John's Journal
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.”

*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
A Quiet Day At Golf Practice, Then A Fire Breaks Out 5/14/2015
Underwood High School golf coach Chuck Ross was working with a group of team members on the putting green at Balmoral Golf Course on Wednesday afternoon. When they noticed smoke billowing out of a nearby apartment building, golf was the last thing on their minds.

Fire was sweeping through the seven-unit complex on the southeast side of Ottertail Lake in west-central Minnesota. Ross, along with fellow coach Chad Gronner, senior Chad Peterson and freshman Braydon Consley, took action.

According to Ross, “One of the kids said, ‘I think that house is on fire.’ I ran down there and there were two people coming out of one apartment. I yelled at them, asking if anyone else was inside. They said no, but there were some people on the other end.”

They saw an elderly man trying to help his wife, who had undergone foot surgery and was using a knee scooter.

“There was no way he was going to get her out, there were no ramps, just steps,” Ross said. “Chad was there and we helped this lady down the steps. The guy kept going back in to get mementos or something, and we had to go back in and bring him out again.

“From there we just went door to door banging on doors, making sure nobody else was in there.”

There were no serious injuries and no one was hospitalized. Firefighters responded from Ottertail, Battle Lake, Henning and Perham, and the cause of the fire was not immediately determined, according to the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office.

A school assembly was held Thursday to honor the golf coaches and players who ran toward the fire.

“We want to honor them for their service and their bravery, because this kind of defines what a hero is,” said Underwood principal John Hamann. “When I was growing up, heroes were people like Fran Tarkenton and Harmon Killebrew. But a hero is a person who’s willing to sacrifice themselves. We hope this is a good lesson for our students.”

It was a windy day, which helped the fire spread very quickly.

“It was amazing how fast it spread,” Ross said. “It just fanned that thing.”

The experience was a blur, Ross said. Even after everyone was safely out of the building, there was one more scary moment.

“Somebody who lived nearby came running up and said the building was hooked up to natural gas,” Ross said. “We had our golf kids around the bus, about 100 feet from the building. We got the kids away from there in case the thing blew up.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 512
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,925
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Oh Brother: Sibling Rivalry On The Lacrosse Field 5/8/2015
Isaac Kuehn is a 16-year-old sophomore on the Farmington High School lacrosse team. When the Tigers played host to Rosemount in a South Suburban Conference game Thursday night, Isaac saw a familiar face on the Irish sideline.

Lance Kuehn, 32, is not only Rosemount’s head coach, he is Isaac’s big brother.

“I guess you could say it’s pretty weird,” is what Isaac said after the game, which ended in the second half due to lightning with Rosemount leading 15-3. Both teams had cleared the field was lightning was spotted and were inside the school when the game was called. After the teams exchanged indoor handshakes, the Kuehn brothers had a private chat.

Lance graduated from Farmington High School in 2001; that was before his school started fielding lacrosse teams. He began playing the game at St. Olaf College and was the first head coach of the Rosemount boys lacrosse team when the program began nine years ago. He teaches chemistry and physics at Rosemount.

“Nine years ago we started with 70 boys who didn’t know how to play and we’ve built it into what we have today,” said Lance, whose team has a record of 8-1 and No. 6 ranking.

Isaac’s top sport is soccer, and he began playing lacrosse after watching his brother play. Thursday’s game was the first time the brothers had competed against each other on a lacrosse field.

“We compete in a lot of things as siblings,” Lance said. “We race together, we run together and play games. This is just kind of fun, to take on a passion that we both have and be able to play against each other.”

A few weeks ago Isaac and Lance traveled together to Boston, where Lance ran the Boston Marathon and Isaac cheered him on. “We talked a lot about seeing each other on the field on opposite sides and the orange and black (Farmington colors), which I wore back in the day, and now I get to see him in it,” Lance said.

The brothers had a brief word before Thursday’s game. Lance asked his brother, “Are you ready?” To which Isaac replied, “Yes.”

Isaac teammates were aware that his brother was the Rosemount head coach. During warm-ups some of the Tigers looked toward the Irish coaches and asked Isaac, “Which one is your brother?”

Farmington opened a new high school building in 2009, long after Lance graduated. The high school he attended is now a middle school, and the new school is a modern educational showplace with first-rate athletic facilities.

“It’s fun coming back to Farmington and seeing this beautiful complex,” Lance said. “This is much better than the old complex.

“And it’s fun seeing my brother and his friends.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 510
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,915
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Spring Grove/Caledonia: Where Everybody Is Part Of The Team5/6/2015
(This is the fourth in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

SPRING GROVE – The school building in this southeast Minnesota town of 1,300 is an architectural showcase that was built in 1922. Ten miles up the road in Caledonia, which has double the population of Spring Grove, is a modern school constructed not in the last century but in this century.

Those two structures form fitting bookends on one of the great stories of Minnesota cooperation. It’s a story of two schools and two communities working together to ensure that all interested students have the opportunity to participate in activities. Caledonia is large enough to field teams in all sports; Spring Grove would struggle to do so.

Spring Grove has its own teams in boys and girls basketball, nine-man football and volleyball. When it comes to baseball, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, track and wrestling, the schools have cooperative teams. The majority of the athletes come from Caledonia, which is not surprising based on Caledonia’s high school enrollment of 241 and Spring Grove’s 90.

The coop teams provide a unique perspective for coaches and kids to learn about the “other” school.

“We fit in really well together,” said senior softball player Samantha Bratland from Spring Grove. “All of us kind of hang out outside of softball. Being only 10 miles apart really helps us be a close-knit group.”

An odd thing occurs every spring. After athletes from the two schools compete against each other in volleyball and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, they often find themselves wearing the same uniform in the spring.

“We are from different schools and it’s definitely interesting when we do different things against each other in other sports,” Bratland said. “It’s definitely weird going against them but we always have fun doing it.”

Most of the coop arrangements go back many years, with baseball becoming the newest coop sport six years ago. The baseball team had co-coaches (one from each school) in the first year, and when the coach from Caledonia relocated after that season, Spring Grove’s Dave Konz remained on as the head coach.

“It’s blended well together,” he said. “We’ve got it down pretty good. Bus schedules can change constantly, and games can be rescheduled. We’ve worked together well and it’s been a pretty seamless transition.”

Some of the coop teams are called Spring Grove-Caledonia and others are Caledonia-Spring Grove. Caledonia’s colors are black and gold, Spring Grove’s are black and red.

“We’ve had these conversations,” said Spring Grove athletic director Michelle Anderson, who also coaches volleyball and softball. “Is it C-SG? Is it SG-C? The kids don’t care. Black is our common color, so we do a lot of things in red with black and gold trim and it looks really good.”

La Crosse, Wis., is the nearest city of any size (22 miles from Caledonia) and many residents of these towns commute there for work. The school in Spring Grove, where welcome signs proclaim it the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, has a stable enrollment, as does Caledonia.

It’s common for graduates of both schools to return home at some point. Among them is Spring Grove superintendent Rachel Udstuen, a 1991 graduate. While attending Luther College in Iowa she was a student-teacher at St. Paul Central, then worked in Mason City, Iowa, and a Twin Cities charter school before spending four years in Saipan in the western Pacific. She returned to Spring Grove in 2003.

Udstuen’s final year of high school was Anderson’s first year on the Spring Grove faculty.

“That’s one of the things we really love; we do seem to have what I would call ‘our kids’ go away to college, go away to start their professions and their careers, and they find their way back sometimes,” said Anderson, who recorded her 300th career victory as a softball coach this week. “They move back and they become superintendents and integral parts of our community, and it’s pretty cool.”

Udstuen added, “We had wonderful experiences, but when we started to have a family we knew this was where we wanted our kids to grow up. We wanted them to experience a small, close-knit community.”

The close-knit spirit is certainly part of the cooperative sports teams.

“It appears to be going really well,” said Caledonia principal/athletic director Paul DeMorett. “I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with the kids.”

DeMorett, in his sixth year at Caledonia, has a unique perspective on life in a smaller town. He is a Twin Cities native who graduated from Armstrong High School in Robbinsdale in 1984. He previously worked at schools in Pierz and Tower.

“Obviously this is a lot more laid-back (than the Twin Cities),” he said. “It’s a slower pace and it’s easier to make connections with kids because there are less of them. That’s one of the great things about it.”

Caledonia is a sports powerhouse, with football leading the way. The Warriors own six state championships in that sport, including five since 2007 in Class 2A. Caledonia’s boys basketball team was the 2A state champion in 1997 and the runner-up last winter; the girls basketball team was the state runner-up in 1998 and won a state title in 2009. In girls golf, the cooperative team won state championships in 1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2003 and 2005.

Success in athletics is no accident. Athletes, coaches and parents are committed to providing quality experiences for all the teams.

“We all put the effort in and it’s always our goal to go far in every sport and do the best we can,” said Devan Heaney, a Caledonia senior and member of the Warriors football team and the coop track squad.

DeMorett said, “The kids work hard, and that’s what’s it all about. We have some great coaches and they’re instilling great values in our kids. One of them is work ethic. My very first day working in Caledonia in July of 2009, I walked in and saw 60 kids in the weight room at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. That right there said, ‘These kids are dedicated and they work very hard.’ ”

That’s a theme in both towns and both schools: people working together and working hard to ensure participation for all students.

“I’m really happy that the kids have an opportunity to do those kinds of things,” Anderson said. “I think they’re happy to share those experiences, as well.”

--To see photos from Caledonia and Spring Grove, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Hills-Beaver Creek: Community Pride, Growing Enrollment5/5/2015
(This is the third in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HILLS – The girls and boys golf teams at Hills-Beaver Creek High School provide the starkest example of how deeply this school is tucked into the southwest corner of Minnesota: The golfers live in Minnesota, practice in South Dakota and play their home meets in Iowa.

The three-year-old school building in Hills (which houses seventh through 12th grades; the elementary school is in Beaver Creek) is two miles from the Iowa border and six from South Dakota. The Patriots golf teams practice at Hidden Valley, a par-3 course in Brandon, S.D. Their home competitions are held at Meadow Acres in Larchwood, Iowa. Even though there was no golf practice scheduled on a recent sunny afternoon, most of the team members headed to Larchwood when school let out.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the spring athletes – the boys and girls track teams -- gathered in the gymnasium to stretch before heading outside to practice in a town that has no track.

The school does not have baseball or softball teams, there is no available golf course in its own state, and the track team has no track. And yet, Hills-Beaver Creek is one of the happiest places on earth. Some of that joy comes from athletic success, but much of it springs from a solid sense of community pride in a district with a growing enrollment.

The new school was built after the citizens overwhelming voted to approve it. Many of those citizens work in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., an expanding regional center that has given a big boost to schools on all sides of the state borders.

“Our kids here have everything in Sioux Falls,” said Dan Ellingson, a veteran teacher and coach whose wife is among a large percentage of residents who work in Sioux Falls. The South Dakota influence is strong; all the local television stations are in Sioux Falls, meaning news reports tend to focus on that state.

“The old joke is our students know the governor of South Dakota more than they know the governor of Minnesota,” said superintendent Todd Holthaus, a native of Albany, Minnesota.

Sioux Falls’ most important impact here is on enrollment. People are moving into these small communities to raise their families while working in Sioux Falls, and many of them are Hills-Beaver Creek graduates.

Hills has a population of 650, Beaver Creek has 270 residents and the village of Steen, also in the school district, is home to 150 souls. The high school enrollment is 79 students, with younger grades expanding rapidly. The average class size is 25 pupils, but the elementary school is bursting at the seams; sixth-graders will be moved from Beaver Creek to the building in Hills next fall.

“This is a tremendous community, and they’re so supportive of the school,” said Steve Wiertzema, the athletic director and boys basketball coach. He is a native of Worthington (45 miles away) who has been at Hills-Beaver Creek since 1981. He also is dean of students and is on the teaching staff.

Wiertzema’s multi-tasking isn’t rare in a small school like this. Ellingson, who has been on staff since 1990, teaches junior high and high school social studies, is the guidance counselor, district assessment coordinator and golf coach. He was the head football coach for 19 years and now coaches middle school football and basketball.

The school in Hills is a showplace. The classrooms are spacious, the entrance/cafeteria/theater space is bathed in natural light and the gym is bright and roomy, with a second-story weight room looking down from one end of the court, which bears a red, white and blue Patriots logo.

The school sits on the northwest edge of town, with farm fields stretching off to the horizon. Some of those acres are owned by the school, and the FFA chapter farms that land in a true small-town arrangement.

“Our FFA instructor goes to area businesses,” Wiertzema said. “The (grain) elevator donates chemicals and puts them on, farmers donate their time. He makes his calls and the next day these guys come in with their tractors and it’s done. The FFA and school split the proceeds. What a deal, huh?”

Hills-Beaver Creek won a nine-man football state title in 1990 and has reached the state football playoffs nine other times. One of the greatest athletes in school history is Steve Esselink, a 1999 graduate who played basketball at the University of Minnesota and was a state champion long jumper in high school.

Wiertzema’s son Kale, a 2005 graduate and star football/basketball player, is back in his hometown as an elementary teacher and head girls basketball coach. The same goes for Erin Boeve, a 2004 graduate who played volleyball at Iowa State. She now works at a local bank and is married to Patriots football coach Rex Metzger, another alum.

“Community is so important here,” Steve Wiertzema said. “I taught in Barrett, Minnesota, for three years out of college. I got the call to come down here and it’s probably the best thing that could have happened. Our kids grew up here and they want to be back here.”

Another alum, currently living in the Twin Cities, will be back at Hills-Beaver Creek in the fall. His family includes a talented, young softball player at a giant Twin Cities school who is being recruited by college coaches. The fact that the Patriots don’t have a softball team didn’t get in the way of the families’ decision to move.

“We’re not small, we’re tiny,” said Holthaus, who has worked here for 12 years after stints at Jackson County Central, his hometown of Albany and St. Cloud Christian. “Our size is definitely attractive to me and my family. I never thought in a million years I would come here to a small outstate school. It’s definitely very pleasurable to me and the experience has been fantastic in regards to family values and parental involvement.”

Steve Wiertzema said one of the challenges at his school is travel for athletic contests. The football team used to be in a conference that included far-away southeast Minnesota teams like Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander, but in recent years football travel has been easier. Some basketball opponents can be found a short drive away in Iowa and South Dakota.

The basketball teams belong to the Red Rock Conference with such schools as Ellsworth, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Adrian, Fulda, and Murray County Central. The Patriots football team, which has belonged to the Southern Confederacy Conference, will join most of those conference teams in the nine-man South District when district football begins this fall.

The closeness of Sioux Falls and Interstate 90 makes commuting easy. Beaver Creek is on the interstate and Hills is seven miles south of I-90. Steve Wiertzema lives just outside Hills, where the doorstep of Sioux Falls is only 16 miles away.

“And Sioux Falls is growing in this direction,” he said.

Growth is good.

--To see photos from Hills-Beaver Creek, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Caledonia and Spring Grove