John's Journal
Two Sports, Two State Tournaments For Esko Athlete 6/9/2016
NORTH MANKATO – Esko senior Alexis Smalley is running all over as her high school athletic career comes to a very busy end. While most kids are thrilled to be competing at either the state softball tournament or state track meet this week, Alexis has qualified for both. Which is a tough thing to do.

Track is her true spring sport; she has earned 12 varsity letters in track, soccer and hockey. She qualified for state on relay teams as a freshman and sophomore and will run in the Class 1A preliminaries of the 4x100 and 4x200 relays Friday in the hopes of qualifying for Saturday’s finals. So after spending Thursday at the state softball tournament, she will be at Hamline University in St. Paul on Friday for the state track meet.

On a whim, she joined the softball team well into the season, and on Thursday she was with her Eskomos softball teammates at Caswell Park. They lost to LeSueur-Henderson 6-0 in the opening round and and fell to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 8-2 in the consolation bracket.

At the track championships, Alexis (pictured) will run the two relays with Ashlie Johnson, Olivia Rengo and Suntina Spehar. On the softball field Thursday, she didn’t get into the first game. That’s almost standard procedure; her main role is pinch-running.

After track practice this spring she routinely walked next door to the Eskomos’ softball field and watched her friends work out. She admits that joining the softball team started out as little more than a prank.

“I’ve always joked with my friends about wanting to play,” she said. “One day I just signed up. I talked to the coach (Jeff Emanuel) . I’m pretty close with his family, I asked him if I could play and he said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

She’s not in the team photo that’s published in the state tournament program, but that doesn’t matter.

“I’ve gotten in more games than I expected,” she said. “I just wanted to enjoy it and have fun.”


--Hopkins sophomore Natalie DenHartog didn’t waste a moment at the state tournament, driving the first pitch of the Royals’ Class 4A quarterfinal game over the fence for a home run. That sparked the Royals to a 4-3 victory over Spring Lake Park. They fell to Chanhassen 10-1 in the semifinals. Buffalo beat Woodbury 3-1 in the other 4A semifinal; Chanhassen and Buffalo will play for the state title Friday.

--Kimball lost to Mankato Loyola 7-3 in an eight-inning Class 1A quarterfinal, but the Cubs’ Mackenzie Leither did all she could. She drove in all three Kimball runs on a two-run homer and a solo homer. She tied the single-game tournament record for homers, set seven times before, and joined 17 others who have hit two home runs in the tournament. Jenny Nelson hit two home runs and drove in three runs in leading Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian to an 11-0, five-inning 1A quarterfinal win over Pine River-Backus.

--Hermantown matched a long-standing tournament record in defeating Simley 18-12 in the Class 3A quarterfinals. The Hawks’ 18 runs equaled the record set in 1978 by Hopkins Eisenhower in an 18-4 win over West St. Paul Archbishop Brady (the first state tournament was held in 1977). The 26 total runs in the Hermantown-Simley game broke the previous record of 25 set in 1983 when St. Agnes defeated Rockford 13-12.


Championship Games
Class 1A/ Edgerton/SW MN Christian vs. Badger/Greenbush-Middle River, 2:30 p.m.
Class 2A/ Zumbrota-Mazeppa vs. Pequot Lakes, 2 p.m.
Class 3A/ Winona vs. Mankato West, 1:30 p.m.
Class 4A/ Chanhassen vs. Buffalo, 1 p.m.

Third-Place Games
Class 1A/ Cherry vs. Mankato Loyola, 11 a.m.
Class 2A/ LeSueur-Henderson vs. Rockford, 11 a.m.
Class 3A/ Hermantown vs. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 11 a.m.
Class 4A/ Hopkins vs. Woodbury, 11 a.m.

Fifth-Place Games
Class 1A/ Pine River-Backus vs. New York Mills, 9 a.m.
Class 2A/ Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton vs. Pipestone, 9 a.m.
Class 3A/ Becker vs. Alexandria, 9 a.m.
Class 4A/ Forest Lake vs. Park, 9 a.m.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 770
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,886
Columbia Heights Boys Tennis Reaches The Heights 6/7/2016
When the boys tennis team from Columbia Heights High School qualified for this week’s Class 1A state tournament, it was major news. The school, located directly north of Minneapolis, hasn’t exactly been a hotbed for state qualifying teams in recent years.

Historically, the Hylanders are best known for volleyball success. Between 1977 and 1998 Columbia Heights went to state in volleyball 19 times, winning Class 2A state titles in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990.

Most recently, the boys basketball team was Class 3A state runner-up in 2011; its only previous trip to state had been in 1930. The Hylanders were Class 2A state football champs in 1979 and went to state in 1980 and 1991. The boys hockey team went to state in 1983 and baseball did the same in 1978. And that’s the bulk of the state-tournament pedigree for the Hylanders.

When the boys tennis team won the Section 5 championship last week, coach Ya Yang said it was “a very big deal. I’ve gotten a lot of texts from past administrators, and people on Facebook who went to Heights are cheering us on. It’s a big deal. It’s a big thing for the community. Going to state hasn’t been something that’s occurred often, especially with the tennis team.”

This is the first time a Hylanders boys tennis team has gone to a state tournament, an event that is 66 years old. The team is senior-laden, including trailblazer Blake Kuether, who broke a two-decade Hylanders drought by qualifying for the state individual tournament two years ago.

“It’s history for our school,” Kuether said Tuesday at Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. “On paper it’s obviously the biggest thing that we’ve done as students in our whole high school. And as individuals, working for this for the last six years, personally it’s one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve had in my life. For the whole team, it feels great.”

Kuether will be joined in the singles and doubles competition later this week by teammate Manij Ghishing in singles and the doubles duo of Elyazid Chiboub and Mahir Ibrahim.

The Hylanders lost to four-time Class 1A champion St. Paul Academy 6-1 in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, then fell to Luverne 5-2 in the consolation bracket, ending their season.

Yang, who has been on the coaching staff for seven years, knew this season could become something special. The goals included winning the Tri-Metro Conference championship as well as the section title. Yang was excited about the possibilities, but he didn’t want to seem too overly optimistic.

“I tried to hide it from them, to be very honest,” he said. “We did very well last year in our conference, so with all the guys returning I knew we were going to be very competitive in the conference. With the section reassignments, I knew we were going to be competitive, as well. I said we had a chance to do something really special. I tried to share that but also tried to hide that a little bit.”

Michael O’Leary, one of the senior leaders, said the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the season was winning the berth at state.

“Winning the section was huge,” he said. “The section tournament for the team was actually really scary, facing St. Anthony and Fridley. The biggest sigh of relief was when we won the section final. That was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been.

“I’m almost not as nervous for this match (at state). There’s nothing to lose now. Getting here was the hardest part. We knew that this year we had the best chance we’ve ever had to get here. Everyone put in all the work all year to get here. It was huge.”

The school year is complete and graduation was held last Friday. But the Hylanders have created some sweet memories.

“We’ve been talked about in school,” said senior Nick Hosch. “A lot of people actually started to know who we were. That’s the truth.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 738
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,761
Aitkin High School Honors Fallen Hero6/6/2016
(I'm happy to post this news item, sent from Aitkin High School.)

This past year the community of Aitkin experienced a loss felt throughout the country as Deputy Steve Sandberg was killed in the line of duty in October of 2015. On May 20 the Aitkin High School baseball team continued the healing process by celebrating the retirement of jersey number 15, which was worn by Steve Sandberg and will never be worn again by another Gobbler player.

Steve was quite an athlete as he brought ability, commitment and passion to the game every time out on the court or field. That is a trio of pretty good attributes for life, as well, and he brought them to his routine every day.

The only major league baseball player who has had his number 15 retired is the late Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees, but the inscription on Munson’s plaque in Yankee Stadium is a perfect way to describe Steve. It reads, “Our captain and leader has not left us, not today, not tomorrow, not this year or next...our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.”

Steve loved Aitkin, loved athletics and was a big contributor to the Aitkin baseball program. Steve played high school baseball in Aitkin from 1971-1973 and helped lay the foundation for Aitkin’s baseball program. He was coached by baseball legend Truman Buisman. Steve also played baseball for the Aitkin Stags town team in the late 70’s and early 80’s; current head coach Jeremy Janzen was the bat boy for that town team.

Number 15 will never be worn by an Aitkin varsity baseball player again. Steve’s character, commitment and passion will be remembered by this. His number 15 jersey is on display at all home baseball games and in the Aitkin high school showcase.
Surprise! Chanhassen’s Caldwell Sets Another State Record 6/1/2016
ST. PETER – Jedah Caldwell became the inarguable fastest female sprinter in Minnesota high school history on Wednesday, but nobody knew it right away. After she won her 100-meter preliminary race in the Class 2A Section 2 track meet on a cool, overcast day at Gustavus Adolphus College, the Chanhassen senior said to me, “It's not the best day to run.”

I agreed. Everyone agreed. Most sprinters like very warm, even hot conditions in which they can work up a pre-race sweat, get loose and go.

Caldwell’s big splash came a few weeks ago in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At the Dakota Relays, she set an all-time Minnesota high school record by winning the 200 meters in 23.59 seconds. She narrowly missed setting another record in the 100 on that warm day, but that one finally fell on Wednesday.

Jedah’s time in the 100 prelims (the finals will be held Friday at Gustavus) was 11.67 seconds. Sure, she blew past the field in her time trial, but until the results were posted on a wall (with other events) and people began peering, no one knew history had been made.

But there it was: 11.67. Upon learning of the record, Chanhassen coach Chris Schriever found Jedah and told her the news. She was thrilled … and surprised.

Did she expect to break the record Wednesday? “No, not at all,” she said after also winning the 200-meter prelims. “I actually felt really good. The track is bouncey and it’s really good running on this track. It was fun. But I didn’t expect to do that. It was like, ‘Yes! I finally got that record.’ ”

The previous state record in the 100 was 11.69, set by Alexandria’s Wensia Johnson in the 2013 Central Lakes Conference meet. Caldwell ran 11.71 in Sioux Falls; that day at the Dakota Relays was a big confidence boost, she said.

“It brought a lot of momentum to my life. It was like, ‘OK, I hit this time. Maybe I won’t do it in the next race or the next race, but I know I can do it again.’ ”

She has three days of racing remaining in her Chanhassen Storm career; Friday’s section finals and the state championships June 10-11 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Caldwell is no stranger to the state meet or the medal stand. She first qualified as a ninth-grader at Centennial High School and placed eighth in the 200. As a sophomore she was fourth in the 100 and third in the 200 at state. After a family move to Chanhassen, she won state titles at both distances last spring.

Her faster times this spring can certainly be attributed to more experience and maturity, but she also credits a commitment to the weight room. During the winter she was lifting at 5:20 a.m. three or four days a week, and during the season she has done so twice a week.

“I did lifting last year, too, but not like this,” she said. “Training really, really hard and kind of making my body fatigued, has made me realize I’m tired. My body’s just drained but I’m still running well. Some races I’m like, ‘My legs hurt but I’ve got to stay positive.’ ”

Schriever said, “The big thing is she isn’t afraid to go into the weight room and do what she needs to do. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize this year with the younger kids.

“She’s naturally fast, obviously. Her top-end speed is ridiculous. But what has caused her to move out more and more is that she’s willing to do what she needs to, especially with weights. And that’s a big deal; she’s not worried about getting too big or too bulky. She knows it’s going to help an awful lot. And she’s willing to be coached, that’s huge.”

Jedah began the season aiming for state records in the 100 and 200. With both of those accomplished, no one knows what the future holds.

“She came in hoping to get both records. That was her overall goal,” Schriever said. “Everything she’s done this year was part of her goals. Now it’s seeing what she can do on the biggest stage. Can she not only win, but can she set additional records there?”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 730
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,711
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.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 714
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,593