John's Journal
Here Come The Skiers (And You Can Listen On The Radio)2/11/2016
BIWABIK – Nordic skiing is a very unique sport. It requires snow, for one thing, and having a great place to ski isn’t always commonplace even in Minnesota. Athletes need skis, racing footwear, poles, a race suit and the ability to compete in conditions that can range from balmy to frigid, from no breeze at all to blizzard winds.

Among the 99 boys Nordic teams and 100 girls Nordic teams in Minnesota, the Ely Timberwolves have something on their side that no other team can contemplate: Ely has a hometown broadcaster who calls skiing play-by-play on the radio.

Tom Coombe (pictured) is a human Swiss army knife. He’s the editor of the Ely Echo newspaper, sports director of WELY Radio in Ely and since August he has been the athletic director at Ely High School. He has coached American Legion baseball in Ely since 1994 and has been an assistant baseball coach at the high school.

His radio duties include play-by-play of Ely High School and Vermilion Community College sports, and at Thursday’s MSHSL state Nordic ski championships Coombe was in his usual position, broadcasting the action from a spot near the finish line at Giants Ridge.

He also called last week’s Section 7 ski meet, where Ely finished first among girls and boys.

Coombe has been broadcasting from the state meet since 2004, and nobody is aware of any other radio stations that carry skiing live.

“It’s a challenge, no question about it,” Coombe said.

Nordic skiing is unlike more traditional “stick and ball” sports. The skiers leave the start line, disappear into the hills and woods and later reappear. Plus, there are two races at sections and state; freestyle races for girls and boys, followed by classical pursuit races. The finishing order of the freestyle races (which use a staggered start) are used to set the starting times for the classical races, with the highest freestyle finishers starting ahead of the rest of the pack.

Yes, it can be just a bit confusing.

“The first races, with staggered starts, I’ll generally do live updates,” Coombe said. “I’ll come back on the air for a few minutes when the Ely kids are on the course and when they’re coming back through the finish line. I’m pretty good at math so I try to figure out times in my head, I try to do approximations.

“Generally by the time the second race begins I have results from the first race and that helps fill some airtime. The second part, in the pursuit and a true order of finish, comes close to a traditional sports broadcast. They come in boom boom boom boom and it can be hard to keep track.”

WELY – also known as “End of the Road Radio” – can be heard on the internet, and Coombe gets more feedback from web listeners all the time.

“Our internet stream has picked up through the years,” he said. “I’ve had fans of other teams outside Section 7 listen; parents and grandparents have listened.”

Coombe first did state ski play-by-play when colleagues at the radio station had kids on the Ely ski team. He had little background in skiing, but gave it a whirl.

“It’s kind of evolved through the years. The first time we did it, people at the station who had kids involved in the ski program thought it would be a neat idea to do skiing. I was skeptical at first, and I hope nobody has a recording of those first couple of meets. I really had to learn on the fly how to broadcast something like this.”


One of the busiest multi-taskers at the Nordic meet was Mesabi East junior Anna Johnson (pictured). Before the day’s races began, she joined the rest of her school’s choir members to sing the national anthem inside the timing building near the finish line. After the last note was sung, she sprinted out of the building to put on her skis.

Anna had reason to rush, because she was the 13th of 160 skiers to leave the start line in the girls 5K freestyle race. As she left the timing building, one of her fellow choir members yelled, “Go Anna!” Another singer said to the group, “Let’s go cheer on Anna!”


Margie Freed of Eastview finished ahead of the pack in the girls freestyle race and maintained her lead through the classical pursuit event to claim the individual state. Erin Moening of St. Paul Highland Park was second, followed by Anja Maijala of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton.

The girls team champion was Armstrong, followed by Wayzata, Stillwater, Duluth East and Burnsville in the top five.

The boys champion claimed his second state title in three years. Bloomington Jefferson’s Zak Ketterson won the championship as a sophomore and missed last year’s postseason because he was skiing at an international competition in Romania. Finishing second was Patrick Acton of Eagan and Xavier Mansfield of Spring Lake Park was third.

Minneapolis Southwest won the boys team title, followed in the top five by Stillwater, Wayzata, Forest Lake and Ely.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 416
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 8,173
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Family History Of Warm Hands And State Ski Championships 2/10/2016
BIWABIK – Before Maddie Dekko held her state championship gold medal, as well as another gold medal and a shiny trophy for being part of Blake’s championship Alpine ski team, she held history in – and on – her hands.

Wednesday was a big day for the senior from Blake, who put a disastrous 2015 state meet behind her and came away with all the possible first-place hardware. It also was a big day in Dekko family history, based on a worn pair of ski gloves.

In 1984, a young man named Jeff Dekko won an Alpine state championship skiing for Edina. In 2013 and 2014, Zach Dekko was part of Blake’s boys championship Alpine teams. Zach carried his dad’s old mittens at state, and his kid sister Maddie did the same.

“It was my turn,” she said with a smile Wednesday at Giants Ridge Resort. “I got to wear them and I guess they’re lucky.”

Maddie led after the first run, just as she did one year ago. But she fell on the second of two runs in 2015 and finished 73rd. Wednesday’s results meant a happy finish to her high school skiing career, and one happy family.

Rosie Hust of Orono finished second, followed by Ide Nellie of Blake. Dekko and Nellie led the Bears to the team title with a score of 157. Orono was second at 148 and Mankato West third at 141.

On the boys side, Tommy Anderson of Eagan won the individual title, followed by Jack Lindsay of Burnsville and Luke Doolittle of Eagan, giving the South Suburban Conference a sweep of the top three places.

Edina won the boys team crown with a score of 168, followed by Minnetonka (160) and Hastings (150.)

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 408
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,950
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Skier Goes Down, And A Helping Hand Appears2/9/2016
Something special happened at the recent Section 6 boys Nordic ski meet. It started when a skier fell and broke one of his poles.

The letter below was sent to Armstrong assistant coach Doug Hubred, written by a parent of a skier from St. Louis Park. (St. Louis Park finished second to earn a berth at the state championship meet; Armstrong was third, two points back, and did not advance to state.)

Dear Doug,

I’ve written this letter to say thank you and to extend my deepest gratitude for your remarkable kindness at the section race Monday. My son Ben is the skier you extended the pole to after his fall around the bend.

I was nervous that morning before the race, but not about whether we would win. Ben had a tough week leading up to the race and I just wanted him to ski a good run without any falls. With marginal weather and snow, I knew it would be a hard course with treacherous terrain. He had a great first race despite a minor fall at the end. On the second race, I was standing on the sideline when he came around the bend and took that fall. I watched as he struggled to get up and my heart sank. I heard a jeering comment from a woman behind me about counting a skier out and my heart sank further. When I saw that his pole was broken, I figured that’s the end of it, he’s out. But when I saw a pole extended to him from the sideline, I knew that he could at least finish the race. I am proud of him for giving it his all and finishing.

I had assumed the pole came from one of our coaches and I thought how lucky Ben was that his coach happened to be there. When I later learned that the pole came from an Armstrong coach, I was in disbelief. I thought about the implications. Here your team was neck and neck with SLP for that second-place spot for state. You could have easily watched like the rest of us, feeling bad for the skier who fell but solidifying your team’s advance to state. Instead without hesitation, you chose to extend kindness to a kid who at the moment needed a helping hand. I have reflected on your honorable action, your selfless deed, since the culmination of that race. I wondered how many of us would have done the same thing, given the circumstances. Of course, we’d all like to think we would do the right thing. I would sure hope so, but I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that you did an honorable thing that day which made a difference in a kid’s life, beyond the results of his race. Our family and especially Ben will not forget your kindness.

While it’s great that our boys will be competing at state, it is bittersweet. Your boys earned that spot just as much as the SLP team and I wish they too could have advanced. We overheard some nice comments from your boys after the race, even after experiencing that very tough loss. Your Nordic team is a great group of kids, clearly a reflection of the culture you have created. I hope they know how lucky they are to have a coach and a role model like you. I wish all of you continued success.

With great thanks and appreciation,

Sue, Alex and Ben Chong.
Big D In The Big Nine: Red Wing Is On A Roll 2/7/2016
RED WING – The scene inside the high school gymnasium here Saturday night was everything a road-tripping scribe could hope for. A full house and two boys basketball teams battling hammer and tong, one coming in undefeated and the other hoping to put an end to that distinction.

Implications? This one was big in the Big Nine Conference, in Class 3A Section 1 playoff jockeying and in the 3A state rankings. Red Wing was 20-0 overall, 16-0 in the Big Nine and carried the No. 1 spot in the polls. Austin was ranked No. 4 at 16-4 overall and 14-3 in Big Nine play. The first time they met this season, Red Wing won by nine points in Austin on Dec. 15.

Another key statistic: The Wingers came into the game with a sterling defensive number: their opponents had averaged only 47 points per game.

Defensive skill and intensity isn’t built from scratch starting on the first day of practice in November. The current Wingers have been learning about defense since they were little.

“To be honest with you I kind of inherited all these guys from traveling basketball way back when,” Red Wing coach Doug Toivonen said, mentioning two of his senior starters. “Ben Munson’s dad and Carson Bryan’s dad really taught these kids to take pride in their defense. When you’re the varsity coach and you inherit these kids as freshmen and sophomores, and you see how hard they work every day, it’s just a joy.

“We feel like we’re a pretty athletic group and it’s not very often that you get a team, especially high school kids, to buy into defense. But our kids really have. Every defensive drill we do in practice, these kids go 100 percent. Sometimes I have to stop practice; it’s like, ‘OK, I get it, we don’t need to get anybody hurt.’ ”

Those words from Toivonen came after the Wingers moved to 21-0 with a 56-47 (yes, 47) victory that was forged on an anvil of defense. Austin was held to nine points in the opening 16 minutes, including an eight-minute scoreless stretch. The score was 25-13 at halftime and it was all about defense and discipline.

“They put us on lockdown,” said Austin coach Kris Fadness, whose Packers lost to DeLaSalle in the 2013 and 2014 Class 3A state championship games. “They’re very good, they’re athletic and they’re physical. They’re very disciplined on defense. They make you work for every shot, they make you run through screens because they’re very physical.”

The second half was a marked change from the first. Austin played smarter offensively and hit enough three-point shots to stay in the game. Threes by Tate Hebrink and Duoth Gach cut Red Wing’s lead to seven with 10 minutes to play, but a three by Bryan and two close-range shots by the 6-foot-7 Joe Sevlie pushed the Wingers’ lead back to 10, 39-29.

The final push by the Packers was again sparked when Gach and Hebrink hit threes. The score was Wingers 47, Packers 41 with two minutes left and the large group of Austin fans who had made the 85-mile drive were whoopin’ it up.

Gach kept firing but missed back-to-back threes and teammate Oman Oman fouled out trying to snag a rebound; Bryan made two free throws. After another Packers miss, Gach fouled out; Munson hit a free throw.

You know the rest of the story: fouls and free throws. Red Wing made nine of 11 from the line in those last two minutes to seal the deal.

“Their defense is what makes them so good,” Fadness said. “And you have to be impressed with their senior leadership, because down the stretch they were making their free throws. There’s a reason they’re No. 1 in the state right now. They’re well-coached, they’re very disciplined, they do all the little fundamentals right.”

Red Wing is talented and hard-working on offense but so much of its success stems from defense that scoring can almost appear to be a secondary matter. The Wingers attempted only 32 field goals in the 36-minute game; they made 17 of them, and shooting 53 percent will win plenty of games. Austin made 19 of 44 (43 percent).

The difference was at the foul line, where Red Wing hit 18 of 26 and the Packers made four of nine. Another key number was total rebounds: 30 for the Wingers and 17 for Austin.

Credit the Packers, who are an exciting albeit young team. Their leading scorers Friday were all sophomores: Both Gach with 18, Duoth Gach with 12 and Hebrink with eight. Sevlie and coach’s kid Travis Toivonen scored 14 each for the Wingers, Munson had 12 and Bryan 10.

I asked Doug Toivonen if there was pressure from being unbeaten.

“I think the pressure you feel is when a whole bunch of people come to watch, you feel like because you’re 21-0 you have to prove things to everybody,” he said. “We’re not blowing-people-out-of-the-water 21-0. We have a nice team that’s showed up to play every night. I don’t think we have a lot of superstars on our team; I think we have a team that plays really well together and we’ve found ways to win basketball games.

“We really needed to show up against Austin and I was real proud of the effort. It was a really nice win.”

The Big Nine is having a banner year in boys basketball. Lurking behind Red Wing in the standings are Rochester John Marshall (18-3 overall, 16-1 Big Nine) and Austin (16-5, 14-4), with Northfield and Mankato East on the perimeter ready to throw wrenches.

John Marshall’s only league loss was a 10-point game at Red Wing on Jan. 12 and the rematch will come in the regular-season finale. John Marshall is a 4A team, leaving Red Wing and Austin as the top two teams in 3A Section 1.

“We’re hoping we get a shot at them again,” Fadness said.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 384
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,691
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
4A Girls Basketball: It’s Going To Be A Wild Ride 2/4/2016
Three teams have held the No. 1 ranking in Class 4A girls basketball this season. That’s one sign of what should be a wide-open postseason. Two of those teams met Thursday night, with Hopkins defeating visiting Shakopee 70-54. Shakopee had risen to the top spot in the poll and came into the game unbeaten, but Hopkins will now move from No. 2 back to the No. 1 position, which is where the Royals began the season. The third team to sit on top was Eastview.

Summarizing that opening paragraph: Be ready for a wild ride.

“It’s more wide-open than I ever remember it being,” said Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff, whose team is the defending state champ. The Royals also won titles in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Thursday’s game was a treat for both teams, at least in the first half. Shakopee’s Taylor Koenen, a 6-foot-2 star who has signed with North Carolina, made a three-point shot in the final minute to force a 27-27 halftime tie. The second half was all Hopkins, as the Royals came out with intensity and hustle, seemingly grabbing every rebound and making layup after layup.

Koenen finished with a game-high 24 points but that wasn’t enough to overcome the swarming Royals, who defeated the Sabers 64-33 in last year’s state semifinals.

“I thought they brought more intensity, they were more aggressive at both ends of the court,” Shakopee coach Juan Mitchell said. “We couldn’t even get into our offense. Taylor tried to do too much and no one else really stepped up and played their game. It’s hard for her to try and carry the whole team.

“Other guys didn’t play up to their ability and we kind of got exposed; pressure, we didn’t box out right, we just didn’t do things that we talked about that we’ve done. But Hopkins does that. They bring pressure, they’re going to do what they do, and if you can’t adjust, if you can’t maintain it, you lose by 16.”

Shakopee wasn’t the only girls basketball team to lose for the first time this season on Thursday. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (Class 2A) was defeated by Pequot Lakes, meaning East Grand Forks Sacred Heart (Class 1A) is the only undefeated team remaining. Hopkins is 18-2 with losses to St. Michael-Albertville and Minnetonka.

Michigan State-bound senior Nia Hollie led Hopkins with 18 points, senior Ashley Bates had 15, eighth-grader Paige Bueckers 12 and senior Dee Dee Winston 10. Seniors Annie Rhinesmith and Caleigh Rodning each scored 10 for Shakopee.

The Sabers had practiced against their boys sophomore team in preparing to face Hopkins’ relentlessness.

“Still, that’s tough to simulate,” Mitchell (pictured) said. “But we didn’t play well and I think they had a lot to do with it. We’ve got to get better. We can’t match that tempo. We’ve got a couple girls who can get up and down, but we need five, like them. We’ve got two, they’ve got five. We got caught up in that tempo a little bit. And when you’re behind you press, press, press. We missed some shots, some fundamental little things that we’ve been doing well all season.”

Asked about the 4A playoffs, Mitchell ran down a checklist of some of the contenders.

“Eastview is good, Hopkins is Hopkins, St. Michael, Minnetonka is playing well. It’s good basketball, teams are playing well.”

Cosgriff, calling Thursday’s game “a very good confidence-booster,” added that the postseason “could be anybody’s gig this year. You’ve got to be ready to play every time.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 380
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,555
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn