John's Journal
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.

*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 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.”

*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.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 686
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,934
Homecoming For A Former Shakopee Softball Star 5/15/2016
Neil Johnson has witnessed a lot of memorable events during his 41 years as the only head softball coach Shakopee High School has ever had. The Sabers have gone to the state tournament in three different decades – the 1970s, 1980s and most recently in 2011 – and Johnson has been in the Minnesota softball coaches association Hall of Fame since 1995.

The 2011 season was special, and members of that team were invited back to be honored during a pregame ceremony prior to Friday night’s non-conference home game against New Prague. Seven 2011 Sabers were on hand. During the introductions, one of them walked out of the New Prague bench.

Ashley Walker was a star on that 2011 Sabers team, and now – after graduating from Winona State in December -- she is in her first year as head coach at New Prague. Johnson, meanwhile, has been in charge of the Sabers since 1975 and Walker is the first former player to become a head softball coach.

“It’s kind of a unique thing,” Johnson (pictured with Walker) said after the Sabers defeated the Trojans 7-6 in eight innings on Strikeout Cancer Night. “I’m just as proud as all get out.”

Johnson isn’t the only connection Ashley has to the current Sabers. The top assistant coach is her father, Rob.

Ashley is a physical education and health teacher who is working as a substitute this spring. She’s living at home, or as she put it, “I live in Shakopee with Coach Dad. This was like half a home game for me.”

Ask Johnson about Ashley the high school player and his eyes light up.

“She was one of the best players I’ve ever had in 41 years,” he said. “I still remember her game-winning home run in the bottom of the sixth inning against Mankato West to help us go to the state tournament. She came out in the seventh inning, when they had the potential tying run on third and winning run on second, and she struck the last batter out. She’s a heck of a competitor and she has been the real epitome of Shakopee softball. She’s quite a young lady.”

Ashley was a star at Winona State. She finished her senior season with a pitching record of 21-5 while striking out 106 and walking 38 in 170 innings. At the plate, she set a school record with 23 doubles while batting .372. In her college career, she ranks fourth at Winona State in doubles (53), seventh in home runs (23), eighth in batting average (.362) and ninth in hits (231). She also has the fourth-most career pitching wins with 62 and is sixth all-time in innings pitched with 515.2. She also was only the third player in Winona State history to be named an academic all-American, graduating with a 3.87 GPA.

She was named the New Prague softball coach last fall, and the announcement coincided with an important event in Shakopee.

“I found out she got the job the day the school board named the complex after me,” Johnson said, referring to the Neil Johnson Softball Complex, a fantastically manicured facility with three varsity-level fields. “It was a big day.”

Johnson, who was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame last fall, has had a positive impact on countless softball players as well as students (he retired from teaching in 2014 after 39 years in the classroom). Ashley Walker is among that group. Here’s her answer to this question: Why did you become a coach?

“Honestly, it was probably because of (Johnson), how awesome he was and how he treated us,” she said. “He makes everybody feel special, and I know the impact he makes on the girls’ lives. I wanted to carry that on myself.”

Friday night’s extra-inning loss ended a seven-game winning streak for New Prague (10-4) and gave Shakopee a record of 5-10. Damara Theis had two doubles and four runs-batted-in for the Sabers, Ashley Herold hit a two-run home run, and Cortney Hokanson (who had three hits) drove in the winning run with a single in the eighth inning. Emily Schmitz led New Prague with three hits, including a two-run homer.

After the game ended, both teams put on Strikeout Cancer t-shirts and posed for a photo together. Coaches embraced.

“It was really fun, it was awesome,” Ashley Walker said. “It was fun to coach against Coach Johnson and against my dad. I have lot of respect for them. I couldn’t respect anybody more.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 684
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,784
"Always Remember That Your Daughters' Coaches Are Human Beings"5/11/2016
Abby Schneider, the girls swimming and diving coach at St. Cloud Cathedral, has announced that she is stepping down after four seasons. She informed the athletes at a meeting and followed up with this moving letter…

I have decided to step away from coaching swimming and diving.

Throughout the years, my husband and I have made many choices and sacrifices to try to make the best life possible for our girls. I was recently offered a promotion at work that will take me away from my family slightly more throughout the year. Due to this, I have made the heart-wrenching decision to step away from my dream job, as the swim/dive season would just be too much of a stress on my family, and, in return, on the athletes and other coaches.

The lessons these amazing athletes have taught me over the past four seasons have been lifelong. They are amazing girls who should be VERY proud of themselves. Every single one of them holds a special place in my heart.

Going forward, I ask you as the parents, to always remember that your daughters' coaches are human beings -- both swimming and diving coaches and adults in any other coaching or advising position in your daughters' lives. They need support, communication, honesty, and understanding just like we all do. Long-tenured coaches and officials are going to be harder and harder to come by if there is not a serious shift as a community to support and encourage them as they push your athletes outside of their comfort zone to help them improve, as well as learn to be a committed and dedicated part of something bigger than themselves. I was blessed with an amazing support system from parents in my time here, and I know without a doubt you will carry that on for the future coaching staff, and most likely get even better at it, because you are wonderful.

Lastly -- to the girls, the swimmers and divers. I love you. If you ever ever EVER doubt that you have someone in your corner, please remember I am an e-mail, text or phone call away. Thank you for your love, commitment, willingness to grow and improve, and honesty with me over the years. It is because of you I can walk away with my head held high, knowing I'm leaving an amazing group to move forward.

All my love,
Coach Abby