John's Journal
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)
Time To Speak Up: A Rookie Competes At State4/17/2016
Steven Fyten likes to talk. The junior at Pierz High School isn’t intimidated by standing in front of a room filled with strangers and talking, having fun and putting on a show.

It was a good thing for Steven and several other like-minded Pierz students, then, when the speech team at their school was resurrected this year. It had been five years or so since speech was an activity at Pierz, and Steven took full advantage of its return by qualifying for the Class 1A state speech tournament.

Steven told me he likes speech because “It keeps you busy, it gives you something to do. And I do like talking.”

He competed in Humorous Interpretation, one of 13 categories in MSHSL speech. Steven was the Section 5 champion in Humorous Interpretation, which was his ticket to state as his school’s sole representative.

Steven was one of 24 individuals who competed in three preliminary rounds, followed by a championship round, Friday at Lakeville North (Class 2A state speech was held Saturday at the same site). His performance of “Finishing School” by John C. Havens is a hysterical monologue centering on a prim and proper British headmaster.

So here was Steven, a tall young man wearing a maroon shirt, striped tie and black slacks, speaking in a British accent in a high school photography classroom. A couple dozen adults and students watched his performance, one of six in the third round in this room. A judge and a room manager sat up front, with the others taking every seat while a few people sat on the floor.

Along with a British accent, Steven also needed to speak with Russian and Scottish accents while portraying other characters in “Finishing School.”

He was wonderful.

“He likes to play different characters, so that makes the characters in his speech come out,” said Sheri Menden (pictured with Steven), who coaches the Pierz speech team with Andrew Boman. “He likes to meet people, he likes to talk a lot and he is incredibly, incredibly intelligent.”

After the first three rounds, scores are totaled and the top eight speakers in each category advance to the championship round. Steven didn’t advance to the finals, but he was pleased with how the day went, as well as the entire season.

He didn’t know anything about speech when the school year began. He was the narrator for a school musical ("Into the Woods”) in the fall, and Boman – who was new to Pierz and brought back the speech team – told him he had a good speaking voice and should consider trying speech.

“I went to a meeting and it seemed interesting,” Steven said. “He gave us a little slide show that covered it pretty well.”

Once he selected “Finishing School” as his entry, he worked with Menden or Boman three times a week or so for about an hour. Since he’s also on the golf team, this has been a busy spring.

He and his teammates took part in around 10 competitions this season, and at no point did Steven expect to be going to state.

“Oh no, I definitely didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t think I would get that far. It was a pleasant surprise, though.”

At the section tournament, the top three speakers in each category advanced to state. Before the awards were announced, Steven didn’t figure to hear his name called among the top three.

“I was expecting them to call my name for fourth or something, but they saved it for the end,” he said. “It was a little shocking.”

Steven may have been surprised, but Menden wasn’t.

“He doesn’t know this but I talked to his dad before we left (for sections) and I said, ‘If he performs the way he’s performed the last week, he will do really well.’ ”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 628
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,387
The Greatest Generation Loses Another Of The Greats 4/14/2016
In the late 1930s, a boy in a small town posed for a photo in his football gear. He played on his local high school team, and despite being undersized he was as tough as nails.

His father died before he was born. His athletic career ended when he graduated from high school in the spring of 1938. He was working on the family farm as America went to war a few years later. He joined the Army and served during World War II in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

He returned home after the war, got married, raised six children and continued farming. He was the epitome of the Greatest Generation. He was my wife’s Uncle Laurence and he died this week.

The old guy was 95 when he passed away inside a nursing home in the town where he grew up. His obituary included this passage: “The Great Depression and his military service were lifelong influences on the way he lived. Hard work, sacrifice and sharing with family and neighbors became a part of him.”

My wife’s late father used to tell her about her uncle’s exploits as a young man. He was a guy no one wanted to mess with, on the football field or off. Laurence grew up in a town that was extremely proud of its Irish and Catholic heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was the biggest holiday of the year in his town, but he was neither Irish nor Catholic.

So on St. Patrick’s Day, when most other young fellows wore green, Laurence would put on an orange tie (the color of proud non-Irish Protestants) and go to town. The orange tie sent a wordless message: “Does anyone wanna mess with me?” No one did.

His wife died 15 years ago. He lived for 95 years and he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 75 years. I joked with one of his kids this week that the old guy single-handedly saved the tobacco industry.

One of my favorite Laurence stories: He was 85 years old and putting a new roof on his house. As he and his sons hammered shingles into place on the hottest day of the summer, he lit a fresh smoke and said, “A job like this makes a guy wish he was 70 again.” And he was serious.

It wasn’t rare to see both a cigarette and a toothpick hanging from his lips, and maybe a blade of grass on occasion, too. We joked that if we saw him in his casket, complete with cigarette, toothpick and blade of grass, we would not be surprised.

He rarely talked about his military service, at least to his family. He may have shared stories with his buddies at the local American Legion hall, but about all he told others was that he had seen some terrible things. When Laurence’s oldest son spoke at the funeral, he talked about the nightmares his father endured for most of his life after the war.

Many photos were displayed at his funeral. A small table held photos of Laurence and his wife, along with hats commemorating WWII and John Deere tractors.

I can’t make an argument that Laurence’s high school athletic experience made him into the man he became. Other than my father-in-law’s stories about his brother’s football talents, no one else had talked about that. One of my wife’s cousins was surprised to hear her mention the football hero. The cousin’s response was: “Dad was a good football player? Gee, none of us could walk and chew gum.”

Be that as it may, I can’t help but look at that photo from (I assume) the autumn of 1937 and believe that being a high school athlete helped shape him. A small, scrappy kid, crouched in his football stance wearing a leather helmet and no facemask. Ready to take on the world.

He was an American hero.

May he rest in peace.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 612
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,371