John's Journal
Across The Border, Four Games And Four Trips To State 10/23/2015
FARGO, N.D. – It’s not often that I report on Minnesota high school activities from another state. But this is a special deal: Thursday was football section championship day at the Fargodome, with four teams winning and qualifying for the state tournament. The same thing will happen Friday, with four more games. Here’s how Thursday went for me…

12:35: Cross the state line into North Dakota. Given the skunk eye by border guards. Thankfully no frisking this time.

12:57: Enter the Fargodome through the loading dock, clear security. No skunk eyes.

1:03: Catch my first glimpse of the action, from field level. Waubun Bombers in blue, Ada-Borup Cougars in white. Cougars lead 7-3, and that is the halftime score of the nine-man Section 6 championship game.

1:45: Waubun's Darius Woods-Steichen blocks an Ada-Borup punt.

1:50: The punt block pays off as an 8-yard TD run by Peyton Syverson puts Waubun ahead 10-7 in the third quarter. On the next drive, an Ada-Borup punt snap sails into the end zone, Cougars fall on it for a safety and Waubun leads 12-7.

2:35: Waubun defeats Ada-Borup 18-7 to advance to the state tournament for the first time since 2007.

2:40: Waubun assistant coach John Clark Sr. laughs when I ask him if he’ll stay at the Fargodome for the 5:30 game between Mahnomen and Polk County West. His son, John Clark Jr., is the Mahnomen coach and another son, Paul, is the Waubun coach. John Sr. is an assistant to his son John on the Mahnomen boys basketball team. Mahnomen and Waubun are only 10 miles apart, “and during the basketball season the people in Waubun see me wearing Mahnomen colors and wonder what the heck is going on,” John Sr. said with a big smile.

3:01: Kickoff between Kittson County Central and Stephen-Argyle in the nine-man Section 8 title game.

3:06: Christopher McGlynn gets a short TD run for Stephen-Argyle, Storm leads Kittson County Central 7-0.

3:08: I receive this Tweet from Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who played small-school football in South Dakota: “Loving the 9-man coverage.” Thanks Chad.

3:49: I notice some of the surnames on the Stephen-Argyle roster: five Yutrzenkas (including an assistant coach and cheer advisor), two Szczepanskis, two Gryskiewiczs, two Neuschwanders and a Kasmierzcak. Hate to be the P.A. announcer right now.

3:37: With Stephen-Argyle leading 13-7 at halftime, the Fargo Forum’s Chris Murphy delivers a bag of candied almonds from the concession area. Never had ‘em before, but will buy some to bring home.

4:17: Stephen-Argyle capitalizes on a Kittson fumble as Justin Yutrzenka scores on a short run. Storm leads 21-7 early in the second half.

5:22: After Stephen-Argyle wins 21-14, Storm coach Ethan Marquis talks about the team returning to state for the first time since 2009. Back then, the Storm won a state-record 76 games in a row, a streak ended by Kittson County Central in 2008. “This is everything,” he said. “These kids grew up in the stands, watching those 76 wins in a row. This is a dream come true to get to the state playoffs. It’s everything.”

5:42: Kody Lefebvre scores 3-yard touchdown to cap opening drive for Mahnomen, which leads Polk County West 6-0 in the Class 1A Section 8 title game.

5:55: Mahnomen’s Brian Schoenborn runs into the end zone from 11 yards but a penalty brings it back. Two plays later, Jake Worms scores on a 3-yard run. Mahnomen leads 14-0.

6:14: Mahnomen takes 22-0 lead on 12-yard touchdown run by Lefebvre. Polk County West fans remain positive and loud.

6:23: Having purchased two bags of candied almonds, I eat most of one bag quickly. The other one will leave the building with me tonight.

6:43: Mahnomen leads 36-0 at halftime.

6:55: Personal pan pizza, purchased at the concession stand, disappears quickly.

7:33: I learn that Polk County West – a second-year cooperative team with students from Climax, Fisher and East Grand Forks Sacred Heart – will transform into two basketball teams in the winter: Climax/Fisher and Sacred Heart.

7:40: Clock runs out on Mahnomen’s 44-7 win over Polk County West. Indians are going to the state tournament for the sixth year in a row. They were Class 1A state champs in 2012 and 2013.

7:45: Mahnomen’s Lefebvre, a senior who scored three touchdowns, is the happiest person in the Fargodome. He sat out the entire 2014 season with a knee injury. “That wasn’t very fun,” he said. “Today? This feels pretty good.”

8:10: Kickoff between Pequot Lakes and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in the Class 3A Section 8 title game.

8:15: Someone Tweets me a photo of the Waubun and Mahnomen coaches (brothers Paul and John Clark Jr.) with their mom in the stands. It’s the photo of the day.

8:28: A 24-yard TD run by Eric Watt gives Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton a 13-7 lead over Pequot Lakes in the first quarter.

9:20: With D-G-F leading 29-7 at halftime, a debate breaks out in the press box: How are statistics (pass yards, rush yards) figured on a hook-and-lateral play? Frenzied Googling ensues.

10:02: The day’s action ends with Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton defeating Pequot Lakes 36-13.

10:03: I snap a photo of the DGF Rebels mascot, a kid in a costume (with giant plastic head) along the lines of an old-time southern chap. I ask the kid if the mascot has a name, “Like Ronnie the Rebel or Ralph the Rebel or Richie the Rebel?” No, he replies, it’s just the Rebel. Fair enough.

10:11: Having returned to my car in the Fargodome parking lot, I realize something: My favorite pen is missing. Hopefully someone who picks it up on the football field appreciates it. That was the only less-than-perfect thing that happened all day.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 128
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,818
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Renville County West’s Goal: Take Brandon To State 10/21/2015
RANDOLPH – The phrase “team on a mission” is commonplace at all levels of sports. One team that is truly on a mission, however, is the football team from Renville County West High School. There’s no understating how important the Jaguars’ goals are, because they center around a teammate who is no longer with them.

Brandon Limones was a three-sport athlete at Renville County West, which is located in the western Minnesota town of Renville. He was a 17-year-old sophomore when he died unexpectedly in March. His death was attributed to complications stemming from an unknown condition in which his heart was enlarged.

Brandon, a kicker on the football team and a likely starter at linebacker this season, wore jersey number 11. And his jersey, blue for home games and white for road games, goes everywhere with the team on game nights. The Jaguars walk onto the field carrying his jersey, and during games it rests on a stand at the bench. It’s almost as if Brandon is still there.

“Brandon was an inspirational guy,” said senior Alex Villarreal. “No matter what you did, you’d come to the sideline and he’d keep your head up. He’d tell you, ‘Hey, good job!’ And it’s the inspiration from his jersey that reminds us to keep our heads up and stay positive, like he was.”

The Jaguars played inspired football Tuesday night, defeating a tough Randolph team 28-14 in the nine-man Section 2 semifinals. Renville County West (8-2) will play at Cleveland (9-1) on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.

State has been the goal for a long time. After last season the Jaguars coaches asked returning players to write down goals for 2015. Brandon, like many others, wrote “going to state.” That has been turned into a social media hash tag by the Jaguars and their fans: #TakeBrandonToState.

“Brandon was the center of our team,” said senior Colin Thompson. “He was always positive, never negative.”

Brandon and family members moved from Mexico to Minnesota when he was in seventh grade. He spoke no English and knew nothing about football, but he made friends quickly and fit right in.

“He didn’t know any English so we had to teach him that,” senior Hayden Johnson said. “And he didn’t know anything about football, either, so we had to teach him football. It was fun seeing him have fun. He didn’t know if we were winning or losing sometimes, but he’d say, ‘Good job! Good job!’ ”

If the Jaguars reach their goal of the state playoffs, it would provide a marker to a magnificent turnaround story. Playing Class 1A football, Renville County West went 0-7 in 2010, forfeiting the last four games due to a lack of healthy players.

The Jaguars moved to nine-man in 2011, finishing 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 through 2013. There was a big uptick last season to a 6-4 finish and this year’s 8-2 mark. The team plays fast football, with a typical nine-man spread offense and quick-footed defense.

Johnson was among the leaders Tuesday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, running 21 times for 101 yards, scoring on a 77-yard punt return and making 19 tackles, including one for a safety. The Jaguars had 438 yards of offense and the defense intercepted three passes.

Randolph’s David Speight completed 23 of 41 passes for 303 yards, with Michael Landsberger catching eight passes for 149 yards. The Rockets finished the season with a 7-3 record.

Now, the Jaguars turn their sights to Saturday’s game at Cleveland and their long-held goal.

“We knew we were a good team,” Villarreal said. “It’s been a goal of ours to take Brandon to state with us.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 120
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,288
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
October Means Making Memories That Will Last A Lifetime 10/19/2015
This time of the year – October … section playoffs … state tournament dreams – is one of the best stretches of the high school sports calendar. Last week I watched six games total, four football and two soccer, and this week I may be in attendance at up to nine more contests between Tuesday and Saturday.

Here’s my favorite quote from last week: “This is super fun. I’ve never been part of a game like this. This was really fun.”

Those words were spoken by St. Francis senior quarterback Hunter Trautman after the Fighting Saints held off Chisago Lakes on Saturday afternoon in the Class 5A Section 7 tournament semifinals. The Saints will host Andover for the section title this Friday night.

To see a young athlete smiling wide as he said those words, and then to look across the field and see the Chisago Lakes Wildcats on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, downcast after coming up short in a wild ballgame … that’s tough stuff. But it’s all part of the high school experience on the athletic field and in the classroom, learning important life lessons about hard work, teamwork and never giving up.

After the game, St. Francis coach Chris Lindquist had a positive message for the Chisago Lakes coaches. “I told their staff that they have one of the better-coached teams that we’ve ever faced,” he said. “They do what they do and they do it very, very well.”

It was a heck of a football game. St. Francis led 24-7 midway through the third quarter, but the Wildcats came back hard. Three consecutive touchdown drives, two ending on scoring runs by tall, talented senior quarterback Ethan Hickcox, gave Chisago Lakes a 28-24 lead with 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.

St. Francis began its final possession on its own 35-yard line. Trautman scrambled for 12 yards, threw to Robbie Whitney and Stephen Anderson for 15 each, hit Mason Meadows for 19 and with 28 seconds to go the Saints were on the Wildcats’ 1-yard line. A sneak by Trautman and extra-point kick by eighth-grader Hunter Dustman made it 31-28 Saints.

After a squib kick, Hickcox threw to Anders Brown for 25 yards and then again for eight more. Brown stepped out of bounds to stop the clock on both plays, and the Wildcats lined up for a 52-yard field-goal attempt with 3.3 seconds left. The kick fell short and a glorious sunny afternoon of football came to an end.

Here are a few other vignettes from an outstanding week…

--Brainerd’s Ron Stolski, in his 54th year as a football coach, telling one of the ballboys before a section playoff game against Sartell: “You need to be on your toes tonight.” Right before kickoff, in the locker room (pictured), he said to his players, “We won’t remember 20 years from now how much we played or whether we played, but we will remember we were part of the Warriors.”

--The girls soccer players from Prior Lake bringing gift bags and stuffed animals to their section playoff game at Edina. The gifts were for soccer teammates of a 7-year-old girl who had died earlier in the week.

--A football coach, wearing a headset in the press box, calling out the next play: “Big left double shift 25 zap!”

--The Holy Family football team taking a knee on four consecutive plays deep in Rockford territory while holding a big lead in the fourth quarter.

--St. Francis superintendent Troy Ferguson running the down marker as part of the chain gang at Saturday’s football game.

--Small-town football tradition: Becker fan Shelley Lumley, known as the cookie lady, passing out cookies and similar treats in the stands (and the press box), just as she has done since 2001.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 118
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,243
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Remembering Sophia: Edina Soccer Team Pays Tribute 10/15/2015
In a well-played postseason game Thursday at Kuhlman Field in Edina, the Edina High School girls soccer team defeated Prior Lake 3-0. With the victory in the Class 2A Section 2 quarterfinals, the Hornets advanced to Tuesday’s section semifinals at Eden Prairie; for Prior Lake the season has ended.

The most memorable moment, however, came before the game started. A handful of little girls, under-8 soccer players from Edina, held large pink balloons and stood next to the Hornets after the players were introduced. All the balloons were released at the same time, and a brisk wind from the north sent them sailing over the south end zone and beyond.

As the balloons rose higher and higher, they sailed above nearby Concord Elementary School. That’s where many of the Edina varsity players went to elementary school, as did Sophia Baechler.

Sophia, a second-grader, died Sunday of carbon-monoxide poisoning while on a boat on Lake Minnetonka. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and it’s unclear what caused the poisoning.

The little girls who released the balloons Thursday were Sophia’s soccer teammates. They giggled with delight – what a joyous sound -- as they watched the balloons sail away. Sophia’s funeral was held Friday morning at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina.

Sophia, who would have turned 8 in December, is survived by her parents, Benjamin and Courtney Baechler, and 5-year-old brother Will.

Edina coach Katie Aafedt didn’t know Sophia, but two of her three children attend Concord.

“We found out the news on Monday when we got an email from the principal,” Aafedt said. “It was a tough pill to swallow. It hit very close to home because she is part of the Edina soccer community, she’s my kids’ age, her parents are my age, she was a soccer player who we had seen at games.”

Sophia and her family had attended several varsity girls soccer games. After her death, the Edina girls soccer Twitter account sent this message: “The entire EHS soccer program was devastated to learn of the passing of a U8 Edina player. We dedicate our playoff run to her. #playforsophia”

Sophia wore jersey number 8, and a jersey bearing her number was on the bench Thursday. It will remain with the Hornets through the rest of the season.

“She supported us at our games, she was part of the Edina soccer community,” said Hornets junior Eva Anderson. “It was really a huge loss for us and it was really hard to hear. She went to Concord, where a lot of us have gone, and she lived really close to me.”

Junior Meredith Stotts said, “I didn’t know her personally but the story was really heartbreaking. One of our neighbors is on her soccer team.”

About the pregame ceremony, Meredith said, “I think it focused us all a lot more and it made us want to go out and win so much more. To know that she was supporting us, to see her parents up there, it makes you much more grateful for a lot of things.”

Eva said, “We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves and we’re playing for a really deep, really important thing. It teaches us to be grateful for every moment we have and we can’t waste any second we have because we are so lucky to have these opportunities.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 114
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,091
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Eugene “Lefty” Wright Leaves A Lasting Legacy 10/13/2015
The track and cross-country community lost a very special friend when MSHSL Hall of Fame member Eugene “Lefty” Wright died at 11:55 p.m. Monday. He was 79 years old and had been dealing with cancer for a lengthy period of time.

Lefty was a bridge from the 1950s to current times in athletics. As a young coach at St. Louis Park High School, he took his cross-country teams to Duluth for competitions via train from the Twin Cities and then a Duluth city bus to the golf course where racing was held. He later became Minnesota’s leading meet official for track and cross-country, creating innovative new methods to plan and hold competitions.

“He was a genius. He was an innovator,” said Scott Stallman, who was coached by Wright at St. Louis Park in the 1960s, became a teacher and coach and now works as a race official.

--In this photo from last spring, Lefty is pictured with several of his former athletes at St. Louis Park High School. All the individuals shown are still involved with track and field as coaches or officials. (Front, left to right) Steve Williams, Dan Dornfeld, Scott Stallman. (Center) R.E. “Lefty” Wright. (Back, left to right) Tom Bracher, Bill Terriquez, Jack Mayeron, Bruce Mortenson.--

Wright graduated from St. Louis Park in 1953. He competed in track and hockey for the Orioles, playing in the 1953 state hockey tournament. After graduating from Macalester College in 1957 he returned to St. Louis Park as a teacher and assistant track and cross-country coach under Roy Griak. He worked at St. Louis Park as a teacher, coach and administrator until 1993.

He was an assistant under Griak for five years, becoming head coach in 1963 when Griak was hired at the University of Minnesota. Griak died earlier this year at 91 and a few weeks ago Lefty was named a charter member of the Roy Griak Invitational Hall of Fame.

“He was a second father figure for me,” Wright said of Griak. “He taught me a lot about organization and about handling young athletes.”

Wright, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2011, worked as a meet official at 47 MSHSL cross-country state championships and 46 MSHSL state track meets, including 23 as a starter. He also worked as an official at numerous Big Ten and NCAA events.

Lefty and his wife Nancy, parents of two children, celebrated 57 years of marriage in August.

Dan Dornfeld, who was coached by Wright in high school and also became a teacher, coach and official, remembers a turning point in Lefty’s early career.

“There was an incident during his coaching time when one of his athletes was shorted in a race. He was one of the top runners in the state at that point but was put in lane one, which was a terrible lane on a sand track. It was really a disadvantage, and that became Lefty’s charge. He took on the mantra that we have to do things that are right for athletes. That’s when he really got involved in officiating.

“Anything he’s done for the sport has always been to make the event better for the athlete. He said, ‘Let’s make sure that the student-athlete has the advantage here.’ ”

Stallman said, “He was meticulous about every detail. In his coaching days there was never anything ruled out or taken as chance. Everything was coached to the finest detail, in terms of everything from how to run a cross-country or track meet to bookkeeping to all those kinds of things.”

In the days before electronic timing, cross-country runners were herded into a single chute after finishing to maintain their order of finish. Wright invented the “swing rope,” using a movable rope to create a second chute when the first one was filled with runners.

“Nobody had heard of that until Lefty came up with the idea,” Stallman said. “It’s little things like that that make the quality of a meet better.”

In cross-country, Wright invented a three-meter stick, which was simply three one-meter lengths of boards hinged together. It was used to measure the exact width of starting boxes as well as the distance between the starting line back to the second line; runners move up to the starting line when instructed by the starter.

He also improved the use of lane dividers at cross-country starting lines, color-coding them to specify whether they were for teams or individuals.

“That was part of his attention to detail,” Dornfeld said. “As a result, you saw that better things just happened. He managed things so well that it looks like there’s never any effort given. It’s smooth, effortless. That’s Lefty.

“The other part was that the man was always the calm one. I don’t think I ever saw him in a group meeting get frustrated at all. He would always maintain that calm, that coolness that you need. He was not a guy who gets rattled.”

At the Edina Invitational track meet last spring, Lefty posed for the above photo with his former athletes.

“What a legacy,” Dornfeld said. “He really has trained many, many people for how that works and what needs to happen.

“Everybody’s been trained the Wright way.”