John's Journal
Preseason Challenges Faced, Football Openers Beckon 8/20/2015
With the first games of the 2015 football season being played Saturday, a strange period of preseason practice is winding down. Preparation has been a challenge on several fronts for every football team in Minnesota, and time has been of the essence.

The normal three weeks of practice before the first game has been trimmed to two weeks this year. That was done because the Prep Bowl will be played two weeks earlier than usual; the University of Minnesota has home football games scheduled Nov. 21 and 28, so the stadium is available for Prep Bowl games only on Nov. 13-14 instead of the normal post-Thanksgiving timetable.

Preseason practice and Prep Bowl schedules will return to normal in 2016 when the Prep Bowl moves to its new home, the Vikings new stadium. But for now, getting ready for the season has been a test for coaches and players.

Adding to the changes are new regulations that limit practice time and contact during practice. Teams cannot hold two-a-day practices on consecutive days, two hours of rest are required between two-a-day workouts, and the amount of time teams can employ full-contact drills are limited. One major result for many teams has been more walk-through drills than in previous years.

One of the big matchups Saturday has Hutchinson playing at Becker; Becker is the defending Class 4A state champion and Hutchinson reached the 4A state semifinals. Becker coach Dwight Lundeen -- who started the Bulldogs football program 46 years ago – said preparations have indeed been rushed this season.

“Everything is getting jammed into a shorter amount of time, even team pictures needed to be taken the first day of practice so they can print the programs by the first game,” he said. “We have less X and O time so we’re going into the first game with less plays and defensive calls. But it’s fair and the same for everyone.”

Bloomington Jefferson coach Tim Carlson, whose team will play at Cooper on Saturday, expressed the sentiments of many coaches regarding the shortened prep time before Week 1.

“Not only do we have just two weeks to prepare, we have less time within those two weeks with the limit on two practices a day,” Carlson said. “There is no way we can be as prepared as we have in the past. We will be limited on offense, and defense and special teams will not be as polished. Schools that have players play both ways are at a greater disadvantage.”

Blaine coach Tom Develice said the Bengals have simplified their preparation for Saturday’s game at Wayzata.

“Instead of teaching our schemes against multiple offenses and multiple defenses, we are really concentrating on the specific schemes that our game one opponent will most likely run,” he said. “The biggest challenge is evaluating our talent without a scrimmage and with very limited contact during the short two weeks.”

Gene Teigland, coach of the New Life Academy/St. Croix Prep/Bethany/Liberty
cooperative team, said seven-on-seven work during the summer helped his players prepare for the season.

“Also the playbook is getting trimmed a little for the first couple of weeks,” he said.

“I am concerned about tackling,” said Tiegland, whose team will play at St. Croix Lutheran on Saturday. “I’ve never been big on doing a lot of hitting and we already use bags, but the shortened weeks concern me more than the daily limit. Younger guys need more reps so when the stress of the game comes they don’t fall back into their bad habits and are using proper technique. We are doing a tackling circuit every practice to help alleviate this potential issue.”

Blaine’s Develice said he thinks the limited two-a-days and less contact in practice will work out well in the future.

“I think in a typical year, where you have three weeks to prepare, the changes in practice format is going to pay dividends with keeping players out for football,” he said. “Parents and players will like the idea that every other day there is only one practice, and more importantly there are limits to the amount of contact you can actually be exposed to each day.

“I think the hardest part is that this year we have that change and then also playing one week sooner. My only concern with playing one week earlier: is there a chance for increased injuries in game one? Players are not in game shape yet, the month of August is usually hot in Minnesota and with one less week players might still be making mental mistakes in games. We are trying to handle this by simplifying our schemes on offense and defense along with increasing conditioning in practice.”

Conversely, Jefferson’s Carlson said he is worried about the limits on contact in preparing for games.

“We will have no contact the Thursday and Friday before our game,” he said. “Games are two and a half hours long and full of contact. In a notice we received from the MSHSL, it told us we can teach tackling, blocking, getting off blocks -- in other words ‘contact’ -- without having them actually do it. That's like sitting a 16-year-old in a car, telling him how it should work, but not letting him practice. Then send the kid on a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Or explain how to play a piano, but you just can't touch the keys before the recital. We are going to use our time the best we can to make sure our players are prepared and safe.”

For some schools, the new limits on practice and contact are not an issue.

“There is not really a huge impact on our program,” said Albany coach Mike Kleinschmidt, whose Huskies will play host to Fergus Falls in Week 1. “Over the last 60-plus years, we've always had only one-a-day practices and never have live contact.”

Lundeen said, “We do very little hitting in practice anyway, so walk-through practices are procedures that we have done for years. We will be physically ready to play our first game.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 7
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 720
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Edina Girls Soccer: Coach Is Hobbled But Determined8/19/2015
Two weeks ago, Edina girls soccer coach Katie Aafedt sent texts to her school’s activities director and her team’s captains. In a matter-of-fact way, she informed them that she had been sidelined with a torn ACL in her right knee … only days before tryouts and practice began for the 2015 season.

One of the captains, Eva Anderson, recounted the text. “She said, ‘This is not a joke. I tore my ACL. This won’t affect anything. I will just be a lot slower for a while.’ ”

Activities director Troy Stein received a similar message. “She said, ‘Sorry I didn’t call you back. I tore my ACL last night.’ It was just a casual text,” he said.

Aafedt has taken her injury in stride, even though she can’t take much of a stride. After surgery on Aug. 12, she was told she would need crutches for seven to 14 days; she stopped using them after four days.

She was playing in an adult soccer league when she planted her leg and heard a snap in her knee. She immediately knew it was the ACL because she had suffered the same injury in her other knee while playing high school soccer at Edina 20 years ago.

“The second it happened, I knew I had done it again,” she said. “It was painful for about the first two minutes, then I was able to walk off the field.”

She went straight to one of her neighbors, who also happens to be an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Christie Heikes had Aafedt lay down on her living room floor, where she confirmed the ACL tear.

“Our kids are friends, we’re neighbors, she’s a former D1 athlete, we’re very like-minded,” Aafedt said.

The coach’s physical therapist is another familiar face. Aafedt is working with former Totino-Grace and University of Minnesota soccer player Julie Eibensteiner. The two have played soccer together on summer teams.

“I’m in great hands,” Aafedt said. “It’s fun, relatively speaking, being back with a former teammate.”

She wears a full-length brace that immobilizes her knee. At practice, Aafedt moves slower than she would like but her assistant coaches step in.

“I’m walking slash waddling slash hobbling, whatever you want to call it,” she said. “Really the only thing it inhibits me from is running around demonstrating stuff. But I’ve surrounded myself with a great coaching staff so they do that. I’m very loud, and the knee doesn’t inhibit my voice.”

The team captains said Aafedt’s injury hasn’t changed anything other than her mobility.

“I’m sure if she was making a big deal out of it, we would be making a big deal out of it,” Molly Hiniker said. “And if she’s not, that’s why we’re not.”

Emily Rethlake said, “She’s really positive about it. She’s handling it in the best way possible.”

Stein said Aafedt’s injury doesn’t detract from her commitment to the game and the team.

“She is extremely passionate about working with our outstanding student-athletes, she has a passion to work with the girls, connect with kids and lead in a positive manner that is infectious and contagious within the program,” he said.

“She uses soccer to build relationships with young women, make connections and grow with them. She’s super organized and detailed and dedicated to the team and the program. We’re lucky to have her.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 7
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 720
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
High School Students Make History At New Stadium8/17/2015
In a very quiet way, a very special occasion took place Monday afternoon at the new stadium under construction in downtown Minneapolis. The very first seats in the 73,000-seat stadium were installed – a half-dozen plastic purple seats – and the very first people to sit in them were high school student-athletes.

The owner of the stadium, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), worked with MSHSL staff to find a small number of students to represent the high school activities that will take place in the stadium after its completion in 2016.

The students were Jacques Lyles, a football player from St. Paul Central; Emily Sullivan and Bailee Hyde, soccer players from Wayzata; Teddy Broxterman, a baseball player from Roseville; and Joe Nelson and Mia Prideaux, band members from Eden Prairie.

The students -- wearing hard hats, eye protection, gloves and safety vests – were escorted into the stadium by Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the MSFA. They posed for photos and had a chance to see the stadium from the inside. The playing field is currently the home of several cranes and assorted construction equipment, and the roof is well on its way to being completed.

The stadium, which will open in time for the 2016 Vikings season, also will be the home of the MSHSL state football semifinals and Prep Bowl, state girls and boys soccer semifinals and championship games, as well as regular-season baseball games (as was the case at the Metrodome) and marching band competitions. The first seats were installed in one of the end zones.

--See more photos on the MSHSL Facebook page,

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 662
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Totino-Grace Football: A Story Of Loss, Adversity And Togetherness8/14/2015
The Totino-Grace football team gathered together Monday morning, the first day of practice for the 2015 season, and attended a funeral. Rene Litecky, wife and mother of Totino-Grace assistant coaches Bernie and Brian Litecky, died suddenly on Aug. 1. She was 62 years old.

The Eagles and their school have been through a lot in the last year. Team manager and homecoming queen Rachel Woell passed away last September after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. The Eagles finished the season as Class 6A state runner-up, losing to Eden Prairie 28-27 in the Prep Bowl.

“We’ve definitely had to face some adversity,” said senior captain Hayden Lacy. “We’ve just been kind of getting through that with each other, to be honest. We all come together and get through it.”

Bernie and Brian Litecky missed most of the first week’s practices, but Rachel’s mother, Yvette, has become an official part of the team this season. She is one of the assistant coaches, working with team managers, the athletic training staff and in the words of head coach Jeff Ferguson, “doing a ton of paperwork.”

“I think Rachel helped us come a lot closer together,” said senior captain Lewis Kidd. “Rachel was a great girl and she brought a lot of special gifts to the team. Having her mom out here has helped us all. She’s a great help to us and she loves being a part of this team and we love having her.

“I think we’ve all dealt with the sadness pretty well, but we know Rachel would have wanted us to keep going and keep playing, and that’s what we’re doing for her.”

Ferguson said he has seen his players mature through the loss of Rachel and Rene.

“When you grow up that’s what happens. You experience all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Our 18 seniors have matured so much. They’re been through a lot. And of course, everybody has their own story, at any school. You go through life and stuff happens.”

Rachel passed away on the night of the Eagles’ only regular-season defeat, a 28-0 loss at Maple Grove. Ferguson learned the news while on the bus back to school, and he informed the players in the locker room after they arrived. Ferguson doesn’t like to talk about the sadness of that night; of the game he said, “We had lost 28-0 to Maple Grove and it was probably worse than that. We didn’t have a chance.”

The Eagles finished the regular season with three victories and then put together a four-game postseason winning streak to reach the Prep Bowl. That game ended with Totino-Grace falling short on a two-point conversion attempt.

Totino-Grace has won seven state football titles since 2003. The Eagles’ enrollment of 749 in grades nine through 12 would put them in Class 4A football, but they opt up two classes to 6A. Totino-Grace will play host to Eden Prairie in the 2015 season opener on Aug. 22.

“We’ve never had a year like last year,” Ferguson said. “That group, to get to where we got, that was a miracle. We had a couple talented players. We started eight sophomores and we had guys doing stuff out of their minds. Eden Prairie breaks the huddle and they look like a bunch of Adonises. And we had ‘em.

"That Eden Prairie game, people have mentioned it as a heartbreaking thing. That game was over and I turned and I saw (Rachel's parents) Jamie and Yvette, because they were on our sideline. I was like, ‘OUR loss?’

“I feel so blessed because I think what’s really important is that the kids trust the coaches. The coaches have to earn that. And once you do, then you can be tough on them. Because they know that you love them. Our kids achieve, they push the envelope.”

As practice ended Thursday and the players gathered around Ferguson, he talked about the loss of Rene Litecky and thanked the Eagles for supporting the family and each other. He said Bernie and Brian were an example for all.

“They are role-modeling how you handle tragedy with dignity, faith and grace,” he said.

“Both Liteckys are a huge part of our team, they’re great coaches and they bring a lot to the table,” Kidd said. “Obviously it’s tough losing a loved one like that, but we all came together and helped support them through the funeral. It was nice to be there for them. They’re there for us, so we know we have to be there for them. It’s helped us come closer together.”

Lacy said, “There were so many people at the funeral. Our team was there to support the Liteckys and we all gave them a hug.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 613
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Spuds On The Run: Moorhead Football Goes The Distance8/13/2015
MOORHEAD – Every sports season is a journey, beginning with the first meetings and practices, extending into competition and closing with the stretch run and the postseason.

Here in Moorhead -- where you can skip a rock across the Red River and watch it land in North Dakota – the 2015 football journey will result in as many miles as memories. The Spuds come from a big school that is geographically isolated, meaning their opponents this fall are a long ways down the highway.

The raw numbers are staggering: The Spuds will drive a total of 1,480 miles traveling to road games and back home again … and that’s just the varsity team, which will spend 22 hours on buses for those four regular-season road contests. They will play at St. Michael-Albertville (404 total miles), Sartell-St. Stephen (338), Willmar (324) and Elk River (414).

“We’re fine with that,” said Spuds senior quarterback Matt Bye. “Wherever we have to go to play those games, we’ll play them.”

The teams that will travel to Moorhead for games this fall are Alexandria, St. Cloud Apollo, Brainerd and Bemidji. Alexandria is the Spuds’ nearest rival, with 105 miles separating the schools. Apollo will drive 167 one-way miles to Moorhead, Brainerd is 137 miles away and Bemidji is 129.

Moorhead fans are excited about the Spuds, who have made a steady climb since coach Kevin Feeney was hired six years ago. They finished 10-2 and reached the Class 5A state quarterfinals in 2012, were 7-4 two years ago and 8-2 last season. Nine players with varsity defensive experience return this season, which provides some optimism during practice time that is a week shorter than normal before the first game.

“That’s a huge part of it,” Feeney said of his defense. “And that’s got to be our formula for success because of the short fall camp. And on the flip side of that, having your quarterback return is also a big advantage.”

St. Michael-Albertville, Sartell-St. Stephen and Bemidji were among the eight teams that reached the Class 5A state playoffs last season, so mileage isn’t the only challenge facing the Spuds. Their eight regular-season opponents in the North Central Red district combined for a 55-27 record last year.

For now, St. Michael-Albertville is the focus. The Knights lost to eventual state champion Mankato West 26-21 in the 2014 state semifinals.

“It’s the old cliché, one at a time,” Feeney said. “But it’s not hard to focus in on a team like St. Michael-Albertville. I watched them play a handful of times last year and it’s not going to be hard for our team to focus in on that. And in Week 2, Alexandria is our closest rival. When you have the gauntlet that we’re going to have to run, you better show up each week or otherwise we’re going to be on the tough end of the scoreboard.”

Moorhead won its first six games last season, losing to Brainerd in Week 7. Their season ended with a 34-27 loss to Sartell-St. Stephen in the Section 8 semifinals.

With the shortened prep time for all Minnesota teams this season, Feeney said summer team activities were more important than ever. Another change this year is restrictions on contact in practice, no back-to-back two-a-days and mandated periods of rest.

“We probably did more scheme stuff in the summer than we ever have in the past,” he said. “The biggest thing we’ve stressed is that we can’t have a poor practice. Typically in the past, we’ve had 10 to 12 practices before we get to game week and now we’re essentially at six. Our tempo needs to be great, our attitude needs to be great, and with the new format for practices, so much more learning is through walk-throughs and meetings and film and less repetitions. We’re trying to get the kids to learn that they need to be at a higher focus level than they ever have.

“We’ve always gone along with the theory that we’re going to throw the whole book at the kids in fall camp and then just keep refining as we go. Even with the change in practice we’ve stayed with that schedule, so our install is fast and furious. Once we get to the last three days of our preparation, we’ll focus in on what we need to focus on for our opponent. Hopefully the kids can come out and execute and of course it’s always one of those things; you hope the fundamentals side of things and the discipline side of things take care of themselves. Like taking care of the football and limiting the amount of penalties.”

The Spuds are committed to working hard, learning from their coaches and enjoying the experience. Those are the things they can control; miles on the highway and hours on a bus are out of their control.

“Even with the schedule we have, we expect to go in and win those games,” Bye said. “We’re not going for moral victories.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 613
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn