rolling and it got the football team rolling. So now our whole school is like, ‘We can do it.’ ”

Asked what she will remember years from now, Justine made two points. The first was easy: “Friendships.” The second said a lot about what has been taking place in Winona: “The process to get to where we are. Not necessarily the outcome or the finish, but the road to get where we are going.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 306
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 5,367
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Basketball Rankings: Class 4A Boys 12/17/2016
Rankings provided by Minnesota Basketball News.

1. Champlin Park 1-0
2. Lakeville North 1-0
3. Hopkins 2-0
4. Maple Grove 0-0
5. Cretin-Derham Hall 1-0
6. Apple Valley 1-0
7. Woodbury 1-0
8. Chaska 2-0
9. Osseo 0-0
10. Park Center 1-0
11. New Prague 2-0
12. Edina 0-1
13. Tartan 1-0
14. Eden Prairie 1-0
15. North St. Paul 1-0
16. Wayzata 1-0
17. St. Louis Park 1-1
18. Mounds View 0-1
19. Rochester JM 0-1
20. Lakeville South 0-1
Basketball Rankings: Class 3A Boys 12/17/2016
Rankings provided by Minnesota Basketball News.

1. DeLaSalle 2-0
2. Fergus Falls 1-0
3. Delano 2-0
4. Minneapolis Henry 1-0
5. Marshall 1-0
6. Austin 1-0
7. Mahtomedi 2-0
8. Big Lake 3-0
9. Orono 1-1
10. Alexandria 1-0
11. Northfield 2-0
12. Benilde-St. Marg. 1-0
13. Sauk Rapids-Rice 1-0
14. Waseca 2-0
15. Totino-Grace 1-0
16. Fridley 1-1
17. Rocori 1-1
18. Detroit Lakes 0-0
19. Simley 2-0
20. Grand Rapids 1-1