John's Journal
Cook County: Isolated, Committed And A Great Place To Live5/4/2015
(This is the second in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

GRAND MARAIS – Cook County High School is exactly what the name implies. It’s the only school in Cook County, which is the second-largest county in Minnesota by total area, but has the fifth-smallest population of all 87 counties.

That equation – a macro area with a micro number of people -- means that students come from all over the county in the tip of northeast Minnesota’s arrowhead to attend school. Some live far up the Gunflint Trail, a county road that snakes northwesterly from Grand Marais through Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area nearly to the Ontario border.

“I think the furthest bus ride is about an hour, if you go all the way up the Trail, and they have to go to the very end of the Trail to pick some kids up,” said athletic director and volleyball coach Pam Taylor, a native of Chaska who has worked in the school district for 33 years.

Cell phone service can be spotty in the hilly timberlands that shadow the Lake Superior shore, and broadband internet is relatively new in the county. A trip to the dentist can mean two hours on the road. It’s an isolated, scenic location where summer teems with tourism and winter mean lots of opportunities to sit by a fire or bundle up and explore the outdoors.

Lyle Anderson, who was hired at Cook County as a teacher and coach in 1976 and retired in 2009, came from North Dakota and figured he would stay for a couple years. Now in retirement, he’s still here.

“Heck yeah,” he said, “I absolutely fell in love with this place.”

This part of Minnesota is unlike any other, with the phrase “winter sports” often meaning outdoor sports. The highlight of Anderson’s coaching career was leading the Cook County Vikings to Class A state football championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but he also coached basketball, wrestling, track and, yes, skiing.

The Cook County boys and girls basketball teams, girls cross-country team and one-act play groups have all been to state competitions. Football leads the way with 11 state tournament appearances, most recently in 2007.

Simply putting teams together for practices, much less games, can be a big task due to the distances that athletes must travel. Along the lakeshore, the school district extends nearly 70 miles from Schroeder in the south to Grand Portage and the Canadian border in the north. When a team bus returns to the school from a road game, some kids will drive another hour to get home.

Because of that, when the Vikings play Polar League road games, some varsity contests start at 6:30 instead of 7 p.m. so the teams arrive home sooner.

“Especially on weeknights we can get home a little earlier,” Taylor said. “That eliminated getting back to school at 1 o’clock in the morning and having to be here by 8. A lot of times kids will try to arrange to stay in town but sometimes they can’t.”

Travel can present challenges other than distance. Taylor talks about her son, a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, driving home to Grand Marais on state Highway 1, which winds for 107 miles through the Superior National Forest.

“He had run off the road and went in the ditch. He stood on top of his car in order to get cell phone service.”

When teams ride a bus to Ely and back, they often take extra garbage bags in case anyone becomes ill.

“I hate that road on a bus,” Taylor said with a smile. “There are a lot of times when I get phone calls, ‘So and so got sick on the bus going to Ely.’ If they have any kind of car sickness, they’re in trouble.”

The enrollment in grades nine through 12 is 170; that number has been falling in recent years and is expected to be around 149 in 2015-16. After a history of playing 11-man football, the Vikings will play their first season as a nine-man team next fall.

“That’s going to be a big switch,” Taylor said. “But the last couple of years in football our numbers have been low, and then kids get hurt. Nine-man makes travel easier, too. With 11-man we went all the way to Ogilvie (213 miles each way). I think now the furthest one will be Cherry (132).”

Senior Noah Warren said his high school memories will revolve around football.

“That was what half of my school was all about,” he said. “Playing football with my brother and the guys above me and the guys below me. I think (playing nine-man) is probably a step forward. When we finished last year we had 17 guys on the team. There’s not a lot you can do with that.”

Jami Sjogren, a senior three-sport athlete, said one of her favorite things about the school is that everyone knows everyone.

“It’s pretty small, easy to navigate around. You’re not going to get lost,” she said. “We’re all really close. In my class, I’ve gone to school with most of them since kindergarten.”

Taylor added, “I think one thing that’s unique with these guys is they do all know each other. They know their whole class, but not just their class, they know the whole school. The elementary kids know the high school kids. I think that’s kind of important for these guys.”

One of the newest members of the school staff is Adam Nelson, who is in his second year as the principal for grades six through 12. The 33-year-old is a native of Red Wing, 305 miles to the south; he and his wife have two children. His duties also sometimes extend to officiating junior varsity basketball games and filling in as a middle school coach.

“Coming from Red Wing, we used to complain about driving to Hutchinson or Chanhassen,” he said. “It’s like an hour and 15 minutes to Chanhassen. Here, we have to go about two hours to get just about anywhere, other than Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

“It was a really eye-opening experience when it came to the sports teams. The dedication of the coaches and athletes and parents to do the things they do up here, just to make it happen, is pretty incredible. There are a lot of great people around here.”

--To see photos from Cook County, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Hills-Beaver Creek
Kittson County Central: Small Numbers And Tremendous Pride 5/3/2015
(This is the first in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HALLOCK – On a wintry spring afternoon, the toughness of athletes from extreme northwestern Minnesota was on full display. A handful of baseball players boarded a yellow bus at a tiny school in Lancaster, the bus drove 12 miles to pick up the rest of the team at the slightly larger Kittson Central High School here and then motored two hours south for a game against Norman County, a cooperative team with students from Ada-Borup and Norman County West.

Kittson Central and Lancaster also have cooperative sports teams – the Kittson County Central Bearcats – but the story on this day was the weather: a gray sky, swirling snowflakes, temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and a havoc-wreaking wind booming across the Canadian border with a full-throated scream.

This game was only the Bearcats’ second of the season. And nasty weather isn’t the only factor in deciding when or if games will be scheduled or played. With a combined high school enrollment of 143 (90 at Kittson Central, 53 at Lancaster), all hands must be on deck for games to be played. While Kittson Central’s 32 seniors were on a week-long class trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, no games were scheduled because four baseball players were gone. And when the Lancaster seniors went on a trip a week later, two others were absent.

“You’ve got to play sometime,” said Kittson Central athletic director Terry Ogorek, a Lancaster native who has worked at the school in Hallock for 35 years as a teacher, coach and administrator. Much has changed in those years, including the closing of other schools in the area, consolidations and new nicknames.

Team photos on the wall of Ogorek’s office tell the changing tale: The Hallock Bears … the Kittson Central Wolfpack … the Kittson County Central Bearcats.

“The biggest challenge of all is our declining enrollment,” Ogorek said. “We’re pretty small and Lancaster is even smaller yet.”

The athletic teams have done very well. Last fall, the KCC football team advanced to the nine-man state semifinals and the volleyball team played in the state tournament. The girls basketball team won a state championship in 2002 and the football team – with Ogorek as coach -- won state titles in 1988 and 1994. The Bearcats also field a successful BEST Robotics team.

“It’s a great relationship between Kittson Central and Lancaster,” said Steve Swiontek, the superintendent and principal in Lancaster, 12 miles south of the Manitoba border. “Coaches all get along, parents get along, booster clubs get along, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

“Even though the temperatures get very cold in the winter, this is a very warm community. People really love their school, we have a dedicated staff and with the students there are very few behavior problems. It’s nose-to-the-grindstone, old-fashioned values. It’s a great place.”

In order to go to a bigger place for serious shopping, movie theaters or fast food, one of the main options is making the drive to Grand Forks, N.D., which is 75 miles from Hallock. That’s a testament to the isolation here on the flat farmland of the Red River Valley, where the Canadian city of Winnipeg (95 miles from Hallock) is much closer than Minneapolis (386 miles.)

Geography also is a big factor in sports scheduling. Being backed up into the northwest corner, the Bearcats can only travel south and southeast. Lengthy bus rides are the norm.

“I imagine if you take a look at the southwest and southeast corners of the state, towns are probably closer together and they might not have the same problems we have,” Ogorek said.

Kittson County Central offers football and volleyball in the fall, boys and girls basketball and boys hockey in the winter, and baseball and girls and boys golf in the spring. The hockey team, which has athletes from Kittson Central, Lancaster and Tri-County in Karlstad, faces the toughest scheduling challenges. A map of Minnesota on Ogorek’s office wall is adorned with pushpins representing the travel the hockey team has faced in recent years. The pushpins extend deep into southwestern Minnesota to Marshall (365 miles one way) and Windom (411) and all the way to the shore of Lake Superior and Silver Bay (362).

“Hockey is the worst,” Ogorek said. “We don’t have any qualms about traveling pretty much two-thirds of the state of Minnesota to try to get a full schedule.”

Geography can make it difficult to hire teachers, as well. Most of the school employees, in fact, grew up in the area. One who didn’t is Lindsey Gullickson, who is in her second year teaching physical education for kindergarten through sixth grade in Hallock and is an assistant volleyball coach.

Gullickson is a native of Bemidji (155 miles from Hallock) who went to college at North Dakota State College of Science and Bemidji State. The position at Kittson Central was the first job offer she received.

“It’s awesome. The community is awesome, the kids here are great,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start teaching. It was kind of nerve-wracking because it’s kind of far from my family, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I took the chance and it paid off. I like the small town, I like the small class sizes, I like that there’s so much parental support here. I really enjoy it.”

As with most small communities, many high school graduates leave for college and return only to visit.

Kittson Central senior Annaliese Johnson, a winner of the MSHSL Triple-A (Academics, Arts, Athletics) Award, called Hallock a wonderful place to grow up but said she isn’t likely to live here after college. She will attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and major in biochemistry.

“Most people go to college, whether it be Northland (Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks) or one of the Fargo schools,” she said. “Lots of people get their agriculture degree and come back. I want to be close enough to come and visit.”

According to census records, the population of Kittson County hit a peak of 10,717 in 1940. That number has dropped in every census since; in 2010 the county total was 4,552. That trend has meant the end of several schools in the county.

“You don’t talk about consolidation for the K-12 program,” Swiontek said. “If I was to say something like that, they wouldn’t crucify me but they would certainly hang me.”

Senior Caleb Christenson, the male winner of KCC’s Triple-A Award, described life in Hallock – where the population was 981 in the 2010 census -- as quiet and peaceful.

“I would kind of say it’s slow, especially after just being in New York,” he said. “It’s a community. Everybody knows everybody. You drive down the street, everyone knows who you are and what kind of car you drive.”

Johnson added, “Visitors come here and think it’s this quiet little town, but it’s really not. There is something going on all the time. My schedule is usually packed. There’s always food somewhere and a lot of community stuff. They think it’s almost nothing, but that’s not the case.”

Change is as constant as the prairie wind in this corner of Minnesota, and it can take many forms.

“The one thing about the school district here, and you’ll see the same thing in Lancaster, is the metamorphosis,” Ogorek said. “Things are always changing. We’ve got consolidations, we’ve got sports co-ops, job descriptions change, mascots change.

“But the one constant thing is the student body. With our sports cooperatives as they are, the kids get along so great. It’s just like they were in one district.”

--To see photos from Kittson Central and Lancaster, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Cook County High School in Grand Marais
A Preview: The Four Corners of Minnesota4/30/2015
This number is the easy part: 1,845 miles. That’s how much traveling I did on interstates, U.S. highways, state highways, county blacktops and one gravel road as I navigated the four corners of Minnesota to visit the schools that occupy those places. A series of four stories – one from each corner – will be posted on John’s Journal over four days next week, accompanied by photo galleries on the MSHSL Facebook page. The schools I visited are…

--Kittson Central and Lancaster, which have cooperative sports teams in the northwest corner.

--Cook County in Grand Marais in the northeast corner.

--Hills-Beaver Creek in the southwest.

--Caledonia and Spring Grove, which coop in several sports in the southeast.

I learned a great deal, and the lessons went far beyond geography, the price of gas and which convenience stores have the cleanest restrooms. More than anything else, I learned about the devoted people who work as coaches, teachers and administrators in schools all over our state and, by extension, our nation. There is no way to gauge the impact they have on our youth and our communities, and they deserve our respect and admiration.

At large schools, it can be hard to grasp what life is like at small schools on the fringes of Minnesota. Many of these little schools include students in kindergarten through 12th grade in one building, where the kids know every other student by name, regardless of their grade.

I saw a superintendent filling in as a substitute teacher; a high school where the entire faculty consists of seven people; a school that’s the only school in its county; hallways that are identified as the “high school hallway” and the “middle school hallway”; a custodian who also works as an assistant coach in two sports and drives a school bus; an FFA chapter that farms school-owned land and splits the profits with the school district; a sloping, asphalt parking lot where softball players practice when their field is unplayable.

It all was inspiring, providing proof that the people who work with our students, along with the parents and community members who take great pride in their schools, continue to perform selfless duties on behalf of us all.

All those miles behind the wheel resulted in other observations not directly related to what happens in our schools. I visited Kittson Central, Lancaster and Cook County on one long, looping, three-night trip with overnight stops in Grand Forks, N.D, Roseau and Grand Marais.

The weather on the northern swing was lousy, and that’s being soft on the weather. Temperatures hovered around freezing, snowflakes were a regular sight, and most outdoor activities were called off while I was up north. The southern trips – separate journeys two days apart to Hills-Beaver Creek and then Spring Grove and Caledonia – took place on warm, sun-splashed days.

During the course of my travels I saw dozens of deer standing along the roadways, along with a few others that had come out on the wrong end of collisions with motor vehicles. I saw swans resting on farm fields and pelicans floating on ponds. There were pheasants and raccoons, in positions equal to the aforementioned deer. I saw turkey vultures along the shore of Lake Superior and a bald eagle performing slow counter-clockwise circles over farmland a few miles east of Blue Earth. I did not see any moose, despite several “Moose Area” warning signs up north. I also did not encounter any falling rocks, despite warning signs on a winding road through southeast Minnesota’s bluff country.

I smelled the rich soil as farmers in the south began preparing their fields for planting. I smelled skunks. I kicked chunks of ice off my car in downtown Ely and went through a car wash in Rochester. I saw several giant statues of fish in downtown areas and along lakeshores, and I also saw some colorful statuary devoted to chickens (why chickens? I have no idea).

The John’s Journal Toyota Camry drew confused looks from a few people, as well as an occasional comment or question. On the Canadian border, a Border Patrol officer asked me, “What’s the deal with the car?” At a rest area on Interstate 90, a friendly gentleman walked up to me as I pulled into a parking spot and said, “John’s Journal? What’s that?”

I told him where I worked and what I did, saying that the best part of my job was visiting schools and writing about what goes on inside the walls and on the athletic fields.

He replied, “Really? What a neat job!”

I agreed with him.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 11,230
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
40 Years Of Optimism And Baseball In Pine Island4/24/2015
PINE ISLAND – Things were taking a bad turn Thursday for the Pine Island Panthers baseball team. Cannon Falls had just scored two runs with two outs in the top of the sixth inning and held a 2-1 lead.

As the Panthers ran into the dugout, coach Craig Anderson was a picture of optimism. He asked his guys, “How many 2-1 deficits have been overcome in the bottom of the sixth? Millions! Let’s stay positive!”

Throughout the game, a well-played Hiawatha Valley League affair that ended with the Bombers winning by that 2-1 margin, Anderson said nothing critical, nothing negative. That is part of his formula for success during a 40-year coaching career that has made him only the seventh baseball coach in Minnesota to win 500 games.

Anderson – a retired elementary teacher who works as Pine Island’s athletic director -- was honored in a brief ceremony before Thursday’s game. Principal Kevin Cardille presented the coach (pictured) with a modest trophy commemorating 500 victories, and well-respected former coaches Dale Welter of Chaska and Dale Massey of Rochester Mayo spoke about Anderson and how important he is to baseball in Minnesota.

Thursday’s loss put Anderson’s career record at 502-365. Number 500 came in a victory over Byron on April 2. 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. Today I thought the kids gave a great account of themselves. We played a quality ballclub, we have a lot of respect for Cannon and the Bombers were just one run better than us today.”

Midway through the game, Pine Island right fielder Matt Huus (who wears No. 3) made a splendid running catch of a hard-hit ball. In the dugout, Anderson hollered, “Throw strikes, make plays! All right! Way to get a jump, three!”

After the game, I asked team captains Matt Kukson, Tucker Hanson and D.J. Titus this question: What’s the most negative thing your coach has ever said?

The question caught them off guard. They began giggling, then full-out laughing. Message? The thought of Anderson being negative was laughable.

“I think he’s found that by saying anything negative it doesn’t help the team at all, so he doesn’t say anything negative,” Hanson said. “The only way to help the team out, even in a bad time, is to keep a positive attitude and he definitely does that.”

Anderson is so highly respected by his peers that beginning this year, an annual award bearing his name will be given by the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association. It’s called the Craig Anderson Ethics in Coaching Award, described like this: “The coach who is selected will be someone who displays class, integrity, character, and respect for the game, the players, the spectators, and the officials. Someone who is a great model for student-athletes and fellow coaches, who teaches not only the game, but also life’s core lessons.”

That’s the essence of Anderson. Ask Cannon Falls coach Bucky Lindow, who faced Anderson’s team in his first game as a high school coach in 1988 at Dover-Eyota. Between high school and Babe Ruth baseball games, Lindow said he has coached against Anderson 120 times.

“He’s been a true mentor for me,” Lindow said. “The first game I ever coached as a high school coach, he was the other guy and beat us 10-0. But more important is the way he treats people. He’s the guy who’s going to congratulate you if you do something. He’s just classy. That’s truly what he is. And through the state coaches association, he’s been on the leadership team for a long, long time and he just makes a positive impact. He’s a great ambassador for high school baseball. I really appreciate all that I’ve learned from him.”

Anderson is No. 3 on the career victory list among active coaches. On top of the all-time and active list is Bob Karn of St. Cloud Cathedral (715-277). Next is Lowell Scearcy of Brainerd (709-287 and also still coaching), followed by retired New Ulm coach Jim Senske (707-171). Three other retired coaches have between 509 and 535 wins (Dick Seltz, Austin; Bob Mullen, Bagley; Darwin Busselman, Prior Lake).

Anderson, 61, credits his family as a main reason for his 40 years and 500 wins.

“I want to salute my wife. Sue,” he said. “We’ve been together for over 40 years. Nobody stays in coaching for 40 years unless you’ve got a No. 1 assistant, and that’s my bride. I love her and she’s been a great support system. Our two daughters were always at the ballpark, and now it’s the grandkids. That’s pretty special.”

Anderson’s older brother Dave, who retired from teaching and coaching baseball in Byron in 2006, works as Pine Island’s official scorer and public-address announcer. Dave compiled a record of 206-195 in 18 years coaching the Bears.

The Anderson boys – five brothers in all – grew up playing baseball in their hometown of Mabel. Craig and Dave played at Winona State before beginning their careers as educators and coaches.

“Believe it or not, my earliest recollection of being alive was coming out in the front yard, having mom and dad watch me hit, with my brothers pitching to me,” Craig said. “Apparently I was doing OK because I remember feeling good about myself.”

And for four decades he has taught the game he loves, along with life lessons that go far beyond baseball.

“I’m just taking it a year at a time and I’m planning on coming back next year if the good lord allows me to and my health is good,” he said. “It’s a rebirth every year, being able to come out and work with these guys. You can see they’re good kids. They’re good ballplayers, but better yet they’re good people.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 502
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,890
Coming Soon: The Four Corners Of Minnesota4/20/2015
Minnesota is a vast state, as we all know, covering almost 87,000 square miles. It’s the 12th-largest state in the nation and is bordered by North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin, along with Lake Superior and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.

During many years of writing about high school sports and activities, I have traveled all over Minnesota. An idea that has rattled around in my head for a long time is coming to fruition this spring. I call this project The Four Corners of Minnesota, and it’s exactly what you might think.

I am in the process of visiting the high schools that are located in the corners of the state … or closer to the corners than any other schools. I have already been to extreme northwest Minnesota to spend some time at Kittson Central and Lancaster, two small schools that form the Kittson County Central sports cooperative. Lancaster, which is north of Kittson Central High School in Hallock, is 12 miles from the Canadian border.

In the coming days I will make similar visits to Cook County High School in Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior, Hills-Beaver Creek in the southwest corner of Minnesota, and Caledonia and Spring Grove, two southeast Minnesota schools that have some independent teams of their own and cooperative teams in other sports.

The end result will be four John’s Journal stories about the corner schools, with photo galleries from each posted on the MSHSL Facebook page.

The schools involved in this project are similar in many ways; agriculture is a major industry in most of their communities, for example. And the schools are little, with Lancaster (the smallest in the project) having just 53 students in grades nine through 12. The largest of the schools is Caledonia with a high school enrollment of 241. Considering that 13 high schools in the Twin Cities have enrollments of between 2,000 and 3,000 students, these corner schools are tiny. This project will provide people who have been involved only with large schools some idea of life in small schools.

The people in the corners of the state are extremely proud of their schools and their teams, and they take great satisfaction in the students who represent them in athletic and scholarly competition. Community life often revolves around the schools, the teams and the students.

As Kittson Central athletic director Terry Ogorek told me, “Things are always changing. We’ve got consolidations, we’ve got sports co-ops, job descriptions change, mascots change. But the one constant thing is the student body.”

You can follow along with me via Twitter (@MSHSLjohn) as I visit the remaining schools.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 499
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,159