John's Journal
The Day Jon Gruden Came To Minnesota High School Football10/1/2016
If you have watched Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football or other programs on ESPN, you know he is passionate about football. The former college and NFL coach has made an impact on the game in many ways, but not all of them are played out in his role as an analyst under the bright lights of prime-time television.

In a rather quiet and private affair on Saturday afternoon at the Vikings’ headquarters in Eden Prairie, Gruden made an impact on players and coaches from four Minnesota high school football teams. They will remember it as long as they live.

Teams from Red Lake, Eden Valley-Watkins, Minneapolis North and St. Paul Como Park were invited to attend a special event headlined by Gruden, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in 2003. Gruden talked to the teams en masse, ran them through drills, shared a meal with them and delivered gifts to each team. He also complied with every autograph request and posed for a photo with every person who asked.

Gruden and ESPN, in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods, hold similar events in every city the Saturday before Monday Night Football games (the Vikings host the New York Giants on Monday night). Each Minnesota team received a $2,000 donation along with new footballs, tackling dummies, blocking pads and t-shirts. The head coaches received gift cards.

In years of writing about high school sports, I have never met anyone who displayed more passion than Gruden. He has taken on the mantle of supporting football and all youth sports because of what they teach.

“I think the lessons that you learn from football are lessons you can’t get anywhere else,” he told me after the two-hour event ended. “Teamwork, sportsmanship, your work ethic, the discipline, accountability, mental toughness, all those things. Things that a lot of people don’t think are important anymore, but they’re wrong.”

Gruden began the session by gathering all four teams (“take a knee”) at midfield on the Vikings’ indoor practice field. The players wore their jerseys: Red for Red Lake, blue for Eden Valley-Watkins, black for Como Park and gray for North. He talked about determination, effort and communication, but first he stressed the importance of a proper handshake.

He had one of the players stand up and shake hands with him, saying “C’mon! I wanna see a good handshake!” Then he had all the players shake hands with players from other teams as they introduced themselves.

He had the four starting quarterbacks stand up and bark out a cadence. Middle linebackers did the same thing, calling defensive signals. As one of the quarterbacks displayed a deep, loud cadence, Gruden shouted, “That’s a great voice there!”

“You’ve got to communicate, and I’m not talking about Twitter, texting and that Snapchat thing,” he told the boys.

He told the players to appreciate every practice, every game and every memory.

“The best times of my life, 53 years, was playing this game,” he said.

Gruden grew up in Sandusky, Ohio. In college at Dayton he was a backup quarterback. His college coaching career took him to Tennessee, Southeast Missouri State, University of Pacific and University of Pittsburgh. He was an NFL assistant in San Francisco, Green Bay and Philadelphia before becoming head coach in Oakland in 1998. He replaced Tony Dungy as head coach in Tampa Bay in 2002.

After he was fired by Tampa Bay in 2010, Gruden helped coach his son’s high school football team in Tampa. He also created an organization called the Fired Football Coaches Association, “dedicated to giving back to the game of football, with a specific emphasis on high school athletic programs.”

“When I got fired we formed this FFCA. The only job I really had was coaching my son’s high school football team,” Gruden told me. “And I realized then that the coaches don’t get paid anything, they don’t have a budget, and everybody complains about everything. And in a lot of places kids have to pay to play football.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods teamed up and they have a program where they’re trying to save youth sports. There are people who are trying to diminish them; no more recess, no more games, no more football, no more anything. And I’m not just talking about football. I’m talking about women’s sports, all kinds of youth sports.”

Gruden smiled when I asked him about his memories of playing high school football.

“I still remember the games. I can remember putting on my pads. I remember pregame meals. I can remember what I did after the games. The great wins, the tough losses, the lessons I learned, the friends I made, the places I got to see. And my coaches and the lessons they taught. And I don’t know where we’d be without those, you know?”

Gruden hands out “Gruden Grinder” awards during NFL games, and Saturday he awarded Gruden Grinder t-shirts to selected players from each high school, based on things like work ethic, grades, and other school activities in which the players are involved. An ESPN camera crew filmed Saturday’s event and excerpts will be televised during Monday night Giants-Vikings game.

Before the four Minnesota teams headed for home, they posed for team photos with Gruden and a ceremonial $2,000 check in front of a Dick’s Sporting Goods bus that carried a simple message in giant letters: “Sports Matter.”

“As long as I’m alive we’re going to try and create some awareness that it’s a problem.” Gruden said of the challenges facing youth sports. “I want my kids and their kids and their kids to have a chance to play the games I got to play. Because there’s no way I am where I am without sports.”

--To see photos from the event, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 72
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,667
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
John’s Top Five Concession Items
1. Buffalo football/ bison burgers
2. Grand Meadow football/ pork burgers
3. Stillwater soccer/ hot dogs
4. Montevideo football/ ice cream
5. Lakeville North cross-country/ chicken soup
Business And Fun Fuel Eagan Volleyball’s Brie Orr 9/29/2016
At the state tournament in 2013, a ninth-grader from Eagan High School burst onto the Minnesota volleyball scene. In a bruising five-set victory over Delano in the Class 3A championship match, the youngster put up big numbers: 20 kills, 39 assists and 15 digs.

Brie Orr is now a senior for the Wildcats, who have played in the last three state title matches, winning in 2013 and 2015. I first wrote about Orr during the 2013 state tourney. Here is an excerpt:

There are moments, although not many, when Eagan volleyball player Brie Orr will say something that leaves her teammates smiling and shaking their heads a little. Taylr McNeil, the Wildcats’ senior star, put it this way: “She has her moments, when she’ll say something and we’ll be like, ‘You’re such a freshman.’ ”

After top-ranked Eagan ran its record this season to 17-0 on Tuesday night with a 3-0 South Suburban Conference victory at Lakeville North, I asked Orr (pictured) about the differences between being a freshman and a senior.

She smiled and said, “I have more of a leadership role on the team. But there’s the same good chemistry with the team.”

Solid chemistry has been a part of the Wildcats’ long volleyball tradition. Eagan has won six state championships in the last 18 years. There were no seniors on last year’s team, so the 2016 Wildcats have been pegged as a solid favorite to repeat as state champs.

They have not done anything to dispel that prediction so far this season. Only three teams -- East Ridge, Shakopee and Prior Lake (twice) – have managed to win one set against the Wildcats. Eagan has won its matches by a total score of 43-4.

Orr was a co-captain last season and serves in the same capacity this season along with senior Alyssa Doucette and junior McKenna Melville. Eagan coach Kathy Gillen, who was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014, said Brie has taken on a stronger leadership role as the years have gone by.

“She had great mentors when she was younger,” said Gillen (pictured). “Taylr McNeil was one of her mentors who would calm her down. And now Brie’s doing the same thing with the younger players. If you look at her, she doesn’t flash. She’ll hit a great kill and she’ll run back to serve. That’s part of her success; she doesn’t get rattled, either. She hits a couple out and she stays level all the time. She’s come a long way with that. She was a lot more emotional when she was a younger player.”

Much like Orr, the Wildcats are an even-keel outfit that remains calm when things aren’t going well and they don’t do much celebrating at big points.

“Yes, for sure,” Orr said. “We’re not too excited and we don’t get too low. We keep it steady all the time. That’s what we want to be as a team: Business and fun.”

That combination of business and fun is clear when watching the Wildcats. Lakeville North, which is ranked 10th in Class 3A, gave Eagan a big test in Tuesday’s opening set. The Panthers broke loose from a 22-22 tie and led 24-22 – one point from winning the set – before Eagan scored four consecutive points to win 26-24.

One of those points was a thunderous kill by Orr. She ended the second set with another battering ram of a kill, blasting the ball from one side of the court to the other and into the scorer’s table with a bang. The final score was 26-24, 25-18, 25-17.

“Every team comes out like Lakeville North came out tonight,” said Gillen. “Every team comes out firing. The good thing is that we’ve kind of taken on Bri’s personality. We don’t get too rattled, we don’t try to do too much, and hopefully things work out.”

At 5-foot-10, Brie is a natural setter and plays that position in Junior Olympic volleyball. But for the Wildcats she spends a lot of quality time at the net, too.

“Look how far she’s come as a hitter, and a left-side hitter to top it off,” Gillen said. “Usually the setters are right-side hitters and I’m asking her to play left for a couple of rotations on top of it. Where she’s come in the last three years, especially being a hitter, you see her pick the court apart. She’s amazing. She makes shots that people can’t even think about trying; even if they practice they can’t make them. And we don’t practice a lot of that.”

Brie is on track to graduate from high school in December. She will play college volleyball at the University of Iowa, moving to Iowa City in January. As her high school days count down, her leadership role on the team includes a younger player named Kennedi Orr … Brie’s little sister.

Kennedi, who made the varsity team as a 12-year-old seventh-grader last year, is now a 5-foot-10 eighth-grader who sees lots of playing time.

“Kennedi has a lot of big sisters on this team,” Gillen said. “You’ll see McKenna say to her, ‘This is what you need to do,’ and ‘You’re OK.’ A lot of kids have taken her under their wing and know the player that she is going to be.

“Look at Kennedi, and that was Brie five years ago. So Kennedi will be that magical player, and she already does some magical things as an eighth-grader. And Kennedi will be that leader someday, too.”

Which begs an obvious question: Do Brie and Kennedi have any younger sisters?

“No, they don’t,” Gillen said with a chuckle. “I’ll have to talk to those parents, huh?”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 66
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,427
This Week's Football Rankings9/28/2016
The Associated Press state high school football polls for the week of September 28 (first-place votes in parentheses, record and total points as voted upon by a statewide panel of prep sportswriters):

School Total Points Prv
1. Totino-Grace (6) (4-0) 69 1
2. Lakeville North (1) (4-0) 63 2
3. Eden Prairie (3-1) 54 3
4. Rosemount (4-0) 49 4
5. Cretin-Derham Hall (4-0) 44 6
6. Minnetonka (4-0) 34 T7
7. East Ridge (3-1) 30 9
8. Champlin Park (3-1) 18 NR
9. Blaine (3-1) 10 5
(tie) Burnsville (3-1) 10 NR
Others receiving votes: Mounds View 4.

School Total Points Prv
1. Elk River (4) (4-0) 80 5
2. Spring Lake Park (4-0) 77 3
3. Mankato West (4) (4-0) 75 2
4. Mahtomedi (4-0) 63 4
5. Chanhassen (1) (4-0) 53 6
6. Alexandria (4-0) 46 7
7. St. Michael-Albertville (3-1) 23 1
8. Robbinsdale Cooper (4-0) 21 NR
9. St. Cloud Tech (4-0) 18 NR
10. Rogers (3-1) 13 9
(tie) SMB-Wolfpack (4-0) 13 T10
Others receiving votes: Waconia 7, Rochester Mayo 6.

School Total Points Prv
1. South St. Paul (5) (4-0) 94 T2
2. Hutchinson (4) (4-0) 91 T1
3. Marshall (1) (4-0) 82 3
4. Fridley (4-0) 68 5
5. Mound-Westonka (4-0) 54 6
6. Hermantown (4-0) 42 8
7. Winona (4-0) 28 NR
8. Fergus Falls (4-0) 25 NR
9. Becker (2-2) 24 10
10. Rocori (3-1) 19 4
Others receiving votes: Benilde-St. Margaret's 7, Mankato East 6, Zimmerman 4, Stewartville 3, Waseca 2, Detroit Lakes 1.

School Total Points Prv
1. St. Croix Lutheran (5) (4-0) 75 1
2. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (2) (4-0) 68 2
3. Jackson County Central (1) (4-0) 63 4
4. Rochester Lourdes (4-0) 61 6
5. Litchfield (4-0) 41 9
6. Minneapolis Henry (4-0) 25 NR
7. Pierz (3-1) 22 NR
8. Fairmont (3-1) 20 3
9. Morris Area-Chokio-Alberta (4-0) 18 NR
10. Proctor (3-1) 15 10
Others receiving votes: Belle Plaine 12, Albany 6, Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin 3, Pine Island 3, Park Rapids 2, Perham 2, Providence Academy 2, Annandale 1, Mora 1.

School Total Points Prv
1. Caledonia (6) (4-0) 69 1
2. Barnesville (1) (4-0) 63 3
3. Pillager (4-0) 49 6
4. Redwood Valley (4-0) 48 7
5. Eveleth-Gilbert (4-0) 36 9
6. Zumbrota-Mazeppa (4-0) 28 NR
7. Eden Valley-Watkins (3-1) 23 4
8. Royalton (4-0) 17 NR
9. Moose Lake Willow River (3-1) 13 2
(tie) Maple River (3-1) 13 NR
Others receiving votes: Hawley 12, Maple Lake 8, Crosby-Ironton 3, Staples-Motley 2, St. Agnes 1.

School Total Points Prv
1. Minneota (8) (4-0) 80 1
2. Minneapolis North (4-0) 71 2
3. BOLD (4-0) 55 5
4. Rushford-Peterson (4-0) 47 4
5. Hinckley-Finlayson (4-0) 43 NR
6. Wabasso (3-1) 27 6
7. Pine River-Backus (4-0) 21 NR
(tie) Fillmore Central (3-1) 21 NR
9. Adrian (3-1) 17 NR
10. Dawson-Boyd (3-1) 16 9
Others receiving votes: Walker-Hackensack-Akeley 12, Mahnomen 10, Goodhue 8, Mayer Lutheran 6, Braham 2, Murray County Central 2, Red Rock Central 1, Upsala-Swanville 1.

School Total Points Prv
1. Grand Meadow (4) (4-0) 54 1
2. Spring Grove (1) (4-0) 51 2
3. Waubun (1) (4-0) 47 4
4. Cleveland (4-0) 42 3
5. Edgerton-Ellsworth (4-0) 30 T5
6. Ely (4-0) 28 T5
7. Nevis (4-0) 25 8
8. Mountain Iron-Buhl (4-0) 17 7
9. Verndale (5-0) 12 NR
10. Cromwell (3-0) 11 NR
Others receiving votes: Wheaton-Herman-Norcross 8, Ada-Borup 2, Houston 2, North Woods 1.

Montevideo: Where Homecoming Is King9/26/2016
MONTEVIDEO – Let’s start this essay with the final act of wonderfulness I witnessed during Homecoming Day in Montevideo, home of the Thunder Hawks and some of the nicest people you will ever come across. Friday was big, filled with special events. However, the final moment for me was not a big thing but a little thing, a little thing that exemplifies what makes high school activities so special.

The Thunder Hawks football team had just lost the Homecoming game to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City. The visiting Falcons led 3-0 at halftime in a game dominated by defense, ACGC’s Jeremy Nelson ran for two short touchdowns in the second half and the Falcons won 24-0.

As the boys of Montevideo left the field to exit the stadium and make the short hike across 17th Street to their school, they walked through a tunnel of humanity. Parents, grandparents, family, friends, little kids and old timers, their fans slapped them on their big shoulder pads, patted the top of their helmets, said “Good game” and “Good job” and wished them luck next week.

I was standing with Montevideo activities director Bob Grey, watching this all take place. I said to Bob what came to mind after spending the day in town: “Bob, these kids are so lucky to grow up here.”

Montevideo is the county seat of Chippewa County, pretty much equidistant between the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, S.D.; two and a half hours due west of the Twin Cities and two and a half hours northeast of Sioux Falls. It is home to 5,300-some proud souls and has a sister city in Montevideo, Uruguay; a statue of José Artigas, the father of Uruguayan independence, stands proudly in downtown Montevideo, Minnesota.

I see a lot of great things everywhere I go in Minnesota. This trip to Montevideo was a day-long affair, though, making it a very enjoyable deep dive. There was a pep rally featuring a live cow, a wonderful small-town Homecoming parade, free hot dogs before the football game, and a lovely autumn evening to cap it off.

The afternoon pep rally was for everybody, and I mean everybody. Every kid who attends public school in Montevideo crammed into the high school gym, a feat that involved bus rides and other high-wire logistics in herding tiny little tots, classroom by classroom, to their proper seating locations. When all were in place, 1,450 humans – plus teachers and staff – were soon on their feet screaming and clapping for the Thunder Hawk teams.

Football, volleyball, cross-country, girls swimming, girls tennis teams; all were highlighted under the direction of Kyle Goslee, who teaches physical education and coaches softball when he isn’t masterfully ceremony-ing pep rallies with all the screaming gusto of a combination drill sergeant and professional wrestler. (Here’s a brief excerpt from Kyle’s repertoire: “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”)

The cheerleaders scripted many of the activities, including a round-the-gym flurry of cheers from each class, all 13 of ‘em. The kindergarteners kicked it off, following the cheerleaders’ chants and finishing with a very high-pitched “We are the Class of 2029!” And so it went right up to the seniors in the Class of 2017. There were sleeping-bag races, blindfolds and other tomfoolery, and much anticipation for Sammy the cow.

Sammy is not much of a cow, really. She was small enough to be carried into the gym in the arms of a young man and little Sammy stood still while a selectee squatted down and gave her a smooch on the snout. Sammy was returned to her home on the range at that point, and the tarp that had been placed on the gym floor came away unscathed.

The parade. Oh my, the parade. Those little kids sat on the curbs along 17th Street – also known as Thunder Hawk Drive – and waited until it was time to spring into action and scramble for pieces of candy as if they were hundred-dollar bills. The parade was led by the Montevideo Volunteer Fire Department’s largest firetruck, a slow-rolling mastodon of a thing carrying several humans on top … although they were so high in the air it was hard to be specific about details.

There were pickup trucks carrying Homecoming royalty, flatbed trailers carrying teams and clubs, a cute contingent on foot representing Montevideo Elementary School, the great Thunder Hawk marching band, and a float featuring a giant inflatable Minnesota Viking and a large fake can of soup bearing the label “Cream of Falcon Soup” (the ACGC Falcons disrupted that prediction).

As the parade ended, folks lined up for freshly grilled, free hot dogs. Before long the Thunder Hawks and Falcons were on the football field, preparing for the ballgame. Montevideo head coach David Vik took a swig of Diet Squirt, placing the can on the track behind the bench as kickoff came.

For much of the evening, the punters – ACGC’s Adam Johnson and Montevideo’s Reece Kuhlmann – were the busiest guys in town. Another leg specialist, Frederick Hansen, kicked a 24-yard field goal for the Falcons late in the first quarter. The offensive dam didn’t exactly bust after that; the next scoring came midway through the third quarter.

The band members, still in uniform, sat in the stands and entertained everyone in grand style, just as they had done several hours earlier at the pep rally and again during the parade. High school students chatted and cheered, adults handed over cash to little kids bent on attacking the concession stand, the coaches coached and the players played.

The football uniforms displayed some mud by game’s end and the hometown Thunder Hawks came out on the short end of the scoreboard. But as the boys walked off the field, they were met by all those other people who live in their town.

All those lucky people.

--To see a photo gallery from Montevideo, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 64
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,417