John's Journal
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
MSHSL’s Redman Among Recipients at Girls And Women In Sports Day2/3/2016
The 30th annual Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day was celebrated Wednesday in the 3M Auditorium at Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The event has become an annual tradition, with awards given to pioneering women and girls who have made a difference in the sporting world.

Among the 2016 recipients was MSHSL associate director Jody Redman. She was one of 14 people to receive the Breaking Barriers Award.

Redman’s distinguished career in education warrants statements such as “passionate and an innovative leader” from her colleagues. She demonstrates leadership abilities and insights that have taken her from a teacher, coach and administrator to a national leader in the intentional growth and development of students through education-based athletic and activity programs.

Redman has developed and produced extensive curriculum: WHY WE PLAY, which is designed to bring the focus back to the purpose of high school athletic and activity programs; Anyone Can Save A Life, which was developed to establish emergency planning protocols; and Coaching for Change, a sexual harassment and violence education program. Redman is a national speaker and has presented at multiple NFHS, NIAAA, MNIAAA, CHSAA, MSBA and MMEA conferences and at student, teacher, coach and administrator leadership seminars on topics designed to develop human potential in safe and healthy environments.

Redman currently administers the Minnesota Coaches Education Program for the 500 member high schools of the MSHSL, which includes both an in-person certification program and a continuing education requirement delivered through workshop and e-learning mediums.

Gov. Mark Dayton, the featured speaker at Wednesday’s event, talked about the days when women and girls did not have the opportunities that they have today.

“When I was in high school about a hundred years ago there really were no sports for girls or women,” he said. “I remember back when in basketball the girls couldn’t cross center court. I guess they thought it was just too exhausting for them to traverse the whole court. And when they first had hockey for girls it was ringette.

"Fortunately a lot of changed. Girls and women have been pioneers in sports, not only in their own sports as tremendous athletes, but also pioneers for the public consciousness of the importance of women’s sports.”

Other recipients of the Breaking Barriers Award were…

Shelly Boyum-Breen, Foundation IX, children’s books author
Jan Eifealdt, Ortonville Public Schools
Girls’ Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports
Elizabeth Bye, Fatimah Hussein,
Salma Hussein and Chelsey Thul
Hornbills Flag Football Team - YWCA of Minneapolis
Kelly Klatt, Grand Rapids community
Bob Kuehl, Mound Westonka community
John C. Legeros, Mound Westonka community
Erin Lind, Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference
Jackie Lindsay, Crookston High School
Annette Margarit, Academy of Holy Angels
Minnesota Women’s Soccer League
Bonnie Jean Moren, Bloomington Public Schools
Wayne Olson, Glenville High School

Various other honors were awarded in several specific categories. Those recipients were …

Marie Berg Award
Cheryl King, Physical educator and coach, Anoka, Champlin Park and Park High Schools

Kwame McDonald Media Award
Anne Abicht, Former Director of Athletic Media Relations, St. Cloud State University

Wilma Rudolph Courage Award
Alexis Shifflett, US Paralympic Volleyball Team

Special Merit Awards
Kathy Fredricksen, Moose Lake High School
Barbara Knutson, Mankato West High School
Joan Paulson, Forest Lake Area Schools
Jeannie Thoren, Women’s Skiing

Minnesota Legacy Award
Eleanor “Ele” Hansen, Carleton College

Minnesota Milestone Award
Minnesota Lynx

“I have invited winners of national championships to the governor’s residence for receptions,” Dayton said. “I’ve been honored to have the Minnesota Lynx three times, Concordia University women’s volleyball, University of Minnesota women’s hockey team and other national champions. The trouble is, I’ve not been able to have a single reception for a male team.

“Female athletes are really impressive. Lynx players are going off to play somewhere else the rest of the year, they’re not overpaid, they show up for games and they actually do their very best every time. Not to make any contrasts with anybody else on professional sports teams, but there’s just a real commitment to the sport. And it’s the same with the high school girls sports and college women’s sports; there’s just a real commitment and they’re not looking for the multi-million-dollar contract if they leave college after one semester. They want to get a degree, they want to get an education and they want to play the sport they love. They want to have a chance to hopefully play at further levels.

“This is a very, very important day, I’m proud to be part of it and I’m proud to issue a proclamation that today is Girls and Women in Sports Day in Minnesota. Congratulations to all the recipients, who are not only great athletes but great leaders in our society and trailblazers.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 378
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,501
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Orono vs. Hutch: Vacation’s Over And The Real Fun Begins1/30/2016
HUTCHINSON – I was sitting in the high school gymnasium here on Friday night, watching the ebbing and flowing of a matchup between two highly ranked girls basketball teams. My favorite moment while watching Orono vs. Hutchinson came midway through the second half.

Hutch senior Erica Ellefson, daughter of coach Tim Ellefson, fired up a three-point shot in the hopes of cutting Orono’s lead from eight points to five. The basketball looked to be right on target, but as it bounced on the rim and fell away, the Tigers fans – as if they had been practicing in unison for days – uttered the same elongated word: “Ohhhhhhh.”

Twenty-four earlier, the scene was much different for me. On Thursday evening my wife and I were hustling through the Denver airport while changing planes on our way home from a California vacation. At that point, the realities of life were pretty simple: What gate do we need? How far away is it? Do we have time to grab something to eat? We made the flight, pounding down a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza (me) and a pretzel (my wife) before boarding.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived home from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. As I unpacked I had this thought: I sure hope there’s a great game I can find to attend Friday night. That surely happened, and watching Orono (ranked No. 1 in Class 3A) and Hutchinson (No. 3 in 3A) was the finest way imaginable to transition from vacation back to the magical world of high school sports.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a great trip. Our oldest son and his wife of several months live in the San Francisco Bay Area and -- bonus -- they have a guest room. We looked out the windows at palm trees, ate in great restaurants, explored San Francisco and a few vineyards, wore light jackets. By golly, I even came face to face with a hummingbird on one sunny afternoon.

The highlight of the last few days for me however, just might be Friday’s crowd exhaling out that loud “Ohhhhhhh.”

“To think of girls basketball and how far it’s come, to see crowds enjoying girls basketball like they did tonight. I’m proud to be a part of that,” Tim Ellefson said after his Hutch Tigers came out on the short end of a 52-50 decision won by the Orono Spartans.

Orono’s record is 15-2 with losses to Hopkins and Eastview, which are ranked second and third in Class 4A. Hutch is also 15-2, losing earlier to Annandale. Friday’s game was a Wright County Conference contest, and the Spartans and Tigers will meet again Feb. 16 at Orono.

Hutch came out like the home team should, with two layups by Morgan Kurth and one by Erin Corrigan staking the Tigers to an early 7-6 lead. Orono then put on a scoring run, which set a theme for the rest of the game; defensive stands and offensive outbursts on both ends of the court. Orono used a 5-0 run to lead by five late in the first half. Hutch answered with eight unanswered points, cutting an eight-point deficit to a slim 28-26 Orono lead at halftime.

After halftime, a 7-0 Spartans run (three layups and a free throw) put them up by nine and then 10. The margin was still 10 with 10:23 left in the second half. Kurth drove the lane, attempted a layup and one of her teammates on the bench yelled “Yeah Morgan!” a full second before the ball went through the hoop. That made it Orono 48, Hutch 44.

Morgan’s layup was made easier because 6-foot-4 Orono senior Meghan Mandel was on the bench. Spartans coach Ellen Wiese put Meghan and her long shot-blocking arms back in soon after. Things looked a bit dire for the home team when sophomore starter MaKenzie Rensch fouled out with 3:52 left and Orono up by six.

The Spartans went to the stall at the three-minute mark, dribbling and passing outside the three-point line. A traveling call gave Hutch (trailing 52-47) the ball with 1:45 to go. Tori Wortz missed a three-point shot and Hutch was called for a foul on the rebound. The Tigers’ press led to an Orono turnover and Kurth scored from the baseline with 1:26 left. Orono 52, Hutch 49.

The teams traded turnovers, Orono retained possession on a jump ball. Wiese called timeout with 21 seconds remaining and the Tigers fans chanted “LET’S GO HUTCH!” Wortz stole the ball, she was fouled by Tori Andrew and it was the fifth foul for Orono’s season scoring leader.

Wortz made one of two free throws and it was Spartans 52, Tigers 50; 13.7 seconds on the clock. Hutch had to foul but the ploy worked when Danielle Jorgenson missed the front end of a one-and-one. The final shot of the night was attempted by Wortz in the lane as the clock wound down to zero.

The shot may have been right on track, but we’ll never know for sure. Mandel, with her 6-foot-4 frame stretched from floor to what seemed to be the ceiling, put those two lengthy arms straight up as she faced Wortz and the ball hit nothing but flesh. Orono 52, Hutchinson 50. An old-timer exiting the bleachers said to me, “Well, that’s about as good a game as you’re gonna see.”

Wortz scored a game-high 15 points, Corrigan had 13 and Erica Ellefson nine for Hutch. Orono’s Andrew had 12, Lily McKown 10 and Mandel nine.

Neither postgame locker room was especially jovial.

“We got up by 10 and then we lost it,” Wiese said. “It was a very quiet locker room. We know that we did not play that well in the second half and we didn’t shoot well the whole game. But we came out of here with a win. It was a hard environment to play in, and I told them that. I told them this was going to be the hardest road trip you’re going to have. They did what they had to do to win.”

Tim Ellefson said, “Both teams played their hearts out. They took us out of our offenses, we took them out of their offenses, and the girls just had to make plays. And they made a couple more than we did. We had the ball in the air with a chance to win it, and the 6-4 girl got there and swatted it.”

Yes, there will be a February rematch. And maybe a third game between the two teams. They are both in Section 6, and unless one or both of them go belly up they will be the top two seeds in the section playoffs.

Hutch’s last trip to the state tournament was in 2012. Orono finished third at state last season, losing to Marshall in the 3A semifinals. Marshall has defeated Hutchinson in section title games the last two years but section shuffling has moved Hutchinson from Section 2 (with Marshall) to Section 6 (with Orono).

“I sure hope the next two games are like this one,” Tim Ellefson said, “because it’s worth the drive to come out and watch a game like this.”

Indeed, it’s well worth the drive. As well as a couple of flights from California.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 378
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,449
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn