Eleven and a half thousand miles. When I look back on the past year of John’s Journal stories, all those miles (11,543 to be exact) I drove on Minnesota roads while traveling to and from schools, games and other events are a big blur. The best memories, however, flow from what happened when I wasn’t behind the wheel. I visited small-town gyms and mega-school fields. I spent time in towns where the skyline consists of grain elevators and church steeples; I attended events where the office towers of downtown Minneapolis provided a backdrop. And everywhere I went, there was a new story to tell.
In what has become an annual tradition, I have looked through the past 12 months of John’s Journal stories and settled on my personal 10 favorites. I posted more than a hundred stories during the year, and my initial screening whittled that list to 26 candidates for the top 10. In other words, coming up with 10 was extremely difficult. But here they are…
NUMBER 10/ Jarvis Johnson Died Four Years Ago; You Should See Him Now (Dec. 12)
Jarvis was a member of four Class 3A basketball state championship teams at DeLaSalle. He collapsed at basketball practice as an eighth-grader and was clinically dead for between seven and 12 minutes. The story of how he came back to life is amazing, and the fact that he is one of the top athletes in Minnesota – with a surgically inserted defibrillator keeping watch on his heart -- adds another incredible layer to the story of a young man who is a walking miracle.
NUMBER 9/ Cymbals Of Excellence, Energy And Fun (Feb.19)
This was a story from the girls state hockey tournament, but the subject was someone off the ice: Anna Albitz, who played the cymbals in the Edina band. I wrote: Anna is a senior and one of six cymbals players in the band. She loves the cymbals because clanging those two big discs against each other and twirling them around while boogying is just too much fun.
“Anna is an amazing kid,” said Edina band director Andy Richter. “She is full of energy and life and she just exudes the epitome of a band student.”
NUMBER 8/ Same Nickname, Same Colors And Teacher vs. Student (March 17)
There was an intriguing matchup of coaches in the Class 3A girls state basketball tournament. Third-year Princeton coach Andy Fenske, 27, is a 2006 graduate of Marshall, where girls basketball coach Dan Westby was his physical education and health teacher in seventh and eighth grade. One of the hurdles for Fenske was what to call Westby, 55.
“No way can I ever call him Dan,” Fenske said with a laugh. “Maybe Mr. Westby, out of sheer respect.”
NUMBER 7/ End Of An Era As Fairmont Speech Coaches Bow Out (April 17)
The 2015 state speech tournament was the final one for Fairmont husband-and-wife coaches Cliff and Roxy Janke. Cliff coached speech, taught vocal music and directed school musicals for 31 years before retiring from teaching in 2014, and for 15 years Roxy was a Fairmont English teacher and director of school plays as well as speech coach. She retired when the 2014-15 school year ended.
Roxy said, “Whether they’re at the state tournament or not, they have acquired some skills and they have acquired confidence and they have come into their own. And there’s not a better gift as a teacher than to see them blossom.”
NUMBER 6/ 40 Years Of Optimism And Baseball In Pine Island (April 24)
Pine Island baseball coach Craig Anderson has won more than 500 games during a 40-year coaching career. But wins and losses are secondary to Anderson’s main mission in coaching.
“We want to win but we have a bigger message,” he said. “And that’s, ‘Hey, come play hard, represent your community and your family with dignity.’ And if you do those things, then it’s a win no matter how the result comes out.”
NUMBER 5/ She Dances To The Music (Even Though She Can’t Hear It) (Dec. 18)
Erin Barrett, a junior at Roseville High School, is deaf and a member of the Raiders’ varsity high kick dance team. How does she do it? Through a combination of visual cues, practice, experience and the assistance of a sign-language interpreter. It is not easy, even if Erin makes it look easy.
“Sometimes I feel like she can hear because she always gets it,” said coach Brittany Rehling. “It’s super amazing.”
NUMBER 4/ Nicollet: Football, Food And A Room With A View (Oct. 22)
Schmidts and George’s City Meats & Sausage Shop are two of Nicollet’s best-known businesses, with jerky, beef sticks, sausage, bacon, bratwurst and other delicacies being sold to locals as well as customers far and wide. Some of the Raiders players are employed at the meat shops, which leads us to something else Nicollet is famous for: football.
NUMBER 3/ Seeing Is Believing: The Amazing Courtney Durant (Feb. 21)
Courtney Durant, a senior gymnast and team captain at Cambridge-Isanti, sees about 20 percent of what others see. She has ocular albinism, meaning her retinas are whiter than normal and cause white spots in her vision. She also has astigmatism and nystagmus. Just think about that: run at full speed, leap off a springboard, hit the vault mat with your hands, spin, twist, stick the landing … with 80 percent less vision than other gymnasts.
NUMBER 2/ On “Play For Nat” Night, Communities Come Together In Fun, Support (Sept. 15)
Natalie Hildebrandt, a sophomore volleyball player at Kenyon-Wanamingo, was given a clean bill of health after two years of a knock-down, drag-out fight with cancer. There was a celebration that will be remembered forever by those who packed the gym.
There were smiles. And a tailgate party. And a silent auction. And smiles. C-squad, JV and varsity volleyball between the Kenyon-Wanamingo Knights and the Cannon Falls Bombers. And smiles. Money was raised, including a “Dash for Cash” through the stands by head coaches Jen Nerision of K-W and Melissa Huseth of Cannon Falls, who are sisters. There was a tug-of-war between the football teams from the two schools. Oh, and did I mention the smiles?
“It’s overwhelming,” Natalie said.
NUMBER 1/ Victory Day In Grand Rapids: Football And Big Smiles (Oct. 16)
Eric Soderberg, starting senior quarterback for the Grand Rapids football team, was leading a group of QBs in drills at Noble Hall Field. The athletes each took a snap and navigated several cones while running with the ball. At the end of the drill, Soderberg and the other QBs gathered together in a tight huddle, each put one hand up in the middle of the pack and Soderberg said, “QBs on 3!” They all hollered, “One! Two! Three! QBs!!”
It was absolute magic. These weren’t the other high school quarterbacks; these were cognitively and physically impaired children from Itasca County who had been invited to the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks’ first Victory Day event.
Sixteen kids – some in wheelchairs or walkers -- joined the football team and one young lady spent her morning with the cheerleaders, who performed routines and kept the enthusiasm high. Members of the Thunderhawks marching band provided the school song and other tunes, and longtime Thunderhawks public-address announcer Roy Tovionen provided play-by-play from his perch in the press box.
Coach Greg Spahn said, “It’s just so much fun to have our players see the impact they have and give back to some of these kids who aren’t able to experience football.”
Here’s how senior Levi How described the day: “I love it. If there’s one kid smiling today, it makes the whole day worth it.”