John's Journal
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
Underwood Football: Small Town, Big Expectations 8/12/2015
UNDERWOOD – If you have never lived in a small town, you may not fully grasp the meaning of these words:

“There have been decades and decades of people who have played football here before us, and they all want the success just as bad as we do. And that really motivates us to do our best and push each other. There are people we don’t know at all, and they’ll come up to us and say, ‘Hope you have a good year, you guys can do it.’ There’s definitely a good crowd behind us and people who are always motivating us.”

Those words were spoken Tuesday morning by Cole Kugler, a senior football player in Underwood. The Rockets had just finished the day’s workout on a grassy practice field behind the school, which is the home of every student in the area from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 9-12 enrollment is 143 students and Underwood’s population is 339. Small numbers mean nine-man football, and the Rockets are one of Minnesota’s top nine-man programs. They have a record of 46-14 over the past five years, with three trips to the state playoffs and one Prep Bowl appearance.

Underwood lost to Grand Meadow in the Prep Bowl two years ago and fell to the same team in last year’s state quarterfinals as Grand Meadow won another championship. This year’s Underwood roster includes 13 seniors among 36 football players in grades 9-12, and to say they are motivated is an understatement.

“Two years ago, our sophomore year, we went to the state championship game,” senior Justin Masloski said. “Last year that was our goal, and this year we’ve got to do it. It’s our last chance.”

Classmate Matt Biegler added, “We know what it feels like to lose in the Prep Bowl, and we don’t want that.”

If the Rockets achieve their goal of winning a title, it would be Underwood’s first state championship in any team sport.

“They’re hungry to not only get back there, but they want to win this whole thing,” said 17-year head coach Chuck Ross.

If Tuesday’s workout was an indication, the Rockets will be ready when they open the season with a home game against Renville County West on Aug. 22. As is usually the case when a group of veteran coaches works with experienced athletes, the practice was crisp with nothing wasted in regards to motion or time.

The coaches, just like the players, know expectations are high. And that’s just fine.

“It really started long before I got here,” said Ross (pictured), a native of Ortonville. “You talk to some of the older people around here and they still talk about their high school football days. It’s kind of the norm for people to grow up around here and want to play. And not only play, but they want to be successful. The town wants the program to be successful, and I think that all kind of feeds into it. We’ve been happy to have those kinds of kids and parents.”

As with many small schools, game nights in Underwood are special events. People walk the sidelines following the back and forth of the football, concessions are top-notch and the setting is unique, with the Rockets gathering behind a row of trees behind one end zone before popping onto the field.

“Everyone is at every single game, all the time,” said senior Dylan Kalenze.

Ross said, “There’s nothing better than small-town football, when the lights are on and there’s usually some type of activity going, some type of feed. People are coming early and the music’s playing. There’s nothing like it and I think the kids feel that when they run out on the field.”

The Rockets are two-way players, as is the norm for nine-man teams. Playing on both sides of the line means you better have rugged athletes, and Underwood has them. One senior, Joe Onstad, is missing the opening days of camp because he’s at Army basic training in Georgia.

Another senior, Coy Thorson, is as tough as they come. The running back/linebacker/punter is also a Minnesota High School State Rodeo Association champion in saddle bronc and bull riding. He suffered a broken jaw two years ago when a bull’s horn sandwiched itself between his rodeo helmet and facemask; after healing up, his jaw was broken again on the football field.

Thorson is one of seven returning starters in 2015, which is a darn good way to begin the season.

“A lot of them saw a lot of playing time last year,” Ross said. “Experience is definitely one of our strengths.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 3
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 557
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
After A Dream Football Season, Simley Takes Lessons To Heart 8/10/2015
“Dare to Dream” are more than words on a football practice jersey at Simley High School. Last season, the Spartans might have been the most surprising team in the state; their regular-season record was 5-3 and they were never ranked among the top 10 in Class 5A, but they won five consecutive playoff games en route to the school’s first Prep Bowl appearance.

The Spartans’ 2014 season ended in a loss to Mankato West, but there was no better place for me to visit than Simley on Day One of the 2015 campaign. The Spartans provided lessons last year about staying together when times are tough and working as a team.

Rex King, a 2000 Simley graduate who is beginning his fifth year as the head football coach, said Day One this year was “incredibly different” than a year ago at the school in Inver Grove Heights.

“We had all those extra practices and extra games last year, so these kids know what they’re doing,” he said. “Our knowledge is up, which is a great thing.”

Simley will open the season at home against Park High School on Aug. 22. They are among 10 schools in the new Red division of the East Metro District. The Spartans’ other regular-season opponents are Hastings, South St. Paul, St. Thomas Academy, Tartan, Henry Sibley, Hill-Murray and Mahtomedi.

Simley has a dozen starters returning, most of them at the skill positions; finding new lineman is a priority during the preseason. Two returning senior starters told me about last year’s lows and highs, and what they expect this season.

Defensive end Tyrese Beards-Borney said of the 2014 season, “I think a lot of it was just kind of self-determination and believing in ourselves. I feel like that was something we had lacked in the past.”

Cornerback/running back Cole Veith said, “I’ve been playing football since I was 3 or 4 and that was the most fun season I’ve ever had.”

The season was not without what Veith called a “huge breakdown” during a practice in Week 3 or 4. “We all got kicked off the field, and I think that’s when we became a family and we started trusting each other.”

In King’s three seasons as head coach prior to 2014, the Spartans finished 4-6, 4-6 and 2-7. That makes last year’s 10-4 record stand out even more, and that kind of success has an impact that goes beyond the football team.

“I think it makes the community believe,” said King (pictured). “As a head coach I understand why coaches who have been there always say the next year, ‘Oh, I don’t know how good we’re going to be.’ I get that now. But I think we have a good senior class this year. This is my school and I want to see it thrive and do well.”

During the season’s first practice Monday, aircraft flew overhead on final approach to nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Construction workers were busy on a new concession stand, adding to an impressive facility upgrade a year ago that included a new scoreboard, new turf in the stadium and on a practice field, as well as a new track. After more than three decades with no upgrades, the Spartans now are at home in one of the finest high school stadiums in Minnesota.

“I think it gives us pride, that’s the biggest thing,” King said. “When you walk out to your home field and it’s a mud bowl, you don’t even want to play on it; you don’t want to go to the practice field because it’s rock hard. (But now) practices have been at a different tempo, they’ve been more excited to come out on the field. And I think that’s true for all sports; soccer, lacrosse, it makes us happy to be here.

“I don’t want to jump into my ’76 Buick with three tires that’s all rusted out. I can’t show that off. This, I can show off and be proud.”

As for the football season to come, expectations are clearly different at Simley than in the past.

“Last year we didn’t really know what to expect,” Veith said. “We all said, ‘Believe in what we can do, believe in what we have.’ We don’t have a goal for this year; coach keeps saying we have a system and we’re going to work by that system and however that plays out is what’s going to happen.”

Beards-Borney said the Spartans probably have a target on their back now, “But you try not to acknowledge that, you just try to play your game. You don’t really worry about what other teams have to say about you, you just go out and be you.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 37
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Countdown To 2015-16: Football Kicks Off The Year8/6/2015
In most years, all fall sports begin practice on the same Monday in August. This year is a little different, thanks to a football season that is unlike any others.

Football practices begin Monday across our state, with other fall sports opening practice a week later on Aug. 17. Football is getting a head start at the beginning of the season because of what will happen at the end of the season: the Prep Bowl.

Normally, Prep Bowl games are held on Thanksgiving weekend. But last year and this year, the schedule is different due to the Metrodome being torn down and the new Vikings stadium being constructed. The 2014 Prep Bowl games were held at the University of Minnesota’s stadium the week before Thanksgiving, and this season those state championship games will be held there two weeks before Thanksgiving. In 2016 and beyond, Prep Bowl games will be played at the new stadium on Thanksgiving weekend.

Due to the football season ending two weeks earlier than usual, football practice is starting earlier and there will be only two weeks of practice prior to the first games instead of the usual three weeks. This is a one-year change, and the MSHSL sports medicine advisory committee has studied and approved the shortened preparation time.

Football season openers will be played on Saturday, Aug. 22, with game times ranging from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Don’t be surprised, however, if some games are moved to 7:30 or 8 p.m. if heat and humidity become a concern.

Practices for cross-country, girls tennis, volleyball, soccer and girls swimming and diving will begin Aug. 17. The first competition date of 2015-16 is Aug. 20, when girls tennis teams can play their first matches. Other fall sports can have their first competitions on Aug. 27 and adapted soccer teams will begin practice on Aug. 31.

It’s an exciting time as we begin another year of MSHSL activities. I’m always looking for stories to tell, and anyone can help me do that. Feel free to send me an email using the email address at the top of this post.

Let’s have a great year!

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 0
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 0
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn