John's Journal
The Best of John's Journal: No. 3/ Vaulting Into History: Champlin Park’s Chaney Neu7/20/2019
Entry No. 3 on the list of my 10 favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19 is all about perfection. The scene was absolutely electric when Champlin Park High School gymnast Chaney Neu made history by recording the first perfect 10 in state meet history. The story was originally posted on February 24.

Someone attending Saturday night's Class 2A gymnastics state championship at the University of Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion had a great seat, just a few steps away from the vault table. That’s where athletes sprinted down a runway, leaped onto the vault table with their hands or feet and sailed through the air, flipping and twisting, in the hopes of sticking the landing.

When something spectacular took place, this attendee started Tweeting about it. The Twitter posts tell the story…

Standing ovation at #mshsl 2A state gymnastics as Champlin Park sophomore Chaney Neu scores a perfect 10 on the vault. She's the defending all-around state champion.

THE FIRST PERFECT SCORE IN MEET HISTORY.

Previous state-meet record score was 9.95 by Courtney Norman (vault) of Cretin-Derham Hall in 1998 and Danielle Pallas (vault) of Watertown-Mayer/Mayer Lutheran in 2007.

Chaney Neu's 10-point vault happened right in front of me and I still don't believe what I saw.

One of many reasons why gymnastics is so great: After Chaney Neu's incredible vault, coaches FROM OTHER TEAMS screamed and smiled and used both hands to flash TEN fingers. Incredible.

I swear... sitting next to the vault, it looked like that kid touched the ceiling before landing.

I've seen game-winning half-court shots, walk-off home runs, overtime touchdowns and lots of other great things. But what Champlin Park's Chaney Neu did on the vault tonight at #mshsl gymnastics tops them all. It was absolutely electric.

Pretty good night for Champlin Park sophomore Chaney Neu at #mshsl 2A state gymnastics: she became first to score a perfect 10 (vault) and won every other event and her third all-around title. Can you hear the jingle from those 5 gold medals?

The only other #mshsl gymnast to sweep all four events and the all-around was Bonnie Berning of Burnsville in 1975. That was the first year of the state tournament and it was a one-class event.


It was spectacular, remarkable, stunning, astounding … use any word you like.

"It was electric,” said Champlin Park coach Jon Wynia. “You could feel it in your body.”

Chaney is just a sophomore and she already owns three all-around state championships. After the competition ended Saturday night, she posed for photos for just about everyone who wanted one … including the vault judges. The judges even gave her the pennant-shaped green flag that is used to signal the next vaulter that she can begin her sprint to the vault table.

Neu’s 10-point vault is known as a Yurchenko Layout; it’s named after Soviet gymnast Natalia Yurchenko. Gymnasts making the attempt sprint down the runway, perform a round-off back handspring entry onto the vault table, and then do a series of twists and flips before landing.

Chaney knew it was good. Upon landing, she threw her arms up, put her head back and smiled the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. She hugged Wynia and high-fived everyone she ran past.

“I was like, ‘It’s probably gonna be a 9.9 or a 10,’ ” she said. “And when I saw three of the scores, I’m like, ‘Please be a 10, please be a 10.’ And then the fourth one was a 10 and I was super happy.

“I’ve been working on sticking them all year, because I figured if I stuck it at state that I’d earn a 10. I’m just happy that all my hard work in the gym has paid off.”

She also won the balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars. Her all-around score of 39.10 was the first 39 of her career. The state-meet record is 39.325, set by Stephanie Benson of Eagan in 1999.

Chaney’s gold medal in floor exercise was her third; she also won the vault in 2017. Her golds on beam and floor exercise were her first in those events at state.

“Any time anyone does something amazing, you’re still surprised, right?” Wynia said. “I told her going into this that she was going to break 39 and I was hoping that would be with a 10 but I would have taken a 9.95 or a 9.975. She’s been incredible this whole season.”

Yes, incredible. That works, too.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.



The Best of John's Journal: No. 4/ Making Beautiful Music: Tyra Wiles And The Austin Band7/18/2019
Here's No. 4 on the list of my 10 favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. Like No. 5, music is a big part of the story. The tale of Tyra Wiles and her friends in the Austin High School band program is unforgettable. It was originally posted on April 4.

Tyra Wiles is not always very verbal but she loves music. The senior at Austin High School has Down syndrome, which doesn't stop her from performing as a percussionist in the Packers band program. And if you saw the 160-member pep band play at the girls state basketball tournament last month – like I did -- you might have seen Tyra playing a snare drum.

I found it intriguing as well as inspiring.

"She loves to play, and there's nothing better than being on the bus and going with the other kids," said Tyra's mom, Linda Gibeau.

When Tyra started middle school, Linda asked about having her be part of the middle school band program. "I said, 'I don't care if you give her foam sticks and a foam drum, I want her in the band.' "

Watching Tyra play with the band is a real treat. Her skills have improved to the point that she can perform the national anthem perfectly. But hanging out with the other band kids and being part of the group is the best part.

"I never played a musical instrument and was never in sports," said Linda, who works as a substitute teacher in Austin, her hometown. "I live vicariously through my kid. I work the same hours as she's in school, and if the band is heading to a game in the morning I cancel my job and go. I'm the only substitute teacher at every game and I've got a (school employee) badge so we go for free. Wrestling, girls or boys basketball, volleyball, track meets, everything, I go."

Tyra is also a six-year member (and a captain) of the Packers adapted bowling team, which has competed at state. When a pepfest was held for the bowlers last year, Tyra entered the gym with the pep band, then put down her drum and joined the bowlers. Her mother had helped her write a speech, which went like this: "I’m Tyra Wiles, I like bowling. Go Packers!”

Another highlight of Tyra’s high school career was going to the prom with Derek Olmschenk, a 6-foot-6 hockey player who was with the Austin Bruins junior team after graduating from Cretin-Derham Hall and is now playing at the University of St. Thomas.

Band is Tyra’s only mainstream class, and Austin band director Christoph Dundas said her impact has been bigger than most people realize.

“It’s good for both Tyra and for the other students,” said Dundas, who is the parent of an elementary special needs student. “For Tyra it’s a chance to experience something that a lot of students with special needs never get to experience just because of the way life happens. And it’s good for the other students, too, because they get to experience a class with somebody they don’t see in other classes.

“Band is multi-grade, multi-age, and Austin is a big enough school that a lot of kids really don’t see kids from other grades other than in music classes. She’s impacted students three years older than she is and students who are three years younger. Tyra’s impacted seven different grades of students.”

Brad Mariska, currently a band director at Farmington High School, used to teach in Austin. In his final year there, he worked with Tyra when she was in ninth grade.

“She was involved in middle school band and had a great band director, Nino Tarara. I met with him when Tyra was in eighth grade,” Mariska said. “We asked, ‘How can we make this work at the high school level?’ We kind of brainstormed and we wanted to help her be involved as much as possible.

“It was great. She was able to be a part of the band. She comes to concert band every day, she plays in concerts. We had weekly band lessons when she and I would work one on one.”

During the 2018 football season, Dundas received an email from a member of an opposing team. The player, also a band student at his school, had noticed Tyra in the band during a game in Austin and wrote to Dundas to tell him how neat it was to see Tyra in the band.

“So Tyra even reaches students from other schools,” Dundas said.

This is Tyra’s last year as a member of the band, although she will continue attending school in a job-training program for up to three years. She will graduate with her class in June; Linda admits to shedding a few tears when she wrote a check to pay for Tyra’s cap and gown.

“She’s a cool kid,” said Mariska. “That’s why we teach. That’s why we do this.”

Dundas said, “In the grand scheme of things Tyra may not realize her impact. There can be everyday experiences that people take for granted. And she gets to take that for granted, too.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

The Best of John's Journal: No. 5/ Hockey And Music: Farmington’s Husband And Wife Team7/16/2019
We have arrived at the top 5 on the list of my favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. No. 5 is an interesting tale of a very busy married couple from Farmington High School. Jon Holmes coaches girls hockey and boys golf, Erin Holmes is a band director, and they have three kids. As Jon said, "I don't want to say it's chaotic because my wife is such a good planner. But there’s always something to do. I’m a head coach in two sports, and she’s busier than I am. Life in the house is certainly interesting." The story was originally posted on February 21 during the girls state hockey tournament.

Thursday was an exciting day for the Holmes family. Jon Holmes stood on the bench at Xcel Energy Center as head coach of the Farmington High School girls hockey team. Erin Holmes stood in front of the giant Farmington pep band, directing them during the Tigers’ Class 2A state quarterfinal game against Andover.

Jon and Erin’s three sons -- ninth-grader William, third-grader Henry and kindergartener Duke – cheered for the Tigers ... the hockey players as well as the musicians.

This was a special day, but most days are hectic when one parent is coaching a sports team, the other is coaching musicians and their children are busy with school and activities.

“I don’t want to say it’s chaotic because my wife is such a good planner,” Jon said. “But there’s always something to do. I’m a head coach in two sports (also boys golf), and she’s busier than I am. Life in the house is certainly interesting.”

Jon is a 1999 Farmington graduate who was the school’s male athlete of the year as a senior, lettering in hockey, golf, tennis and cross-country. They met when Erin, a musician since her days as a student at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, was on a Farmington faculty committee interviewing candidates for a social studies teaching job. Jon was interviewed and hired.

“We started dating a year or so later, got married a couple years later, and we just keep getting busier,” Erin said.

The unseeded Farmington Tigers, making their sixth state tournament appearance, lost to second-seeded Andover 7-1 Thursday. Farmington will play unseeded White Bear Lake in Friday’s 10 a.m. consolation game at TRIA Rink.

“We didn’t really have our best stuff. Everything kind of went haywire,” said Jon, whose team is the youngest in the tournament with three seniors, three juniors, six sophomores, four ninth-graders and four eighth-graders.

While he was in charge of 20 hockey players, Erin and co-band director Bradley Mariska were leading 190 talented musicians.

The band played a wide variety of songs, including Escape (the Pina Colada song), Eye of the Tiger, My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up), and of course the school song.

Afterwards, Jon admitted that in the midst of the game he didn’t have a chance to focus on the band.

“I notice it more when we’re scoring because they play our school song,” he said. “And at home games, definitely, because we walk right through them to our benches.”

Farmington has nine different bands during the school day, with marching band offered as an after-school extracurricular option. Erin is in charge of two jazz bands, two concert ensembles, is director of the marching band and teaches individual lessons.

Last year she was named the first female jazz chair of the Minnesota Music Educators Association and one of School Band and Orchestra Magazine's 50 Directors Who Make a Difference.

If there is a typical day during the hockey season in the Holmes household, it goes something like this: Erin leaves home first because her teaching day begins earlier than Jon’s. After school Jon goes to hockey practice and Erin picks up their boys.

“We high-five each other and run our kids around to where they need to go,” Erin said. “And meet up at the end of the day and catch up.”

The night before the state tournament began, the two of them had some quiet time together while the boys were being watched by grandparents. Since their jobs are very similar – coaching, directing, mentoring, positively influencing young people – they talked about some of those themes.

“We must have had a two-hour conversation about culture and how things can really get turned in certain directions from certain events,” Jon said. “And obviously because it’s a state tournament we were talking about how this was going to be positive for the little kids.

“I’ve been to their band camps, watching her and Brad Mariska run their camps. I just take notes. She loves to sit and watch our practices. It’s really cool.”

Erin said, “We compare each other’s philosophies a lot. Music certainly relates to sports and we talk a lot about what we’re doing. These are very much team efforts, very much family-oriented situations, where you lean on each other and push each other to get better. Band is just like any sport.

“It’s such a great relationship when you’ve got each other’s passions in your hands. We feel very much supported by each other.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

The Best of John's Journal: No. 6/ A Season On The Road With The Windom Eagles7/14/2019
This is No. 6 on the list of my favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. I rode the bus with the Windom football team to a game in Jackson, which was nothing special because the Eagles played every game in the fall of 2018 on the road. They are a very inspirational group. This story was originally posted on September 23.

WINDOM – Kevin Heggeseth turned the key and fired the engine in the school bus at 5:15 p.m. on Friday. The Windom Area Eagles football team was on the road again, players sitting side by side and their gear loaded onto a trailer pulled behind bus No. 23.

As the bus headed south on U.S. Highway 71, one of the last sights on the edge of town was Island Park, home of the Eagles football and baseball teams. The place was nothing but mud, and that had little to do with recent heavy rain. Flooding from the Des Moines River, which circles the park like a mean, muddy snake, took a big bite into Island Park over the spring and into summer, and it was now a construction site. New irrigation was being sunk into the earth, low spots were being raised and grass seed and sod will come soon.

It will be a showplace once again, but during this football season the Eagles are homeless. Friday's 21-mile trip to Jackson County Central was another chapter in an eight-game regular season of loading the bus at school, unloading the bus at someone else’s field, playing the game and returning to Windom.

"It’s pretty sad, not being able to experience the environment of playing at home again,” said senior Nick Nolt. “The Friday night lights, your home crowd, there’s nothing better than that.”

The Friday night lights were certainly shining in Jackson, where the JCC Huskies are one of the top programs in Class 3A. They brought a No. 5 ranking and 3-0 record into this Week 4 game and defeated the winless Eagles 51-0. The JCC band was on hand, as were cheerleaders waving three giant flags bearing a J and two Cs, folks from the local American Legion post marching with the pregame colors, and the Lions Club selling pork chops on a stick.

Nobody in Windom is experiencing anything similar this autumn. The situation is the same at Kenyon-Wanamingo, where a new football field and the school’s first track are being constructed this fall, leaving the Knights with only road games.

The Windom school board approved the work at Island Park in August, shortly before football practice began. Head coach Travis Martin, who was an assistant the past two years, immediately let his players know what the 2018 season would entail.

“It’s a credit to the kids, they haven’t let it bother them,” said Martin, 28, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., who teaches science. “Most of my kids play baseball and the summer town team didn’t get to play any home games, either.

“I’ve got a tremendous group of seniors, really solid kids. They’ve been resilient. Last year we rolled through our season with 28 players. Now we have 36, and our eighth grade has 25, so there’s hope on the horizon. They’ve gone through some battles, so at this point it’s just one more thing for them to handle.”

Windom is not currently known as a football town. The Eagles won three games in 2015, two in 2016 and finished 3-6 last season. Numbers have been an issue, but Martin is confident that things are on the upswing. The 2018 team is young, with a sophomore quarterback and freshmen playing important roles.

Things were not looking great a few days before the game in Jackson. A handful of players were ill, but thankfully almost everybody was on the bus Friday night.

Like most of the players, Martin listened to music through earbuds during the ride to Jackson. “The same kind of stuff I listened to when I played,” he said; Eminem, “The Boys of Fall” by Kenny Chesney.

The bus was quiet as it rolled past cows, corn and soybeans, the crops having made the big turn from summer green to autumn shades of gold and brown. Swans paddled around on Laurs Lake, giant wind turbines rotated in the sky and before long the Jackson water tower and grain elevators appeared in the distance under a patchwork of clouds and blue.

A sign stated that the Jackson County Central National Honor Society was in charge of keeping this stretch of roadway clean, followed by notice that the bus was entering Jackson (population 3,299). The bus ducked under Interstate 90, with ramps marked for Albert Lea to the east and Sioux Falls to the west.

The field in Jackson was damp but not soaked; Huskies coach Tom Schuller explained the site was once a gravel pit and drainage was not a problem.

After warmups, Martin spoke to the Eagles on a practice field behind the north end zone. “This is our opportunity,” he said. “We only get so many of these. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Jackson County Central took advantage quickly, scoring a 50-yard touchdown on the game’s second play. The busiest Eagles player might have been senior punter Tim Ingram. The halftime score was 24-0.

“We can still make a fight out of this,” Martin said to the boys during the intermission. “We’ve got to believe. They expect us to come out and roll over. Don’t do it.”

Although outnumbered and outsized, the Eagles did not roll over. Neither did their cheerleaders, who remained upbeat throughout the evening as a large contingent of Windom fans cheered for their boys. None of that, however, changed the outcome; running time was used in the fourth quarter and the game ended at 9:08 p.m.

As the players climbed back aboard bus No. 23, they grabbed sandwiches, chips and drinks that had been prepared – as for every game this season -- by their mothers. Martin, the last to board, asked one of his assistant coaches, “Got 36, coach?” Yes, all 36 players had been accounted for and the wheels began turning at 9:28.

Quiet talking, joking and laughter were heard on the ride back to Windom, with a few faces illuminated by cell phones. Someone turned up music on his phone, which caused the head coach to stand and say, “Hey guys, turn the music off.” Celebratory music may come following a victory. As the bus pulled into Windom, a loud burp emanated from the back of the bus.

In a darkened school hallway, Nolt and fellow senior Alex Borsgard talked about the flooded field, the season and the weekly bus rides.

“I saw it coming,” Alex said. “I was disappointed, obviously, but it is what it is. You’ve just got to deal with it. I guess it is kind of hard to get used to the thought that you won’t play another home game in your hometown on your home field in front of the home crowd.”

Nick said, “Obviously I was pretty upset. I had a little bit of anger about it. But there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

Martin told the team to get some rest; they would gather again in the morning to officiate middle-school football games. The coach would be at school for another hour or more into the night, going through video of the game and posting it online for the players to view.

Martin said he wasn’t worried that the road-only schedule, coupled with the losses, would sap the spirit of his players.

“Early on in the year, that was a concern for me. Jackson is the second really good team we’ve played this year. We had a tough one with Pipestone and our kids don’t quit. That’s what every coach has told me, ‘Your kids keep fighting to the end.’ In this day and age, that’s good to see.”

Go Eagles go.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 7/ Great Kate: ‘She’s Just Like Any Other Teenager’7/12/2019
Here is No. 7 on the list of my favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. Kate Jorgenson from Westbrook-Walnut Grove is one of the most inspirational people I have ever known as well as being one of the most down-to-earth. This story was originally posted on December 13.

WESTBROOK – Kate Jorgenson stood a couple steps behind the three-point line and she was ready when the basketball came to her. She took aim at the basket, fired quickly and the ball hit nothing but net as fans of the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Chargers cheered. It was a remarkable shot by a remarkable athlete.

I first wrote about Kate when she was a ninth-grader on her school's golf team. She's now a 16-year-old junior, and the fact that her left arm was amputated above the elbow after an ATV accident in 2013 has never slowed her down.

"She’s just like any other teenager," Chargers coach Adam Kletscher said before Westbrook-Walnut Grove dropped a 45-42 decision to the Adrian Dragons in a Red Rock Conference game Tuesday night. “She likes to joke around, she likes to have fun.”

Tuesday was a long day for Kate. She was awake at 4:45 a.m. and on a school bus bound for the state Capitol in St. Paul – three hours away from her home in southwest Minnesota -- by 6:15 with other American Government students who are involved in a program called “We the People.” They toured the Capitol, made a We the People presentation to a panel of judges as part of the program’s competitive process, then headed back home in the afternoon.

Kate played the first half of that evening’s B squad game and came off the bench throughout the varsity game. “I’m tired,” she said with a smile afterwards.

Her parents, Nikki and Jim, watched the games from the stands. Nikki teaches fifth grade in the district and Jim runs the family farm two miles outside of Westbrook. They, like everyone else, love their daughter’s positive attitude and are amazed by what she continues to accomplish.

“The only thing she gave up was playing the violin,” Jim said, adding that Kate continues to practice the piano and perform at recitals. She plays volleyball in the fall, golfs in the spring, is a lifeguard and certified swimming instructor.

When she came off the bench in Tuesday’s varsity game for the first time, four minutes in, she wiped the soles of both shoes with her right hand and went to work. On defense she was positioned in the lane, displaying quick footwork in the Chargers’ zone, blocking out would-be rebounders and inbounding the ball after Adrian scored.

She brought the ball upcourt at one point, passing to point guard Grace Woelber once she reached the center line.

Imagine trying to catch the ball, shoot the ball or rebound the ball with one hand. It’s not an easy proposition.

Asked if he does anything differently in coaching a player who doesn’t have two hands, Kletscher said, “Right away I wondered, I debated but then I said no. She doesn’t want to be treated any differently. She’s a normal teenage girl on my basketball team. You might talk with her about how to curl a rebound or things like that. I’ll tell her, ‘Keep your arm straight up’ (to avoid fouls) and you’re doing the same things for every other girl on the team, too.”

Kate said, “It’s really hard for me to catch the ball in the post and go for a layup, so I usually try to stay on the outside and shoot my outside shot. I can just like feel it when I let it go. I’ve spent a lot of time catching the ball and releasing it.”

In Kate’s first basketball season after the accident, Jim coached her sixth-grade team. At one of the first practices he asked for volunteers to dribble the ball upcourt. Everyone was quiet until Kate said, “I’ll do it.” That was an early example of her fearlessness.

In the wake of Kate’s accident, people in Westbrook, Walnut Grove and surrounding communities rallied around her and her family. A 2014 benefit concert in Westbrook was a great success, which inspired the Jorgenson family to create the Keeping Up The Kourage Foundation. The foundation awards college scholarships to youth from the area who have faced medial challenges and also assists families with medical expenses.

Kate headed home Tuesday night looking forward to some much-needed sleep. But the next day – like most days -- would be another busy one, starting when she drove 43 miles to Marshall early in the morning. She’s interested in becoming an anesthesiologist, and she had an appointment to job-shadow someone in that profession, beginning at 7 a.m.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.