John's Journal
Renville County West’s Goal: Take Brandon To State 10/21/2015
RANDOLPH – The phrase “team on a mission” is commonplace at all levels of sports. One team that is truly on a mission, however, is the football team from Renville County West High School. There’s no understating how important the Jaguars’ goals are, because they center around a teammate who is no longer with them.

Brandon Limones was a three-sport athlete at Renville County West, which is located in the western Minnesota town of Renville. He was a 17-year-old sophomore when he died unexpectedly in March. His death was attributed to complications stemming from an unknown condition in which his heart was enlarged.

Brandon, a kicker on the football team and a likely starter at linebacker this season, wore jersey number 11. And his jersey, blue for home games and white for road games, goes everywhere with the team on game nights. The Jaguars walk onto the field carrying his jersey, and during games it rests on a stand at the bench. It’s almost as if Brandon is still there.

“Brandon was an inspirational guy,” said senior Alex Villarreal. “No matter what you did, you’d come to the sideline and he’d keep your head up. He’d tell you, ‘Hey, good job!’ And it’s the inspiration from his jersey that reminds us to keep our heads up and stay positive, like he was.”

The Jaguars played inspired football Tuesday night, defeating a tough Randolph team 28-14 in the nine-man Section 2 semifinals. Renville County West (8-2) will play at Cleveland (9-1) on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.

State has been the goal for a long time. After last season the Jaguars coaches asked returning players to write down goals for 2015. Brandon, like many others, wrote “going to state.” That has been turned into a social media hash tag by the Jaguars and their fans: #TakeBrandonToState.

“Brandon was the center of our team,” said senior Colin Thompson. “He was always positive, never negative.”

Brandon and family members moved from Mexico to Minnesota when he was in seventh grade. He spoke no English and knew nothing about football, but he made friends quickly and fit right in.

“He didn’t know any English so we had to teach him that,” senior Hayden Johnson said. “And he didn’t know anything about football, either, so we had to teach him football. It was fun seeing him have fun. He didn’t know if we were winning or losing sometimes, but he’d say, ‘Good job! Good job!’ ”

If the Jaguars reach their goal of the state playoffs, it would provide a marker to a magnificent turnaround story. Playing Class 1A football, Renville County West went 0-7 in 2010, forfeiting the last four games due to a lack of healthy players.

The Jaguars moved to nine-man in 2011, finishing 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 through 2013. There was a big uptick last season to a 6-4 finish and this year’s 8-2 mark. The team plays fast football, with a typical nine-man spread offense and quick-footed defense.

Johnson was among the leaders Tuesday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, running 21 times for 101 yards, scoring on a 77-yard punt return and making 19 tackles, including one for a safety. The Jaguars had 438 yards of offense and the defense intercepted three passes.

Randolph’s David Speight completed 23 of 41 passes for 303 yards, with Michael Landsberger catching eight passes for 149 yards. The Rockets finished the season with a 7-3 record.

Now, the Jaguars turn their sights to Saturday’s game at Cleveland and their long-held goal.

“We knew we were a good team,” Villarreal said. “It’s been a goal of ours to take Brandon to state with us.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 120
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,288
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
October Means Making Memories That Will Last A Lifetime 10/19/2015
This time of the year – October … section playoffs … state tournament dreams – is one of the best stretches of the high school sports calendar. Last week I watched six games total, four football and two soccer, and this week I may be in attendance at up to nine more contests between Tuesday and Saturday.

Here’s my favorite quote from last week: “This is super fun. I’ve never been part of a game like this. This was really fun.”

Those words were spoken by St. Francis senior quarterback Hunter Trautman after the Fighting Saints held off Chisago Lakes on Saturday afternoon in the Class 5A Section 7 tournament semifinals. The Saints will host Andover for the section title this Friday night.

To see a young athlete smiling wide as he said those words, and then to look across the field and see the Chisago Lakes Wildcats on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, downcast after coming up short in a wild ballgame … that’s tough stuff. But it’s all part of the high school experience on the athletic field and in the classroom, learning important life lessons about hard work, teamwork and never giving up.

After the game, St. Francis coach Chris Lindquist had a positive message for the Chisago Lakes coaches. “I told their staff that they have one of the better-coached teams that we’ve ever faced,” he said. “They do what they do and they do it very, very well.”

It was a heck of a football game. St. Francis led 24-7 midway through the third quarter, but the Wildcats came back hard. Three consecutive touchdown drives, two ending on scoring runs by tall, talented senior quarterback Ethan Hickcox, gave Chisago Lakes a 28-24 lead with 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.

St. Francis began its final possession on its own 35-yard line. Trautman scrambled for 12 yards, threw to Robbie Whitney and Stephen Anderson for 15 each, hit Mason Meadows for 19 and with 28 seconds to go the Saints were on the Wildcats’ 1-yard line. A sneak by Trautman and extra-point kick by eighth-grader Hunter Dustman made it 31-28 Saints.

After a squib kick, Hickcox threw to Anders Brown for 25 yards and then again for eight more. Brown stepped out of bounds to stop the clock on both plays, and the Wildcats lined up for a 52-yard field-goal attempt with 3.3 seconds left. The kick fell short and a glorious sunny afternoon of football came to an end.

Here are a few other vignettes from an outstanding week…

--Brainerd’s Ron Stolski, in his 54th year as a football coach, telling one of the ballboys before a section playoff game against Sartell: “You need to be on your toes tonight.” Right before kickoff, in the locker room (pictured), he said to his players, “We won’t remember 20 years from now how much we played or whether we played, but we will remember we were part of the Warriors.”

--The girls soccer players from Prior Lake bringing gift bags and stuffed animals to their section playoff game at Edina. The gifts were for soccer teammates of a 7-year-old girl who had died earlier in the week.

--A football coach, wearing a headset in the press box, calling out the next play: “Big left double shift 25 zap!”

--The Holy Family football team taking a knee on four consecutive plays deep in Rockford territory while holding a big lead in the fourth quarter.

--St. Francis superintendent Troy Ferguson running the down marker as part of the chain gang at Saturday’s football game.

--Small-town football tradition: Becker fan Shelley Lumley, known as the cookie lady, passing out cookies and similar treats in the stands (and the press box), just as she has done since 2001.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 118
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,243
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Remembering Sophia: Edina Soccer Team Pays Tribute 10/15/2015
In a well-played postseason game Thursday at Kuhlman Field in Edina, the Edina High School girls soccer team defeated Prior Lake 3-0. With the victory in the Class 2A Section 2 quarterfinals, the Hornets advanced to Tuesday’s section semifinals at Eden Prairie; for Prior Lake the season has ended.

The most memorable moment, however, came before the game started. A handful of little girls, under-8 soccer players from Edina, held large pink balloons and stood next to the Hornets after the players were introduced. All the balloons were released at the same time, and a brisk wind from the north sent them sailing over the south end zone and beyond.

As the balloons rose higher and higher, they sailed above nearby Concord Elementary School. That’s where many of the Edina varsity players went to elementary school, as did Sophia Baechler.

Sophia, a second-grader, died Sunday of carbon-monoxide poisoning while on a boat on Lake Minnetonka. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and it’s unclear what caused the poisoning.

The little girls who released the balloons Thursday were Sophia’s soccer teammates. They giggled with delight – what a joyous sound -- as they watched the balloons sail away. Sophia’s funeral was held Friday morning at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina.

Sophia, who would have turned 8 in December, is survived by her parents, Benjamin and Courtney Baechler, and 5-year-old brother Will.

Edina coach Katie Aafedt didn’t know Sophia, but two of her three children attend Concord.

“We found out the news on Monday when we got an email from the principal,” Aafedt said. “It was a tough pill to swallow. It hit very close to home because she is part of the Edina soccer community, she’s my kids’ age, her parents are my age, she was a soccer player who we had seen at games.”

Sophia and her family had attended several varsity girls soccer games. After her death, the Edina girls soccer Twitter account sent this message: “The entire EHS soccer program was devastated to learn of the passing of a U8 Edina player. We dedicate our playoff run to her. #playforsophia”

Sophia wore jersey number 8, and a jersey bearing her number was on the bench Thursday. It will remain with the Hornets through the rest of the season.

“She supported us at our games, she was part of the Edina soccer community,” said Hornets junior Eva Anderson. “It was really a huge loss for us and it was really hard to hear. She went to Concord, where a lot of us have gone, and she lived really close to me.”

Junior Meredith Stotts said, “I didn’t know her personally but the story was really heartbreaking. One of our neighbors is on her soccer team.”

About the pregame ceremony, Meredith said, “I think it focused us all a lot more and it made us want to go out and win so much more. To know that she was supporting us, to see her parents up there, it makes you much more grateful for a lot of things.”

Eva said, “We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves and we’re playing for a really deep, really important thing. It teaches us to be grateful for every moment we have and we can’t waste any second we have because we are so lucky to have these opportunities.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 114
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 4,091
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Eugene “Lefty” Wright Leaves A Lasting Legacy 10/13/2015
The track and cross-country community lost a very special friend when MSHSL Hall of Fame member Eugene “Lefty” Wright died at 11:55 p.m. Monday. He was 79 years old and had been dealing with cancer for a lengthy period of time.

Lefty was a bridge from the 1950s to current times in athletics. As a young coach at St. Louis Park High School, he took his cross-country teams to Duluth for competitions via train from the Twin Cities and then a Duluth city bus to the golf course where racing was held. He later became Minnesota’s leading meet official for track and cross-country, creating innovative new methods to plan and hold competitions.

“He was a genius. He was an innovator,” said Scott Stallman, who was coached by Wright at St. Louis Park in the 1960s, became a teacher and coach and now works as a race official.

--In this photo from last spring, Lefty is pictured with several of his former athletes at St. Louis Park High School. All the individuals shown are still involved with track and field as coaches or officials. (Front, left to right) Steve Williams, Dan Dornfeld, Scott Stallman. (Center) R.E. “Lefty” Wright. (Back, left to right) Tom Bracher, Bill Terriquez, Jack Mayeron, Bruce Mortenson.--

Wright graduated from St. Louis Park in 1953. He competed in track and hockey for the Orioles, playing in the 1953 state hockey tournament. After graduating from Macalester College in 1957 he returned to St. Louis Park as a teacher and assistant track and cross-country coach under Roy Griak. He worked at St. Louis Park as a teacher, coach and administrator until 1993.

He was an assistant under Griak for five years, becoming head coach in 1963 when Griak was hired at the University of Minnesota. Griak died earlier this year at 91 and a few weeks ago Lefty was named a charter member of the Roy Griak Invitational Hall of Fame.

“He was a second father figure for me,” Wright said of Griak. “He taught me a lot about organization and about handling young athletes.”

Wright, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2011, worked as a meet official at 47 MSHSL cross-country state championships and 46 MSHSL state track meets, including 23 as a starter. He also worked as an official at numerous Big Ten and NCAA events.

Lefty and his wife Nancy, parents of two children, celebrated 57 years of marriage in August.

Dan Dornfeld, who was coached by Wright in high school and also became a teacher, coach and official, remembers a turning point in Lefty’s early career.

“There was an incident during his coaching time when one of his athletes was shorted in a race. He was one of the top runners in the state at that point but was put in lane one, which was a terrible lane on a sand track. It was really a disadvantage, and that became Lefty’s charge. He took on the mantra that we have to do things that are right for athletes. That’s when he really got involved in officiating.

“Anything he’s done for the sport has always been to make the event better for the athlete. He said, ‘Let’s make sure that the student-athlete has the advantage here.’ ”

Stallman said, “He was meticulous about every detail. In his coaching days there was never anything ruled out or taken as chance. Everything was coached to the finest detail, in terms of everything from how to run a cross-country or track meet to bookkeeping to all those kinds of things.”

In the days before electronic timing, cross-country runners were herded into a single chute after finishing to maintain their order of finish. Wright invented the “swing rope,” using a movable rope to create a second chute when the first one was filled with runners.

“Nobody had heard of that until Lefty came up with the idea,” Stallman said. “It’s little things like that that make the quality of a meet better.”

In cross-country, Wright invented a three-meter stick, which was simply three one-meter lengths of boards hinged together. It was used to measure the exact width of starting boxes as well as the distance between the starting line back to the second line; runners move up to the starting line when instructed by the starter.

He also improved the use of lane dividers at cross-country starting lines, color-coding them to specify whether they were for teams or individuals.

“That was part of his attention to detail,” Dornfeld said. “As a result, you saw that better things just happened. He managed things so well that it looks like there’s never any effort given. It’s smooth, effortless. That’s Lefty.

“The other part was that the man was always the calm one. I don’t think I ever saw him in a group meeting get frustrated at all. He would always maintain that calm, that coolness that you need. He was not a guy who gets rattled.”

At the Edina Invitational track meet last spring, Lefty posed for the above photo with his former athletes.

“What a legacy,” Dornfeld said. “He really has trained many, many people for how that works and what needs to happen.

“Everybody’s been trained the Wright way.”
The Effort, The Atmosphere Of Minnesota’s Best Football Rivalry10/12/2015
SPRING GROVE – With four minutes to play in the biggest football game of the final week of the regular season, one of the head coaches said to the official on his sideline: “I don’t know whether we’re going to win or lose this game, but this is a lot of fun.”

After the game, one of the quarterbacks said, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

The coach was Gary Sloan and the quarterback was Michael Stejskal, both from Grand Meadow. Knowledgeable football fans are familiar with Grand Meadow; the Superlarks have played in the last three nine-man Prep Bowls, winning state titles in 2013 and 2014.

Grand Meadow defeated Spring Grove 21-20 Friday night in what has become tradition in southeastern Minnesota: A meeting between the two teams to end the regular season, with a rematch expected in the Section 1 championship game. That has been the case every year since 2011. Friday’s game pitted the top-ranked Superlarks against the second-ranked Lions, both coming in with 7-0 records.

The teams also came in with a combined record of 100-12 since the start of the 2011 season; Grand Meadow was 54-6 and Spring Grove was 46-6. The Superlarks have now won 30 games in a row, second only to Eden Prairie’s 38 as the current longest winning streaks in the state.

The evening was everything you’d expect from the biggest small-town rivalry in Minnesota. A charter bus brought fans from Grand Meadow, saving them from driving the 58 miles. Grilled pork chops and pork burgers served as supper to folks who filled a couple small sets of bleachers and stood around the field, held in position by a rope that surrounded the playing area.

Across the street from Blayne Onsgard Memorial Field, a cluster of fans sat in lawn chairs around a backyard fire, watching the action from the cheap seats. (But this being a small town where people might talk, those fans also purchase tickets.)

“It was an exciting atmosphere,” Lions coach Zach Hauser said. “You have to give it to both communities for coming out, showing the support. For being a regular-season game, it felt pretty big.”

Spring Grove beat the Superlarks in the regular season as well as the section title game in 2011, and beat them again in the 2012 regular season. It’s been all Grand Meadow since then, and Friday’s victory was the Superlarks’ sixth in a row in the series. But looming on the horizon is the anticipated rematch in the Oct. 24 section title game at Rochester Technical and Community College.

Other games must be won first, of course. Top-seeded Grand Meadow will host No. 8 seed Alden-Conger in Wednesday’s section playoff opener and second-seeded Spring Grove will play at home vs. No. 7 Glenville-Emmons.

Grand Meadow has 95 students in grades nine through 12, and Spring Grove’s enrollment is 77. The Lions’ senior class is the smallest in school history with only 12 students (including four boys on the football team). And here’s a note about the importance of football in these towns: Grand Meadow once moved Halloween trick-or-treating in town to Nov. 1 because the Superlarks had a game on Oct. 31.

Friday’s regular-season finale was a game of big plays, turnovers and stout defense. The rivals came in as the highest-scoring teams in the state regardless of class, but no one expected them to match their offensive averages (Spring Grove 57.6 points, Grand Meadow 56.1).

After a surprisingly scoreless first quarter, Grand Meadow’s Christopher Bain intercepted a pass, switched to his offensive position and ran 66 yards for a touchdown. The score was 7-7 at halftime after Spring Grove’s Chase Grinde, a talented 6-foot-3 junior, hit Dylan Kampschroer on a 62-yard scoring pass.

The Superlarks, known for a punishing rushing game, did exactly that to open the second half, keeping the ball on the ground before a two-yard run by Bain gave them a 14-0 lead. The Lions answered on their first play after the kickoff, with a short pass to Kampschroer turning into an 84-yard scoring scamper to make it 14-14.

A 1-yard touchdown plunge by Bain put Grand Meadow ahead 21-14, which was quickly followed by a 48-yard TD pass from Grinde to Alex Engelhardt on the final play of the third quarter. The key play of the game came on the extra point, which was probably booted a little low and was blocked.

“We knew it was going to be a battle from the start,” Bain said. “They brought it all and we had to fight right back.”

Hauser said, “I was really hoping the extra point wouldn’t be the deciding factor in the game. … I was proud of the way our guys fought all game, and we just came up a hair short.”

The game was intense, the atmosphere was electric. But underneath it all was a strong show of respect on both sides.

“The thing I like about it so much is the sportsmanship among the kids and the coaches,” Sloan said. “We get along great. There’s so much respect.”

Stejskal echoed his coach’s words: “We’ll see them again. We have respect for each other and they always come ready to play. They give us their best effort and we do our best.”

Until they meet again …

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 106
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,651
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn