John's Journal
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
Blooming Prairie’s Awesome Athlete/Student/Role Model5/20/2015
BLOOMING PRAIRIE – When you talk to people at Blooming Prairie High School about John Rumpza, you hear things like this:

--“John’s the kid that I want my boys to grow up to be.”

--“He’s somebody that you’d want your daughter to bring home.”

--“He’s one of those kids you wish would never graduate.”

Rumpza is in the final days of an amazing high school career, which has extended beyond the athletic arena. Yes, he is a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball), but he’s also a top student who played trumpet in the school band program until this year, when his coursework left no room for band.

Sitting in the dugout during baseball practice Tuesday, Rumpza ticked off the classes he’s taking in his final semester: “Calculus, physics, chemistry, college English, and a more general English class.”

Clearly there was no senior slide for Rumpza, who will leave a shadow at Blooming Prairie that extends even further than his real shadow (he stands between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7). He can remember a couple of B-plus grades, but otherwise it’s been straight A’s and a 4.0 grade-point average as a senior. He will attend Division II Winona State University on a football scholarship.

His academic high point was being named not only his school’s male winner of the MSHSL Triple-A Award for academics, arts and athletics, but also winning the same award among all Class A Section 1 schools. He attended the statewide Triple A banquet in Minneapolis and was featured on television at halftime during one of the basketball state championship games at Target Center.

Rumpza was a three-year starting quarterback for the Awesome Blossoms. Football coach Chad Gimbel said, “I’ve been doing this for 20-some years and I’ve had a lot of great kids come through. He’s one in a million.”

Rumpza, a 2,000-point scorer in basketball, was offered a scholarship in that sport by Division II Bemidji State but he made his biggest impact on the football field. He was a finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Football award after a spectacular senior season. The Blossoms finished with an 11-1 record and won the Class 1A Section 1 championship before losing to Minneapolis North 14-6 in the state quarterfinals.

The 2014 season was a record-book battle between Rumpza and Nicollet senior quarterback Dalton Elliott, who will play football at Division II University of Sioux Falls. Elliott finished his career with a state-record 9,100 passing yards, followed closely by Rumpza with a No. 2 all-time total of 8,991. Elliott also set a state record with 113 career touchdown passes; Rumpza had a second-best total of 112.

With Rumpza, however, it’s not the numbers that people in Blooming Prairie will remember most.

“For everything he’s accomplished, he’s a better person off the field,” Gimbel said. “That’s hard to find.”

Rumpza grew up watching his brother Patrick, a 2008 Blooming Prairie graduate, compete in athletics. It might sound farfetched now, but John was unsure if he would be able to play at a high level.

“I always loved sports but I guess the next level always kind of scares me,” he said. “Right now, looking at college, it just makes you nervous a little bit. My brother played high school sports, too, and you always looked up to them, wondering, ‘Could I ever do that?’ ”

He proved he could certainly do that and more. This spring he leads the Blossoms baseball team with a .400 batting average; they will open Class 1A Section 1 tournament play at Hayfield on Thursday.

“He’s down to earth, he’s polite, he’s everything,” said baseball coach Matt Kittelson. “He’s the star athlete, the 4.0 student, the altar boy at church, just a real outstanding community member. He’s a great role model for everybody. He works hard at everything he does.”

The senior class will graduate on May 31; it’s an ending that Rumpza says has snuck up on him.

“It’s kind of weird. You never really think it’s going to come,” he said. “You just don’t think about it very much until it’s actually here. I’m getting ready for the next step, and it will be a big change going to college.”

He knew Winona State was a good fit after his initial campus visit. He plans to major in math education with the goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach.

“That was the first offer I got,” he said of Winona State. “And I was looking for the right educational program. I visited there and it just felt right.”

He plans to redshirt during his freshman football season. Winona State’s current starting quarterback is Jack Nelson, who will be a junior this fall. (Nelson is from Byron, another southern Minnesota small town.) If everything goes right, Rumpza will step in as the sophomore starter after Nelson graduates.

He took a similar path in high school, becoming the Awesome Blossoms’ starting quarterback as a 10th-grader.

“It got to be a lot at first, just the mental aspect of the game,” he said. “I was just kind of trying to ease my way into that. In my senior year I could definitely tell that the game really slowed down and I had a lot better understanding of the game.”

Rumpza ran the scout-team offense as a ninth-grader, and Gimbel said he was impressive at such a young age.

“One guy who had coached with us and moved on stopped by practice one day. I said, ‘There’s our next quarterback.’ ”

He added that Rumpza’s transition to the starting job was an easy one.

“He started out having success right away. There were some trials and tribulations; he would have a good game and in the next game he might struggle. But what really impressed us was how he came back in the next game, really refocused.”

Rumpza threw for 38 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a sophomore, completing 57 percent of his passes. That percentage climbed to 63 percent as a junior and 65 percent as a senior.

“You can see how laid back he is,” said Blooming Prairie athletic director John Worke. “He doesn’t make hasty decisions, he’s very rational. Very rarely can you get him upset. He’ll show emotion with good things like the best of them, with a fist pump after a touchdown, a high five, hugging a teammate.

“He has continued to grow and mature, not only athletically, but academically and emotionally. He’s really become a good role model and good leader for other kids to look up to. We feel that as educators and coaches we’ve all played a part in that. We’re proud that he’s one of ours.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 533
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,245
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
A Simple Act, A Massive Response5/18/2015
If you have looked at the MSHSL Facebook page in the last couple of days, you have seen a brief story and one photograph that have become huge. Our Facebook page has 18,205 Likes (as I write this), which is a fantastic number. But the story/photograph has been viewed by more than 96,000 Facebook accounts, shared on more than 300 Facebook pages and liked by more than 2,300 Facebook users.

The story is simple. It was submitted by Detroit Lakes girls track coach Mike Labine, who describes how one of her athletes suffered an injury during a race and after finally crossing the finish line was caught by a competitor and helped off the track.

Here is the email Mike sent to me Sunday; I quickly posted it on our Facebook page, along with the photo (seen here) that was taken by talented photographer Galen Bicking.

At the Class AA State True Team track and field meet on Saturday in Stillwater, the Rocori girls and the Detroit Lakes girls, along with Totino-Grace, were involved in a great battle for the true team state championship. As the teams entered the 200 meters, they were separated by only a few points and this race was considered a huge point in the meet for all the contending teams. The young lady that Erin Huls from Rocori is helping off the track is Lindsey Heinecke, a sprinter from Detroit Lakes and Erin's biggest rival in the race. The two girls were expected to battle for first place and the important team points that went along with that. When Lindsey injured her hamstring, you can see that Erin was the first person to help her off the track. After winning the 200 for her team, Erin had the compassion to help an injured opponent off the track and console her during not only great physical pain, but a huge amount of emotional frustration following the injury. Erin Huls is not only a great athlete and runner, but Erin Huls is an amazing person. To me, this is what high school athletics are all about.
Mike Labine
Detroit Lakes Girls Track Coach

Our Facebook page is filled with more than 75 comments about what Mike described, and what Galen’s photo shows so well. Here are a couple typical comments…

“This is what sportsmanship is all about. I am an athlete in basketball, volleyball, etc! Hats off to Erin Huls! You put a big smile on my face!”

“Awesome!! That is what sportsmanship is all about. Proud of this athlete.”

And then there was this comment…

“As Lindsey Heinecke’s mom- I just want to send a heartfelt thank you to Erin for being there to catch Lindsey when she made it across the finish line. Both you girls are incredible athletes and competitors. One of the many things I love about our "track families" we are there for each other no matter what.”

And this response from Erin Huls…

“I am so happy I could be there to catch her, I know she would have done the same for me.”

This offers a simple lesson in being good sports and good people by helping others. And that’s the best lesson of all.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 532
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,105
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Valedictorians, Multisport Athletes, Teammates And Friends5/15/2015
Whenever two of Eastview High School’s four valedictorians want to discuss their Advanced Placement calculus homework, their part-time jobs, their college plans or anything else, finding each other in a school of nearly 2,000 students is not difficult.

Julia Luciano and Kara Sjostrom can simply turn to each other on the bench during softball games. They also are teammates on the Lightning tennis team in the fall, and they spend time together in the winter lifting weights and doing offseason workouts. And they indeed do pretty well in the classroom.

Neither one has ever had a grade other than an A … and that includes elementary school, middle school and high school. When they graduate on June 6, it will mark the end of two extraordinary careers. (Pictured are Kara, left, and Julia.)

“It’s nice to be recognized for our hard work,” said Kara, who will attend the University of Denver (which does not have a softball team) and major in biology or chemistry in the hopes of becoming a dentist. Julia will play softball at North Dakota State and major in mechanical engineering.

The other Eastview valedictorians are Taylor Leighton and Anoohya Muppirala. Sjostrom and Luciano are not alone as superstar students on a softball squad with a team grade-point average of 3.92.

“They’re leaders on and off the field,” said softball coach Trevor Monroe. “Those two work as hard in the classroom as they do on the field, and vice versa. I’d say this about all of our girls, but especially those two: they’re better kids, they’re better young adults than they are softball players. And they’re pretty good softball players.”

Julia plays third base and Kara alternates between catcher and left field. The Lightning finished the regular season with a 17-3 record, a 13-game winning streak, a share of the South Suburban Conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Class 3A, Section 3 playoffs. They received a first-round section bye and will open the postseason against either Simley or Henry Sibley on Wednesday.

If Eastview qualifies for the state tournament, it will be the second trip in school history; the 2003 team captured the 3A state championship.

“Obviously we want to get to the state championship, that’s the goal of every softball team,” Julia said. “I think we honestly have the ability and the talent to do it, and I think we can win it. We’ve been together for a long time, we have a lot of seniors on the team. We work well together, we have chemistry and we have enough talent to take it all the way.”

Wednesday was a pretty typical day for Kara and Julia. Kara took an AP statistics test (she had previously taken AP calculus and AP psychology tests; Julia had completed tests in AP psychology, AP calculus and AP physics), and after school the softball team hosted Shakopee. Julie hit a double in the bottom of the seventh inning to tie the score 3-3, and the Lightning rallied again from a 4-3 deficit in the eighth to win 5-4.

From the softball field, Julie and Kara hustled into the school for a ceremony honoring Eastview’s academic award winners. Still wearing their softball uniforms (Kara in tennis shoes, Julia in Crocs), they received their awards.

“Right after the last play of the game, we ran over here as fast as we could and kind of snuck onto the stage,” Kara said. “Our principal was speaking at the ceremony and he didn’t know we were behind him. He said, ‘Our softball girls will be joining us’ and we were waving behind him.”

Afterwards, Eastview athletic director Matt Percival jokingly asked the girls what was next on their agenda for the day. Julia asked, “What time is it?” Then she hustled off to a rehearsal for her seventh-hour dance class show.

Time management has been vital for both girls, who somehow juggle school, sports and jobs. Julia works at a Chipotle and Kara at a movie theater.

“It’s been hard,” Julia admitted. “I’ve taken honors classes every year in high school, and so has Kara. This year I decided to take more than double what I’ve usually taken, and I’ve been able to do it but it’s been really hard. Some days I schedule every single minute of the day. I wake up and go to school, then go to softball. In the winter I have lifting, then softball, then homework, and I work on the weekends.

“I used to watch Netflix all the time, but I think I’ve watched one episode in the past two months. I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy and I finished that a long time ago. I watched one episode of Lost last weekend and I thought, ‘I have not had a half hour to myself forever.’ I like all the things I’m involved in and they’re fun. And if you have a whole weekend with nothing to do, you’re really bored.

“We need like 10 more hours in the day.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 532
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,991
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn