(This is the fourth in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)
SPRING GROVE – The school building in this southeast Minnesota town of 1,300 is an architectural showcase that was built in 1922. Ten miles up the road in Caledonia, which has double the population of Spring Grove, is a modern school constructed not in the last century but in this century.
Those two structures form fitting bookends on one of the great stories of Minnesota cooperation. It’s a story of two schools and two communities working together to ensure that all interested students have the opportunity to participate in activities. Caledonia is large enough to field teams in all sports; Spring Grove would struggle to do so.
Spring Grove has its own teams in boys and girls basketball, nine-man football and volleyball. When it comes to baseball, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, track and wrestling, the schools have cooperative teams. The majority of the athletes come from Caledonia, which is not surprising based on Caledonia’s high school enrollment of 241 and Spring Grove’s 90.
The coop teams provide a unique perspective for coaches and kids to learn about the “other” school.
“We fit in really well together,” said senior softball player Samantha Bratland from Spring Grove. “All of us kind of hang out outside of softball. Being only 10 miles apart really helps us be a close-knit group.”
An odd thing occurs every spring. After athletes from the two schools compete against each other in volleyball and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, they often find themselves wearing the same uniform in the spring.
“We are from different schools and it’s definitely interesting when we do different things against each other in other sports,” Bratland said. “It’s definitely weird going against them but we always have fun doing it.”
Most of the coop arrangements go back many years, with baseball becoming the newest coop sport six years ago. The baseball team had co-coaches (one from each school) in the first year, and when the coach from Caledonia relocated after that season, Spring Grove’s Dave Konz remained on as the head coach.
“It’s blended well together,” he said. “We’ve got it down pretty good. Bus schedules can change constantly, and games can be rescheduled. We’ve worked together well and it’s been a pretty seamless transition.”
Some of the coop teams are called Spring Grove-Caledonia and others are Caledonia-Spring Grove. Caledonia’s colors are black and gold, Spring Grove’s are black and red.
“We’ve had these conversations,” said Spring Grove athletic director Michelle Anderson, who also coaches volleyball and softball. “Is it C-SG? Is it SG-C? The kids don’t care. Black is our common color, so we do a lot of things in red with black and gold trim and it looks really good.”
La Crosse, Wis., is the nearest city of any size (22 miles from Caledonia) and many residents of these towns commute there for work. The school in Spring Grove, where welcome signs proclaim it the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, has a stable enrollment, as does Caledonia.
It’s common for graduates of both schools to return home at some point. Among them is Spring Grove superintendent Rachel Udstuen, a 1991 graduate. While attending Luther College in Iowa she was a student-teacher at St. Paul Central, then worked in Mason City, Iowa, and a Twin Cities charter school before spending four years in Saipan in the western Pacific. She returned to Spring Grove in 2003.
Udstuen’s final year of high school was Anderson’s first year on the Spring Grove faculty.
“That’s one of the things we really love; we do seem to have what I would call ‘our kids’ go away to college, go away to start their professions and their careers, and they find their way back sometimes,” said Anderson, who recorded her 300th career victory as a softball coach this week. “They move back and they become superintendents and integral parts of our community, and it’s pretty cool.”
Udstuen added, “We had wonderful experiences, but when we started to have a family we knew this was where we wanted our kids to grow up. We wanted them to experience a small, close-knit community.”
The close-knit spirit is certainly part of the cooperative sports teams.
“It appears to be going really well,” said Caledonia principal/athletic director Paul DeMorett. “I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with the kids.”
DeMorett, in his sixth year at Caledonia, has a unique perspective on life in a smaller town. He is a Twin Cities native who graduated from Armstrong High School in Robbinsdale in 1984. He previously worked at schools in Pierz and Tower.
“Obviously this is a lot more laid-back (than the Twin Cities),” he said. “It’s a slower pace and it’s easier to make connections with kids because there are less of them. That’s one of the great things about it.”
Caledonia is a sports powerhouse, with football leading the way. The Warriors own six state championships in that sport, including five since 2007 in Class 2A. Caledonia’s boys basketball team was the 2A state champion in 1997 and the runner-up last winter; the girls basketball team was the state runner-up in 1998 and won a state title in 2009. In girls golf, the cooperative team won state championships in 1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2003 and 2005.
Success in athletics is no accident. Athletes, coaches and parents are committed to providing quality experiences for all the teams.
“We all put the effort in and it’s always our goal to go far in every sport and do the best we can,” said Devan Heaney, a Caledonia senior and member of the Warriors football team and the coop track squad.
DeMorett said, “The kids work hard, and that’s what’s it all about. We have some great coaches and they’re instilling great values in our kids. One of them is work ethic. My very first day working in Caledonia in July of 2009, I walked in and saw 60 kids in the weight room at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. That right there said, ‘These kids are dedicated and they work very hard.’ ”
That’s a theme in both towns and both schools: people working together and working hard to ensure participation for all students.
“I’m really happy that the kids have an opportunity to do those kinds of things,” Anderson said. “I think they’re happy to share those experiences, as well.”
--To see photos from Caledonia and Spring Grove, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.