John's Journal
An August Volleyball Matchup And Lots To Look Forward To 8/31/2016
The first day of volleyball practice for Minnesota high school teams was Aug. 15, which wasn’t that long ago when you consider what took place Wednesday evening – it was Aug. 31 -- at Prior Lake High School in Savage. This was an early-season matchup between two teams that 1) played in the Class 3A state tournament last year; 2) were among the final four teams at state in 2015; and 3) are ranked among the top four in 3A this season.

Champlin Park lost to Eagan in the state semifinals last year and Prior Lake was defeated by Eagan in the championship match. So on Wednesday we had the defending state runner-up team (the Lakers) against the third-place team at state (the Rebels). Prior Lake came in bearing the No. 2 spot behind Eagan in the 3A coaches rankings and Champlin Park was No. 4 (Lakeville South is No. 3).

And for good measure, the match featured three players who have committed to play volleyball at Big Ten universities: Champlin Park senior Sydney Hilley (Wisconsin) and Prior Lake juniors C.C. McGraw (Minnesota) and Kayla Bair (Michigan).

The result was maybe a mild surprise, with Champlin Park winning a four-set match 29-31, 25-21, 25-19, 25-21. The opening set laid down a pretty solid tone for the night, with the Lakers racing out to a 10-3 lead, the Rebels storming back into a 24-24 tie, and Prior Lake finally putting it away.

One postgame line of interrogation went like this: Can you put too much stock into a volleyball match being played in August … when the state tournament isn’t until November?

“No, you definitely can’t,” said the 6-foot Hilley, who had 25 kills, 16 digs and three blocks. “We played them in our first match last year and they ended up getting second in the state. Both teams are going to get better and if we see them again I’m excited to play them.”

Champlin Park coach John Yunker wasn’t ready to call Wednesday’s result a seismic shift in the earth’s crust, but he wasn’t about to discount how his Rebels played.

“I think the thing we can take away from it is some confidence that, ‘Hey, we can play pretty much with anybody in the state.’ But it is August. We might see them in Marshall (at the Southwest Minnesota Challenge tournament Sept. 9-10), we might see them at the end of the year if we get that far.

“The main thing is, it’s a nice win. We’re going to have some confidence with it, but it doesn’t get us anything going forward. We still have to show up next week and play our matches. We’ve got a lot of returnees but we also have some new players who saw what this is like, and knowing ‘Hey we can do this’ and this is exciting. It’s a huge steppingstone going into the break for Labor Day weekend.”

The atmosphere felt more like October than August, that’s for certain. There was a good-sized and exuberant crowd inside the Prior Lake gym, including a large contingent of Lakers students wearing white and a smaller cluster of Champlin Park students wearing an assortment of NFL and NBA jerseys.

The match was originally scheduled for Tuesday night, but that got derailed because Prior Lake held orientation that evening for incoming ninth-graders. No matter.

“That first set was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth,” Lakers coach Mike Dean said. “In game one we got out pretty quickly and got a nice lead, and they really fought back. That’s one of those mental edges; going into game two, yes they lost but they put up a good fight. And I think our girls saw that and we kind of played a little safe.

“I thought in game three we started battling a little more and in game four we had opportunities. Kayla went on a really nice run at the service line; she’s done that a few times this year. If she gets going back there, we can have a lot of fun.”

Dean said there was no reason to make the match – or the result, to be more precise – bigger than it needed to be. In fact, in the midst of the action he mentioned that to his players.

“That was something we talked about in the huddle, I think it was in game three,” he said. “I could tell we were really tense as a team and we weren’t playing very well. I said, ‘OK, let’s flesh this out. Let’s say we lose. Then what?’

“One of the things we talk about with our girls is being mentally tough, being able to be resilient. I think they showed that. But that was a really good team we played.”

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 22
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,109
With Great Anticipation, Soccer Returns To The Great Indoors8/30/2016
To soccer fans in Minnesota, it was fitting that the first event to take place at the new Vikings stadium was a soccer game. The British team Chelsea F.C. and A.C. Milan from Italy played in front of a capacity crowd in early August.

No one is expecting more than 64,000 fans to attend the MSHSL soccer state semifinals and championship games at the new stadium between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, but the return to indoor soccer at the end of the season has helped build a renewed fervor in the sport as teams dream of playing in the big arena.

“The place is unbelievable,” said Anoka boys soccer coach Pete Hayes, whose team is the two-time defending state champ in Class 2A. “This new stadium will be fabulous.”

The state semifinals and finals in girls and boys soccer were played inside the Metrodome until it was torn down two years ago. While the new stadium was being constructed on the same site, the semifinals and championship games were played at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium.

Husky Stadium has plenty of quality amenities, including artificial turf, large locker rooms and top-notch media facilities. In addition, the fans were much closer to the action than at the Metrodome. But the downside, of course, was the weather in late October and early November.

“The weather made for chilly games where everyone was bundled in winter coats and by the heaters,” said Orono senior captain Jenna Rakos, whose team was the Class 1A state champion in 2014 and finished second last season.

“That was definitely a downside to the championship games, and I think that also took away from our fan sections because it was so cold to stand and watch.”

In 2014, high winds in St. Cloud knocked down tents that provided shelter for the teams on the sideline. Rain and snow also made the conditions a challenge.

The Eagan girls team won both Class 2A tournaments contested in St. Cloud. Returning players remember the joy of capturing state titles, as well as the conditions.

“It was brutal,” said current junior Kayle Vrieze. “It was super cold. The worst part for me was at halftime, having to go back outside.”

The return to indoor soccer doesn’t involve section or state quarterfinal games, and fingers are crossed annually that the weather will cooperate for those contests. In late October last year, snow had to be shoveled off the field during a Class 1A boys state quarterfinal doubleheader at Chisago Lakes High School. On the same evening, the conditions were similar for a 1A boys doubleheader at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park. One of the victorious teams there was Breck, which advanced to the state title game before losing to Orono in overtime.

“By the time we played in the semifinals at SCSU it was seasonably pretty nice,” Breck coach George Stuempfig said. “It was our quarterfinal at Benilde-St. Margaret’s that was miserable, weather-wise. We were the late game, and by that time the rain was changing to snow and the wind was ferocious.”

Orono girls coach Erin Murray, the mother of three young children, said her husband had his hands full in keeping the kids warm and comfortable during blisteringly cold games in St. Cloud.

“Watching these game with three young kids was not ideal for my husband,” she said. “I had a brother and sister that didn't come to many of our games in St. Cloud because their children were young. I know of grandparents that would have been at our games if they were indoors.”

One person who has been through games at the Metrodome as well as Husky Stadium over the last five years – and would love to have his team play in the new Vikings stadium – is Eagan girls soccer coach Bulut Ozturk. He was the coach at Lakeville North when the Panthers reached the Metrodome three years in a row, then took over at Eagan before the Wildcats’ two-year championship run.

“I’m pretty pumped,” he said. “I was pretty spoiled, going into the Metrodome every single year. We went to St. Cloud, where the elements, the conditions, were tough. It was cold. It just wasn’t easy. Of course, I’m not complaining, we won back-to-back state championships there. But we’re happy. I think everyone is excited to go back inside.”

MSHSL football state semifinals and Prep Bowl championship games also will return indoors this fall, with those games played between Nov. 17 and 26. For both soccer and football, anticipation is building for crowds of sport-specific diehards as well as other fans who will want to see the new stadium at high school prices rather than pay NFL prices to watch the Vikings; the most expensive single-session ticket will be $14 for football and $12 for soccer.

“(The new stadium) is spectacular,” Breck’s Stuempfig said. “I was there for the Chelsea-A.C. Milan game. My son, who was with me, said ‘Imagine playing a state tournament game in here.’ I looked around and it struck me that it would be a great experience for our guys.

“We mentioned it in passing to our team, but of course a lot has to happen in order to make it that far, and we don't want it to be a distraction. Yet we very much appreciate that the MSHSL has negotiated to play state tournament games there, because it will be an extremely memorable experience for whoever makes it to play in those games.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 20
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,083

Way Up North, The 2016 Football Season Begins 8/27/2016
BABBITT – The weekend after Thanksgiving will be huge in Minnesota high school football circles. State championship games will be played under the brightest lights possible in front of cheering crowds inside the new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis and televised live around the state.

Those games will mark the end of the 2016 football season, which is sure to provide memories that will last for years. The season began officially -- and admittedly quietly -- on Friday afternoon 234 miles away from the big shiny stadium, on a little grass field behind a little school in a little town way up north. From Babbitt you can drive 17 miles north and be in Ely. If you want to go much farther than that, you might as well jump into a canoe and paddle.

This whole thing was a quirk, a small speck of peculiarity that pegged the first football game of 2016 in this spot, as if someone threw a dart at a map and it stuck right into Babbitt. The story began last spring when Mesabi Academy in Buhl closed. Mesabi Academy was supposed to play Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range (in Babbitt) among others during the regular season, but the disappearance of Mesabi Academy and its football team drove things right into the ditch.

So the coaches from Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range put their heads together. They realized that the only way they could fill their eight-game regular-season schedule was by playing each other on Aug. 26 … one week earlier than every other team in the state will play.

The game was approved by the MSHSL so the two Nine-Man teams started practicing a week ahead of schedule and what do you know here they were Friday afternoon kicking off the whole shebang. The game was played at 3:15 p.m. because the lights at Joe Boffa Field do not work.

The Rangers of Mountain Iron-Buhl came equipped with 18 players in uniform to 15 for the Northeast Range Nighthawks (go figure: the Nighthawks play all their home games during the day).

It wasn’t the finest exhibition of American football ever seen. There were fumbles and bumbles and missed tackles and penalty flags. The officials called regular breaks for water on a warm afternoon and the game ended at 5:32 p.m. with Mountain Iron-Buhl on top 22-18. The score was 8-8 at halftime after Nighthawks senior Jon Wenzel put his head down and battering-rammed his way into the end zone from 12 yards out and Mountain Iron-Buhl sophomore Jericho Peterson scored on a 13-yard burst.

At halftime the officials reminded each other of the procedure for overtime, and for most of the second half extra time looked like a real possibility. The Nighthawks went ahead 16-8 when Wenzel ran eight yards for a touchdown, but the Rangers tied it 16-16 early in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard scoring jaunt by Peterson.

For the record (and personal pride), Wenzel and Peterson currently lead the state with two touchdowns apiece. But the biggest play of the game came at the hands and feet of MIB ninth-grader Dillion Drake, who zipped 15 yards for his first career touchdown and the winning points with 2:13 left in regulation.

Northeast Range lost fumbles on its final two possessions, one before Drake’s TD and one after. The game’s last two plays ended with MIB sophomore quarterback Joe Buffetta’s right knee touching the ground. Game, set, season-opening win.

“It was really great,” Peterson said afterwards. “We all wanted to start the season off 1-0. It was a team effort.”

This game and atmosphere was wildly, spectacularly, unbelievably different from what will take place on November 25 and 26 in downtown Minneapolis. Half an hour or so before kickoff, a dozen fans patiently waited in front of a little ticket booth that was as yet unoccupied. They eventually wandered through the gate and took their gratis seats on the single set of bleachers. Ticket takers arrived a little later and enough paying fans came through to almost fill the stands.

The football field, tucked in behind Ron Castellano Ice Arena, is surrounded by a very Shawshanksian metal fence topped with barbed wire ... as if there is something worth stealing inside. There once was a running track around the field, but all the lanes are grass-covered now. A thin concrete curb remains in place inside where Lane 1 used to be, presenting just enough of a lip to trip up those who aren’t paying attention.

The bleacher accommodates fans from both teams, and they can see an old scoreboard directly across the field. I don’t know the age of the scoreboard, but the thing makes a “click” sound with each second that ticks off. It is pure analog glory.

Both times Wenzel scored, a hometown car horn was honked in the parking lot on the other side of the fence. Behind the scoreboard and barbed wire, a kid drove past on a four-wheeler with football to his right and forest to his left. Down the street, someone was attacking lumber with a power saw. The return of the football season brought the return of teenage boys yelling with mouthguard in place: “Letth Go Rangerth!”

After the Nighthawks’ penultimate fumble, the boys from Mountain Iron-Buhl gathered in the offensive huddle. They were on their own 38-yard line. Someone in the pack hollered (without his mouthguard in place), “C'mon! This is what we’ve been practicing three weeks for!”

Then came a 15-yard facemask on the Nighthawks, followed soon after by Drake’s winning touchdown run around left end, two knees to the ground, a handshake line between sweaty boys and a happy bunch of undefeated Rangers.

“It feels great,” Drake said. “It takes hard work and dedication.”

Plus some real grass, a little barbed wire, a scoreboard that clicks and a honking car horn.

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 20
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,083
ACGC Falcons: Lessons That Go Far Beyond Football8/25/2016
GROVE CITY – David Blom lives in Atwater, works at an adult foster care home in Willmar and is the head coach of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City football team. The school and athletic facilities are in Grove City, so Blom spends a fair amount of time on Highway 12.

One afternoon last fall he was in the car and the song “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction came on the radio. He wanted his football team to create a comical skit or something similar for homecoming week, and when he heard the song wheels began to turn.

The end result went beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Blom (pictured), who was a senior on Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City’s 2001 Class 2A state championship football team, listened to the song’s lyrics (“You don't know you're beautiful, oh oh/ That's what makes you beautiful”) and it hit him: A lip-synch video starring brawny, tough football players raising awareness for respecting females.

“The message,” Blom told me this week, “was that we respect women and everyone should.”

The video was shot inside the gym, locker room and on the practice field. It’s sweet, entertaining and comical, especially when six coaches attempt to high kick like the Rockettes. (You can find it on by searching for “ACGC Falcon Football - What Makes You Beautiful.”)

The video exploded and now, 11 months after it was posted, it has been viewed nearly 25,000 times.

“I was surprised at the reaction, the number of views we got. It was huge,” said senior football player Adam Johnson. “We just expected it to be a community thing, nothing bigger than that.

“That video kind of opened all of our eyes. Girls get judged every day on their appearance and everything. Every girl is beautiful in every way and there’s no reason to judge or anything.”

The video also resulted in a surprise that arrived in the mail. Vice President Joe Biden wrote a letter to Blom in recognition for the message the football team was helping to spread. The Falcons’ video sparked similar videos around Minnesota; one of them was produced by athletes from Hibbing High School.

In February Blom received a mysterious phone call, asking if he could be in the Twin Cities the next day to meet someone. He wasn’t specifically told who “someone” was, but he quickly realized it was Biden. Blom – who wasn’t allowed to tell anyone other than his wife Sarah where he was going or what was taking place -- went to the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center in St. Paul, and in walked Biden.

“Meeting the vice president was pretty exciting,” he said. “It was one of those things where you think, ‘I better start recording now because it’s probably not going to happen again.’ ” (In this photo with Biden, Blom is on the right along with Hibbing students Michael Sullivan and Leslie Law.)

Blom, who is now in his third year as the Falcons’ head coach, has a well-earned reputation for teaching lessons that go far beyond football. For example, last season he required all the players to write (not type, text or email) letters to their parents, saying they loved them and appreciated all they did.

“The parents love the letters, when big tough high school kids do that,” Blom said. “One of the moms framed both of her letters from her kids. It’s exciting to get the positive feedback.”

In Blom’s first year as head coach, he had the players watch a video about a drunk-driving incident in which a young girl was killed. Then he told the boys, “Pretend this was my daughter. And that you were the person who was drinking, got in an accident and she was killed.”

He had each player write a letter of apology and read it aloud. That was very emotional for everybody.

“We had to write a letter, each and every one of us, to Blom and read it in front of everybody,” Johnson said. “It was nuts, because everyone’s voice was trembling.”

The Falcons had records of 4-6 in each of Blom’s first two seasons. Expectations are high for 2016, with 53 players on the roster and some solid returnees. Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City plays in Class 2A.

“We have a lot of guys at certain spots coming back,” Blom said. “We have to move a few around and make it work. We have experienced linemen, but we need to find a running back. We have two or three guys chomping at the bit to get their name called on Friday night.”

The Falcons’ season will open Sept. 2 at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa.

Blom said he wasn’t sure what off-the-field project might be in store this season.

He laughed and said, “You know how many people ask me that? Last year it kind of blew up, and that was awesome.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 12
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 513
W-E-M Hosts Female Athlete Empowerment Symposium8/24/2016
The story below appeared in Wednesday's Faribault Daily News, authored by sports editor Adam J.S. Holt. It is an important story and is published here with permission of the Faribault Daily News.

Sometimes, if you can’t wait for an opportunity, you go ahead and make one.

Many times Crystal Lamont left coaching conferences feeling like there was a lot she wanted to share. The Waterville-Elysian-Morristown head volleyball and softball coach always wished she could have her girls there at those events. So if she couldn’t bring her athletes to the conferences, she’d bring a conference to her athletes.

Lamont organized a first-ever Female Athlete Empowerment Symposium, an event with speakers, small-group breakout sessions and a panel of former Gopher Conference athletes who went on to play in college. The symposium ran Tuesday, from early afternoon into mid-evening at WEM, and with the help of sponsors, volunteers and speakers, gave about 120 local female athletes a chance to hear a lot of ideas and information that can help make them successful in sports and life.

“I just always went away so inspired and I felt empowered by the other ladies that were there,” Lamont said. “There was always so much information I wanted to take back and give to my girls. They can only process so much at one time and they get tired sometimes of hearing the same old voice.”

The conference started with presentations from Marian Bemis-Johnson on the history of female athletics, and from WEM teacher and coach Dixie Houser on Title IX. There were also breakout sessions with topics ranging from mental health to social media and internet awareness.

After a dinner break, there was a Q&A session with a panel of four former Gopher Conference standouts (pictured): Alison Anderson, a New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva graduate who played basketball and ran track and cross country at South Dakota State University; Amanda Barton, a WEM graduate and the girls basketball program’s leading scorer and rebounder, who played at the University of Northern Iowa and Concordia University in St. Paul; Carlie Wagner, a NRHEG graduate who won two basketball state titles and is entering her junior season on the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team; and Tricia DeBoer, a Blooming Prairie graduate who played softball at St. Cloud State.

“I thought it was awesome,” Barton said. “I’ve known Crystal for a while. I think it’s great that she’s getting groups of schools together to empower women athletes.”

“I think it’s an honor in the sense of being invited back,” Anderson added. “We’re no longer invited back because of our skills, but for our experience and how we can give back in that way.”

Wagner is the most recent graduate of the bunch, and was mobbed by some attendees during a break to pose for pictures.

“Especially just coming back home to southern Minnesota is great for me,” she said. “It’s just familiar, it’s home. There’s a lot of younger girls I know that love sports and it’s fun to see them, tell them everything. It’s just very touching for me to come back here because this community and this part of the state gave me so much in high school, so I like to come back and give back to them.”

The closing speaker was Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, a performance psychologist, author and professor. Her message was centered on the theme of confidence and included steps about recognizing past accomplishments and having goals to work toward. She also had the entire auditorium face off in a rock-paper-scissors competition to teach the importance of moving on quickly from mistakes.

Building and maintaining confidence is something Wagner said is huge for the girls.

“Some girls just doubt themselves,” Wagner said. “I don’t like when girls do that, because they don’t know how capable they are of doing things. I think just to see girls that have gone through the process and experienced everything and coming back and saying, ‘You can do this. You have more power than you think you have,’ is what they need to hear. Because you know, women sometimes are like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do it.’ And I’m just like, ‘No. You can do it.’ So it’s just fun to motivate them and share your experience so they know they’re very capable of doing it too.”

The panel members were able to share the lessons they learned and struggles they went through in college and each closed by giving their best piece of advice to the group. All agreed that just being able to give back and be a role model was rewarding.

“It’s not like we’re all making millions and we can donate a stadium,” Barton said. “For us to be able to come out and be here for the community and the girls that saw us playing when they were little, it’s awesome.”

“I always remember looking up to older girls and girls who went off to college to play basketball, softball or whatever it was,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to give back and be that role model.”

Lamont said she was happy with all the support the event got. Sponsors donated enough money to feed the group and send each girl home with a T-shirt. Lamont said there were a number of other schools that had scheduling conflicts but wanted to be a part of future events — Blooming Prairie and Tri-City United had contingents there Tuesday in addition to WEM.

The current athletes were happy to participate as well.

“I think I’ll be able to take a lot out of it,” WEM sophomore Paige Pittmann said. “The speakers were very inspiring and coach Lamont did a good job putting it together for everybody.”

Lamont hopes this can become an annual event, and the themes of empowerment and building life skills are something she continuously preaches as a coach. While the immediate focus for the girls is their current athletic careers, the hope is the lessons stay with them for a lifetime.

“So oftentimes we get caught up in the playing time of sports and things, and it’s so much more than that,” Lamont said. “Sometimes we can’t build the skills we want to by playing everyone. It has to come out of the competition and the challenge of pushing yourself. But that builds so many character traits that are going to help you when times are tough in life, and that’s the whole point of this conference, is to build up tools that are going to help them in sports now, but more importantly help them as they go down the road in life.”

Faribault Daily News:

Reach Sports Editor Adam Holt at Find him on Twitter @FDNAdamJSHolt.