John's Journal
From Far And Wide, Skating For Dodge County1/14/2015
KASSON – The Dodge County girls hockey team is a southern Minnesota independent squad that isn’t afraid to travel, with regular trips to games in the Twin Cities and forays this season to New Ulm and Warroad.

Spending time on the highway is not an issue for the Wildcats, many of whom are accustomed to lengthy commutes just to get to practice and home games. That’s because Dodge County is a cooperative team with eight different schools involved.

Those schools stretch from Zumbrota-Mazeppa to the north, Dover-Eyota to the east, Dodge Center in Triton to the west and Blooming Prairie to the south. Other members of the coop are Byron, Pine Island, Hayfield and Kasson-Mantorville, which is the host school for the coop.

How far-flung are the Wildcats? Well, consider that Dover-Eyota, Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Pine Island and Byron aren’t even in Dodge County.

Members of the girls hockey team come from seven of those eight schools, and the Wildcats are one of the top teams in the state, holding a 15-3 record and No. 8 ranking in Class 2A by Let’s Play Hockey. They were ranked as high as third earlier in the season.

Eleventh-grader defender Hollywood Hermanson (yes, that’s her real name) is a student at Dover-Eyota who spends 40 to 45 minutes on the road getting to and from Four Seasons Arena in Kasson.

“When you come here, everybody’s always happy,” she said. “And it’s different from school because we’re all from different communities. It’s really cool.” (Pictured are, left to right, Hermanson, Dana Rasmussen, Elly Strunk, Katie Robinson and Maggie Wick.)

Seventeen of the 28 players on the roster attend Kasson-Mantorville, with four from Byron, two each from Dover-Eyota and Hayfield, and one each from Pine Island, Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Blooming Prairie. The players are responsible for their own transportation to the rink.

“We have a really good following,” said coach Jeremy Gunderson, who lives in Mantorville. “Our communities do a good job. Girls basketball here is big, and Kasson-Mantorville athletics is good all around. We’ve got kids who are pretty good athletes. But hockey here is definitely not like at Edina or Warroad. We have a bunch of good athletes playing hockey, but it’s not a hockey hotbed by any means.”

Despite the lack of hotbed status, the Wildcats sport a talented roster. Senior forward Dana Rasmussen, who will play at Ohio State, leads the state with 41 goals. Junior defender Katie Robinson has committed to play at the University of Minnesota, three seniors will play Division III hockey and juniors Bella Wagner and Molly Shelton will decide among several Division I schools. Gunderson’s daughter Emily Gunderson is a freshman playing at Division I Lindenwood University.

The Wildcats have never qualified for the state tournament, but that is one of their goals this season and one of the reasons why the schedule includes opponents like Edina, Hill-Murray, Breck, Warroad and Lakeville North.

Dodge County lost to Lakeville North in the Section 1 title game the last two years, and fell to the Panthers in the section semifinals three years ago.

“It’s mentioned a lot,” Gunderson said of the goal of getting to state. “No more losing section final games. First it was, ‘Hey, let’s make the section final.’ Last year it was, ‘Let’s win this thing.’ They’re actually setting a higher goal this year, they want to win the state championship.”

The Wildcats lost to Lakeville North 1-0 in the Warroad holiday tournament (where Dodge Center beat Warroad and Eastview), but Gunderson said he saw a change in his team after that game.

“We hit five pipes, we outshot them, we outplayed them,” he said. “I got to see their eyes in the locker room afterwards, and it was a different group of kids. That game really got them past that hurdle. Now they’re no longer nervous or afraid, they’re more like hungry or wanting.”

Dodge County’s other losses this season were against Hill-Murray and Edina, both by 4-2 scores. Their final seven games of the regular season include contests with ranked teams Eden Prairie, Centennial, Breck, St. Paul United and Rochester John Marshall.

“We try to play a full metro schedule as much as possible,” Gunderson said. “Play the best to be the best, that’s our philosophy.”

The Wildcats players may be spread far and wide geographically, but they are a very close-knit group. They communicate during non-hockey time via group text messages, with as many as 80 texts flying through the air daily.

“I think it’s just a great team atmosphere,” Robinson said. “And since we’re from different towns we don’t see each other often, so it’s always fun to see each other. We have a fun group of girls.”

Rasmussen said, “It’s different, because we don’t see each other in school every day. I think it’s a great kind of different.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 288
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 6,198
A Very Special Event For Pillager And Menahga1/10/2015
Here's a remarkable, inspiring story that was sent my way. Enjoy!

Hi John,

I want to share an experience that I was a part of on Thursday night January 8, 2015! On a cold windy night in Northwestern Minnesota a great event took place. The stage was a conference girls basketball game between two young, building programs with coaches who have a great deal of respect for each other and for the programs they are each leading. That was only part of the script for this night. Several months ago the Special Olympics coaches from each school started planning. Never doubt what two determined and caring people can accomplish. Isaiah Hahn from Menahga and Kim Lund from Pillager started to plan for this night. They wanted to have their Unified Special Olympics teams compete against each other and they did on Thursday night!

The lights in the gym were turned off and a spotlight shined on the locker room door. As the announcer read off each name, the athletes came running into the gym to a standing ovation. The atmosphere was set! Part of the Unified sports team concept has regular education students playing alongside Special Olympic Athletes; Special Olympic Athletes were playing alongside the varsity athletes! The teams went up and down the court shooting for and scoring baskets. Fans were on their feet for most of the game! The Special Olympic Athletes were the stars for this night! Fists were pumping in the air, high fives were being passed around and throughout the game everyone was included in the action and a part of the team! What a rewarding experience for our Special Olympic Athletes and our varsity athletes.

Our National Honor Society members and adviser made the trip to Pillager and were a part of their very own cheering section, complete with posters and banners! It brings chills to me as I think of the look on the faces of the students on both teams. Once again, never doubt what caring people can accomplish! On this night the action of two individuals and the Special Education teams of each school made memories that will last a lifetime for anyone and everyone in attendance.

Daniel J. Stifter
Menahga High School

(I have included a photo of the teams! The picture kind of sums it all up! I thought maybe this would be something for your Journal! I always enjoy reading of your travels and the things you are able to see and observe happening in high school activities. We hope to make this an annual game and would love to have you be a part of it! Thanks for your efforts to promote the good that so many people do for our students.)
For Edina and Richfield Wrestling, A Team Of Their Own 1/7/2015
There has been a downward trend in wrestling: Schools faced with shortages of athletes forming cooperative teams with neighboring schools as a way to keep the sport alive.

Ten years ago, there were 262 high school wrestling teams in Minnesota; this season there are 254. And the number of schools involved in wrestling has fallen from 353 in 2004-05 to 343 currently.

In a dramatic reversal, however, two schools in the Twin Cities have ended a lengthy cooperative agreement and this season are striking out on their own … with their own teams, wearing their own school colors.

Wrestlers from Richfield and Edina had an on-again, off-again cooperative team for 20 years. The team was known as the Richfield/Edina Rampage, and there were some years when none of the wrestlers came from Edina. Now wrestlers from those schools proudly represent the Edina Hornets and the Richfield Spartans.

It’s a new thing, and it’s bringing excitement to both schools and the sport of wrestling.

“It only strengthens the sport,” said Josh Burhans, who was the head coach of the cooperative team for the previous four years and is now the head coach at Edina.

“Edina’s numbers were going up, Richfield was kind of leveling off,” he said. “It seemed like the right time for both schools, trying to take advantage of the numbers and being able to sustain two programs.”

The rosters of both teams are packed with sophomores and freshmen, some of them wrestling for the first time. The teams are taking their lumps this season, but it’s all part of the process.

“We have some nice leaders, some good experience but we’re very young. It’s a great group to build on,” said Richfield head coach Carl Maiers, who was an assistant at Bloomington Kennedy the last three years.

Richfield has had more of a wrestling tradition over the years. The cooperative team was always based at Richfield, with wrestlers from Edina responsible for their own transportation to and from practices.

Edina activities director Troy Stein said, “It’s been 20 years since Edina had its own team. There were quite a few years when we didn’t have any wrestlers or any connection or coop with Richfield.

“When I took this job last year, Josh was one of the first coaches to come to me. We started a conversation about the prospect of splitting and growing. Josh has been the driving force behind this.”

Burhans had prior coaching experience at Farmington, Richfield and Eagan before running the Richfield/Edina team.

“First it was just kind of an initial conversation with Troy, to see what was involved,” he said. “If it was going to happen the time had to be now.”

Edina’s first home wrestling competition in 20 years took place on Dec. 16 with a triangular involving Champlin Park and Burnsville. With two mats being used, the pep band playing and fans cheering, it was a festive night. But as all wrestlers know, what happens in practice pays off in competition.

“The kids are working hard, the focus of the program is improving each day,” said Burhans, whose Edina roster of 31 wrestlers includes six seniors, six juniors and 21 football players. “They step on the mat for each practice and they practice with a purpose to improve. That goes for the first-year guys or guys who have been with us four or five years now.”

At Richfield there are two seniors and one junior on a roster of 20 wrestlers.

“We have a good mixture,” said Maiers, who at 24 is among the youngest head coaches in the state. “We have some nice leaders, some good experience but we’re very young. It’s a great group to build on.”

Richfield activities director Todd Olson (a former football coach at Edina) said, “Participation in athletics can be fleeting and Carl’s done a great job, he’s linked the program with the community, middle school and ninth-grade wrestling. We’ve been more competitive than I thought. When you take away forfeiture matches, we hang in there pretty well.”

Richfield defeated Edina in a December match, and the Spartans also took pride in a win over Hopkins.

“I’ve loved it so far,” Maiers said. “To see these kids grow has been awesome, and to see middle school and youth kids get involved is great.

“I think it’s amazing that Edina and Richfield are kind of bucking the trend.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 276
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 6,010
Coaching, Parenting: Duluth East’s Randolph Does Both 1/5/2015
DULUTH – Mike Randolph has been coaching boys hockey at Duluth East for a long time with a great deal of success, including 15 trips to the state tournament and two state championships. Last week Randolph recorded his 550th career victory.

But something new and different is happening this season, his 26th as coach of the Greyhounds: Randolph is not on the bench for all the games.

You see, Randolph is being pulled in two directions. One is his team. The other is his son. Jake Randolph is a freshman hockey player at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. So in a wonderfully creative twist, Randolph is missing five or six games this season while watching his son play.

“It kind of shows how much he loves to watch me play,” said Jake. “It’s been pretty special.” (Pictured are Jake with his parents, Ginny and Mike.)

The arrangement was worked out with the blessing of school administrators and parents of the Duluth East players. Mike Randolph, 63, who retired last year as an elementary teacher, was also thinking about retiring from coaching in order to watch Jake play. But nobody wanted that to happen.

“It was brought up at the banquet at the end of last year,” Mike Randolph said. “At that time a lot of the parents knew that Jake was going into college hockey and they knew that I was very interested in seeing him play.

“Basically I just told them, ‘I’m like you. I want to see my kid play. To be honest with you, if our high school team is playing at Andover and Jake’s playing at North Dakota, guess where I’m going to go?’ That kind of dialogue took place and they said, ‘Let’s wait and see what it’s like but we sure don’t want you to quit.’ There was a lot of support from parents.”

After the East and Nebraska-Omaha schedules were finalized, Randolph sat down with activities director Shawn Roed.

“I went to Shawn and laid it out to him,” Randolph said. “I told him what games I would miss and we put it together that way. I’ve never done this before. And to be able to do this, I feel very fortunate that Shawn was understanding, as were the parents.”

When Randolph misses games, assistant coaches Dylan Mills and Brendan Brooks are in charge. They played for Randolph at East are well-versed in what the head coach expects.

“Both of them played for me, they’ve been my assistants for a while, I’m very comfortable with them and the team is in good hands,” Randolph said.

“Mike kind of lays out what he expects,” Brooks said. “Dylan and myself go over that with him and we have a pretty good understanding of what he’s looking for. Mike has a plan, he has a master plan for everything. We’re his lieutenants and we carry out orders.”

East’s junior-varsity coaches are tasked with updating Randolph via text messages during games he misses. On occasion, however, he is able to watch East games online from his hotel room. That was the case during the Greyhounds’ season opener at Wayzata … unbeknownst to Brooks and Mills.

“My phone was beeping so often because he was watching the game online in Omaha,” Brooks said. “I almost had to shut my phone off. I was texting him between periods, ‘I got it, Mike.’ And he was giving me line change combinations, ‘Move this guy to this line.’

“It was kind of like having him there. But I didn’t know the game was online, so it was like, ‘How is he seeing this?’ Having played for Mike Randolph, we always felt like he was everywhere.”

In addition to trips to Omaha, Randolph made his first visit to Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks when Nebraska-Omaha played at North Dakota in late November. He also plans to see Nebraska-Omaha play at St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth in February. His wife Ginny travels to most of the games with him.

Before the series at North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais asked Jake Randolph, “Is your dad coming?” Jake replied, “Oh yeah, he’s not missing that.” To which Blais said, “Don’t they have games?”

Jake said, “He just kind of smiled and laughed. Even my roommates here will ask me about it. They’re surprised that my dad’s able to come down so much and see me play. People know about it and they say a lot of good things about it. It means so much to me. I’m happy to be able to see him when I’m playing and happy for the Hounds because they need him.”

Mike Randolph said he hopes the coaching/parenting arrangement continues throughout Jake’s college career.

“Long-term, I look at Jake and in four years he’ll probably be done playing,” Mike said. “Then I might want to be still coaching. Where, if I quit, in four years who knows where I’m at? I still really enjoy coaching, I enjoy it a lot. It just happens that both are happening at the same time.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 276
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 6,010
'A Thousand Hugs’ For Wrestling’s McKee Family 12/22/2014
Mitchell McKee is one of Minnesota’s top high school wrestlers. The junior from St. Michael-Albertville brought a career record of 174-17 into this season, including four trips to the state tournament and a Class 3A state championship at 120 pounds last season.

But people probably know Mitchell best as the son of Seve McKee. At last year’s state tourney, Steve sat in the first row at Xcel Energy Center as Mitchell defeated Blaine sophomore Malik Stewart in the title match. After the match, Malik shook Steve’s hand before Mitchell and his father embraced.

Steve was dealing with a rare form cancer, which took his life on Dec. 7 after 23 months. The story of Mitchell’s state championship, Malik’s show of sportsmanship and the embrace between father and son was shared nationally.

Mitchell, his ninth-grade brother Patrick and their mom, Nina (pictured), are devoted to wrestling, as was Steve. Since Steve’s passing, the family has been inundated with sympathy, well-wishes and hugs. Oh, the hugs.

“I couldn’t walk through this arena without a thousand hugs,” Nina said Saturday at the Minnesota Christmas wrestling tournament in Rochester. “The support is overwhelming.”

For a sport that is built on hard work, tenacity and toughness, wrestling is an intertwined, friendly and family-oriented world. The McKees have certainly experienced that family atmosphere, as evidenced by all the cards, calls, handshakes and hugs they have experienced.

“After wrestling all these years you get to know everybody from all over,” Mitchell told me after winning his second consecutive Christmas tournament title. “But there’s a lot of people I don’t know who say how sorry they are and that type of stuff. It’s been rough but it’s also had its good moments.”

Mitchell, the state’s top-ranked 3A wrestler at 126 pounds, pinned all five opponents at the Christmas tournament.

“You have to come in with the mindset that you’re the toughest one out there and wrestle like you’re the toughest one out there,” he said. “It’s hard to beat someone who wrestles like they think they’re the toughest one out there. And that’s what I tell my brother every time he steps on the mat, ‘Wrestle tough in every position, all six minutes.’ Most of the time you’ll be happy with what comes out of it.”

Patrick placed fourth at 106 pounds in Rochester, and Mitchell was proud of him.

“As a ninth-grader to come into this tournament and place fourth, that’s more than a lot of ninth-graders do,” Mitchell said.

The St. Michael-Albertville team will return to action back in Rochester for The Clash national duals Jan. 2-3. Until then, the wrestlers will get some workouts in but mainly spend time with their families.

“There’s been a lot of support,” Mitchell said, “which has really helped.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 260
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 5,860