John's Journal
An Unlikely Hero On The Biggest Stage6/5/2015
NORTH MANKATO – At state tournaments, where the pressure is often at a boiling point, it’s commonplace to see veteran athletes come through in the clutch. So when a little kid with braces suddenly became a hero Friday at the 39th annual state softball tournament, this was a big deal.

Elena Linster is an eighth-grader at New Life Academy, the Woodbury school that claimed its fifth Class 1A championship since 2008 with a 9-3 victory over Badger/Greenbush-Middle River.

New Life senior pitcher Valerie Hohol struck out 10 Friday and finished the three-game tournament with 23 strikeouts and only one walk. That was no surprise. But when Linster (pictured) – the seventh hitter in the batting order – knocked two home runs over the fence and drove in four runs – well, she was as shocked as anyone. They were the first homers of her young career.

“On the first one I thought I popped it up,” she said. “And as I was rounding two I saw everyone come out and I thought, ‘Did it go over?’ The second one was even a bigger surprise.”

Her two-run homers in the second and fourth innings provided all the scoring Hohol needed. Linster became the sixth person in state tourney history to hit two home runs in one game.

“The thing is, I’m always thinking that I have to play well,” she said. “It’s a part of being on a sports team, you have to always do your best. I’ve hit home runs over the fence in practice but I didn’t think anything of it.

“Whenever I go up to bat I think, ‘I’m going to get a base hit,’ I visualize where it’s going to go. I was thinking, ‘If it’s there, I’m going to hit it.’ And I did. I was very surprised. It was very surreal.”

CLASS 2A: KASSON-MANTORVILLE REPEATS

The KoMets of Kasson-Mantorville won their second 2A title in as many years, holding off a talented and determined team from Maple Lake 2-1 in 10 innings. Winning pitcher Maddie Damon struck out 16 Friday, giving her 43 in the tournament.

The KoMets took a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning when Laura Kosberg hit a solo home run. Maple Lake tied it in the sixth on a two-out double by Chloe Callahan. In the 10th, Kosberg drove in the game-winner with a bases-loaded single.

Maple Lake pitcher Kennedy Goelz-Haney gave up six hits in nine innings and gave up just four earned runs in 23 innings during the tournament.

CLASS 3A: EASTVIEW HOLDS OFF ANOKA

Eastview completed a late-inning comeback to defeat Anoka 2-1 and capture its first state title since 2003. Anoka went ahead 1-0 in the top of the fourth on a solo home run by Taylor Chell. In the sixth, Eastview scored the tying run on a single by Hailey Monroe. The winning run scored on a on a double by Julia Luciana in the bottom of the seventh.

Kerrigan Hoshaw got the win and finished the tournament with three wins, a 0.67 ERA and 24 strikeouts.

ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAMS

Class 1A/ Tianna Top, Edgerton/Southwest MN Christian; Kenna Salo, New York Mills; Megan Schroeder, Kayla Gross, Mankato Loyola; Aunica Novacek, Kellie Parnow, Emily Anderson, Badger/Greenbush-Middle River; Sydney Steel, Valerie Hohol, Elena Linster, New Life Academy.

Class 2A/ Carlie Brandt, LeSueur-Henderson; Brittany Denn, New Ulm; Kailey Mihalik, Jillayne Gilbert, Hermantown; Kennedy Goelz-Haley, Taylor Pilger, Linsey Rachel, Maple Lake; MiKayla Grant, McKenzie Hermann, Maddie Damon, Kasson-Mantorville.

Class 3A/ Ashley Mickschl, Woodbury; Hailey Fitzpatrick, Becker; Sydney Smith, Megan Mulchrone, Maple Grove; Kerrigan Hoshaw, Abby Lien, Sam Gall, Eastview, Apple Valley; Makayla Zimmer, Taylor Chell, Amber Elliott, Anoka.

THIRD-PLACE GAMES

Class 1A/ Mankato Loyola beat New York Mills 12-3
Class 2A/ Hermantown beat New Ulm 5-0
Class 3A/ Maple Grove beat Becker 13-1

FIFTH-PLACE GAMES

Class 1A/ Edgerton/SW MN Christian beat Cherry 7-3
Class 2A/ LeSueur-Henderson beat Milaca 4-0
Class 3A/ Woodbury beat Chanhassen 2-1

--Change is coming to postseason softball and baseball next year, when a fourth class will be added.

STATE TRACK RECORDS FALL

Friday’s events at the state track and field championships, at Hamline University in St. Paul, were dominated by preliminaries, and two all-time state records fell.

--The Eagan boys 4x200 relay team of Josh Brown, Dallas Krech, Troy Brown and Sam Zenner topped the Class 2A prelims with a time of 1:26.91. The previous record was 1:26.92 by Wayzata in 2013.

--The Lakeville South girls team of Jocie Johnson, Haley Lubow, Kaytlyn Larson and Caraline Slattery set a record of 3:51.24 in the 2A girls 4x400 prelims. The previous mark was 3:51.26 by Hopkins in 2011.

The state track championship will conclude Saturday.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 595
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 11,170
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Maple Lake Ready To Make Run At State Title 6/4/2015
NORTH MANKATO -- Life, as well as sports, can provide quite the interesting twists and turns. Look, for example, at the Maple Lake High School softball team.

The Irish are coached by a California native … they have lost in two previous state championship appearances and will try to change that outcome Friday … after moving up from Class 1A to 2A … which turned out to be a good thing.

Maple Lake defeated LeSueur-Henderson 4-2 and New Ulm 6-1 on Thursday in the state tournament. That moved the Irish into Friday’s 2 p.m. title game against Kasson-Mantorville.

They played in title games in 2008 and 2009, when they were in 1A. New Life Academy was – and is – a powerhouse in 1A softball. The Eagles won state titles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and are at state for the 10th year in a row. Maple Lake was shutout by New Life in the 2008 and 2009 championship games, with Danielle Schmidt pitching for the Eagles. Schmidt -- named this year to the softball coaches association Hall of Fame – was a four-time all-tournament player at state and holds several state tournament records for shutouts and strikeouts.

But Schmidt is long gone, Maple Lake (pictured) is now in Class 1A and none of the current Irish players were on the team the last time it went to state.

“Now we’re in Class 2A, and that makes it that much more special,” said Irish coach Tim Knudsen. “This is brand new for them. This is really cool.”

Over spring break the Irish went to California and played some scrimmages against strong teams from the Bay Area. That’s where Knudsen grew up (and where he met his wife, a native of Royalton), and he knew the journey would help prepare the team for the season.

“We did that because we knew that if we got here we would see really good pitching, which we don’t see in our (Central Minnesota) conference,” he said. “Rockford has a great pitcher (Bria Majeski), but other than that we don’t see very good pitching.

“That trip started it and we did a pretty good job out there. We just escalated into the season and through the playoffs.”

The Irish have a record of 26-2, with losses to Rockford in the regular season and in Section 5 tournament play. They then beat Rockford twice to win the section title.

Senior Kennedy Goelz-Haney was the winning pitcher in both games Thursday and is 16-2 on the season. Sophomore pitcher Olivia Marquette has a 10-0 record, and Knudsen said she may pitch Friday. Maple Lake had a total of only eight hits in Thursday’s two games, with ninth-graders Amber Klug and Linsey Rachel combining for four of them.

“We knew with seven seniors we had good leadership, and we have two dynamite freshmen that play really well for us,” Knudsen said.

THE BUS BROKE DOWN … BIG DEAL

When the Cherry softball team’s bus died Thursday morning, no one panicked. The vehicle had already delivered the Tigers to Mankato on Wednesday … a 277-mile trip … so being in town was key.

The bus was loaded with softball gear at the Best Western hotel when the driver told coach Darrell Bjerklie that it wasn’t going anywhere.

“We came out to get ready to come here, we have a certain schedule. We don’t want to get here too early,” he said at Caswell Park. “And the bus driver tells us the bus is broke down. We could panic, but we teach the girls how to handle adversity.

“I calmly walked up to the front desk and asked if they had a shuttle van. They had one, it carried seven. And both of us coaches had a vehicle because our wives are here, and they each hold five. It’s enough for the team, so we unloaded the bus, loaded the vehicles and calmly came here. We were here on time.”

The Tigers lost to New York Mills 14-7 in the Class 1A quarterfinals and beat Rush City 2-0 in the consolation bracket later Friday.

LITTLE KIDS, BIG CROWD

Thursday was the last day of school at LeSueur-Henderson, and the fourth- and fifth-graders enjoyed a special field trip to the state softball tournament.

An enthusiastic crew of 170 students sat in the grass beyond the outfield fence to watch the Giants play Maple Lake in the 2A quarterfinals.

“This is a second-year tradition because we made it to the state playoffs last year,” said Hilltop Elementary principal Christine McDonald. “This was our plan; if we made it we were going to bring the kids again. And people in the community have asked us, ‘Are you guys coming?’ They’re excited that we’re here.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 595
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 11,014
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Aney Isn’t Alone Among Females At Boys State Tennis6/3/2015
One of the stars of this week’s Class 2A boys state tennis tournament is Jessica Aney of Rochester Century. The senior was the second girl to play in the team portion of the competition, and she will become the first female to play in the singles division when singles and doubles play begins Thursday.

Aney, who will play college tennis at North Carolina, won all three of her matches at No. 1 singles – beating boys from Edina, Mounds View and Minnetonka -- in the team competition as Century placed third. She will take a record of 16-0 into the singles tournament, having lost just two sets all season.

But Aney isn’t the only female playing a vital role in the tournament. The East Ridge boys team is coached by Suzie Heideman (pictured), who is easily identifiable by the words stitched into her team jacket: “Coach Suzie.” Her unseeded Raptors finished third a year ago in their first trip to the state team tournament, and on Wednesday second-seeded East Ridge beat Edina 4-3 in the fifth-place match.

“This year it was a little different, with us being seeded second,” she said. “The guys felt a lot more pressure and the expectations were higher because we had been here and been successful.

“I told them last year, ‘Enjoy being the underdog because it’s not going to stay like that.’ You play a little more freely when you have nothing to lose. I told these guys that the only expectation I had for them was to play their best and never give up, and support each other with positive attitudes. The outcomes will happen. I’m super proud of the way they played today.”

Heideman is in her fourth year as the East Ridge boys coach; one of her assistants is Jon Rydberg, and they switch coaching roles with the girls tennis team in the fall.

Heideman came to East Ridge with a strong coaching pedigree. She spent six years coaching boys and girls tennis at Greendale High School near Milwaukee, Wis., and was named Wisconsin coach of the year after leading her boys team to a state championship in 2005.

She is very familiar with Minnesota tennis, having graduated in 1997 from Mounds View, where she was a captain of the tennis, basketball and softball teams and played in the girls state tennis tournament. She played collegiately at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

One of the biggest victories of her coaching career came at state last year, when the Raptors defeated Mounds in the opening round. Heideman played for Mustangs coach Mike Cartwright in high school.

Cartwright said Heideman was “a very feisty baseliner” in high school, showing traits that fit her role as a coach.

“She just hated to lose,” he said. “And that’s something she has carried over into her coaching career. She showed a lot of qualities as a player that would make for a good coach. She was very analytical about the game, she analyzed her opponents well, she self-evaluated her own game and tried to continually improve.”

Mounds View and East Ridge are members of the Suburban East Conference, so Heideman and Cartwright coach against each other on a regular basis. The Mustangs haven’t lost in conference play since 2000. This spring, Mounds View beat the Raptors by scores of 6-1 and 4-3.

“One of our goals is to get them in conference,” Heideman said. “Obviously they’re a strong team. Mounds View has a strong history and I’m trying to create that at East Ridge. Everybody says, ‘Why is Edina always good? Why is Mounds View always good?’ It’s because of traditions, and when people know there’s a strong tradition of tennis excellence, they need to get there and work hard. That’s really my goal, to have a positive experience and create that atmosphere where our kids want to work hard to get there.”

Heideman was excited to see Aney play in the boys tournament, saying it was good for tennis.

“Obviously she’s an elite tennis player. She’s right up there with them and it’s exciting to see. I think it puts a lot more pressure on the boys who have to face her.

“She’s pushing those players and also creating excitement for the game. Maybe there are young girls who want to get to where she’s at. It’s exciting to see. She’s had a lot of people watching her matches and she’s impressed them.”

TEAM RESULTS

CLASS 1A
Championship/ Blake 7, Breck 0
Third place/ Rochester Lourdes 7, Crookston 0
Fifth place/ St. Peter 5, Foley 2

CLASS 2A
Championship/ Mounds View 4, Elk River 3
Third place/ Rochester Century 4, Minnetonka 3
Fifth place/ East Ridge 4, Edina 3

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 571
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,862
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
From Up North, Crookston and Hibbing Make It To State 6/2/2015
The boys tennis teams from Hibbing and Crookston knew the odds were long when they walked into Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday to begin the Class 1A state tournament.

Blake is the two-time defending champion, and strong programs like Rochester Lourdes and Breck are regular entrants in the derby to decide team titles. And then there is this fact to consider: 97 team champions have been crowned since the first MSHSL tournament in 1950, and only six (or one, depending on how you view the state map) have come from northern Minnesota.

Greenway High in Coleraine took home the single-class title in 1961. That’s the one absolutely true blue northern team to capture gold. Figure in St. Cloud Tech (1976, 1983, 1985) and Staples-Motley (1990, 1991) and that is the extent of the non-metro and non-southern schools to win boys tennis team crowns.

Which, of course, doesn’t bother the boys from Crookston and Hibbing one little bit. That they met in Tuesday’s state quarterfinals was a fitting way to honor the legacy of teams from up north, where a dearth of indoor courts and a preponderance of cold, wet weather can put a headlock on springtime tennis.

“I think they’re really excited,” Crookston coach Mike Geffre said before the quarterfinals. “I don’t think nerves play into this too much because the pressure is really in getting here.”

That’s especially true when getting here isn’t a regular thing. The Pirates are at state for the first time in 12 years and Hibbing is back for the first time in 14 years. Both teams were battle-tested in section play; Crookston held off 10-time defending section champ Thief River Falls 4-3 in the Section 8 title match and Hibbing needed 4-3 wins over Duluth Marshall and Cloquet to qualify from Section 7.

Each team also will have a doubles team competing when singles and doubles competition begins Thursday: Bobby Tiedemann and Matt Garmen from Crookston and Jake Jolowsky and Scott Perunovich from Hibbing.

This business of getting to state may become a more regular thing in the future for one simple reason: Crookston has no seniors on the roster and Hibbing has only one.

“Not having a senior, they’re probably a little bit calmer because they know, win or lose, they still have another shot coming up,” Geffre said.

But still, any trip to state is a big one. There may have been a few doubts about such a proposition in Hibbing after the Bluejackets opened the season with eight losses in as many matches. There was, however, an asterisk attached to that fact: *Hibbing, which moved from Class 2A to 1A last season, is still playing a schedule loaded with 2A competition.

“I was pretty stubborn about the whole thing,” Hibbing coach Gary Conda said. “I felt 2A made us better, made us work harder. It finally got to the point where we didn’t have the depth, we didn’t have the numbers anymore. We said, ‘You know what? We can’t compete with Elk River and some of these teams (in 2A Section 7.’ ”

Hibbing’s regular-season schedule was still front-loaded with some strong 2A competition, thus the 0-8 start. But even though the Bluejackets took some lumps early, that helped steel them for the stretch run and postseason play.

“That was partly on purpose, but also because I hadn’t had enough time to change the schedule a lot,” Conda said. “In hindsight it helped us. Our competition was way more than some other teams had, and it paid off. That’s why we won all those 4-3 matches at the end.”

Tuesday’s state quarterfinal match came – no surprise here – right down to the wire. Crookston defeated Hibbing 4-3, with a large crowd watching and cheering as Garmen defeated Jack Kearney 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 at No. 3 singles to clinch the match.

Crookston’s other winners were Tiedemann at No. 1 singles, Andy Gregg at No. 2 singles and the No. 2 doubles team of Jacob Roesch and Jake Widseth. Hibbing got wins from Nate Stark at No. 4 singles, Jolowsky and Nate Bestul at No. 1 doubles and Carter Anderson and Michael Sullivan at No. 3 doubles.

Afterwards, Conda asked with a smile, “Is there a northern Minnesota trophy?”

There certainly should be.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 563
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,819
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Holdingford’s Nathan Brinker: The Best Of All Time 5/27/2015
Ask people around the central Minnesota town of Holdingford about the best male athlete in school history, and the answer is almost certain to be Nathan Brinker from the class of 2015. The tougher question, however, is this: What was Brinker’s greatest athletic moment?

Some will flash a big grin and talk about his performance in last fall’s Class 2A Prep Bowl, when he never left the field, played half a dozen different positions and threw a pass for only the second time in his career … which was caught for a touchdown and the go-ahead points in the second overtime of the Huskers’ 20-18 win over BOLD.

Others in Holdingford will mention the Class 1A state wrestling championship Brinker captured last winter, capping his state tournament run with a pin in the title match at 195 pounds. He is only the second wrestler in Holdingford history to win a state championship.

And some may talk about what Brinker has done this spring in two sports; he led the Holdingford baseball team with a .500 batting average and on Wednesday he qualified for the Class 1A state track meet in the shot put as well as with three buddies in the 4x100 relay.

Not a bad senior year, huh?

“You can tell with Nathan; he’ll do whatever it takes,” said Huskers football coach Luke Mitchell. “He’s a real standup, solid kid. He comes from a great family and he’s had a great upbringing.”

At 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Brinker is a farm boy with a rare mixture of strength, quickness and speed. He will play NCAA Division III football at St. John’s University, a short drive from Holdingford. And long after he graduates from high school, he will be remembered and cited as an example for younger students in town.

“He has nothing to look back on with regret,” said Jason Bruns, Holdingford’s athletic director, baseball coach and an assistant football coach. “If everybody had his work ethic, it would really be fun. He’s a natural athlete and a lot of things come easy for him. But he still put the time in, too.”

At the Class 1A True Team state track meet in mid-May, Brinker finished second in the shot put, sixth in the 100-meter dash and was a member of the winning 4x100 relay team as Holdingford captured the team title.

He added another state championship away from athletics. He was part of a four-person Holdingford team that won a state FFA championship in Agricultural Mechanics and will represent Minnesota at a national competition in Kentucky.

As a junior, Brinker placed second at the state wrestling tournament, then battled asthma in capturing the state title in February. He had never been on the track team until this spring. In the first track meet of his career, he won the shot put. He’s tough and committed.

Football is his favorite sport but he wanted to give track a try as a senior. Working out as a shot and discus thrower, as well as a sprinter, took a back seat during the baseball season, however. Baseball came to a close Tuesday night with a loss to top-ranked and defending Class 2A state champion St. Cloud Cathedral in a section tournament game, but the upside is that Brinker will have time to devote all his efforts to track for the first time as he prepares for the state meet June 5-6 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

“I’ve been going to baseball practice, and then I’d go to track if the coaches were still there,” he said. “That was usually four times a week and sometimes on weekends. Now I can actually come out and practice.”

Brinker had the best shot put effort of his short career during Wednesday’s Class 1A Section 5 championships at St. John’s. His winning throw of 52 feet, 7 ½ inches is the third-best reported distance among Class 1A boys this spring. His best previous mark was 48-4.

“I knew it would be good, but not that good,” he said of Wednesday’s big toss.

Brinker began making an impression as a ninth-grader, seeing some varsity playing time on the football team. He was a running back that year, became an offensive lineman as a sophomore and then returned to running back. He will play linebacker at St. John’s.

“He always had the body but he was a raw talent,” Mitchell said. “He was always a physical kid. Nathan brings something that a lot of kids don’t with his combination of size and speed.”

Around Holdingford, the legend of Nathan Brinker will only grow in years to come.

“His name will come up in every sport, that’s for sure,” said Bruns, a 1990 Holdingford graduate. “I can’t think of anybody like him from our school. He’s probably the best I’ve seen.”

Mitchell, who is an elementary teacher, said there is no question about that.

“The kids go nuts over him. He’s a celebrity. After he won the wrestling title I told him, ‘Nathan, you are going to be remembered around here for a long time.’ ”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 555
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,691
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn