John's Journal
Volleyball: A New Team At The Top And A New Team In 3A 9/14/2015
MARSHALL – The Southwest Minnesota Challenge is indeed a challenge. The volleyball tournament, played at Marshall High School and Southwest Minnesota State University, brings together 32 teams from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota with two days of matches deciding how every team stands, from No. 1 to No. 32.

The identity of the No. 1 team in the 2015 tournament may surprise some people. Lakeville South, a team that has never qualified for a state volleyball tournament, came out on top Saturday in results that were a testament to the wide-open nature of big-school volleyball in Minnesota.

Four teams ranked among the top 10 in Class 3A played in the tournament, as did five other teams that received votes but didn’t crack the top 10 in last week’s rankings. It was no surprise, then, that the final four teams were all from 3A: Top-ranked Champlin Park, No. 3 Prior Lake, No. 4 Lakeville South (pictured) and Wayzata (which received votes).

Prior Lake avenged an early-season loss to Champlin Park by defeating the Rebels in the semifinals, and Lakeville South – which beat defending 3A state champ Chaska in the quarterfinals -- defeated Wayzata in the semis.

In the finals, Prior Lake won the first set 15-25 before South took the next two, 25-23 and 16-14. (In this week’s rankings released Monday, South is No. 1.)

The Cougars’ tournament title may not have seemed likely before the event began, considering that No. 1 setter Sydney Case was sitting on the bench with a broken wrist and the rest of the lineup was jumbled. Emily Hoff has been playing setter, and doing a great job.

“Emily really has never been a setter,” South coach Steve Willingham said. “I can’t say enough about the game she played today. And her teammates have been great, lifting her up. This is a really good win for us.”

A lot of volleyball remains to be played, but the weekend results made it clear that a large group of teams can compete for section and state titles.

“I think we can play with anybody,” Willingham said. “And there were probably not a lot of expectations that we would, but we’re really confident that we can play with any team. And we were fortunate to put ourselves in a place to win all the matches this weekend.

“There are a lot of good teams out there.”

ANOTHER THING TO CONSIDER this volleyball season is Marshall’s move from Class 2A to 3A. The Tigers have qualified for the past 14 state tournaments, a state record they share with Columbia Heights (1985-98).

In the first six years of Marshall’s streak they were in 3A. But they spent eight years in 2A, including state titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013, before moving back to 3A this season.

“Over those years in triple A our kids always kind of had the mentality that it was David against Goliath and they always enjoyed that,” Marshall coach Dan Westby (pictured) said. “Now we’re trying to get that back.”

Marshall always plays one of the toughest schedules in the state. The Tigers defeated Burnsville and Totino-Grace in Friday’s tournament matches before losing to Champlin Park in Saturday’s quarterfinals. They then beat Tracy-Milroy-Balaton (ranked second in 2A) and lost to Chaska to finish sixth in the tournament.

Marshall is ranked 10th in the 3A poll, and “The kids, in their words, didn’t feel like they got a lot of love early in the year in the polls and that sort of thing,” Westby said. “So they’re pretty determined to try and make something happen, which is kind of fun to watch.

“We’ve said that we need to have triple A practices now. We can’t practice like a double A team any more, we have to practice like a triple A team. That means expectations are higher and to our kids’ credit they’ve really done a good job. Hopefully that will continue.”

When the postseason rolls around Marshall will be in Section 2, which is power-packed. The 12-team section includes Chaska, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Prior Lake, Shakopee and Waconia.

“I think it’s undoubtedly the toughest section in the state,” Westby said. “I think just about any one of seven or eight teams could put a streak together and win that thing. It should make for some good volleyball at tournament time.”

If Marshall should survive in the section and advance to a 15th consecutive state tournament, it would be a major accomplishment for a school and volleyball program that has a smaller number of single-sport athletes than many 3A teams.

“They know it’s going to be tough,” Westby said. “I think volleyball has changed a lot in the last 10 years. I think with club volleyball the kids have become more specialized. Our kids don’t do that. The majority of our kids still play multiple sports. That part is going to be tough.”

--To see a photo gallery from the tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 33
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,796
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Great Night, An Entertaining Game (But Stay Out Of The Cemetery) 9/11/2015
DAWSON – There is nothing quite like football in a small town, in a unique setting, on a beautiful autumn evening. Friday night’s game between Minneota and Dawson-Boyd went 3-for-3 on those counts, and the final score was less important than the formula that went into the thing.

--Small town? Check. Both of the teams compete in Class 1A, the smallest level of 11-man football in Minnesota. Minneota has an enrollment of 201 students in the top four grades and Dawson-Boyd comes in at 142. Last season the Minneota Vikings defeated the Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks 28-14 in the 1A Prep Bowl.

--Unique setting? Double check. R.B. Clay Field is bowled in by hillsides on both sidelines and one end zone, meaning fans who park their vehicles early enough – in some cases days early – can sit in comfort and watch the game through their windshields. Twice during Friday’s game the PA announcer had to ask a favor of fans/drivers: “People parked on the hill, please shut off the lights on your car!” (Hash tag: #FridayNightHeadlights.)

The game program also listed some reminders for fans, especially youngsters: “No rough play or tumble games are allowed at football games” and “Students should not be on the softball fields or in the cemetery.”

Indeed, a cemetery borders the northeastern corner of the football field. And since the complex is not ringed by any fencing, people pay for their tickets either on foot or through the windows of their cars as they arrive on the top of the hillside. A second ticket table is located near the cemetery just in case any sneaks try to wiggle through the headstones and save a few dollars.

--Beautiful evening? Oh my gosh, temperatures in the 60s and just enough chill in the air that you needed a jacket.

There was a good amount of expectation for this game, considering the Prep Bowl theme. Minneota came in with a 3-0 record and an average victory margin of 47-7. The Blackjacks were 2-1 after a last-minute loss to Laq qui Parle Valley a week earlier. Friday’s result, a 42-13 Minneota victory, assured the Vikings of retaining their No. 1 spot in the Class 1A rankings while Dawson-Boyd is sure to fall from its spot at No. 10.

At halftime, however, all of that was in doubt. After Minneota took a 7-0 lead on a scoring pass from Alex Pohlen to Kyle Hennen, the Blackjawks surged. Dawson-Boyd quarterback Jess Hansen – who completed 26 of 42 passes for 240 yards – hit Eli Weber for a 3-yard score and Hunter Olson for a 75-yard TD before halftime and the hometown lads led 13-7 at the break.

Vikings senior Garrett Hennen, a bruising running back and an even bruisier linebacker, explained what went on.

“Going into halftime we felt like we hadn’t played as well as we should have in the whole first half,” he said. “We kind of came out slow and they obviously were fired up, probably a little bit upset about last year’s loss to us. We were a little bit on our heels in the first half. At halftime we knew we had to step it up. We did pretty well, I thought, in the second half.”

Yep, outscoring your opponent 35-0 in the second half is doing pretty well.

Give the Blackjacks credit for playing hard and never giving in. As evidenced by Hansen’s statistics, Dawson-Boyd has an explosive offense and receivers were open over the middle all night. But the Blackjacks ran for only 16 yards thanks to Minneota’s swarming defense.

Pohlen completed seven of 15 passes for 157 yards and four touchdowns; one to Bryce Bruner and three to Kyle Hennen (cousin of Garrett). Garrett is an old hand at scoring but Kyle’s touchdowns Friday were the first of his varsity career.

These teams carry leather-bound pedigrees. Dawson-Boyd won a state title in 2011 and was the state runner-up in 2013 and 2014. Minneota brought home state championships in1986, 1987, 1988, 2009 and last year.

Minneota has had to replace four of five starting offensive linemen this season, and the new guys looked solid Friday. Dawson-Boyd had a bunch of seniors last year. When I asked coach Cory Larson what his team lost from last season he summed it up quite nicely: “Everything but our underwear.”

The Blackjacks have only six seniors and five juniors on the roster, and using freshmen and sophomore to fill important holes can be a challenge. “At times we may have seven freshmen and sophomores on the field,” Larson said.

The fact that these two teams -- which are 37 miles apart and annual conference and now district rivals -- met in the 2014 Prep Bowl is a testament to the quality of football in southwestern Minnesota.

“I think every area of the state has good, competitive teams. Some areas have a little bit more,” said Minneota coach Chad Johnston. “I think we’ve taken pride in the fact that we’re usually represented well in the state tournament and teams that get there usually do well.

“There are good kids down here, they work hard, some good farm kids, that kind of stuff, and good coaches. There are so many things that come into play in these programs. The communities have to commit, the schools have to commit. Once you start getting some success, that tradition comes into play.”

That’s exactly what was on display on Friday.

--To see a photo gallery from the game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 17
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,598
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Thinking Back To Fourteen Years Ago This Week9/9/2015
I’ll always remember where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had an appointment to speak to a class at Bloomington Jefferson High School, and I turned on the radio at home as I was getting dressed for the day.

There was talk of something bad happening in New York City. I turned on the TV in the kitchen and saw a big black smoldering hole in the side of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane had apparently struck the building, but nobody knew anything more than that. Before long another aircraft blasted into the other twin tower.

I drove to Bloomington Jefferson, arriving a few minutes early. I listened to the radio in the car for as long as I could and then walked into the school and was escorted to the room where the Sports Literature class was meeting. There were televisions in the classrooms, but because of construction work in the school none of the TVs were working. I told the class everything I had learned from listening to the radio, and then we were all in blackout mode.

After the class period ended, I drove to the Star Tribune building in downtown Minneapolis. Like everyone else in the newsroom, I watched the scenes on television. The Pentagon was on fire … a plane had apparently gone down in Pennsylvania.

Fast-forward a few years and I was back at Jefferson, writing about a memorial stone that had been installed at the school in honor of former Jaguars quarterback Tom Burnett, who died when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. I also wrote about former Blake linebacker Gordy Aamoth, who died in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11. The stadium at Blake now bears his name and a twisted beam from the World Trade Center is on display at the stadium.

In the Sept. 14, 2001, edition of the Star Tribune, I wrote a column under the headline “High school sports can help the healing.” I had spoken with people at Colorado’s Columbine High School as well as Osceolo High School in Wisconsin, where a traffic accident had claimed twin brothers a few weeks before Sept. 11. That column seemed to resonate with readers at the time, and to this day people occasionally will mention it to me. I have heard from a few people who say they saved that column, and they read it every day as Sept. 11 comes around. That is equally touching and humbling.

Here is that column as it appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sept. 14, 2001…

High School Sports Can Help The Healing

In the horrible wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all after-school activities were canceled Tuesday in the Jefferson County (Colo.) School District. This didn't surprise Ed Woytek, the athletic director at Columbine High School.

The day's events hit Columbine hard, especially the senior class. They were freshmen on April 20, 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

"Our coaches and all of us are on kind of a fine line, especially with what happened here previously," Woytek said.

Columbine still is recovering from that day. Recovery also is an ongoing process in Osceola, Wis., where twin brothers Eric and Aaron Kipp, 18, died in a car accident on the way to football practice 30 days ago.

With thousands of innocent people presumed to have perished this week, what do you say? How do you heal? Maybe it's best to listen to the kids. That's among the lessons learned at Columbine and Osceola.

"Pretty much all of them are saying to us, 'We need to be a family,'" Woytek said. "Because that's what happened a few years ago; they got with family. And that's where we need to be, that's where our American people need to be, is with family."

After the Kipp brothers died, football practices were stopped for a short period. But soon, everyone wanted to return -- or try to return -- to some sense of normalcy.

"Very soon, the kids were ready to go back," said Osceola coach/principal Mike McMartin. "They said, 'Coach, I need to keep busy.' And they were right. When we jumped back into it, although they weren't the best practices in the world, there was almost a big sigh of relief that they could start moving forward and take with us all the good things that the boys had shared with us for so many years, instead of thinking about the bad."

Activities went on as scheduled Tuesday in Osceola, the day of the attacks.

"We just really felt during that time it was massively important that we show to the kids, 'Hey, we're going on. We're not going to let these people defeat us or take us off our feet here. We're going to move forward and be proud,'" McMartin said.

At Columbine and Osceola, tragedy struck a specific community of people. This week, tragedy struck us all.

The Columbine Rebels take a 1-1 record into tonight's game at Dakota Ridge. Osceola is 3-0 and the homecoming opponent for rival St. Croix Falls. The games go on, as do our lives.

"Everybody keeps saying we'll never get back to normal, just like our nation will never get back to normal," Woytek said. "But hopefully we're going to get as close to normal as we can."

So if sporting events are part of your normal routine, stick with it. If you haven't been to a high school game in years, tonight would be a wonderful time to go. Get away from the television, escape the headlines. Find a seat in the bleachers and take a break, however temporary, from all that's gone so wretchedly wrong in this world.

Watch the team captains shake hands before the coin flip. Hold your hand over your heart during the national anthem as the flag flutters at half-staff. Bow your head during the moment of silence to honor this week's victims. Get on your feet for the opening kickoff. Watch our young people -- players, cheerleaders, fans -- as they smile, holler and laugh together during this evening that is tradition both athletic and social. Buy popcorn, listen to the band, cheer first downs, simply celebrate.

Maybe administrators at every school can find a recording of God Bless America, and across our states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and beyond -- we'll sing together when the game ends. Just like a family.
Friday Was A Night To Celebrate In Jordan 9/6/2015
JORDAN – The biggest play of Friday night’s football game here was a short pass. The ball had some wobble on it but the receiver timed his route and made the grab with ease. The pass landed in the soft hands of Jordan junior quarterback Zach Kes after it was launched by a veteran athlete named Dick Ames.

As the two shook hands, Jordan superintendent Matt Helgerson said – with the assistance of the stadium sound system – “I declare Ames Field officially open.” A big cheer rang out from the fans filling the grandstand and standing along the fence line, because that declaration was huge and long-awaited.

Dick Ames (pictured) founded his own construction company in 1962, and Ames Construction now has offices all over the U.S. and in Canada. That same Dick Ames, a civic-minded resident of Jordan for 48 years and counting, donated the funds to transform a run-of-the-mill grass playing field into one of the showplaces for Minnesota high school sports.

Artificial turf, a new scoreboard, a new building to house ticket windows and concessions, new fences and a freshening up of the grandstand structure; the ballpark figure for the cost of the new ballpark is $1 million. You could tell how much the citizens of Jordan appreciate Dick Ames by the thunderous cheers that went up to the heavens during a pregame ceremony before the Hubmen played Belle Plaine … and you could tell how much Dick Ames appreciates Jordan by what he said during brief remarks.

“Probably the most important thing, if we want to be competitive with other communities, we have to have a good school system or young families are not going to move in and make our community grow,” he said.

“Buildings and fields don’t do too much. It’s people. … We have a nice school and athletic field, but it’s going to be the people around it that make things happen.”

Ames is also an important booster for the University of Minnesota and the Gophers football program. Thus, a man named Jerry Kill attended the event. The coach posed for countless photographs and shook every hand in sight.

During the national anthem, fireworks boomed as the crowd sung about bombs bursting in air. And after the game (a 37-17 victory for the unbeaten Belle Plaine Tigers), more fireworks closed out a remarkable evening.

The idea of revamping the football field (which also is now used for a new sport in Jordan: soccer) came after voters had approved the building of a new middle school. A master plan for facilities was put together, and one of the “wish list” items was artificial turf for a field that had taken regular poundings due to rain and a heavy rotation of use by various teams.

As Jordan activities director Jeff Vizenor said, “The feeling was ‘Why not turf?’ ”

Ames was approached and presented with the idea, and it didn’t take him long to say yes. Ames Construction employees did the excavation in preparing the site for turf.

“He’s been an awesome friend of the program,” Vizenor said. “We’re so lucky to have him. It’s been a really neat experience.”

Jordan first fielded a high school football team in 1907. Ames Field – or its predecessor on the same site, to be exact – was dedicated in September 1984, 31 years ago. Ames told the crowd, “In 1984 I personally did most of the work on this field out here.”

During the dedication, Helgerson said, “Jordan is a fantastic community. Those of us who live here know it’s a great place to raise a family and to allow others to compete. But it’s also a great place to come together. As we all know, strong communities come together to lift one another up during difficult times and they also gather to celebrate successes, triumphs and exciting events. Tonight, we gather to celebrate and show appreciation.”

Jordan school board chair Deb Pauly (also a member of the MSHSL board of directors) summed things up nicely in speaking to the crowd.

“Tonight is not only about celebrating the completion of this great stadium, far from it,” she said. “What we are celebrating is a long history in Jordan of support for our youth through our passion for sports and providing opportunities for our youth.

“Think of the thousands of youth who have set foot on this very field over the years, those who will tonight and the thousands who will in the future. Athletics are an integral part of the total education program here in Jordan. Each of you here tonight, and at every single event, are an important part. Your role as a player, a coach, a manager or a spirited fan makes a difference in fulfilling the mission of the Jordan public schools, which is to inspire a caring community, to ignite learning, innovation and success for all.

“We celebrate not only our youth as athletes, we celebrate the skills, values, teamwork and lessons they will have and have learned on this very field. Lessons that will help shape them into productive, strong, community-minded, caring adults who will keep this spirit going forever.”

Well done, Jordan.

--To see a photo gallery from Jordan, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 15
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,286
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Hot Night, A Slippery Football And A 40-0 Final 9/3/2015
MONTGOMERY – As I chatted on the phone Wednesday with Fairmont football coach Mat Mahoney, our conversation ended with me offering my keys to the next day’s game, which the coach repeated: “Hydrate and hang on to the football.”

The hydration half of the equation worked out for the Cardinals on Thursday night at Tri-City United. The hanging on to the football part? Not so much.

Fairmont lost the ball on turnovers six times and had a punt blocked, which gave the talented TCU Titans all the opportunities they needed in recording a 40-0 victory. Both teams came into this Week 3 matchup unbeaten and ranked in the Class 3A Top 10; the Titans are ranked No. 7 and Fairmont is No. 8. The goal for both teams Thursday was to stretch their record to 3-0. For the Titans -- who have a powerful ground game and showed they could throw the ball, as well -- it was mission accomplished.

“We think we have a special group,” said TCU coach Ken Helland. “We have nine starters back on offense and nine starters back on defense. Tonight we played a lot of kids, even in the first quarter. We think we have a lot of guys who can play.”

This was the first time these two teams had ever met on the football field, even in the days before TCU was created four years ago when the schools at Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale merged. The Cardinals and Titans are among 28 teams assigned to the South Central District; both are among 10 teams in the South Central’s Red Division.

Fairmont opened the season with victories over Blue Earth and Jordan. The Cardinals’ other regular-season opponents are Marshall, St. Peter, Worthington, Albert Lea and Waseca. Tri-City United, which had defeated Sibley East and New Ulm to open the season, also will meet Worthington, Albert Lea, Belle Plaine, Marshall and Jordan.

Once the postseason arrives, Fairmont will be in Section 3 and Tri-City United in Section 1.

This year’s move to district football scheduling has been a much-needed change for Fairmont and many other schools all over the state.

“When I first took over nine years ago we played Lennox, South Dakota, West Central (in Hartford), South Dakota, and we made some trips,” said Mahoney. “When we were in the (six-team) South Central Conference we had to find three nonconference games every year.

“I think (district scheduling) is a great thing statewide. The other side of it is nobody has to travel crazy distances. Two hours or less, that’s no big deal.”

Fairmont’s trip to Montgomery was the Cardinals’ longest of the regular season at 87 miles one way (or about 90 minutes).

For Tri-City United, the new format means more travel but also brings better competition.

“We were one of the fortunate teams,” Helland said. “We had an eight-game schedule and we didn’t have any problems. I kind of like playing these different teams, but the only thing I don’t like is our travel probably quadrupled over what it was before. We go to Marshall and we go to Worthington; I don’t have anything against playing those teams.

“One good thing that I do like is we play all teams that are in our class or above. In the Minnesota River Conference, half the teams were in our class and the other four were below us. Hopefully this makes us tougher and prepares us a little better for the playoffs.”

--To see a photo gallery from the game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 13
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,230
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn