John's Journal
In Grand Meadow, Nine-Man Football Is Grand10/3/2016
GRAND MEADOW – When this little town was established during the Civil War era, it took its name from the picturesque prairie landscape of southeast Minnesota. Nowadays, the grandest meadow in Grand Meadow is a field of thick green grass on the eastern edge of town, 120 yards long and 40 yards wide, the home of the best little football team in Minnesota.

The Grand Meadow Superlarks have won the last three nine-man football state championships. They own the longest current winning streak in the state regardless of class, with Friday’s 80-34 victory over West Lutheran extending their run to 41 games. Their last defeat came in October 2013.

Friday’s victory capped Homecoming week, which was filled with the usual array of fun festivities that included themed dress-up days in the K-12 school, float building, an afternoon parade and introduction of Homecoming royalty at halftime of the football game. An unofficial tradition took place very late Thursday evening/early Friday morning when some merry pranksters TP’d the home of head coach Gary Sloan.

His dog, hearing the shenanigans, woke the coach. Sloan flipped on an exterior light “and I saw about a dozen of them out there,” he said with a smile Friday afternoon. “That didn’t even faze them.”

It’s hard not to have fun during autumn in Grand Meadow. Everyone takes great pride in the success of the Superlarks, filling a small set of bleachers and lining up along the fence that circles the field. The town itself is crowded all the time these days, with a growing school enrollment fueled by parents who work in nearby Rochester and Austin and want to raise their kids in a quiet town with a quality school.

The school building is unique: Five windowless monolithic domes that encompass classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab and offices. The structure opened in 2002 and is being expanded this fall with the addition of larger gym, locker rooms, workout facilities and four classrooms. Geothermal energy powers the school via 26 miles of pipe under the practice fields a few steps away.

Grand Meadow’s current high school enrollment is 95 students. When the Superlarks won their first-ever state football title in 2013 the senior class consisted of 17 students; a year later that number was 18 and last year it was 29. The district's average current class size is in the upper 30s.

Many nine-man football schools struggle with numbers and some form cooperative teams with other schools in order to keep football alive. The opposite is taking place in Grand Meadow, where growth may push the Superlarks into 11-man football at some point.

“We won’t get to that 11-man number in the next four to five years but we’re getting close,” said Sloan (pictured during a pregame meeting).

Game nights in Grand Meadow include a few special amenities. Seats in a couch located behind an end zone are raffled off; an auction was held at halftime Friday with the game ball selling for $1,200. The press box is a roomy three-story building that seats coaches, video cameras, scoreboard operator and announcer on the top level, while the second story houses four “luxury suites” that also bring in funds.

The long winning streak means every team wants to play its absolute best against the Superlarks, and West Lutheran – the school is in Plymouth, two hours from Grand Meadow – did just that. The Warriors (enrollment 145) and quarterback Ben Beise had 311 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Grand Meadow is a running team, with senior Christopher Bain carrying nine times for 217 yards and three scores and junior Zach Myhre running eight times for 130 yards and one TD.

“I feel like there’s pressure in every game,” Myhre said. “And I know we’re going to get every team’s best effort, no matter who they are, the No. 2-ranked team or the worst team. We’re going to get their best effort.”

Senior Connor King said, “Pressure is obviously there. There’s not much we can do about it other than just play our best and go into every game the same.”

There is a friendly in-house rivalry between graduating classes. Two years ago the senior football players had a career record of 47-6 and last year’s class went 53-3. This year’s seniors have lost only once in 43 games since their freshman season.

“They’re all trying to beat the class in front of them. It’s a friendly competition. These guys are buddies but there’s a lot of bragging rights,” said Sloan, a native of Ellendale who also is a special education teacher, activities director, transportation director and Title IX coordinator for the school district. This is his 24th year as the head football coach.

Grand Meadow’s first trip to the state football playoffs was in 1986, but the Superlarks have a long, rich history. Bill Severin Sr. was the coach in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1965 the team set a then-state record with 47 straight wins. Severin was named Minnesota’s first coach of the year in 1965 and was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989.

The current Superlarks are 5-0 going into Friday’s game at LeRoy-Ostrander (2-3). Grand Meadow fans can be forgiven for looking ahead to the final regular-season game against Spring Grove, which is also unbeaten in 2015 and is routinely the Superlarks’ biggest rival in the Section 1 playoffs.

Grand Meadow’s streak was in serious jeopardy in last year’s regular-season finale, a 21-20 nail-biter at Spring Grove. In six postseason games that followed, the Superlarks won by an average margin of 24 points; the closest game was a 14-point victory over Underwood in the Prep Bowl.

The Superlarks’ average score this fall is 65-17. They are rushing for 391 yards per game, with Bain averaging 131 yards and Myrhe 93 for a team with starters that go to the bench as soon as the second quarter.

All this success hinges on many factors, of course, but none are more important than coaching. Sloan has only four assistant coaches, and all of them – Aaron Myhre, Deke Stejskal, Anthony Stejskal and Josh Bain – played for him.

“Our coaching staff does a really good job and the players buy in and work hard in the offseason,” King said. “It’s like a band of brothers here. We all get along with each other and we work well together.”

Zach Myhre added, “Obviously there are a lot of kids who get in the weight room in the offseason and work their butts off, but I think it comes down to our coaching staff implementing our game plan and then us successfully playing with it.”

--To see a photo gallery from Grand Meadow, 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
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.