John's Journal
You Go Girls: This Is A Golden Era In Track And Field5/2/2016
Is 2016 the best season in the history of Minnesota high school girls track and field? There is evidence to support that statement, and much of it was on display Friday evening at the Hamline Elite Meet.

The 11th annual Elite Meet – held in St. Paul at Hamline University’s Klas Field, the site of the MSHSL state championships June 10-11 – brought together a field of dominant female athletes. It included state champions in every individual footrace and most of the other events.

That’s right, at every distance from 100 meters to 3,200 meters, including hurdles races of 100 and 300 meters, at least one defending state champion was in the girls field for every race. The same held true for two of the four girls relay races and four of the six field events.

“Each year with the Elite Meet you can kind of pick out a particular event,” said Scott Stallman, who coached track and cross-country at Chaska High School for 36 years before retiring in 2011 and now works as a meet official as well as the stadium announcer at the Elite Meet and the MSHSL championships. “A year or so ago it was the boys 1,600 and it was going to be a premier event, it was a who’s who. But this year every event was like that. You just could go down the list.”

And here’s even more proof of the quality of female track and field athletes we’re seeing right now: The Elite Meet field included three girls who already own all-time state records. Those record holders are …

--Wayzata senior Ruby Stauber, whose time of 2:06.50 from last season is the state record in the 800 meters. She has signed with Louisiana State.

--Thief River Falls senior Meleah Biermaier, who set a state record of 42.13 seconds in the 300-meter hurdles at the 2015 state meet. She has signed with Minnesota.

--Rochester Century senior Andrianna Jacobs is a three-time state champ in the pole vault who set the state record of 13 feet, 7 ¼ inches last season and came into 2016 as the best female high school pole vaulter in the nation. She has signed with Nebraska.

Those three athletes won those events Friday at Hamline, and they have a lot of company among some of the most dominant female track and field athletes Minnesota has seen in a long time. Let’s run down the list …

--Chanhassen senior Jedah Caldwell, the defending state champion in the 100 and 200, won both events at the Elite Meet.

--Bloomington Kennedy junior Honour Finley won the 400 at state last year and did the same at the Elite Meet.

--Alexandria senior Bethany Hasz won the Elite Meet 1,600, adding to a resume that includes state titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 and two cross-country state championships. (Her twin sister Megan, who holds one cross-country state crown and state-meet medals in the 1,600 and 3,200, did not run Friday because of an injury.)

--Forest Lake senior Emma Benner (pictured above) won the Elite Meet title in the 3,200, outlasting two extremely young state champs. Finishing second was Winona Cotter seventh-grader Grace Ping (last fall’s Class 1A cross-country state champion); third was Breck eighth-grader Morgan Richter, the 2015 1A state champ in the 3,200.

--The girls 100-meter hurdles field Friday included two state champs and a state runner-up. The winner was East Ridge senior and defending 2A champ Karina Joiner. Staples-Motley junior Millie Klefsass (the 2015 1A state runner-up) was fifth and Biermaier was sixth.

--In the relays, defending state championship teams from St. Michael-Albertville (4x100) and Waconia (4x200) won Elite Meet titles. Pequot Lakes, the defending state champ in Class 1A, placed sixth in the 4x400.

--Along with Jacobs in the pole vault, other defending state champs in field events Friday were Eden Prairie senior Ashley Ramacher (high jump), Jordan junior Jenna Kess (1A champ in the triple jump) and Eastview senior Natalie Manders in the discus.

There are 18 events in Minnesota high school track and field, and 10 of the state records on the girls side were set from 2013 to 2015. (On the boys side, four state records were set during that time.) Two of the oldest girls records were broken last year: Stauber broke the 1984 record in the 800 set by Blooming Prairie’s Jeanne Kruckeberg and Biermaier broke the 1987 mark in the 300 hurdles set by Roseau’s Liesa Brateng in 1987.

“There’s no question” that this is the best era in Minnesota girls track and field history, said Stallman, who began his high school coaching career in 1975, three years after girls track became an MSHSL sport.

“I go back to the very beginning of girls track and this is by far the best era that I can remember,” he said. “There was a time, maybe in the mid ‘80s, where they looked pretty strong. But there’s been nothing like this, top to bottom.”

Kennedy’s Finley is following in the fast footsteps of one of the state’s top all-time sprinters, who also went to Kennedy. Vanessa Clarida, a 2004 graduate, was a ninth-grader in 2001 when she set state records in the 200 (23.93) and 400 (54.36). Those are currently the oldest girls state records on the books.

Pete Svien, who has been the girls track coach at Kennedy since 1998, coached Clarida back then and coaches Finley now. He wouldn’t be surprised if Finley breaks Clarida’s state record in the 400.

“I think the 400 is Honour’s sweet spot,” he said. “She’s got something special, that’s for sure. If I had to predict, I would say if we have a good day Vanessa’s record in the 400 will be gone by the end of the season.”

Weather can be a huge factor in record-setting track and field performances, and Friday’s conditions at Hamline were nearly perfect. Eleven meet records were established on an evening with temperatures in the upper 50s, clear skies and little wind.

Clarida set her state records on a hot day at the 2001 MSHSL track and field meet. If similar conditions are present at the 2016 meet on June 10-11, expect big things.

“If we get some heat,” Svien said, “that state meet is going to be a barn burner, that’s for sure.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 654
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,255
Robotics: From Greenbush-Middle River To The World 4/28/2016
St. Louis, Missouri, is the center of the robotics universe this weekend, with 29,000 students and 800 robots competing in the FIRST Robotics World Championships. The teams come from all over the world, including 24 from Minnesota -- one of the few states where high school robotics is a varsity, letter-awarding activity.

Teams are competing in three days of robotics matches, grouped into divisions. One of the teams carrying a strong tradition and high hopes hails from the tiny town of Greenbush, Minnesota. The Gators of Greenbush-Middle River High School are competing with teams from all over the United States as well as Canada, Australia, Israel, China and elsewhere.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics became an official MSHSL activity in 2012 and has grown like gangbusters. Greenbush-Middle River is in year three of robotics, and its 44 involved students is more than one-third of the entire student body.

The Gators were champions of a recent FIRST regional at the University of Northern Iowa, winning all 16 matches in which they competed. They also competed at a regional in Duluth, where they were knocked out in a late round. Now they’re competing with the best in the world, which is quite a feat for kids from extreme northern Minnesota.

“We’re a rural community, tucked away in northwest Minnesota, and our FIRST Robotics team has really become a leader in the state,” said Greenbush-Middle River superintendent Tom Jerome.

Each year, a different game is used by all FIRST Robotics teams. The 2016 game is called Stronghold. FIRST describes it as “two Alliances of three robots each are on a Quest to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower. Robots score points by breaching opponents’ defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower. During the final 20 seconds of the Quest, robots may surround and scale the opposing tower to capture it.”

Mary Anderson, who teaches science and math, is the Gators robotics “coach.” The students, however, take the lead in all sorts of tasks, from designing the robot to driving the robot to finding sponsors and raising money to publicizing the team’s accomplishments. Robotics is unlike traditional sports in that team members are always willing to assist other teams, whether it be with engineering, repairs, tools or anything else that comes up.

“My favorite part of the competitions is meeting all the different people,” said Greenbush-Middle River student Joe Hlucny. “There are so many people, and getting to communicate and work with them to accomplish a goal is a lot of fun and it’s a great experience. It gets you ready for other times in life when you’ll have to do that, for sure.”

Robotics is not an inexpensive activity. The Gators have dozens of sponsors, including the University of Minnesota, Polaris and Central Boiler, a Greenbush-based company that is one of the largest manufacturers in northwestern Minnesota.

“Central Boiler is a key player for us; they open up their facilities for our kids,” Jerome said. “Farmers and machinists in the area open their shops as work areas. When we qualified to go to the world championships on a Saturday, by Monday night Polaris had committed more than $10,000.”

A key aspect of the program is student development. Instead of staying home and playing video games by themselves, team members work long hours together.

“We require 30 hours from every student in order to go to a competition,” Gators team member Hannah Anderson said. “We had 29 eligible to go to our first competition in Duluth, and if they got their hours, they were able to go to Iowa. It was like 2,500 student hours. The mentors weren’t counted in that, but they put a lot of time in, too. The grand total was probably 5,000 hours-plus. You have people thinking about it in their sleep, and not sleeping because they’re thinking about it.”

Jon Langaas said, “During build season, when we go out to the shop or do anything here we document our hours. At the shop I usually got out there at about 3 and I left most nights around 11; Saturdays and Sundays were like 8 to 11. I spend probably way too much time on the robot, but that’s everything that I do in the winter now.”

It’s not a stretch to say that robotics changes lives in many ways, whether it be making new friends or choosing career paths.

“It’s just made me a better person, overall,” said the Gators’ Brady Kilen. “The teamwork that I’ve put in with everyone; I’ve gotten to know everyone better in working with each other. I’ve become more confident as a person, too.”

Teammate Blake Dallager said, “Over the winter months I’m not in any sports so I would just go to school and then go home after that. Without robotics I never would be speaking in front of you right now. For sponsorships, we go out and talk in front of 10, 20 people. I never would have had the opportunity to do that, or to go to Iowa or St. Louis or anything like that, and meet people from China and Brazil and Australia. It’s basically awesome to get out of the house, meet new people and go new place and try new things.”

Jerome, a former high school hockey coach and longtime hockey official, said he was mesmerized the first time he saw a FIRST Robotics competition, at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

“This might sound corny, but I walked down, I went on the floor and I kind of teared up,” he said. “I thought, ‘We have to replicate what’s going on in FIRST Robotics in every classroom we have.’ I saw kids brainstorming with other kids, kids from Greenbush-Middle River to Edina and Warroad and Roseau. They work together on problem-solving: ‘You and I are on different teams, but hey how can I help you?’

“When kids come together in this program, they’re handed a problem to solve with not enough money, not enough facilities and not enough time. And that’s kind of real life. They’re asked to solve it, and the only way they can do that is by communicating, brainstorming, sharing ideas and growing. It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s demanding, it’s tough, it’s planning, it’s brainstorming.

“When you see kids scratching their heads, and they’re huddled up together, kids from different communities, and they’re trying to fix that person’s problem, you just go, ‘Wow.’ It really is amazing.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 644
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,214
28 Years Apart, Hurdling History From Up North 4/25/2016
THIEF RIVER FALLS – The two fastest female 300-meter hurdlers in Minnesota high school history stood together for a few seconds last week on a bitterly cold day. They were posing for a photo, just as they did last June when the younger hurdler broke a record set nearly three decades earlier by the older hurdler.

Photo No. 2 was snapped during a four-team meet at the football field/track that is shared by Thief River Falls High School and Northland Community and Technical College. Thief River Falls senior Meleah Biermaier and East Grand Forks girls track coach Liesa Hanson smiled and posed, then resumed the day’s business of running, jumping and coaching.

The ties between the two -- concerning hurdling as well as family -- are remarkable.

On a hot day in 1987, Hanson (then Roseau senior Liesa Brateng) set a state record of 42.62 seconds in winning the 300 hurdles in the Class 1A state meet at Osseo High School. She went on to compete in track at the University of North Dakota, where one of the male hurdlers was a guy from Crookston named Mike Biermaier. You can see where this is going.

Fast forward 28 years to last year’s Class 2A state meet at Hamline University in St. Paul. Mike’s daughter Meleah won the 300 hurdles in 42.13, and one of the first people to congratulate her as she stepped off the medal podium was Liesa Hanson.

“I never thought it would have stayed there that long,” Hanson said last week. “It was fun to hold that and I can still claim the title in Class 1A. Records are meant to be broken, that’s what they’re for. They’re something to shoot for.”

During a coaching career that has lasted more than 20 years, Hanson has annually wondered if her record would fall. She also held the University of North Dakota school record in the 400-meter hurdles, and that mark was broken earlier last spring.

“I told Meleah, ‘My UND record went this year, maybe this is the year for my high school record to go and I hope you do it.’ ”

Biermaier, who has signed a letter of intent to compete in track at the University of Minnesota, is one of the most celebrated athletes in the state, and track is only part of the story. She also plays volleyball and basketball; those Prowlers teams have each made two state-tournament appearances with her on the roster.

But track is her marquee sport. She splashed onto the scene as an eighth-grader in 2012, winning the 300 hurdles state title against athletes from the state’s largest schools in Class 2A. She was the 2A state runner-up as a freshman and sophomore before claiming another title – and the state record – last spring.

Biermaier leads the state’s 300 hurdlers this spring with a top time of 45.20 seconds. She is expected to compete in that race at Friday night’s Hamline Elite meet, the top regular-season event on the high school schedule.

Meleah will make no guarantees of winning another state crown, much less breaking her own record.

“I think it will be a little bit harder,” she said. “Not that there’s less motivation, but I don’t have that fire that I did last year, from coming in second in 10th grade. It’s going to be tough to bring that into practice and meets, but it’s always a goal to shoot for.”

The family connections between the Biermaiers and Liesa Hanson has a long history. Mike Biermaier – who is two years younger than Hanson -- remembers watching his big sister Mary run hurdles and sprints against Liesa.

“It goes way back” to when Mary was a Crookston senior and Liesa was a Roseau eighth-grader, Mike said.

“Liesa was an absolute standout. I think she was in eighth grade when she and my sister finished 1-2 in the 200 in the section and both went to state.

“My sister was a bit of an inspiration to me, too,” Mike said. “She went to state from seventh grade on and placed in the 100 hurdles. Mary (who lives in Little Falls) has followed my daughter pretty closely and she knows Liesa, too, so it’s been a big family affair.”

Hanson has a talented young hurdler in her family, too. Her daughter Tiffany, a sophomore at East Grand Forks, qualified for state in the Class 1A 300 hurdles last year. Tiffany finished third in the 300 hurdles (two spots behind Biermaier) at last week’s meet in Thief River Falls.

Meleah first leapt over a hurdle – albeit a kid-sized mini hurdle – when she was very young. She thinks she was in second grade when she hung out at the University of North Dakota track while her dad was a graduate assistant coach.

“I definitely liked it,” she said with a smile.

She tried lots of other sports over the years, including hockey and softball. She was on the junior high track team early in her seventh-grade season but was moved to the varsity to compete in section competition. A year later she was a state champ.

And now, she seeks another state title as part of an historic hurdling duo that looms large even though they hail from the great outstate north, where spring comes late, where the track season can be short and where motivation is not hard to find.

“I think one of the biggest things is our drive,” Meleah said. “Those big schools look at us and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re nothing. You’re from northern Minnesota, what do you have to bring?’ So I think we just have to prove ourselves.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 634
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,192
New Season, New Goals For White Bear Lake Lacrosse 4/20/2016
After a hard-fought 14-10 victory over visiting Holy Angels on Tuesday night, the White Bear Lake boys lacrosse players took a knee as coach Brandon Husak said a few words.

He ended his remarks with this: “You’re a phenomenal team. You’ve got a lot of talent, let’s do something with it. We saw some great things out there, got a great win. That lets me know how hard we can push on the pedal.”

The Bears certainly know how to put the pedal to the metal. They are the defending state champs, a title that culminated a steady climb for a program that takes pride in representing the east side of the Twin Cities in a sport that has been dominated by the western suburbs.

Since boys lacrosse became an MSHSL sport in 2007, White Bear Lake is the only team from east of St. Paul to win a state championship. Previous titles were won by Benilde-St. Margaret’s (located in St. Louis Park), Blake (in Hopkins), Minnetonka, Eastview (in Apple Valley) and Eden Prairie. Until 2015, no team from the east side had even played in a title game.

White Bear Lake is no stranger to the state tournament, however; the Bears advanced in 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Last year they defeated Maple Grove 19-2 in the state quarterfinals, Eden Prairie 14-13 in overtime in the semifinals and Bloomington Jefferson 12-8 in the title game.

Before the championship game, former Bears players formed a tunnel for the current players to run through onto the field, and many people who had coached current players as youth were in the stands.

“That was cool. I liked that a lot,” said senior midfielder Ethan Peterson, who leads the Bears with six assists.

“We’ve made five trips to state, and last year, capping it off, it kind of justified and solidified all those previous years that teams had made it,” Husak said. “And it kind of set them in the books, too. It really honored the years before. It wasn’t a fluke.”

White Bear Lake is 2-0 this season, with a 9-8 win over Wayzata in the opener and Tuesday’s victory over Holy Angels. The Bears lost nine seniors to graduation, including last year’s Mr. Lacrosse award winner, Connar Dehnert.

“We looked at (this season) as a clean slate,” said senior midfielder Shane Olsen, who had five goals Tuesday and leads the Bears with nine on the season. “Start with the basics, work up from there, just the right pace.”

Six Bears players have scored so far, including ninth-grader Casey Cunningham. He had the winning goal against Wayzata and got his second goal Tuesday. Goaltender Michael Boudreau has 37 saves through two games and a save percentage of .673.

Husak, 33, is a 2001 graduate of nearby Roseville High School (“I hopped over to the rival, wearing black and orange,” he said of coaching at White Bear Lake). He was the Bears club coach before the sport became sanctioned by the MSHSL, so he has been on board from the beginning.
Husak said he never uses the phrase “rebuilding year.”

“I’ve told the boys that if I ever say it’s a rebuilding year, I’m done. I don’t believe in that. The season is so short but we preach that it’s so long. We’ve come a long way since Week 1 already. When I talk to the guys, you have to keep looking to move forward and eat up that knowledge and have progression every day.

“They’re proud, they celebrated last year, and it’s a new year. We had a great year, we’re very proud of what we have achieved, but this is a different team and this is a different step.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 630
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,449
22 Schools Form New League: Twin Cities Athletic Conference4/19/2016
The Twin Cities Independent Schools Conference (TCIS) and the Eastern Minnesota Athletic Conference ( EMAC) have been two conferences that have existed under the MSHSL umbrella, with the TCIS having been formed roughly one year ago and the EMAC being around for the better part of the last two decades. The bulk of the member schools in both conferences are either charter schools or small Christian/Catholic schools. The nine schools of the TCIS and the 13 schools of the EMAC found common mission and goals when they engaged in conversation about scheduling several months ago. From there they worked to forge the alliance between the two conference into one large athletic conference which would be mission-driven and lead to a greater degree of cooperation for scheduling and ease of funding.

As of today (April 19), the 22-program Twin Cities Athletic Conference (TCAC) is a reality.

It is the largest athletic/activities conference in the state of Minnesota, and possibly the largest in state history in terms of membership.

It truly is a representative conference of the greater Twin Cities area, with schools as far north as Forest Lake and as far south as Faribault, as far west as Eden Prairie and Maple Grove and as far east as Woodbury.

The conference will break into divisions based on competitive level in those sports that will need it, based on the number of schools offering those sports (boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, girls volleyball) and have a single conference division for those sports where there are fewer than 12 schools offering the sport (baseball, softball, cross country, and track and field) as well as offer two sports not offered competitively as of yet by the MSHSL (badminton and boys volleyball).

Further, the conference will effectively sponsor non-athletic MSHSL activities including speech and debate as well as fine arts at various conference jamborees scheduled and created specifically for those activities.

The education landscape in Minnesota is changing in terms of the greater number of non-traditional school choices being offered to families. As these schools grow in number and size, the students attending those schools are increasingly voicing their collective desire to have a "normal" high school extracurricular experience. All 22 programs in the new TCAC are committed to giving those students that experience.

The schools signing the initial charter/constitution are:

Academy for Sciences and Agriculture (AFSA)
Calvin Christian School
Chesterton Academy
Christian Life Academy
Community of Peace Academy
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
Groves Academy
Hiawatha Collegiate High School
Hmong College Prep Academy
Hope Academy
(The) International School of Minnesota
Learning for Leadership Charter School
Liberty Classical Academy
Math and Science Academy
Metro Schools College Prep
Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD)
North Lakes Academy
Nova Classical Academy
Prairie Seeds Academy
Saint Paul Prep
Shattuck-St. Mary's
Twin Cities Academy/Great River School (Charter Stars Co-op)