John's Journal
Looking Back: It’s Hammer Time As Football Regular Season Winds Down6/28/2016
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 Oct. 5.

PROCTOR – The football regular season comes to an end this week, which makes it a good time to reflect on a few things, many of which were on display here Friday night when the teams from Hermantown and Proctor met in the annual Hammer Game.

It’s one of Minnesota’s best rivalries, featuring kids who have competed against each other in various sports since they were little boys. The traveling trophy is The Hammer, a giant wooden hammer that carries the score of every game between Proctor and Hermantown since 1995.

The Rails and Hawks first met on the football field in 1941 and The Hammer has been the winner’s prize for 20 years. Jesse Bodell, a Hermantown junior in 1995, and his father Ron built the thing in their garage. It is modeled after the railroad hammer that was swung in American mythology by steel driver John Henry.

Traveling trophies are found all over Minnesota. One of my favorites is the Battle Axe game between Luverne and Pipestone (what a hoot: the sophomore teams play for the Hatchet and the ninth-grade teams play for the Butter Knife). Another great trophy game pits Blue Earth and Fairmont, who have played for the Little Brown Jug for 61 years.

Friday’s game went the way of the Hawks, who used a 68-0 runaway to even the all-time series with Proctor at 32-32-1. The margin was the largest in the rivalry’s history, but the takeaway from this year’s game went far beyond the scoreboard.

Hermantown has 614 students and plays Class 4A football, Proctor has 474 and is in Class 3A. The schools, which combine to form one girls hockey team, are only nine miles apart and the towns are conjoined twins on Duluth’s western border.

Some people grow up in one town and raise their own kids in the other. Everybody basically knows everybody.

“It’s just a mix of families, and it’s so close that it makes it a really enjoyable time,” said Hermantown coach Daryl Illikainen, who has led 18 teams in this rivalry game.

Friday’s crowd was bathed in pink, especially the student sections. It was a Pink Out, with money raised to battle cancer. Pink lines had been painted alongside the goal lines and 50-yard line. The Proctor band was on hand for musical enjoyment. Members of the American Legion carried the flag onto the field for the national anthem, with the stars and stripes billowing in a cold breeze. This was America on a Friday night, a scene repeated across the country.

The early returns weren’t favorable for Hermantown, which has a 7-0 record and No. 5 state ranking in 4A. On the game’s first series, the Hawks’ Thomas Madison ran for a 47-yard touchdown, but a holding penalty brought it back.

The Hawks didn’t flinch and continued the drive, which ended with James Lindberg running four yards for a score. He added a 26-yard run in a 33-point second quarter and Madison also scored twice, as did Matt Valure. The big booms came when Nick Bostrom threw to Zack Brendon for a 49-yard touchdown and Christian Comstock returned an interception 67 yards for a TD.

Meanwhile, Hermantown’s defense held the Rails (4-3) to single digits in total yards. The Hawks ran for more than 400 yards, with Madison getting 144.

“We have great offensive linemen,” said Madison (pictured with The Hammer). “They come off the ball and they’re smart, they make adjustments on the fly and it’s a lot of fun to run behind them.”

Hermantown is a regular at the boys state hockey tournament and the Hawks made their first trip to the boys state basketball tourney last winter. That kind of success blends into other sports and other seasons.

“A lot of these kids went to state in basketball last year, they’re three-sport athletes,” Illikainen said. “They’re just putting it together. They’ve come in with a mission, they’ve been focused and I’m just so proud.”

Hermantown will finish the regular season Thursday at Moose Lake-Willow River and Proctor will go to Two Harbors the same night. Then section tournament pairings will be set and the second season will begin.

“We came in with the mindset that we were going to work hard this year,” Madison said. “Coach always says we’ll look at the scoreboard at the end of the game. So that was kind of our mindset coming in. The guys have worked hard and put in their time and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.

“I think we can be as good as we want to be. We have to limit our mistakes, we have to stay in check and we’ve got to take it one week at a time. We can’t overlook anyone. I think we’re going to do good things.”

Hard work. Pride. Togetherness. Optimism.

Good stuff.
Looking Back: A Love Of Wrestling, An Official With Heart6/25/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year now at an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Dec. 21.

If you’ve ever thought about becoming an MSHSL official in any sport, I have one piece of advice for you: Watch Joe Steffenhagen officiate a wrestling match. He is an inspiration, working with young athletes and helping them learn about wrestling. Joe smiles a lot, too.

That’s probably the first thing you’ll notice about Joe. His smile. It lights up the mat. At some point you’ll notice something else about Joe. He moves with a slight limp and he doesn’t have full use of his right arm and hand.

None of that matters. What matters is that Steffenhagen is giving back to a sport he loves.

Joe has never let cerebral palsy get in his way. He grew up as an active kid, joining his friends in whatever sport was in season.

“I played basketball until eighth grade and then I got short,” he said, laughing. “I was a post player, as tall as I am now, 5-foot-5. I started wrestling in ninth grade.”

He also played football and baseball at Orono High School. But wrestling was his main sport. He loved everything about it and lettered for four years before graduating in 2002.

He’s in his second year as a registered MSHSL wrestling official. He officiates on the middle school and sub-varsity level as he improves his skills. His reasoning for becoming an official is pretty simple: “Jeez, I just like getting on the mat and being around it.”

Ronnie Schneider, one of the state’s top wrestling officials, teaches physical education at Roseville Area High School; Joe works there as a special education teacher’s aide. Schneider, a 25-year official who has worked 10 state tournaments, is also the assignment secretary for the Skyline Wrestling Officials Association.

Schneider recognized Joe’s love for wrestling, as well as his deep knowledge of the sport, and encouraged him to become an official.

“His knowledge of wrestling was amazing to me,” Schneider said. “He understood the technique, the calls, everything. I’m like, ‘Joe, why aren’t you reffing?’ We’re always looking for guys to do middle school and other events. He said, ‘I don’t think I can.’

“He can move and he’s got just a little limp. His right hand was the problem. I’m like, ‘Joe, let’s figure it out.’ We need officials. The only guys we can pick from are guys who know wrestling. And he knows it.”

Since Joe has trouble signaling points with his right hand, he does so with his left hand for both wrestlers. Officials wear red and green wristbands, with wrestlers wearing matching colors on an ankle. When one wrestler scores, the officials’ hand with the corresponding wristband is used to signal points.

Joe’s right hand is the “green” hand. To signal points for green, he covers his red wristband with his green wristband and puts up the corresponding number of fingers on his red hand. It’s an easy system to understand.

“Before we start I’ll go up to whoever is doing the scoring and tell them how I’m going to do things,” Joe said. “It works out. And for any ref, a good scorekeeper can help you.”

During a recent match involving St. Paul middle school wrestlers at St. Paul Washington Technology Magnet School, Steffenhagen displayed a combination of patience, hustle and understanding. After making a call, he sometimes took a moment to explain it to the wrestlers. He helped kids with their headgear, took extra time in getting them in correct position before the whistle and raised the hand of every winner.

Joe is becoming more comfortable with every competition. He’s hoping to be able to work a varsity match before the end of the season. Schneider sometimes watches him officiate, and he is always ready with tips for improvement.

“Ronnie is what got me going,” Joe said. “He does the scheduling and we work at the same high school. I thought, ‘that’s an easy in.’ He’s been a mentor-type person for me.”

When he began officiating, Steffenhagen said he had concerns about being able to do it. Those issues are long gone now.

“I was more worried about how I would do it. Now I’m not worried about it all. I got that off my shoulders. Now I just want to learn how to be a better official.

“I was just thinking today, ‘Wow, I’m having more fun this year.’ And that’s what the hope is: To get better every year.”

Joe is hoping to work in an off-the-mat job at the state tournament in February, all in the hopes of learning more and more.

“We are hurting for officials, we can use more and it shouldn’t matter who you are,” Schneider said. “If you have the desire and the ability, we need you to officiate.”
Looking Back: Edina Soccer Team Pays Tribute To Sophia6/24/2016
With the 2015-16 MSHSL year coming to an end, let's take a look back at some of the stories from John's Journal. This story was posted on Oct. 15.

In a well-played postseason game Thursday at Kuhlman Field in Edina, the Edina High School girls soccer team defeated Prior Lake 3-0. With the victory in the Class 2A Section 2 quarterfinals, the Hornets advanced to Tuesday’s section semifinals at Eden Prairie; for Prior Lake the season has ended.

The most memorable moment, however, came before the game started. A handful of little girls, under-8 soccer players from Edina, held large pink balloons and stood next to the Hornets after the players were introduced. All the balloons were released at the same time, and a brisk wind from the north sent them sailing over the south end zone and beyond.

As the balloons rose higher and higher, they sailed above nearby Concord Elementary School. That’s where many of the Edina varsity players went to elementary school, as did Sophia Baechler.

Sophia, a second-grader, died Sunday of carbon-monoxide poisoning while on a boat on Lake Minnetonka. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and it’s unclear what caused the poisoning.

The little girls who released the balloons Thursday were Sophia’s soccer teammates. They giggled with delight – what a joyous sound -- as they watched the balloons sail away. Sophia’s funeral was held Friday morning at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina.

Sophia, who would have turned 8 in December, is survived by her parents, Benjamin and Courtney Baechler, and 5-year-old brother Will.

Edina coach Katie Aafedt didn’t know Sophia, but two of her three children attend Concord.

“We found out the news on Monday when we got an email from the principal,” Aafedt said. “It was a tough pill to swallow. It hit very close to home because she is part of the Edina soccer community, she’s my kids’ age, her parents are my age, she was a soccer player who we had seen at games.”

Sophia and her family had attended several varsity girls soccer games. After her death, the Edina girls soccer Twitter account sent this message: “The entire EHS soccer program was devastated to learn of the passing of a U8 Edina player. We dedicate our playoff run to her. #playforsophia”

Sophia wore jersey number 8, and a jersey bearing her number was on the bench Thursday. It will remain with the Hornets through the rest of the season.

“She supported us at our games, she was part of the Edina soccer community,” said Hornets junior Eva Anderson. “It was really a huge loss for us and it was really hard to hear. She went to Concord, where a lot of us have gone, and she lived really close to me.”

Junior Meredith Stotts said, “I didn’t know her personally but the story was really heartbreaking. One of our neighbors is on her soccer team.”

About the pregame ceremony, Meredith said, “I think it focused us all a lot more and it made us want to go out and win so much more. To know that she was supporting us, to see her parents up there, it makes you much more grateful for a lot of things.”

Eva said, “We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves and we’re playing for a really deep, really important thing. It teaches us to be grateful for every moment we have and we can’t waste any second we have because we are so lucky to have these opportunities.”
The Miracle Of Henry Sibley: From 4-14 To State Champs6/20/2016
As the postgame awards ceremony began Monday at Target Field, ballplayers from Henry Sibley High School arrived at an important realization. The Mahtomedi team they had just defeated 8-4 for the Class 3A state championship was receiving its second-place medals while the Warriors stood single-file on the edge of the grass.

One of them said these words: “We’re 15 and 15.” And down the row it went. “We’re 15 and 15.” “Guys, we’re 15 and 15.”

They also, astonishingly, are state champions.

Has there ever been anything like it? What compares to this improbable storybook ending? After all, for the Warriors this was a season that could have been given up for dead, wrapped in a burlap sack and dumped in a ditch weeks ago. Who would have noticed?

One of the lessons here is that the regular season and the postseason can have absolutely nothing in common. Henry Sibley – the school is named for Minnesota’s first governor (as if you didn’t already know that) – opened the season with five consecutive losses. An eight-game losing streak came soon after. They lost to Mahtomedi twice, including a 10-run-rule affair. They entered the postseason with a 6-14 record and had to win their last two regular-season games to get there.

But then how do we explain the playoff run? The wins in the Section 3 tournament and the three victories at state?

“We were hot today,” said designated hitter Sam Essen, who scored two runs. “It was our day, it was our turn to win.”

Henry Sibley coach Greg Fehrman had no explanation at all.

“I can’t. I really can’t. I wish I could but I can’t. It’s one of those things that turned out the way it did.”

He and his coaching staff never gave up on the team, and the players never gave up on each other. That’s surely an important factor here.

“We never really ever ditched the thought that we would not be able to be competitive,” Fehrman said. “There were times that we would lose games and we as coaches would be at a loss for words to explain what it is that we were trying to do, what we needed to do. And we would share that with the kids and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have anything to say other than we have to hang in there and keep plugging away at it.’ ”

Fehrman said the “beautiful part” of the story is this: The boys never gave up, never grabbed a burlap sack.

“They seemed to go ahead and just persevere and hang with it and continue to want to come to the park.” he said. “They’re great kids to be around, just awesome kids to be around. And then all of a sudden we started catching on a little bit, and before you knew it everything started rolling. We just got out of their way and let them play.

“Everybody dreams about winning a state championship but hardly anybody ever dreams about winning a state championship with a 15-15 record.”


As the baseball season came to a memorable end, nobody wore a bigger smile than Jesse Retzlaff. The senior pitcher and his Minnehaha Academy teammates will spend the rest of their days reflecting on disappointment, second chances and how great success can feel.

“Right now I’m so elated,” Retzlaff said after the Redhawks rallied to win the state championship. “It was such a fun run. It was such a great time.”

The disappointment came 360 days earlier. Minnehaha Academy lost to St. Cloud Cathedral 10-1 in that 2015 state championship game, and the losing pitcher was a junior named Jesse Retzlaff. He pitched 5 1/3 innings that day, giving up six runs while walking four, striking out three and throwing a wild pitch.

Cathedral was no slouch in 2015, winning its second consecutive state title and extending a winless streak to 50 games. The Redhawks finished 26-2 last season, with both losses coming to Cathedral. But 2016 was different. Minnehaha went to St. Cloud and beat the Crusaders in their 11th game of the season, finished the Section 4 tournament with a 24-3 record, and headed to state a team on a mission.

Minnehaha beat East Grand Forks 11-2 in the state quarterfinals (with Retzlaff going the distance) and held off Pierz 4-2 in the semifinals to reach Monday’s game. And this time at Target Field Retzlaff was masterful. He tossed a two-hitter with 12 strikeouts and two walks.

“Jesse has wanted this game since last year, and you could see that,” said Redhawks coach Scott Glenn. “He was calm, he was a true leader today. He was the guy we needed, and he was fantastic.”

Belle Plaine (25-2), which was the tournament’s top seed with Minnehaha No. 2, took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when Brody Curtiss tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Wes Sarsland. But the Redhawks put up a five spot in the top of the fifth, with Andrew Wolpert and Alexander Jordan driving in runs. That was all Retzlaff needed.

“We knew we could come back from one run down,” he said. “We’ve scored a lot of runs in a lot of games.

“Last year we were kind of heartbroken so our motto coming into this year was ‘unfinished business.’ We just wanted to come back out and win this game. And we did, so we’re feeling really good right now. This is pure joy. You dream of playing here. It was just so much fun.”


The Tigers scored two runs in the top of the 11th inning to secure the title one year after finishing as the state runnerup. Joe Pieschel opened the 11th with a single and stole second. A single by Carter Cook scored Pieschel before a double by Isaac Fink made it 4-2.


The Trojans won their first state baseball championship behind an 11-hit attack, scoring in every inning from the third to the seventh. Griffin Schneider, Will Oberg and Danny Deis had three hits each while Wayzata pitcher Tommy Skoro went the distance, giving up five hits, striking out eight and walking none.


CLASS 1A/ Hunter Brommerich, Lewiston-Altura; Lucas Nelson, Legacy Christian; Cody Dunkley, TJ Johnson, Hinckley-Finlayson; Logan Rogers, Zach Loosbrock, Adrian; Andrew Johnson, Casey Peterson, Zach Gappa, Parkers Prairie; Sam Baier, Branden Flock, Carter Cook, Springfield.

CLASS 2A/ John Aase, Proctor; Alex Mushitz, East Grand Forks; Jack Siebert, Maple Lake; Matt Tautges, Noah Boser, Lane Girtz, Pierz; Brody Curtiss, Nathan Herman, Aiden Ladd, Belle Plaine; Alex Fedje-Johnson, Alex Evenson, Jesse Retzlaff, Minnehaha Academy.

CLASS 3A/ Cooper Yackley, New Ulm; Nic Zabel, Northfield; Jack Qualen, Derek Drees, Benilde-St. Margaret’s; Austin Jenks, Thomas Miller, Little Falls; Trevor Moses, Kyle Hinseth, Mitch Nordin, Mahtomedi; Charley Hesse, Sam Gantman, Joe Ihrke, Henry Sibley.

CLASS 4A/ Isaac Collins, Maple Grove; Ryan Brunner, Burnsville; Michael Dooney, Luke DeGrammont, Lakeville North; Max Meyer, Brady Mundahl, Woodbury; Riley Johnson, Aaron Kloeppner, Champlin Park; Griffin Schneider, Will Oberg, Parker Hlavacek, Tommy Skoro, Wayzata.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 858
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 12,498
After 41 Years, Pine Island’s Anderson Goes Out On Top 6/17/2016
ST. CLOUD – There was emotion in Craig Anderson’s voice for a second or two shortly before he walked off the baseball diamond for the final time Friday. But the Pine Island coach, who is retiring after 41 years with the Panthers, was quickly greeted by his grandchildren. And after that it was all bear hugs and great big smiles.

Anderson, 63, had announced during the season that 2016 would be his last go-round. The Panthers took him out in style, reaching the Class 2A state tournament. Unseeded Pine Island lost to top seed Belle Plaine 1-0 in Thursday’s quarterfinals, and the season ended Friday with a 12-5 loss to Proctor in the consolation bracket.

As he spoke to his final team after his final game, Anderson told the boys how proud he was to be their coach.

“I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to finish my career with,” he said.

Pine Island’s previous trips to state came in 1991, 1992 and 1993. So there was some poetic justice that the Panthers (18-9) got back to the show in 2016.

“I’m reflecting on a lot of fun,” Anderson told me. “This community has been good to me for 41 years. I’m just appreciative, because I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s emotional. It’s a special time in my life. I’m just reflecting on all the happy times. And there have been a ton of them. Great community support, administrative support, and obviously these are some great kids.”

Craig and his wife Sue – sweethearts since a homecoming dance when they were sophomores at Mabel-Canton – are closing in on 42 years of marriage. Sue retired as a social worker in December. The Andersons have two daughters: Sarah lives in Denver with her husband and two kids, and Rachel lives in Pine Island with her husband and two kids. They were all at the games Thursday and Friday.

“I could hear the grandkids yelling for grandpa there at the end, that was pretty cool,” Anderson said. “They’re going to love me no matter what the score is, and that’s the best part of having a family.”

Anderson is revered by his peers. In 2015 the Minnesota High School Baseball Coaches Association awarded the inaugural Craig Anderson Ethics in Coaching Award to St. Charles coach Scott McCready. The award is given to a coach “who, like Craig, has displayed ethics in coaching and teaching the game of baseball. The coach who is selected will be someone who displays class, integrity, character, and respect for the game, the players, the spectators, and the officials.”

Anderson’s career record is 526-381, placing him fifth in all-time victories among Minnesota high school baseball coaches. But winning has never been uppermost in his coaching philosophy.

Last season I went to a game in Pine Island a few days after Anderson recorded his 500th victory. After the Panthers lost a 2-1 decision to Cannon Falls, Anderson told me, “We want to win but we have a bigger message. And that’s, ‘Hey, come play hard, represent your community and your family with dignity.’ And if you do those things, then it’s a win no matter how the result comes out.”

Cannon Falls coach Bucky Lindow said that day, “The first game I ever coached as a high school coach, he was the other guy and beat us 10-0. But more important is the way he treats people. He’s the guy who’s going to congratulate you if you do something. He’s just classy. That’s truly what he is. And through the state coaches association, he’s been on the leadership team for a long, long time and he just makes a positive impact. He’s a great ambassador for high school baseball. I really appreciate all that I’ve learned from him.”

Anderson, who in 2014 was inducted into the National High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, spent 36 years as a sixth-grade science teacher. He has been the Pine Island athletic director for four years and will continue in that role. But he now will have more time to spend with his grandkids and travel with Sue.

The Pine Island fans wore state tournament T-shirts in the school colors of maroon and gold. The players’ and coaches’ names were printed on the back, under this statement: “It’s a great day for baseball! -- Coach Craig Anderson.”

Anderson wore jersey No. 23 when he played baseball at Winona State and continued to wear 23 from day one in Pine Island. He likes to point out that he wore 23 before it became Michael Jordan’s signature.

“I’m just proud to wear this maroon and gold for the last time,” he said. “I’ll probably wash it, turn it in, and somebody else will have it next year.”

That’s doubtful. It’s a pretty safe bet that No. 23 will be retired in Pine Island.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 858
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 12,450