John's Journal
Memorial Day 2016: Celebrating The Red, White And Blue5/30/2016
My mother was wearing the stars-and-stripes-themed shoes that my wife and I had given her for Mother’s Day this year. It was Monday morning, Memorial Day, and my mom and I were walking to American Legion Post 162 in my hometown of Graettinger, Iowa.

I had not packed any red, white or blue apparel before driving to my mom’s house on Sunday evening. My clothes were adorned by a couple Nike swooshes as we sauntered the two blocks “uptown” to the annual Memorial Day ceremony.

That was the beginning of a Memorial Day that ended when I returned home to the Twin Cities on Monday evening. Between that stroll to the morning ceremony and my arrival in my own driveway were 165 miles of mostly Minnesota blacktop, an inordinate amount of orange traffic cones, enthusiastic crowds of softball fans and a bounty of stars and stripes.

When Minnesotans ask about my hometown, my reply is always the same: “If you know where Fairmont and Jackson are, it’s about 30 minutes south from there.” So yes, I am a proud native of Iowa … who grew up watching the Vikings on television and taking summer trips to see the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium. Our eighth-grade class trip was classic 1970s Twin Cities: Bus ride to the Como Zoo, trip to the top of the IDS Tower, evening performance of the Ice Capades at the Met Center and late-night bus ride home.

The Monday morning ceremony (pictured) in my little hometown was touching. High school band and choir kids performed patriotic tunes, the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” was read by a student (a duty I performed at this ceremony when I was in high school), prayers were offered, a rifle salute rang out and “Taps” was played. The main reason for the gathering, of course, was remembering those who gave their lives in defense of our country; several men from my town were killed during wartime. But all our veterans are recognized at this ceremony with the reading of their names.

The list began with several Civil War veterans, followed by those who served in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The bulk of the names came from the two World Wars, and they were followed by those who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

My dad, who served a non-combat role in the Navy and died a year and a half ago at 87, was near the end of the list of World War II veterans. The final name on the list belonged to my wife’s uncle Laurence (I wrote about him on April 14, shortly after he died).

One of the names from the Gulf War list belonged to a boy I grew up with. He served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne. After he took his own life in 2008, his obituary included this passage: “He enjoyed fishing, hunting, golfing and the anticipation of a Minnesota Viking football game.”

After the ceremony ended, Mom and I walked back home, swatting at gnats that had made an unceremonious entrance in the warm windless sunshine. I headed out of town, driving due north to the state line. I slowed down for pedestrians in downtown Sherburn before making my first visit to the little town of Trimont, one of the newest communities in Minnesota. Trimont was formed in 1959 when the twin villages of Triumph and Monterey merged.

Then came Madelia, St. James, Lake Crystal and finally North Mankato, where three different softball sections were playing tournament games. As I pulled into a parking lot at spectacular Caswell Park – home of the state tournament June 9-10 – I rolled down the car window and heard magical sounds coming from all six fields. The clang of metal bat belting the ball, crowds roaring, teammates yelling encouragement. Bliss.

Most folks were dressed in their school’s colors but some wore red, white and blue. Fans sat in lawn chairs under shade trees or umbrellas to block the bright sun while braver souls slathered on sunscreen and watched from the metal bleachers. Babies nodded off in strollers and athletes applied fresh eye black to their cheeks, which served a dual purpose of hiding the red and fighting the glare.

The scene was Memorial Day perfection: Americans watching kids play ball. Grandparents shuffled along, some with walkers and canes, in order to reach the field where their grandkids were playing. Little kids dug in the playground sand or played catch with each other. A dad tossed a small football to his son as they stood in the thick green grass beyond an outfield fence. Pizza, hot dogs and nachos sailed through concession windows. For a while I sat next to a grandma and was thrilled to see that she too was spitting sunflower seeds.

A winding path home from North Mankato (warning: Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter is closed for road work) took me through Eagle Lake, Madison Lake, Elysian, Waterville, Morristown and Faribault, where I picked up northbound Interstate 35. Rows of flags stood sentry along the highway in Elysian, people in kayaks and canoes paddled leisurely on quiet streams as cottonwood seeds floated in the air on their wispy sails. Kids rode their bikes, adults mowed their lawns.

Thank you, veterans, for giving us this day.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 714
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,593
Deaf Athlete Junior Peters Has Come A Long Ways5/25/2016
On the track, it doesn’t take long for Junior Peters to get from start to finish. The senior sprinter from Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf is quick out of the blocks – even though he cannot fully hear the starter’s pistol – and blazes his way to the end of the race. It’s always a quick, simple journey.

How he got to the Faribault school is a longer story.

Peters, a three-sport star who is one of the most accomplished athletes in MSAD history, has made history of his own. Last fall he set football school records for rushing yards in a game, in a season and in a career. He was a starter on the Trojans basketball team and now he hopes to finish his high school career with a flourish.

In April, Peters became the first MSAD athlete to compete at the prestigious Hamline Elite Meet, running in the 100 meters. And if all goes well he will qualify for the Class 1A state track meet next month. The first phase of that quest was completed Tuesday at a subsection meet in Medford. Peters advanced in the 100, 200 and 400 to next week’s section championships in Dodge Center. (Junior is pictured with his father Dan and Dan's girlfriend, Molly Sullivan.)

Running at state has been a major goal for more than a year. That’s because Peters missed the 2015 track season with a fractured knee patella.

“It was a freak accident during dorm's kickball activity and I got a serious knee injury a day before the first meet last year,” Junior said via email. “It really cost me the entire track season. I was devastated and determined to come back this year. And I did!”

In April, Peters was named a national athlete of the month by SportsMX and the National Deaf Interscholastic Athletic Association. The award recognizes athletes who have made a significant impact on their teams not just on the field but in academics, leadership and character.

MSAD boys track coach Steven Fuerst said (with the assistance of MSAD athlete and American Sign Language translator Josh Strom), “His heart was broken. But he’s back and Junior just wants to get there. Junior is a very determined person.”

Determination is apparently part of Junior’s DNA. His journey began with his birth at a refugee camp in Ivory Coast in western Africa. His father, Dan Peters, is a native of Liberia. They came to the United States when Junior was 7 years old.

“I remember running through the jungles every day with my brother and friends,” Junior said. “There were no televisions, no phones, no electrical power, no computers, and no family car before we moved to America.”

Junior attended public schools in Minneapolis until moving to MSAD, where students live in dormitories during the week and go home on weekends, as a seventh-grader.

MSAD athletic director Davey Olson says Junior “is probably the most sociable kid on our campus.”

“He not only excels on the basketball court or on the field, he also excels well in school,” Olson said via email. “Everybody looks up to him because of his leadership, positive attitude and hard work.”

Watching a deaf sprinter get out of the blocks so quickly is a marvel. Junior watches the starter until both arms are raised (the gun goes up when the starter says “take your marks” and the other arm does the same at the “set” command.)

Once he sees both arms raised, Junior drops his head. When the pistol is fired, “I can feel and slightly hear the gunfire's sound.”

Peters’ best time in the 100 this spring is 11.38 seconds. The fastest reported time among Class 1A boys is 10.78 by LeSueur-Henderson’s Rhett Streeter.

“Junior is a very determined person, he’s very dedicated and he’s fully committed to the track program,” Fuerst said. “He works hard. And what he does in track helps him in other sports, too. He is a natural-born athlete.

“Hopefully Junior gets to state. He needs to take it one day at a time. We’re very excited.”

Junior’s track career will continue after high school as part of the USA Deaf Track and Field team. He also has been selected to compete at the 2017 Deaflympics in Turkey.

Junior is a proud MSAD student-athlete, one who knows he is a role model on campus and beyond.

“It means a lot to me. MSAD is the only school in the state of Minnesota that offers great opportunities and a barrier-free communication environment for me as a deaf person,” he said.

“I have been seeing a lot of elementary students every morning walking to school and at the cafeteria. They look up to me as a great athlete and at the same time I give them words of encouragement. Maybe they can be like me in the future.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 698
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,250
As Another Spring Winds Down, Saluting Our Seniors5/22/2016
I was chatting with a guy on Friday afternoon during the state adapted bowling tournament at Brunswick Zone in Brooklyn Park. The tourney is a frenzy of fun and smiles, but this man – the father of a bowler who is a senior in high school – said something quite serious.

“It’s hard to watch them bowl that last frame,” he said. “Because that’s the end.” He was referring, of course, to the conclusion of his daughter’s MSHSL bowling career.

Similar sentiments are expressed at all high school activities, of course, when kids are finishing this stage of their lives. And with graduation ceremonies at hand, high school days are ending all over the state and the nation. Yes, that can be emotional. But it’s also worth celebrating what goes on at our annual spring events, when chapters close and new stories begin.

These are busy days for everyone: athletes, coaches, families, school administrators and even reporters.

I attended five events during this past week, and it was quite the mix of different activities…

Monday/ Owatonna at Rochester Mayo girls lacrosse.
Tuesday/ Blake at East Ridge boys tennis.
Wednesday/ Chaska at Chanhassen baseball.
Friday/ Adapted bowling state tournament in Brooklyn Park.
Saturday/ Robotics state tournament at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.

From athletes sprinting toward the ball to kids in wheelchairs using a couple fingers to slowly tip a bowling ball until it succumbs to gravity and rolls down a metal ramp toward 10 pins standing 60 feet away, all these events have much in common. It begins with a sense of competition, of course, because scores are kept. You win some and you lose some but there is so much more.

Two vignettes from the week …

Chase Patchen is a student at Cambridge-Isanti. That school’s outstanding activities director, Mark Solberg, is a good friend of mine and I so respect him and the things he does for kids. Mark had told me about Chase previously, but not as a bowler. Chase is also a talented singer who has performed the national anthem at school events.

Chase bowls in a division that debuted this year. For years the MSHSL has held bowling competition for students with physical and cognitive impairments; new this year is competition for students who are autistic. Chase is in that group.

I was talking with Mark on Friday at the bowling tournament. Up walked Chase, who stuck out his hand and shook mine. He began talking about the medals that were soon to be awarded, and he was excited.

It wasn’t long before Chase had one of those shiny medals hanging around his neck. He placed seventh among boys singles players in the ASD (Autism spectrum disorder) division and he was immensely proud, deservedly so.

At the state robotics competition, the most well-known celebrity is Yoji Shimizu. His title is “master of ceremonies” but it could just as easily be “master of fun.” On Saturday Yoji wore, as per usual, a colorful outfit and multi-colored, battery-operated sneakers that lit up in varying colors with every step.

Yoji works at the University of Minnesota, where his online profile tells us this: Distinguished University Teaching Professor; Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology; Director, Medical Scientist Training Program (MD/PhD); Assistant Dean for Graduate Education.

Go to Google and you’ll also learn about Yoji’s research interests: Signal transduction, lymphocyte activation, cell adhesion and migration. Oh.

But here he was, a man with all those impressive academic credentials, dancing around at a robotics competition in electric footwear, introducing the teams, waving their team flags and totally entertaining everyone. In many ways Yoji is the face of robotics competition in Minnesota.

As the tournament moved from qualification rounds to the semifinals, the process of selecting four three-team alliances was taking place. I won’t go into details, but each of the top four teams after the qualification rounds selects two other teams to join them for the semifinals and beyond.

Yoji took a moment to salute a special group of people: The students who are wrapping up their high school days.

“Seniors, please stand,” Yoji said. And all throughout the crowd, 12th-graders stood as everyone else applauded and cheered.

“We hope your experience in robotics,” Yoji said, “will help you do great things in the future.”

Well said. Good luck, seniors. And thank you.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 690
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,160
Chaska, Chanhassen Baseball Teams Remember A Friend5/19/2016
An entertaining baseball game, dominated by stellar pitching and defense, was played Wednesday evening at Chanhassen High School. The ballpark at the school, which opened in 2009, is an absolute showplace that’s part of a top-notch athletic facility. The setting, combined with an entertaining contest and an emotional pregame ceremony, made it a night to remember.

The Chaska Hawks defeated the neighboring Chanhassen Storm 1-0, with the run coming in the second inning. Joey Lilya hit a one-out single and scored on a double by Connor Ploen. Ryan Rodriguez was the winning pitcher, giving up four hits, striking out four and walking none in six innings before Luke Roskam got the save. Chanhassen starter Hunter Even struck out eight in six innings, also giving up four hits.

Defensively, there were two plays of the game. Chaska left fielder Trent Dawson made a spectacular diving catch in the second inning; there was a runner on second base and the play probably saved a run. In the fifth, Chanhassen shortstop Joey Costello hustled to his left, snagged a hard-hit ground ball behind the base and executed a major league flip to second baseman T.J. Truso to get a force out. Public-address announcer (and Chanhassen mayor) Denny Laufenburger called it “a nifty play” and nobody could argue otherwise.

Before all those things took place on a beautiful evening in a beautiful location in front of knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans, there was a quiet moment of remembrance. Seniors on the two teams -- six from Chanhassen and four from Chaska – stood at home plate holding three jerseys while Laufenburger read from a well-written script dedicated to Ethan Herman.

The jerseys were in memory of Ethan. The boys all knew Ethan, who would have been a senior this year. He took his own life in 2010, when he was 12 years old.

Ethan was a stellar athlete; a youth wrestling state champion, captain of his middle school wrestling and football teams and a talented baseball player. He also loved the outdoors, winning an archery state championship and bagging three deer before he turned 12. He rode dirt bikes and four-wheelers and loved to spend time with his buddies.

“He was a great ballplayer, great football player and wrestler,” said Costello, who has a tattoo in Ethan’s memory on the back of his left shoulder. “He always did stuff for the team, never for himself. He always wanted to make other people happy, not just himself. He was a real selfless guy.”

Ethan struggled with concussion-related issues, including headaches and depression, before he died. He may have experienced concussions in football as well as wrestling. His parents, Vicki and Jeff Herman, live in Carver (which like Chaska and Chanhassen is in Carver County).

In Ethan’s memory, The Hermans founded an organization called Head4Awareness. They conduct a 5K run every year, and this year’s event will be held Aug. 13 (information is available at www.head4awareness.com). This year the Hermans will award $40,000 in scholarships to students at Chaska and Chanhassen.

“Ethan was the guy who was always the most athletic on the field, always the strongest,” Even said. “And that could easily be credited to his work ethic. He had an incredible work ethic, even from that young of an age. And aside from sports, he was an even better person. He was always nice, always making jokes. He always kept the mood light.”

Ploen smiled when he talked about riding dirt bikes with Ethan “and then jumping into his neighbor’s pool.”

“He was a nice kid, very determined at sports. He would do pull-ups every morning, jump rope, he was a great kid. He was a great baseball player. He’d be out here starting on the varsity team if he were still here.”

All these years after his death, Ethan’s friends are still stung by his passing.

“I’ll never forget him,” Roskam said. “I remember the day he died. I was coming home from watching a boys basketball game at Eden Prairie and my mom told me in the car. That was probably one of the worst days of my life.

“He was an outgoing kid. He never left anyone behind. He talked to everyone, he wasn’t shy. He really brought the best out of everyone.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 690
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,044
Owatonna Girls Lacrosse: Conference Champs In Coach’s Final Year 5/17/2016
ROCHESTER – The Owatonna High School girls lacrosse team has several storylines. The main one today is this splendid fact: With a 13-4 victory at Rochester Mayo on Monday evening, the Huskies clinched the inaugural Big Nine Conference championship in their sport.

Owatonna has fielded a girls lacrosse team for eight years, all under coach Bill Bernard. But the 2016 season is the first in which the 12-team Big Nine has enough teams (six) to crown a league champion. So Monday’s accomplishment was big.

“We are really excited,” senior captain Meghan Rethemeier said after the game. “This was our goal, to win the first Big Nine championship. So we’ve all been working hard and it’s really exciting to get what we’ve been working for.”

Look back, however. And look into the future, too, because there is some interesting stuff in play here.

For example, Bernard, 54, is a Louisiana native who never played lacrosse. His wife is a South Dakota native, which is how Bernard (pictured) ended up in the Midwest. He’s basically a commuter coach this season, his final one with the Huskies.

Bill and Cathy Bernard have two daughters; one is a recent graduate of Augustana University in Sioux Falls and the other will graduate soon. The draw of Cathy’s family and the fact that their daughters now call Sioux Falls home has created an interesting arrangement.

The Bernards have already moved to Sioux Falls, with Bill spending weekdays in Owatonna, driving 200 miles to Sioux Falls on weekends, coaching lacrosse and living at a bed and breakfast as his coaching days count down to the end of a great year.

“We are having a special season,” said Bernard, who announced at last year’s end-of-season banquet that 2016 would be his last year with the Huskies.

The Bernards moved to Owatonna in the early 2000s. Cathy works out of their home as an employee of New Flyer, a Winnipeg-based company that manufactures buses. Bill had coached his daughters’ soccer teams, and when the high school began a girls lacrosse program, “They wanted to hire somebody with coaching experience,” Bill said.

With Cathy being the family’s main breadwinner, Bill was free to dive into learning about lacrosse (as well as serve on the Owatonna school board for many years). He attended clinics and leaned on veteran coaches such as Eden Prairie’s Judy Baxter.

“I have extreme gratitude towards Judy, who helped me whenever I asked,” he said. “I would go to her clinics and ask her every question under the sun. She wanted to help lacrosse grow.”

Bernard has done very well. There are 78 high school girls lacrosse teams in the state, and only five coaches have been with their schools longer than Bernard has been at Owatonna

Because many of his lacrosse players also participate in one or two other sports, he has taught skills using methods that he called “a little unconventional.”

“We try to help the girls who play basketball understand the basketball concepts of lacrosse, and it’s the same thing with soccer and hockey. We try to teach and strategize in manners they already understand from playing other sports.”

Rethemeier said, “We’ve gained a lot of athleticism throughout the years. We have a lot of fast players who have played a lot of sports before, so we pick it up quickly. The skill level has increased a lot.”

Senior captain Gabe Zeman said, “There’s a tremendous difference in the skill level of the girls. The catching and passing has gotten so much better and faster. It’s improved a lot.”

Even before deciding he would resign as coach, Bernard knew the 2016 season could be special. There are 12 seniors on the varsity roster, more than any previous season. And finally having enough Big Nine teams to compete for a league championship was a long-awaited goal.

“We’ve been waiting so long to get to the 50 percent threshold to be a conference sport,” he said. “With all these years doing it, we wanted to be the first team to win the Big Nine. We wanted it for our players.

“You really develop relationships and care about the experience these kids get out of the sport. When you have a transition year it’s not always the best of circumstances, but we wanted it to be a good senior experience for them. We wanted to make sure their senior year was a fun one.”

When the season finally comes to an end, whether that’s in the Section 1 playoffs or the state tournament, Bernard will continue a tradition. After the final horn blows and handshakes have been exchanged with the opponent, the coach and his seniors will gather at midfield.

“You enjoy the opportunities you have together and realize sometime it comes to an end,” Bernard said. “That will probably be the toughest point.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 686
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,934