John's Journal
That Winning Smile: Moose Lake’s Inspirational Megan Wegge 1/1/2016
Watch Megan Wegge skate. Watch her stride down the ice -- forceful and smooth -- as a member of the Moose Lake girls hockey team. Afterwards, when her helmet and facemask have been removed, watch her smile. Oh, that smile.

As a new year begins, Megan’s smile is something to feel good about. Really good.

Megan is a miracle. When she was born 16 years ago she was placed on life support and doctors doubted that she would survive. But here she is, along with her brother Nick and sister Brooke (yes, Megan is a triplet).

Cancer came later, when Megan was 11. The technical term was stage 3 undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver. It’s rare, it’s vicious and it wins a lot of the fights it starts.

Megan was battling cancer long before she had cancer. Ten years ago, a friend named Johnny Murphy died because of cancer. After that, Megan began raising money to fight the disease. She made chocolate treats and sold them herself. She donated her own hair to Locks of Love.

“My friend Johnny died when I was pretty young and that really impacted me,” Megan said. “I wanted to help, and I never knew that I was going to get cancer.”

She had a tumor the size of a softball in her liver. The tumor ruptured before surgery, which added another layer of complications and concern. Doctors removed the tumor and most of Megan’s liver. That was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She underwent chemo and proton beam therapy treatments, 29 in all, over the course of two and a half months in Bloomington, Indiana.

I asked Megan about her memories from that time. And she smiled.

“I have a lot of memories, most of them are actually good,” she said. “I know that I felt really sick at some points, but I’ve kind of pushed those memories out of my mind. We’ve met a lot of really good people. A lot of hockey people have come together. The Edina team did a lot; they sold lemonade and raised money for me. The Gophers women’s team has done a lot for me. One player in particular, Megan Bozek, has been a huge inspiration to me. She would come visit me in the hospital, she let me come and skate with her team and visit them.

“We’ve made a lot of connections with a lot of people and we’ve made some really good friends from everything.”

Megan won’t be declared cancer-free until the disease has been absent for 10 years. She’s halfway to that mark. Her current medical status is N.E.D., which stands for No Evidence of Disease. Because of the treatments she went through, there are times when she feels tired, when it’s a little hard to get a good breath, when there is pain.

“Other than that, I’m doing super well,” she said, busting out that smile again.

Moose Lake coach Joe Mohelsky said, “One of our team values is being grateful. And Megan really brings that gratitude to the team. She battled that cancer. It was really touch and go there for a while, and a lot of these girls spent a lot of time with her and came up through youth hockey with her.

“She’s a fighter and you can see it on the ice. Her motor never quits running. Megan’s a great kid. She’s smart, she’s a great teammate, she’s a real pleasure to coach.”

Playing hockey and being part of the team is important to Megan. Her mother, in fact, said returning to the ice was a goal that helped Megan get through cancer treatments.

“Her doctors advised her not to skate,” Jodi Wegge said. “She had almost her whole liver removed and a lot of things shifted, so if she got run into the boards it could be not good. But that’s what got her through, that’s what she looked forward to. I can’t take away the thing that saved her. We never know what’s going to happen to any of us at any time, so we just enjoy life and let her do what she wants to do.”

The Wegge family is grateful. Jodi and her husband Dan, the triplets and their older sister Lindsey … grateful doesn’t even begin to explain how they feel about all the support they have received.

“We couldn’t have done this journey without our community,” Jodi said. “It was unbelievable. Especially the hockey community and our Moose Lake family. It’s just been unreal. Even to this day they still rally around us and want to know how she’s doing. It’s amazing to me that there are so many people who care. There were a lot of people we didn’t even know.”

While her treatments were taking place, Megan told her family and her doctors that she could not imagine ever being a doctor and dealing with such things on a daily basis. But guess what she wants to do with her life?

“I actually want to be a doctor,” she said. “After becoming N.E.D. and getting better, I realized these doctors had a huge impact on me and I want to be like them.”

Don’t doubt her. The baby who wasn’t expected to survive, the cancer patient who beat cancer. She’s all of 5-feet-4 and not even 120 pounds. And she’s a fighter.

“I always give my all, no matter what I’m doing,” Megan said.

And she smiled that beautiful smile.

Happy New Year.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 353
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,430
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Love Of Wrestling, An Official With Heart 12/21/2015
If you’ve ever thought about becoming an MSHSL official in any sport, I have one piece of advice for you: Watch Joe Steffenhagen officiate a wrestling match. He is an inspiration, working with young athletes and helping them learn about wrestling. Joe smiles a lot, too.

That’s probably the first thing you’ll notice about Joe. His smile. It lights up the mat. At some point you’ll notice something else about Joe. He moves with a slight limp and he doesn’t have full use of his right arm and hand.

None of that matters. What matters is that Steffenhagen is giving back to a sport he loves.

Joe has never let cerebral palsy get in his way. He grew up as an active kid, joining his friends in whatever sport was in season.

“I played basketball until eighth grade and then I got short,” he said, laughing. “I was a post player, as tall as I am now, 5-foot-5. I started wrestling in ninth grade.”

He also played football and baseball at Orono High School. But wrestling was his main sport. He loved everything about it and lettered for four years before graduating in 2002.

He’s in his second year as a registered MSHSL wrestling official. He officiates on the middle school and sub-varsity level as he improves his skills. His reasoning for becoming an official is pretty simple: “Jeez, I just like getting on the mat and being around it.”

Ronnie Schneider, one of the state’s top wrestling officials, teaches physical education at Roseville Area High School; Joe works there as a special education teacher’s aide. Schneider, a 25-year official who has worked 10 state tournaments, is also the assignment secretary for the Skyline Wrestling Officials Association.

Schneider recognized Joe’s love for wrestling, as well as his deep knowledge of the sport, and encouraged him to become an official.

“His knowledge of wrestling was amazing to me,” Schneider said. “He understood the technique, the calls, everything. I’m like, ‘Joe, why aren’t you reffing?’ We’re always looking for guys to do middle school and other events. He said, ‘I don’t think I can.’

“He can move and he’s got just a little limp. His right hand was the problem. I’m like, ‘Joe, let’s figure it out.’ We need officials. The only guys we can pick from are guys who know wrestling. And he knows it.”

Since Joe has trouble signaling points with his right hand, he does so with his left hand for both wrestlers. Officials wear red and green wristbands, with wrestlers wearing matching colors on an ankle. When one wrestler scores, the officials’ hand with the corresponding wristband is used to signal points.

Joe’s right hand is the “green” hand. To signal points for green, he covers his red wristband with his green wristband and puts up the corresponding number of fingers on his red hand. It’s an easy system to understand.

“Before we start I’ll go up to whoever is doing the scoring and tell them how I’m going to do things,” Joe said. “It works out. And for any ref, a good scorekeeper can help you.”

During a recent match involving St. Paul middle school wrestlers at St. Paul Washington Technology Magnet School, Steffenhagen displayed a combination of patience, hustle and understanding. After making a call, he sometimes took a moment to explain it to the wrestlers. He helped kids with their headgear, took extra time in getting them in correct position before the whistle and raised the hand of every winner.

Joe is becoming more comfortable with every competition. He’s hoping to be able to work a varsity match before the end of the season. Schneider sometimes watches him officiate, and he is always ready with tips for improvement.

“Ronnie is what got me going,” Joe said. “He does the scheduling and we work at the same high school. I thought, ‘that’s an easy in.’ He’s been a mentor-type person for me.”

When he began officiating, Steffenhagen said he had concerns about being able to do it. Those issues are long gone now.

“I was more worried about how I would do it. Now I’m not worried about it all. I got that off my shoulders. Now I just want to learn how to be a better official.

“I was just thinking today, ‘Wow, I’m having more fun this year.’ And that’s what the hope is: To get better every year.”

Joe is hoping to work in an off-the-mat job at the state tournament in February, all in the hopes of learning more and more.

“We are hurting for officials, we can use more and it shouldn’t matter who you are,” Schneider said. “If you have the desire and the ability, we need you to officiate.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 345
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,350
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Hey Coach! Hey Ref! (You’re Talking To The Same Guy) 12/17/2015
We have to excuse basketball fans who may be a bit confused when they see Josh Thurow on the court. Their thinking probably goes along one of two tracks:

--“Hey, that coach looks like the referee we saw the other night.”

--“Hey, that referee looks like the coach we saw the other night.”

Truth be told, Thurow, 40, is both a basketball coach and a basketball referee. He’s also the athletic director at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, so his winter days are pretty well tied up. He oversees the Redhawks athletic program during the day, is a site manager for evening home athletic events when he’s free, conducts practices as head coach of the Minnehaha girls basketball team after school, coaches games two or three days a week, and officiates basketball games.

He has coached the Redhawks since the 2004-05 season and has taken them to eight state tournaments, finishing as the Class 2A state champion in 2010 and the state runner-up in 2011. He also has officiated at girls and boys state basketball tournaments; he is a high-ranking football official, too, working MSHSL games as well as in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He has worked two Prep Bowls and one Division III national championship game.

Thurow isn’t aware of any others in Minnesota who are high school head basketball coaches as well as high school basketball officials. The closest thing might by Paul McDonald, who is head coach of the Ely Community College men’s basketball team and a high school basketball official. McDonald, son of retired Chisholm boys basketball coach Bob McDonald, is a member of the MSHSL board of directors.

Thurow said, “I have an assistant AD (Christian Zimmerman) who covers for me when I’m out officiating. Definitely my game schedule comes first. And our assigners know I’m a Thursday/Saturday referee, typically. Those are the nights I’m not coaching or supervising an event at school.”

Thurow was a three-sport athlete at Sauk Prairie High School in Wisconsin. He played baseball at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, where he graduated in 1998. He began officiating while a college student.

“All of us baseball guys would be the towel boys at basketball games and ball boys at football games,” he said. “One of the guys said to one of the basketball officials, ‘How do you become an official?’ ”

Thurow became a registered MSHSL official and joined the Minneapolis Officials Association. Before he became a head coach he worked 50 to 60 games a season. Now he officiates 12 to 15 (mostly boys) games each year.

“When you do 50-60 games you might start resenting the schedule a little,” he said. “When you do 15 you can’t wait to get to the gym. I really look forward to officiating. It’s a night off from coaching.”

Thurow was hired as a physical education teacher at Minnehaha Academy for the 1999-2000 school year. He was an assistant baseball coach when the girls basketball head coaching job opened. He was hired as coach, and the first year was a memorable one.

“The Minnehaha Academy program was good,” he said. “That first year we had a great group of seniors. I think we won our first 18 games, we didn’t lose until February and we went to state. That was a great year. I learned a lot.”

Like all smart coaches and officials, he’s still learning.

“I continue to try to figure out what works in high school basketball,” he said. “For me, throughout my coaching career, my philosophy did come from officiating a little. Teams that play man-to-man defense do a lot of winning but also get in foul trouble. My teams play zone, we make people try to beat us from 20 feet rather than two feet. We try to play high-scoring games. If you’re comfortable playing at a fast pace you might win some games.”

Thurow and his wife Heather have three children. Megan (who played basketball on her dad’s team) is a freshman at Northwestern in St. Paul, Bennett is in eighth grade and Camryn is in fifth grade. Being away from home so much, especially during the basketball season, takes commitment.

“I look at officiating as being in the service industry,” Josh said. “I try to work as hard as possible to make sure the players and coaches decide the outcome. The golden rule for me is to officiate the way you want it when you’re coaching and playing.

“I think I get a little more credibility as an official because coaches realize I know what it’s like. I think people appreciate my perspective.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 341
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,250
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Minnesotans Perry, Sherwood Receive National Honors12/16/2015
Two Minnesotans were honored this week at the 46th annual National Athletic Directors Conference in Orlando, Florida.

MSHSL associate director Craig Perry received the 2015 Frank Kovaleski Professional Development Award. The Kovaleski Award is presented annually to a National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association member who has made significant contributions and demonstrated excellence in professional development at the local, state and national levels. Craig is the ninth recipient of this award.

Wayzata High School activities director Jaime Sherwood received the NIAAA Distiguished Service Award. This is in recognition of Jaime's service, special accomplishments and contributions to interscholastic athletics at the local, state and national levels. The last Minnesotan to receive this award was Dan Johnson of Hopkins High School in 2011.

It is a great accomplishment for Minnesota to have its leaders in student athletics and activities recognized on the national level. Congratulations to Craig Perry and Jaime Sherwood.
Art Downey: Going (And Coaching) Strong For 60 Years 12/13/2015
In the 1940s, a little squirt of a kid growing up in St. Paul developed a reputation as a pretty good swimmer. The boy did most of his swimming in lakes, and he could really move in the water. He wasn’t the most talented kid in St. Paul, but he wasn’t lacking in athletic skills. The kid’s life centered around sports and he played whatever sport was in season.

When he got to high school at St. Paul Central, some of his buddies suggested he go out for the swim team. And so he did.

That’s where the story begins. Where will it end? That’s a question for the ages, because that little kid who could really move in the water in the 1940s is still really moving as 2015 turns the corner into 2016. His name is Art Downey and he is in his 60th season as the only boys head swimming and diving coach Edina High School has ever had.

It’s quite a story.

“Everybody my age has been doing something for 60 years,” Downey said. “I’ve just happened to do it all in one spot.”

That’s true. In that one spot, his teams have won conference and state championships, and he has coached dozens of individual and relay state champions as well as more than 30 All-America swimmers. But 60 years? How is that even possible?

Downey remembers reading, years ago, an article in a coaching magazine about a fellow who was still coaching at 70. “I thought, ‘Good grief, what’s that guy doing?’ Now I know what he was doing and why he was doing it.”

Downey doesn’t talk about his age, but Edina assistant coach Scott Johnson said it’s not much of mathematical challenge to figure it out. The Edina job was Art’s first position after college and two years in the Army, so …

“He’s been here since 1956, he’s been coaching for 60 years, so you can kind of estimate his age,” said Johnson, who is only the third assistant Downey has had in those six decades.

“Art’s a classic,” Johnson said. “Everybody in the swimming world knows Art. He’s in just about every Hall of Fame imaginable, he’s won just about every award imaginable in our state and at the national level.”

Downey was inducted into the Minnesota Swimming Hall of Fame in 1991, the Edina High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999, the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2000, the University of Minnesota Aquatics Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.

For some perspective on his longevity, consider some other coaching giants in Minnesota high school sports: Bob McDonald coached boys basketball in Chisholm for 59 years before retiring in 2014. Ron Stolski continues to coach football in Brainerd; next season will be his 55th. Also in Brainerd, Lowell Scearcy has coached baseball for 46 years.

Downey earned his first varsity letter as a swimmer at the University of Minnesota in 1953. While in college he pondered what to do with his life. His love of sports made the decision to go into teaching and coaching pretty simple.

After graduating from college, Downey spent two years in the military as the Korean War was winding down. He never left U.S. soil and even spent one summer playing baseball in the Army. He was hired at Edina in the 1956-57 school year to teach physical education and start a boys swimming team.

He retired from teaching in 1990 – that was a quarter of a century ago – and never gave a thought to retiring from coaching. He’s not in it for success, unless you count the success of helping young men grow.

“Art is a man of high morals and high character,” Johnson said. “And he tends to put those qualities ahead of the athletes, even ahead of their ability level. To Art, the swimming and diving team is about being a gentleman 24 hours day, seven days week. The actual sport of swimming itself is the second-most important thing.”

Ask Downey about his career highlights, and it’s pretty clear that he simply doesn’t think along those lines.

“That would be tough,” he said. “My favorite team is always the one I’m coaching. That’s always true. The best part of my job is being with those kids every day. It’s the highlight of my day to spend a couple hours with them.

“I like to think accomplishments were never why I was in it. It was an opportunity to be a positive influence. That’s why I do it. People don’t usually think about it, but when two teams have a contest, three things can happen: one of the two teams can win or there’s a tie. I try to contribute to kids’ lives in either case.”

Before the Hornets’ season began with a Lake Conference meet at Edina last week, Downey took the microphone to address the crowd and the swimmers. He paid tribute to Elmer Luke, who began coaching the swim team at Hopkins the same year Downey began his career at Edina. Luke had died a few days earlier; Downey recounted some of Elmer’s accomplishments (“He was a true pioneer and a very good friend to many of us”) and asked the crowd to take part in a moment of silence.

The swim meet then began with the public-address announcer saying: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Art Downey Aquatic Center.”

Yes, the Edina pool is named after the coach. The facility was christened when it opened in 2006.

“That’s a terrific honor, that’s for sure,” Downey said. “I feel humbled by it.”

Edina activities director Troy Stein knows about long-serving coaches. Stein played high school basketball at Rocori under Bob Brink, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame this year. Brink coached for 50 years, the last 42 at Rocori before retiring in 2012.

“One thing that’s impressed me is Art is truly a guy who is constantly wanting to learn more about the sport, learn more about coaching, learn more about kids, learn more about what’s the best way to do things,” Stein said. “He is open to new technologies and it’s so impressive to get to know him and his passion to learn and grow.

“When we have our head coaches meetings, it’s fun to tap Art whenever we can to listen to his perspective on things that have happened in the past or things he’s seen. When Art speaks, coaches listen, because he has great, valuable insight to share.”

Downey remains busy with coaching, participating in coaching clinics and conventions, and assisting the swimming world however he can.

His first wife, Joanne, died 11 years ago. He remarried seven years ago, and he and his wife Carol have a flock of grandchildren. “They’re both wonderful ladies,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed in many, many ways.”

Downey’s four children all live in the metro area, and the grandkids enjoy hanging out at “Grandpa’s pool.”

Little has changed for Downey over these 60 years. When he was hired in 1956 he wore black eyeglasses and he still wears them today. He wears a polo shirt, shorts, white socks and white shoes at the pool, carrying a stopwatch and clipboard.

Downey indeed seems timeless. But he can tell that time marches on because his former swimmers and students are aging even if he isn’t. Members of his early teams are in their 70s now, and many of them went on to care for their coach as doctors, eye doctors, pharmacists, etc.

And what do you know? Some of them have retired.

“I’m starting to lose these people because of retirement,” Art said with a chuckle. “Doctors, eye doctors, you name it, they’re all because I either coached them or had them in class. It’s kind of a bummer when they retire. I think, ‘You can’t do this to me. What’s wrong with you?’ ”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 339
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,148
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn