(This is the third in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)
HILLS – The girls and boys golf teams at Hills-Beaver Creek High School provide the starkest example of how deeply this school is tucked into the southwest corner of Minnesota: The golfers live in Minnesota, practice in South Dakota and play their home meets in Iowa.
The three-year-old school building in Hills (which houses seventh through 12th grades; the elementary school is in Beaver Creek) is two miles from the Iowa border and six from South Dakota. The Patriots golf teams practice at Hidden Valley, a par-3 course in Brandon, S.D. Their home competitions are held at Meadow Acres in Larchwood, Iowa. Even though there was no golf practice scheduled on a recent sunny afternoon, most of the team members headed to Larchwood when school let out.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the spring athletes – the boys and girls track teams -- gathered in the gymnasium to stretch before heading outside to practice in a town that has no track.
The school does not have baseball or softball teams, there is no available golf course in its own state, and the track team has no track. And yet, Hills-Beaver Creek is one of the happiest places on earth. Some of that joy comes from athletic success, but much of it springs from a solid sense of community pride in a district with a growing enrollment.
The new school was built after the citizens overwhelming voted to approve it. Many of those citizens work in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., an expanding regional center that has given a big boost to schools on all sides of the state borders.
“Our kids here have everything in Sioux Falls,” said Dan Ellingson, a veteran teacher and coach whose wife is among a large percentage of residents who work in Sioux Falls. The South Dakota influence is strong; all the local television stations are in Sioux Falls, meaning news reports tend to focus on that state.
“The old joke is our students know the governor of South Dakota more than they know the governor of Minnesota,” said superintendent Todd Holthaus, a native of Albany, Minnesota.
Sioux Falls’ most important impact here is on enrollment. People are moving into these small communities to raise their families while working in Sioux Falls, and many of them are Hills-Beaver Creek graduates.
Hills has a population of 650, Beaver Creek has 270 residents and the village of Steen, also in the school district, is home to 150 souls. The high school enrollment is 79 students, with younger grades expanding rapidly. The average class size is 25 pupils, but the elementary school is bursting at the seams; sixth-graders will be moved from Beaver Creek to the building in Hills next fall.
“This is a tremendous community, and they’re so supportive of the school,” said Steve Wiertzema, the athletic director and boys basketball coach. He is a native of Worthington (45 miles away) who has been at Hills-Beaver Creek since 1981. He also is dean of students and is on the teaching staff.
Wiertzema’s multi-tasking isn’t rare in a small school like this. Ellingson, who has been on staff since 1990, teaches junior high and high school social studies, is the guidance counselor, district assessment coordinator and golf coach. He was the head football coach for 19 years and now coaches middle school football and basketball.
The school in Hills is a showplace. The classrooms are spacious, the entrance/cafeteria/theater space is bathed in natural light and the gym is bright and roomy, with a second-story weight room looking down from one end of the court, which bears a red, white and blue Patriots logo.
The school sits on the northwest edge of town, with farm fields stretching off to the horizon. Some of those acres are owned by the school, and the FFA chapter farms that land in a true small-town arrangement.
“Our FFA instructor goes to area businesses,” Wiertzema said. “The (grain) elevator donates chemicals and puts them on, farmers donate their time. He makes his calls and the next day these guys come in with their tractors and it’s done. The FFA and school split the proceeds. What a deal, huh?”
Hills-Beaver Creek won a nine-man football state title in 1990 and has reached the state football playoffs nine other times. One of the greatest athletes in school history is Steve Esselink, a 1999 graduate who played basketball at the University of Minnesota and was a state champion long jumper in high school.
Wiertzema’s son Kale, a 2005 graduate and star football/basketball player, is back in his hometown as an elementary teacher and head girls basketball coach. The same goes for Erin Boeve, a 2004 graduate who played volleyball at Iowa State. She now works at a local bank and is married to Patriots football coach Rex Metzger, another alum.
“Community is so important here,” Steve Wiertzema said. “I taught in Barrett, Minnesota, for three years out of college. I got the call to come down here and it’s probably the best thing that could have happened. Our kids grew up here and they want to be back here.”
Another alum, currently living in the Twin Cities, will be back at Hills-Beaver Creek in the fall. His family includes a talented, young softball player at a giant Twin Cities school who is being recruited by college coaches. The fact that the Patriots don’t have a softball team didn’t get in the way of the families’ decision to move.
“We’re not small, we’re tiny,” said Holthaus, who has worked here for 12 years after stints at Jackson County Central, his hometown of Albany and St. Cloud Christian. “Our size is definitely attractive to me and my family. I never thought in a million years I would come here to a small outstate school. It’s definitely very pleasurable to me and the experience has been fantastic in regards to family values and parental involvement.”
Steve Wiertzema said one of the challenges at his school is travel for athletic contests. The football team used to be in a conference that included far-away southeast Minnesota teams like Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander, but in recent years football travel has been easier. Some basketball opponents can be found a short drive away in Iowa and South Dakota.
The basketball teams belong to the Red Rock Conference with such schools as Ellsworth, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Adrian, Fulda, and Murray County Central. The Patriots football team, which has belonged to the Southern Confederacy Conference, will join most of those conference teams in the nine-man South District when district football begins this fall.
The closeness of Sioux Falls and Interstate 90 makes commuting easy. Beaver Creek is on the interstate and Hills is seven miles south of I-90. Steve Wiertzema lives just outside Hills, where the doorstep of Sioux Falls is only 16 miles away.
“And Sioux Falls is growing in this direction,” he said.
Growth is good.
--To see photos from Hills-Beaver Creek, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.
--NEXT: Caledonia and Spring Grove