John's Journal
Behind The Headlines: Cleveland At Madelia Boys Basketball 1/15/2016
MADELIA – As the final horn sounded on one whale of a boys basketball game here Thursday evening, the word spread quickly via two types of media: social and traditional. Tweets, radio reports and newspaper scoreboards carried the word that Cleveland had been defeated for the first time this season.

The Clippers came to Madelia with a record of 16-0; the homestanding Madelia Blackhawks were 10-5. The result of this game would have implications on the Valley Conference race and the Class 1A Section 2 postseason playoffs, as well as the civic pride of residents of two towns in southern Minnesota.

After the game, one of the coaches said to me, “It was an awesome crowd. This was a great high school basketball atmosphere.”

The stage had been set in Thursday’s Mankato Free Press. The Clippers headlined veteran reporter Chad Courrier’s Prep Basketball Notebook: “Cleveland enjoying hype of winning streak.” As Chad’s story noted, “It’s not like Cleveland sees this kind of success very often. The Clippers, who were 9-18 last season, haven’t had a winning season since going 14-10 in 2005-06. The best season in program history came in 1960, when the team went 19-3.”

Clippers coach Dan Fredrickson reiterated this point when we chatted before the game. He wondered how the spotlight of being unbeaten so deep into a 26-game regular season would play out with his young team, which has three sophomores among the top seven players.

Both schools reached the nine-man football state playoffs last fall (both were defeated in the state quarterfinals), and the basketball rosters are stocked with multi-sport athletes who know how to work and how to win.

Before tipoff, I made two key realizations: 1) Chad Courrier, who is an MSHSL basketball official as well as a journalism pro, would work the game with partner Mike Barten, the softball coach at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton; 2) Madelia has the sweetest warm-ups I have ever seen.

Madelia coach Jeff Van Hee had told me as much in an email inviting me to the game. The warm-ups are black and orange with vertical stripes on the arms and legs and a casual hoodie look.

Before tipoff, Van Hee’s son Derrick (who would end the night with a game-high 23 points) was honored in a brief ceremony for recently scoring his 1,000th career point. The Madelia pep band played songs from Taylor Swift and the Blues Brothers, the lights went out and a spotlight came on for the home-team introductions and the game began.

Madelia had the edge in size and experience, starting four seniors who included 6-foot-3 Kyle Schultz, 6-5 Jack Kortuem and 6-6 Austin Denn. Cleveland’s tallest starter is 6-3 senior Tyler Piotter, with 6-4 junior Jaiden Zishka coming off the bench. Sophomore guard Carter Kopet, already in his third year as a starter, quarterbacked the Clippers to the football state tournament and is also the QB on the basketball court. He leads the team with an 18-point average and Piotter is at 17.

The atmosphere was high-level from the get-go. Three minutes into the game, an exuberant Clippers fan sitting behind me hollered at his team, “Speed it up! They’re tired!”

Cleveland wanted to run, Madelia wanted to throw down roadblocks in the lane. The Blackhawks focused on Kopet, with three or four defenders collapsing on him when he drove to the hoop. Fredrickson is not a teacher, but he sounded like a high-intensity geography instructor as he called out plays: “ALABAMA!” “OHIO!” “ARIZONA!”

The score was tied 12-12 midway through the first half. Fouls came fast and furious, and Cleveland’s final eight points of the half came on free throws. Madelia caught a nice break in the final minute when Kortuem, attempting an off-balance, up-in-the-air, one-handed pass from the lane – intended for Augie Reihs – watched the ball bounce off the rim and drop through.

The Blackhawks led 32-25 at halftime and came out hot in the second half. They went hard to the hole, scored eight straight points on layups and led 40-30 with 15:20 to play. Fredrickson winced when one of his players missed an open layup, but the Clippers regrouped. Two layups by sophomore Austin Plonsky (who would lead Cleveland with 18 points) bookmarked an 8-0 run that cut the deficit to four.

A three-pointer by Plonsky and a drive by Zishka put Cleveland in front 43-42. Steals by Kopet and Zishka resulted in a free throw (Kopet) and layup (Zishka) and the Clippers were up 48-44 with five-plus minutes remaining. A three by Mitch McCabe and a fadeaway shot by Kopet made it 55-49 and the Clippers appeared to be in control with 4:12 left.

Zishka, who played 20 minutes off the bench, came out for a breather with 2:27 left. Fredrickson told him, “As soon as you’re ready, we need you back in.” He didn’t sit for long.

The teams traded free throws. McCabe hit a three to make it Cleveland 62, Madelia 56 with 1:59 to go. During a timeout the fans on either side of the gym traded proud chants: “CHS! CHS!” was countered by “MHS! MHS!” The place was electric.

The darn thing came down to the final 17 seconds. Two free throws by Kopet gave Cleveland a 64-61 lead. The Clippers allowed Madelia’s Van Hee to drive and score a layup, because two points wasn’t the dagger that three would have been. His layup made it Clippers 64, Blackhawks 53 with 11.5 seconds to go.

Madelia had to foul somebody and Kopet wasn’t their first choice, but he held the ball and they swiped at him. Courrier’s story that day had noted that Carter shoots 73 percent from the line and came into the game having made 31 of his last 34. I didn’t hear anybody yell “jinx!” but this time he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Madelia got the rebound, Denn – the tallest player on either team -- got the ball down low and scored the biggest two of his 12 points. Madelia 65, Cleveland 64. Two seconds to play.

The Clippers had to go the length of the court, and 84 feet looks like a football field at times like this. One pass, another pass and the ball was outside the three-point line. Shot went up, shot missed and the Madelia students – all wearing black on Blackout Night – rushed the court with a whoop and surrounded their boys.

“You’ve got to hand it to them,” Jeff Van Hee said. “They battled. I was thinking, ‘These (Cleveland) sophomores, eventually they’re going to cave.’ They really didn’t cave. Carter Kopet is a heck of a player; I don’t know what his free throw percentage was, but he missed one. And that was the one we needed him to miss.”

Fredrickson said, “We’re a young team, and I’ve got to do a better job of making sure they know situational basketball. The kids played their tail off in the second half. I thought we really fought to come back. I outcoached myself in the first half, went triangle-and-two, box-and-one, they got hot a little bit, got some confidence. The second half we came out man-to-man and the kids came back and fought hard.”

For the home team and their families and friends, there was postgame cake in celebration of Derrick Van Hee’s 1,000 points. Holding cake in one hand and a big victory in the other made the night especially sweet for the Madelians.

Jeff Van Hee said of Cleveland, “When they look back, they’ll probably say, ‘This helped us more than it hurt us.’ It helped us immediately. It gave us the confidence we needed.”

And then came the statement of the night.

“It was an awesome crowd,” Van Hee said, totally unable to conceal a satisfied grin. “This was a great high school basketball atmosphere.”

No argument here.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 376
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,295
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Mounds View vs. MSAD: A Game To Remember 1/11/2016
FARIBAULT -- One of the most interesting matchups of the basketball season took place here Saturday afternoon in an 85-year-old gymnasium.

The visiting team was from a big school: Class 4A Mounds View has 1,650 students. The home team from Class 1A Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf represented a high school with just 50 students.

What a matchup it was. And in the long run, the final score is almost meaningless.

“This is a game I think our kids will remember forever,” said Mounds View coach David Leiser. “When they get together 30 years from now, they’ll talk about this game.”

The Mustangs broke free from a 31-31 halftime tie to win 75-40. Not surprisingly, Mounds View had more size and depth than the Trojans of MSAD. But when you look at hustle and determination, this game was a dead heat.

“One of the things that impressed me about them was you could see how much playing for this academy means to them,” Leiser said. “This is everything to them, they put their heart and soul into this. I told our guys, ‘We’re Mounds View. We’ve got a lot to play for, too. We need to be proud when we come out on the floor and give the kind of effort that we have to give.’ ”

Nobody at MSAD – which was founded in 1863 -- could remember one of their teams playing a team from the state’s largest class. The game came about after Leiser saw MSAD play a year ago. One of his former assistants now coaches at Academy for Sciences and Agriculture in Vadnais Heights. When Leiser went to a game, the opponent was the Trojans. He came away very impressed and contacted MSAD athletic director David Olson about scheduling a game.

“I was just honestly mesmerized,” Leiser said. “I thought it was so cool how they communicated with each other, and they were good, too. We saw that in the first half; they’ve got guys who can play. They can compete.

“I’m a big believer that one of the great things about basketball, really all sports, is that it brings people together from different cultures, communities, cities. We play teams from small towns and I love to take our team to a small town. We get treated so well when we go to a small town.”

MSAD’s Lauritsen Gymnasium, built in 1931, is a showplace of a bandbox: Limestone walls, balcony seating behind one basket, sunlight streaming through windows.

“When we walked in, I thought, ‘What a great honor to be here,’ ” said Mounds View senior Nate Albers, who led all scorers with 24 points. “I’ve never played in anything like this gym before. It’s definitely unique.”

MSAD coach Lee Jones, his assistants and the players communicate via sign language. MSAD staff member Cheryl Anderson acted as a sign-language interpreter for the Mounds View coaches, officials and media. The public-address system wasn’t working Saturday, so Anderson and Olson stood at center court with Anderson verbally announced the starting lineups as Olson did the same in sign language.

“You could see a couple signs and they played through a couple whistles,” Albers said of the Trojans. “But it felt like it was just another game and we had to play like we always do.”

Trojans junior Kyrell Cummings, who led his team with 16 points, said, “The first half was great. We were just really hungry. In the second half we kind of went down, but we wanted to stay positive. Mounds View is pretty good. It’s important to taste what 4A tastes like. It was a good experience.”

Mounds View (12-2) had lost to Woodbury the previous evening, and the short period of time between that game and Saturday’s contest might have had something to do with the Mustangs’ slow start.

MSAD is 7-6, including victories over deaf academies from Wisconsin, Kansas and Iowa.

“All my boys, this week, were really talking all about Mounds View, Mounds View, Mounds View,” Jones said after the game. “They knew it was a big school with a lot of players. We have a small school with less kids so we wanted to try and match their level. The first half was a surprise; we played our best offense of the season. The boys took care of the ball really well. Until the second half. They changed their defense and frustrated us. The game changed very quick. But the concept of the game with a bigger school was a great experience.”

The Mounds View players will certainly remember the game for a long time. And the same can be said for the Trojans.

“We’ll remember, ‘Wow. We played against a 4A school,’ ” Cummings said. “We’ve checked it off our bucket list.”

--To see photos from the game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 374
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,111
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Grand Rapids, Duluth East And A Night To Remember 1/8/2016
GRAND RAPIDS -- The first-year boys hockey coach at Grand Rapids High School said something before Thursday’s game against Duluth East that was comical, yes, but also wise: “I’m smart enough to know I’m stupid; I’m not stupid enough to think I’m smart.”

The rookie coach has been around the game for a long time, and hockey fans certainly know about him. His name is Trent Klatt. He was named Mr. Hockey in 1989 after a spectacular high school career at Osseo, he played three years for the University of Minnesota and then spent 13 years in the NHL. That’s a big-time pedigree.

Junior Drake Anderson, who scored the winning goal in overtime as the Thunderhawks defeated East 4-3, said this about his coach: “I really like Trent. He came in at the start of the year and the big talk was how he was an NHL player. I like how he coaches and everything about him.”

There was a lot to like Thursday night, especially for fans of Grand Rapids as well as spectacular old-time arenas. The IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids is a must-see for any hockey historian, and taking in a game – especially one against a rival like Duluth East – can make your head spin. The building dates from the early 1960s, and the wooden beams and ceiling are a throwback to the glory days of old-time hockey.

Thursday’s game was another kind of throwback. There were few penalties, no cheap shots and the entire game was a back-and-forthfest of skating and skill. The Grand Rapids pep band, one of the finest you will ever hear, added to the energized atmosphere, as did the Thunderhawks cheerleaders and mascot, all on skates.

“It’s a great high school venue, the best,” said East coach Mike Randolph. “And when the two of us get together it brings out the best in both teams. I thought it was a great, entertaining game for the fans.”

Goals by Mitchell Mattson in the first period and Alex Adams in the second had the Thunderhawks in control 2-0 heading into the third period. A breakaway goal by East’s Austin Crist narrowed the gap; Grand Rapids’ Michael Heitkamp scored his first varsity goal 27 seconds later and the Thunderhawks led 3-1.

Ian Mageau scored for East to make it 3-2 and the tie was forged on a goal by Ash Altmann with 2:50 left in regulation. When Anderson ended the evening in overtime by jamming home a rebound of a shot by Adams, the place erupted.

Randolph is one of the legends of hockey coaches in Minnesota. He has won 567 games during a career that’s in Year 29. He has retired as an elementary teacher, devoting his winters to the game he loves.

Thursday’s result did not make Randolph especially pleased. He was unhappy when the officials waved off a Greyhounds goal in the final minutes of regulation, and he’s still sorting out his player rotations.

“We’ve always approached it the same way; the regular season is 25 lesson plans and we look at a lot of people in a lot of different spots,” he said. “We give people an opportunity and then come February we start solidifying who deserves to be there.”

East’s record is 6-6 (Grand Rapids is 9-5-1). East’s season so far may seem like reason for major concern, but Greyhound followers know what happened last season. The Hounds were 11-10-4 in the regular season and ended up playing in the Class 2A state championship game (where they lost to Lakeville North).

Pulling that kind of rabbit out of a hockey helmet two years in a row might be a tough task, but Randolph trusts in the process.

“They’re really good in this rink,” Randolph said of the Thunderhawks. “They’re very tough to beat. They played hard. I think Trent, the same as we are, is trying to find who’s going to be where in the end. He’s still putting it together just like we are.”

Klatt is no stranger to Grand Rapids, where he has lived for years. His wife, Kelly, is the Thunderhawks head softball coach. Trent had stepped down as head scout for the New York Islanders before the high school coaching job opened up, and he was a natural choice. He had worked as a volunteer assistant with the team a year ago.

“I just love being at the rink,” he said. “The kids want to learn, they want to get better. It’s something that we share.”

Klatt is 44, Randolph is 64. Their teams are both in Section 7, and you know what that means: they could meet again in the postseason. That’s certainly something that was a topic of discussion by the fans who witnessed Thursday’s spectacular show.

“They’re the favorite,” Randolph said. “They’re the team we have to chase. We learned a lot about them and we learned a lot about ourselves.

“Who knows? We might see each other in the playoffs.”

Wouldn't that be something?

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 365
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,954
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
That Winning Smile: Moose Lake’s Inspirational Megan Wegge 1/1/2016
Watch Megan Wegge skate. Watch her stride down the ice -- forceful and smooth -- as a member of the Moose Lake girls hockey team. Afterwards, when her helmet and facemask have been removed, watch her smile. Oh, that smile.

As a new year begins, Megan’s smile is something to feel good about. Really good.

Megan is a miracle. When she was born 16 years ago she was placed on life support and doctors doubted that she would survive. But here she is, along with her brother Nick and sister Brooke (yes, Megan is a triplet).

Cancer came later, when Megan was 11. The technical term was stage 3 undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver. It’s rare, it’s vicious and it wins a lot of the fights it starts.

Megan was battling cancer long before she had cancer. Ten years ago, a friend named Johnny Murphy died because of cancer. After that, Megan began raising money to fight the disease. She made chocolate treats and sold them herself. She donated her own hair to Locks of Love.

“My friend Johnny died when I was pretty young and that really impacted me,” Megan said. “I wanted to help, and I never knew that I was going to get cancer.”

She had a tumor the size of a softball in her liver. The tumor ruptured before surgery, which added another layer of complications and concern. Doctors removed the tumor and most of Megan’s liver. That was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She underwent chemo and proton beam therapy treatments, 29 in all, over the course of two and a half months in Bloomington, Indiana.

I asked Megan about her memories from that time. And she smiled.

“I have a lot of memories, most of them are actually good,” she said. “I know that I felt really sick at some points, but I’ve kind of pushed those memories out of my mind. We’ve met a lot of really good people. A lot of hockey people have come together. The Edina team did a lot; they sold lemonade and raised money for me. The Gophers women’s team has done a lot for me. One player in particular, Megan Bozek, has been a huge inspiration to me. She would come visit me in the hospital, she let me come and skate with her team and visit them.

“We’ve made a lot of connections with a lot of people and we’ve made some really good friends from everything.”

Megan won’t be declared cancer-free until the disease has been absent for 10 years. She’s halfway to that mark. Her current medical status is N.E.D., which stands for No Evidence of Disease. Because of the treatments she went through, there are times when she feels tired, when it’s a little hard to get a good breath, when there is pain.

“Other than that, I’m doing super well,” she said, busting out that smile again.

Moose Lake coach Joe Mohelsky said, “One of our team values is being grateful. And Megan really brings that gratitude to the team. She battled that cancer. It was really touch and go there for a while, and a lot of these girls spent a lot of time with her and came up through youth hockey with her.

“She’s a fighter and you can see it on the ice. Her motor never quits running. Megan’s a great kid. She’s smart, she’s a great teammate, she’s a real pleasure to coach.”

Playing hockey and being part of the team is important to Megan. Her mother, in fact, said returning to the ice was a goal that helped Megan get through cancer treatments.

“Her doctors advised her not to skate,” Jodi Wegge said. “She had almost her whole liver removed and a lot of things shifted, so if she got run into the boards it could be not good. But that’s what got her through, that’s what she looked forward to. I can’t take away the thing that saved her. We never know what’s going to happen to any of us at any time, so we just enjoy life and let her do what she wants to do.”

The Wegge family is grateful. Jodi and her husband Dan, the triplets and their older sister Lindsey … grateful doesn’t even begin to explain how they feel about all the support they have received.

“We couldn’t have done this journey without our community,” Jodi said. “It was unbelievable. Especially the hockey community and our Moose Lake family. It’s just been unreal. Even to this day they still rally around us and want to know how she’s doing. It’s amazing to me that there are so many people who care. There were a lot of people we didn’t even know.”

While her treatments were taking place, Megan told her family and her doctors that she could not imagine ever being a doctor and dealing with such things on a daily basis. But guess what she wants to do with her life?

“I actually want to be a doctor,” she said. “After becoming N.E.D. and getting better, I realized these doctors had a huge impact on me and I want to be like them.”

Don’t doubt her. The baby who wasn’t expected to survive, the cancer patient who beat cancer. She’s all of 5-feet-4 and not even 120 pounds. And she’s a fighter.

“I always give my all, no matter what I’m doing,” Megan said.

And she smiled that beautiful smile.

Happy New Year.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 353
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,430
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Love Of Wrestling, An Official With Heart 12/21/2015
If you’ve ever thought about becoming an MSHSL official in any sport, I have one piece of advice for you: Watch Joe Steffenhagen officiate a wrestling match. He is an inspiration, working with young athletes and helping them learn about wrestling. Joe smiles a lot, too.

That’s probably the first thing you’ll notice about Joe. His smile. It lights up the mat. At some point you’ll notice something else about Joe. He moves with a slight limp and he doesn’t have full use of his right arm and hand.

None of that matters. What matters is that Steffenhagen is giving back to a sport he loves.

Joe has never let cerebral palsy get in his way. He grew up as an active kid, joining his friends in whatever sport was in season.

“I played basketball until eighth grade and then I got short,” he said, laughing. “I was a post player, as tall as I am now, 5-foot-5. I started wrestling in ninth grade.”

He also played football and baseball at Orono High School. But wrestling was his main sport. He loved everything about it and lettered for four years before graduating in 2002.

He’s in his second year as a registered MSHSL wrestling official. He officiates on the middle school and sub-varsity level as he improves his skills. His reasoning for becoming an official is pretty simple: “Jeez, I just like getting on the mat and being around it.”

Ronnie Schneider, one of the state’s top wrestling officials, teaches physical education at Roseville Area High School; Joe works there as a special education teacher’s aide. Schneider, a 25-year official who has worked 10 state tournaments, is also the assignment secretary for the Skyline Wrestling Officials Association.

Schneider recognized Joe’s love for wrestling, as well as his deep knowledge of the sport, and encouraged him to become an official.

“His knowledge of wrestling was amazing to me,” Schneider said. “He understood the technique, the calls, everything. I’m like, ‘Joe, why aren’t you reffing?’ We’re always looking for guys to do middle school and other events. He said, ‘I don’t think I can.’

“He can move and he’s got just a little limp. His right hand was the problem. I’m like, ‘Joe, let’s figure it out.’ We need officials. The only guys we can pick from are guys who know wrestling. And he knows it.”

Since Joe has trouble signaling points with his right hand, he does so with his left hand for both wrestlers. Officials wear red and green wristbands, with wrestlers wearing matching colors on an ankle. When one wrestler scores, the officials’ hand with the corresponding wristband is used to signal points.

Joe’s right hand is the “green” hand. To signal points for green, he covers his red wristband with his green wristband and puts up the corresponding number of fingers on his red hand. It’s an easy system to understand.

“Before we start I’ll go up to whoever is doing the scoring and tell them how I’m going to do things,” Joe said. “It works out. And for any ref, a good scorekeeper can help you.”

During a recent match involving St. Paul middle school wrestlers at St. Paul Washington Technology Magnet School, Steffenhagen displayed a combination of patience, hustle and understanding. After making a call, he sometimes took a moment to explain it to the wrestlers. He helped kids with their headgear, took extra time in getting them in correct position before the whistle and raised the hand of every winner.

Joe is becoming more comfortable with every competition. He’s hoping to be able to work a varsity match before the end of the season. Schneider sometimes watches him officiate, and he is always ready with tips for improvement.

“Ronnie is what got me going,” Joe said. “He does the scheduling and we work at the same high school. I thought, ‘that’s an easy in.’ He’s been a mentor-type person for me.”

When he began officiating, Steffenhagen said he had concerns about being able to do it. Those issues are long gone now.

“I was more worried about how I would do it. Now I’m not worried about it all. I got that off my shoulders. Now I just want to learn how to be a better official.

“I was just thinking today, ‘Wow, I’m having more fun this year.’ And that’s what the hope is: To get better every year.”

Joe is hoping to work in an off-the-mat job at the state tournament in February, all in the hopes of learning more and more.

“We are hurting for officials, we can use more and it shouldn’t matter who you are,” Schneider said. “If you have the desire and the ability, we need you to officiate.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 345
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,350
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn