John's Journal
Belle Plaine Volleyball: New Look, Same Goals8/15/2016
Returning to action one year after winning a state championship is nothing new. It happens every year in every high school sport. The scenario comes with a twist in 2016 for the Belle Plaine volleyball team, which held its first workout on Monday.

The Tigers captured their first state title by sweeping three state tournament matches by scores of 3-0, 3-1 and 3-0 in Class 2A last November. In March, coach Cassie Koch announced she was stepping down because she was pregnant with her second child.

As a high school player in Belle Plaine from 1999 to 2001, Koch (then Cassie Wolpern) set a national high school record for career kills and was a multiple-year all-state selection. In six years as the Tigers coach, she led them to five conference titles and four trips to state.

So this new seasons begins with new, albeit familiar, co-coaches in Rich Foust and Sara Geller. Foust was the Tigers’ head coach before Koch took over in 2009 and he and Geller have been longtime assistants.

“Any time you win a state championship it’s a phenomenal run,” Foust said before Monday’s practice. “Those kids were good all the way through, in seventh grade, eighth grade and all the way through. You knew that was going to be a good year. You could do different things in practice because they were so skilled. All the pieces were there.”

The Tigers lost four key players to graduation and return a core of four seniors: Mariena Hayden, Elizabeth Johnson, Taylor Kruger and Danielle Taylor (pictured). Hayden, who will play collegiately at Nevada-Las Vegas, is the tallest player at 6 feet. Competing with shorter athletes will be a big test this season.

“One of our concerns is that we’re going to be two to four inches shorter at every position that we’re filling,” Foust said. “We’ve had a nice run here at Belle Plaine of taller-than-average girls. You can do so many things when you have a tall lineup in the front row.”

Geller said with a chuckle, “We could be playing in platform heels.”

Yes, there will be challenges for the Tigers, who are ranked third (behind Kenyon-Wanamingo and Rocori) in the preseason Class 2A coaches poll. But they will be ready.

“I think we still have confidence from last year because we know what it takes to win,” Kruger said. “We still have the drive from last year.”

There’s no discounting the experience gained on the path to a state title. The Tigers’ seniors will bank on that, but there is a gap from the 12th-graders to the rest of the team. The varsity roster currently includes one junior, one sophomore, one freshman and one eighth-grader.

“We’re going to rely on the seniors to transition those younger girls into ‘This is what varsity play looks like,’ ” Geller said.

The season’s first practice was focused on little things: measuring height, arm length and leaping ability, along with speed and quickness drills. Leaping will be important for the undersized Tigers; Hayden is their big thumper at the net but finding others to provide arm-swinging threats is important.

“You know (opponents are) going to probably stick three blockers on Mariena in the front row,” Geller said. “We’re going to have to have other options available.”

That’s where preseason workouts will be vital.

“We have a lot of spots to fill,” said Johnson. “We’ll probably try to mix and move everyone around everywhere. We need some of our younger kids to fight for those spots and fight to be competitive in those spots. I think that’s our biggest challenge right now, bringing us all together and bringing us back to where we were last year.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 2
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 126
Countdown To A New School Year8/8/2016
The 2016-17 MSHSL year is right around the corner, with practices for fall sports officially beginning on Monday, Aug. 15. (Note to athletes: make sure you have all the necessary paperwork submitted to your school’s activity office.)

Two football teams started working out a week earlier than the rest of the fall teams in Minnesota. Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range in Babbitt each lost one regular-season game when Mesabi Academy closed, and they will open the season against each other on Aug. 26 in Babbitt. The rest of the MSHSL football teams will play their first games the following week.

The situation is basically a throwback to what was known as Zero Week; that format officially ended when district football scheduling began last season.

As Mesabi Daily News sports editor Jim Romsaas wrote …

The teams were scrambling to find opponents for their eighth game and to fill an opening in their schedules. (Northeast Range) Nighthawks head coach Mark Fabish asked his seniors if they definitely wanted to play an eighth game, and they were all on board. “I don’t think there was one that said no.’’

MI-B head man Dan Zubich said his coaching staff also talked to the Ranger players about scheduling an eighth game. “They really wanted eight games and so did we,’’ he said. “They wanted eight games so we went with that.’’


The teams will play a full eight-game regular season, and each team will have a bye during the regular season. The Rangers are scheduled for a bye Sept. 23, while the Nighthawks will get one in week two (Sept. 2).

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 0
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 0
Looking Back: “Thanks coach. I love you”7/31/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end and the 2015-16 year starting soon, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Dec. 9.

Larry Thompson has seemingly seen it all during his lifetime as a resident of Lakeville. He has been coaching high school football in town since 1979, resulting in lots of highs and a few very low lows.

These past few days have been hard for everyone in Lakeville. After school last Friday, two male students at Lakeville South were killed in a single-vehicle accident, a third student was severely injured, and a fourth suffered minor injuries.

The funeral for Johnny Price, 18, was held Tuesday. The funeral for Jake Flynn, 17, will be held Thursday and Thompson will speak during the service. He knows it will be difficult, but these are days filled with difficulties.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Thompson told me. “The toughest thing I have to do is go in the equipment room, get a kid’s game jersey and take it to his mom and dad.”

He did that with Jake’s jersey. All four of the boys played football for Thompson; Price gave up football this year to concentrate on baseball. Alex Hughes remains hospitalized and Mason Kohlbeck has returned to school.

Thompson graduated from Lakeville High School in 1970 and returned to coach and teach after graduating from Augsburg College. In 1979 he was named Lakeville’s head football coach at age 26. He held that job for 26 years; when Lakeville South opened in 2005 (and Lakeville High became Lakeville North), Thompson moved to the new school.

Jake Flynn had recently been named a South football captain for the 2016 season. Thompson last saw him during a 6:15 a.m. weightlifting session Friday.

“I walked in and he came up and gave me a big hug with a big smile on his face,” Thompson recalled. “He said, ‘How are you doing today, coach!’ I’m retired (from teaching) so I usually don’t get up until 8, so I said, ‘Jake, I’m a little sleepy.’ He laughed and said, ‘It’s good for you to get out of bed.’

“I’ll be speaking at his funeral and I might tell this story: He was at wide receiver and he threw one of the lamest blocks I’ve ever seen. I’m ready to chew him out when he got to the sideline. But he said, ‘Coach, I know. That was one of the worst things you’ve ever seen.’ He said, ‘I’ll do better next time.’

“I love those kids. It’s a tough deal.”

Ten years after Lakeville was split into two high schools, the North Panthers and South Cougars are spirited rivals. But when one school is hurting, the other steps up to help. Two years ago, on the same date (December 4) that the South students were killed, a female student at North died in a car accident.

“Lakeville South did an amazing job supporting us two years ago and I felt like we did the same in this last situation,” North boys basketball coach John Oxton said. “In tragedy, great things happen. People pull together. I’m very proud of our community.”

The boys basketball teams from Lakeville South and Lakeville North met Tuesday night in a South Suburban Conference game at North. The color blue had been chosen as a sign of solidarity; the players from both teams wore blue t-shirts over their jerseys, the coaches wore blue t-shirts and most of the people who packed the stands wore blue.

South students displayed a large handmade sign that read, “We Love Our Angels.” The sign carried the initials JP and JF for Price and Flynn. Before tipoff, the teams gathered in a large circle on the court and held hands for a moment of silence.

“We talked before practice yesterday,” South coach Nick Gruhlke said after the game. “We got everybody’s feelings on things and we told them we’re going to coach you up like nothing happened and hopefully we can return to normalcy; which we know isn’t going to happen.”

Oxton said, “It’s so difficult, especially for young people. Life is going to go on and that is really hard. It doesn’t mean we have to forget or anything like that. We’re going to honor these kids and not forget them. But it’s also important, too, that we do move on. We can honor them by competing and doing our best. I felt like both teams did that tonight. It’s a super tough loss for them and an exciting win for us, but I think Lakeville as a community won tonight.”

After learning of the accident on Friday, Thompson went to South to be with his football players, other students, staff and parents. He was told that Mason Kohlbeck, who had been taken to Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis, had asked about seeing his coach. Thompson drove there immediately and saw both Kohlbeck and Hughes.

“Mason wasn’t really hurt but he was distraught,” Thompson said. “I talked to him and sat him down. I said, ‘Mason, you have to listen to me. Mason, you can’t change one thing that happened today. All you can do in life is do the best you can in school, be the best person you can be, be the best husband and father you can be so Jake and Johnny can look down and say nice job, Mason.’

“I went up to the ICU to see Alex. I said, ‘Alex, you’ve got to get better. We need you around school, we miss you. You need to fight and get better. I said, ‘I love you’ and he opened his eyes and said, ‘Thanks coach. I love you.’

“I guess sometimes that puts things in perspective on why I do this. I’m their boss and everything but I’m their friend, too.”

To no one’s surprise, the crowd was somewhat subdued during most of Tuesday’s basketball game. South jumped to an early lead, held it and led by five points with 61 seconds remaining in the second half. The North fans roared when Calven Pesola made a three-point shot to tie it 77-77 with 35 seconds to go, and the winning point in a 78-77 North victory came on a free throw by Ethan Igbanugo with five seconds left.

At the final horn, North students stormed the court. Players, coaches and students from both schools shook hands and embraced as an emotional evening came to a close.

Postscript: The first song performed by the Lakeville North pep band was very fitting on a night when young men, two gone and two healing, were honored. The tune was a well-known song by Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Looking Back: Moose Lake’s Inspirational Megan Wegge7/25/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Jan. 1.

Watch Megan Wegge skate. Watch her stride down the ice -- forceful and smooth -- as a member of the Moose Lake girls hockey team. Afterwards, when her helmet and facemask have been removed, watch her smile. Oh, that smile.

As a new year begins, Megan’s smile is something to feel good about. Really good.

Megan is a miracle. When she was born 16 years ago she was placed on life support and doctors doubted that she would survive. But here she is, along with her brother Nick and sister Brooke (yes, Megan is a triplet).

Cancer came later, when Megan was 11. The technical term was stage 3 undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver. It’s rare, it’s vicious and it wins a lot of the fights it starts.

Megan was battling cancer long before she had cancer. Ten years ago, a friend named Johnny Murphy died because of cancer. After that, Megan began raising money to fight the disease. She made chocolate treats and sold them herself. She donated her own hair to Locks of Love.

“My friend Johnny died when I was pretty young and that really impacted me,” Megan said. “I wanted to help, and I never knew that I was going to get cancer.”

She had a tumor the size of a softball in her liver. The tumor ruptured before surgery, which added another layer of complications and concern. Doctors removed the tumor and most of Megan’s liver. That was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She underwent chemo and proton beam therapy treatments, 29 in all, over the course of two and a half months in Bloomington, Indiana.

I asked Megan about her memories from that time. And she smiled.

“I have a lot of memories, most of them are actually good,” she said. “I know that I felt really sick at some points, but I’ve kind of pushed those memories out of my mind. We’ve met a lot of really good people. A lot of hockey people have come together. The Edina team did a lot; they sold lemonade and raised money for me. The Gophers women’s team has done a lot for me. One player in particular, Megan Bozek, has been a huge inspiration to me. She would come visit me in the hospital, she let me come and skate with her team and visit them.

“We’ve made a lot of connections with a lot of people and we’ve made some really good friends from everything.”

Megan won’t be declared cancer-free until the disease has been absent for 10 years. She’s halfway to that mark. Her current medical status is N.E.D., which stands for No Evidence of Disease. Because of the treatments she went through, there are times when she feels tired, when it’s a little hard to get a good breath, when there is pain.

“Other than that, I’m doing super well,” she said, busting out that smile again.

Moose Lake coach Joe Mohelsky said, “One of our team values is being grateful. And Megan really brings that gratitude to the team. She battled that cancer. It was really touch and go there for a while, and a lot of these girls spent a lot of time with her and came up through youth hockey with her.

“She’s a fighter and you can see it on the ice. Her motor never quits running. Megan’s a great kid. She’s smart, she’s a great teammate, she’s a real pleasure to coach.”

Playing hockey and being part of the team is important to Megan. Her mother, in fact, said returning to the ice was a goal that helped Megan get through cancer treatments.

“Her doctors advised her not to skate,” said Jodi Wegge (pictured with Megan). “She had almost her whole liver removed and a lot of things shifted, so if she got run into the boards it could be not good. But that’s what got her through, that’s what she looked forward to. I can’t take away the thing that saved her. We never know what’s going to happen to any of us at any time, so we just enjoy life and let her do what she wants to do.”

The Wegge family is grateful. Jodi and her husband Dan, the triplets and their older sister Lindsey … grateful doesn’t even begin to explain how they feel about all the support they have received.

“We couldn’t have done this journey without our community,” Jodi said. “It was unbelievable. Especially the hockey community and our Moose Lake family. It’s just been unreal. Even to this day they still rally around us and want to know how she’s doing. It’s amazing to me that there are so many people who care. There were a lot of people we didn’t even know.”

While her treatments were taking place, Megan told her family and her doctors that she could not imagine ever being a doctor and dealing with such things on a daily basis. But guess what she wants to do with her life?

“I actually want to be a doctor,” she said. “After becoming N.E.D. and getting better, I realized these doctors had a huge impact on me and I want to be like them.”

Don’t doubt her. The baby who wasn’t expected to survive, the cancer patient who beat cancer. She’s all of 5-feet-4 and not even 120 pounds. And she’s a fighter.

“I always give my all, no matter what I’m doing,” Megan said.

And she smiled that beautiful smile.

Happy New Year.
Looking Back: Homecoming For A Former Shakopee Softball Star7/19/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on May 15.

Neil Johnson has witnessed a lot of memorable events during his 41 years as the only head softball coach Shakopee High School has ever had. The Sabers have gone to the state tournament in three different decades – the 1970s, 1980s and most recently in 2011 – and Johnson has been in the Minnesota softball coaches association Hall of Fame since 1995.

The 2011 season was special, and members of that team were invited back to be honored during a pregame ceremony prior to Friday night’s non-conference home game against New Prague. Seven 2011 Sabers were on hand. During the introductions, one of them walked out of the New Prague bench.

Ashley Walker was a star on that 2011 Sabers team, and now – after graduating from Winona State in December -- she is in her first year as head coach at New Prague. Johnson, meanwhile, has been in charge of the Sabers since 1975 and Walker is the first former player to become a head softball coach.

“It’s kind of a unique thing,” Johnson (pictured with Walker) said after the Sabers defeated the Trojans 7-6 in eight innings on Strikeout Cancer Night. “I’m just as proud as all get out.”

Johnson isn’t the only connection Ashley has to the current Sabers. The top assistant coach is her father, Rob.

Ashley is a physical education and health teacher who is working as a substitute this spring. She’s living at home, or as she put it, “I live in Shakopee with Coach Dad. This was like half a home game for me.”

Ask Johnson about Ashley the high school player and his eyes light up.

“She was one of the best players I’ve ever had in 41 years,” he said. “I still remember her game-winning home run in the bottom of the sixth inning against Mankato West to help us go to the state tournament. She came out in the seventh inning, when they had the potential tying run on third and winning run on second, and she struck the last batter out. She’s a heck of a competitor and she has been the real epitome of Shakopee softball. She’s quite a young lady.”

Ashley was a star at Winona State. She finished her senior season with a pitching record of 21-5 while striking out 106 and walking 38 in 170 innings. At the plate, she set a school record with 23 doubles while batting .372. In her college career, she ranks fourth at Winona State in doubles (53), seventh in home runs (23), eighth in batting average (.362) and ninth in hits (231). She also has the fourth-most career pitching wins with 62 and is sixth all-time in innings pitched with 515.2. She also was only the third player in Winona State history to be named an academic all-American, graduating with a 3.87 GPA.

She was named the New Prague softball coach last fall, and the announcement coincided with an important event in Shakopee.

“I found out she got the job the day the school board named the complex after me,” Johnson said, referring to the Neil Johnson Softball Complex, a fantastically manicured facility with three varsity-level fields. “It was a big day.”

Johnson, who was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame last fall, has had a positive impact on countless softball players as well as students (he retired from teaching in 2014 after 39 years in the classroom). Ashley Walker is among that group. Here’s her answer to this question: Why did you become a coach?

“Honestly, it was probably because of (Johnson), how awesome he was and how he treated us,” she said. “He makes everybody feel special, and I know the impact he makes on the girls’ lives. I wanted to carry that on myself.”

Friday night’s extra-inning loss ended a seven-game winning streak for New Prague (10-4) and gave Shakopee a record of 5-10. Damara Theis had two doubles and four runs-batted-in for the Sabers, Ashley Herold hit a two-run home run, and Cortney Hokanson (who had three hits) drove in the winning run with a single in the eighth inning. Emily Schmitz led New Prague with three hits, including a two-run homer.

After the game ended, both teams put on Strikeout Cancer t-shirts and posed for a photo together. Coaches embraced.

“It was really fun, it was awesome,” Ashley Walker said. “It was fun to coach against Coach Johnson and against my dad. I have lot of respect for them. I couldn’t respect anybody more.”