John's Journal
District Football Plan A Hit In Southwest Minnesota 9/8/2014
When district football comes to Minnesota next year, it will mean big changes in regular-season scheduling. Each team has been placed into one of 18 districts, with districts able to break down their teams into sub-districts in order to make scheduling easier.

(Key point to remember: Nothing will change in regards to the postseason. Teams will remain in sections, as has been the case for years, and the section system will continue for postseason play.)

In many areas of the state, the switch from conferences to districts won’t be a big change, and the Southwest district is in that category. The Southwest will consist of 18 teams, with most of them coming from two current conference. Southwest district schools have made the decision to split into two divisions, largely along conference lines.

There were skeptics about district football among those schools, but the plan has proved to be a sensible move.

“I was an opponent of it because we had a good strong conference and lots of rivalries,” said Springfield coach Paul Dunn. “It appears that’s going to remain, so I’m very happy with that.”

The Southwest district will consist mainly of teams that currently are members of the Little Sioux and Southern Minnesota conferences. The current Little Sioux teams are Adrian, Canby, Dawson-Boyd, Lac qui Parle Valley, Lakeview, MACCRAY, Minneota, Murray County Central, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton. The Southern Minnesota Conference teams this fall are Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart, Cedar Mountain/Comfrey, Martin County West, Minnesota Valley Lutheran, New Ulm Cathedral, Sleepy Eye, Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s, Springfield, Red Rock Central and Wabasso.

The Southwest district will include those teams, with these exceptions: MACCRAY and Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart will play nine-man football in the 9 West district and Martin County West will play in the South Central district. One additional team in next year’s Southwest district is Ortonville (currently in the Pheasant Conference).

“Our district is unique because for the most part they took two conferences and combined them, and that’s how we split our district up,” said Minneota coach Chad Johnston. “From that standpoint there’s not a lot of change. The big difference is the terminology; instead of saying we’re part of the Little Sioux Conference, now we’re part of a sub-district. Our conference schedule really won’t change.”

Not surprisingly, there was plenty of trepidation about district football before the plan for 2015 was announced in early June. But once coaches and others saw the plan and their individual district lineups, that fear of the unknown dissipated.

“For the most part we’re a 1A district,” Johnston said. “From that standpoint, there were not a lot of big changes. That’s always the magical question, the uncertainty.”

Dunn said, “For us, it turned out as good as it could have.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 22
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 1,826
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Nominate Your Favorites For Old Dutch Athlete/Team Of The Week9/5/2014
In partnership with Old Dutch and WCCO-AM 830, the MSHSL is proud to sponsor the Old Dutch High School Athlete of the Week award for the third consecutive year. The Old Dutch High School Athlete of the Week honors athletes for their contributions as athletes, students and community members.

We also honor a Team of the Week. The Team of the Week will be recognized on WCCO AM 830 every Tuesday morning on "The WCCO Morning News With Dave Lee."

Honored individual athletes are recognized on WCCO-AM 830 every Thursday evening during the "Sports To The Max" show with Mike Max and every Friday morning during "The WCCO Morning News With Dave Lee." Winners of the award will be honored live on-air at WCCO-AM 830 and online by Old Dutch and the MSHSL.

Old Dutch is the proud to recognize the Quality that lives within each of these honored athletes.

Athletes and teams can be nominated by anyone by sending an email to MSHSL media specialist John Millea at jmillea@mshsl.org

Nominations for athletes should include the following ...
--Student's name, school and grade.
--Athletic accomplishments during the past week. Please offer detailed statistics.
--Information about the student's academics and/or community involvement.
--A photo of the student.

Nominations for teams should include a summary of what the team accomplished during the week and a team photo or school logo.
On Both Sides Of The Border, The Harvest Bowl Is King8/31/2014
WAHPETON, N.D. – There are border towns and there are Border Towns. If humans who had no knowledge of state lines but owned the ability to ignore signage drove around Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minnesota, they would think it was one village.

The boundary between the two towns and two states is easy to miss. The Red River is little more than a meandering creek here. The meandering lends itself to the local golf course, the Bois de Sioux Golf Club, where the front nine is in North Dakota and the back nine is in Minnesota.

So yes, these towns – and the people who inhabit them – are very closely linked. This relationship is exemplified when the football teams from the two high schools face each other in what is known as the annual Harvest Bowl.

“When the stands are packed and there’s all this excitement, it’s a really big thing for both our communities,” said Chad Fredericksen, the athletic director and head football coach for the Breckenridge Cowboys. Frederisksen said this as we were standing on the Wahpeton Huskies’ home field at North Dakota State College of Science before Friday’s game, the latest chapter in a rivalry that began in 1920.

To say the rivalry game is important to these communities would be an understatement. The football players grew up together playing on youth sports teams and they often hang out with each other. Their fans are easily recognized in the stands wearing Wahpeton purple and Breckenridge green. Some marriages are a Husky-Cowboy mix, and a common t-shirt carries the colors of both schools and the words “Border Battle.”

“That green and purple clashes,” smiling Wahpeton athletic director Mike McCall said to two young ladies, one from each school, as they hugged before kickoff.

Friday’s game went the way of the Huskies, who were 10-2 last season and were the state runner-up in North Dakota’s Class AA. Wahpeton came away with a 28-6 victory, the Huskies’ fourth in a row over the Cowboys. Wahpeton’s Carson Zarak threw long touchdown passes to Mike Poppen and Blaze Irwin, Isaac Erickson ran 20 yards for a score and Thomas Nelson fell on a teammate’s fumble as the ball rolled into the end zone. Breckenridge scored on a 78-yard pass from Nathan Blaufuss to Zarek Reiff.

The winner of the annual football games takes home the shiny Harvest Bowl trophy, which is topped with a golden football and sponsored by the Cargill corporation. The Cowboys and Huskies usually meet in the first or second game of the season, and a crowd estimated at 3,000 people filled the stadium Friday. The schools take turns hosting the game, and two years ago ticket sales were worth nearly $10,000 for Wahpeton High School.

Wahpeton has a population of 7,853 and a high school enrollment of 385 students; Breckenridge’s numbers are 3,386 and 234. That’s a total of more than 11,000 residents, and the annual football game is the biggest thing in town(s).

“For these communities, this is an absolutely huge game,” McCall said. ‘The rivalry maybe isn’t as fierce as it once was, but it’s a very spirited rivalry. Both communities come together and it’s a fun rivalry.”

Earlier this year, there were a few doubts about the future of the Harvest Bowl. With Minnesota going to a new district football format in 2015, fears arose that Breckenridge’s schedule would not have a spot for the game with Wahpeton. But the MSHSL’s district placement committee -- made up of coaches and administrators from around the state – ensured that Breckenridge would have room on its schedule to allow the rivalry to continue.

If the rivalry had ended, “I think it would be very hard for both communities to handle,” McCall said. “You’ve got a river separating the two of you and you can’t play each other? When you talk about ticket sales and everything else that goes on, seeing this game go away would be a very hard financial hit for both of us.”

Fredericksen said, “We’re so fortunate that the High School League was able to maneuver it and allow us to keep this game going. It’s worked out, we can’t ask for anything more.

“This game is something that our communities come together on. They really pride themselves on this. The atmosphere for these guys to play in; for a small town to have this kind of opening-date atmosphere, it’s just outstanding.”

--To see a photo gallery from Friday’s Harvest Bowl, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 20
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 1,408
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Bethlehem Academy Volleyball Is Team To Beat In Class 1A8/27/2014
The volleyball team from Bethlehem Academy in Faribault wins state championships on a regular basis, and when the Cardinals don’t win they generally finish second. Check out this consistency: Class 1A state titles in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012, and state runner-up finishes in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

This year’s team may be the best one Bethlehem Academy has ever had. The Cardinals, who are ranked No. 1 in the 1A coaches poll, opened the season with a 25-17, 25-12, 25-20 victory at Lakeville North on Tuesday night. North is not ranked in 3A, but as Bethlehem Academy coach Franz Boelter said afterward, “I don’t care how good we’re supposed to be, if you look past somebody they’re going to smack you with a two by four.”

The Cardinals are talented, experienced and deep. The lineup includes 2013 All-State selection Payton Nutter and All-State honorable mention picks Lauren Mathews and Maddie Strodtman. When you add Payton Schultz -- who missed most of last season because of an injury – and others, the team’s depth is something rarely seen on the small-school level.

“Once we can get some continuity going here, this is a group with a lot of flexibility to do some different things that we’ve never been able to do before,” said Boelter. “Sometimes Schultz and Nutter will flip sides, and in almost every rotation we can do that and take advantage of mismatches.”

Boelter is in his 23rd season as Bethlehem Academy’s volleyball coach. He also coached the boys basketball team for 36 years before resigning from that after last season. He is a Minnesota Hall of Fame coach in both sports and has a combined total of 1,124 victories; 613 in boys basketball and 511 in volleyball. He works as the school’s director of advancement, and he said those duties conflicted more with basketball than volleyball.

“I never anticipated I’d go 36 years,” he said of coaching basketball. “There were really two big factors. One was with most of our volleyball seasons extended to the point that they are, I was going into basketball season exhausted and I didn’t feel like I could prepare as well and I didn’t feel I had the energy that I wanted to have. And you do that for a few years in a row and it starts to catch up, it’s like you never catch your breath.

“The other thing is that in my advancement job, our busiest time is from early November to the end of April, and that’s the whole basketball season. It was just time. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it and loved all the kids I’ve worked with, but it was just time.”

He said he has no plans to step back from coaching volleyball.

“Let’s see if they’ll keep me on for a while. I’m having fun, I’m enjoying it. When coaching is part of your fiber, it’s nice to be able to hang on to one of them.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 17
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 925
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
One Weekend, One Game, One Scrimmage, One Great Time8/24/2014
Use your imagination and think about the sounds of football. Cleats on concrete as a team walks to the field. Players cheering for each other, their exhortations muddied a bit by their mouthguards. Coaches relaying instructions from the sidelines. Cheers from the stands. The whistles of officials.

I heard those sounds and saw some equally great sights during a 360-mile weekend road trip for a Zero Week game and a six-team scrimmage. The game on Friday night between visiting Brooklyn Center and St. James lasted nearly three hours – which is not atypical for a season-opener filled with fumbles, penalties and extra water breaks on a hot, humid night – and the scrimmage Saturday morning in Tracy was two and a half hours of practice for teams that will play their first game in a few days.

The fall sports season is in full swing all across Minnesota, with cross-country, volleyball, girls tennis, soccer, and girls swimming and diving under way and adapted soccer beginning this week. My first big journey of the fall was a grand one, on highways accompanied by lush green fields, some of the prettiest little towns in the world and roadside sales lots filled with behemothian tractors and other farm gear.

A few things I learned between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening…

--A starter’s pistol is one way to signal the end of each quarter in a football game. In St. James, the pistol is fired out of the front window of the press box, causing spectators who aren’t paying attention to jump.

--The best use of a cell phone might be as a flashlight inside a pitch-black porta-potty. This observation is based on very personal experience.

--A very lengthy football game can mess with radio talk-show plans. I was booked to utter a few syllable on WCCO AM’s “Radio Rally” scoreboard show at 9:35 p.m. Friday for what we assumed would be some postgame comments. As it turned out, the game was still in the third quarter when the radio guys called.

--Those poor, poor souls who have never lived away from a city don’t know what they’re missing. Along with the scenery on my weekend tour, the season’s crop conditions and bin-busting capabilities are always a topic this time of year. At halftime in St. James, I enjoyed chatting about how the corn and soybeans are looking in different parts of Minnesota, as well as a recent downpour that soaked the St. James area and greened things up very nicely.

--Dining on the road is sometimes an adventure. I left St. James at about 10:30 Friday night, headed for a motel in Marshall 90 minutes away. I saw one or two convenience stores that were open over those 85 miles, but opted to gamble that an actual fast-food emporium could feed me in Marshall. I hit a McDonald’s drive-through at midnight, then was back for breakfast at 8 a.m. Doesn’t make me a bad person, right? Right?

--Dining at athletic events is always easy and fun. The St. James Lions Club provided a fantastic pregame meal of burgers and all the fixings as a fundraiser for new restrooms built by club members. And after the scrimmage in Tracy, pork sandwiches and yes, all the fixings, were provided for all players, coaches, officials and fans for a small donation.

In the Zero Week game, Brooklyn Center was successful in its trip from the Twin Cities to southern Minnesota, defeating the St. James Saints 50-25. Both teams finished 2-7 last season, and the first few minutes of Friday’s game made onlookers believe this would be an even matchup.

Each team scored its first touchdown after recovering a fumble by the opponent, and Brooklyn Centaur’s Jason Barto returned an interception 60 yards for what became the go-ahead score late in the first quarter. The momentum stayed with the visitors after that, with Centaurs quarterback Chester Whalley throwing for two scores and running for two, and Tyrell Beasley scoring two TDs on the ground. For St. James, Chris Johnson ran for two touchdowns.

“We got after it and some of our athletes made plays,” Brooklyn Center coach Willie Finley said. “Our O line blocked well, our quarterback checked down, the kids played and they stayed with the game plan. They stayed faithful, they kept their heads up the whole game, even when we were down in the beginning.

“There’s nothing better for a family than a road trip, right? It brings all the true colors. So we came together as a family and it was great.”

Saturday’s scrimmage was well-planned as a way for teams as well as officials to get their games in line for the upcoming start of the season. The six teams were from Wabasso, Springfield, Minneota, Dawson-Boyd, Red Rock Central and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton. The field was split down the middle, with two teams using 50 yards and switching between offense and defense while two teams sat out during each 30-minute session. On the adjoining practice fields in Tracy, B squads did the same.

This is the ninth consecutive year that Tracy-Milroy-Balaton has hosted this scrimmage. The teams haven’t changed much; Windom chose not to come this year so Red Rock Central took that spot. And the teams bring some heavy football tradition: Minneota was the Class 2A state runner-up last season and Dawson-Boyd was the 1A runner-up, Tracy-Milroy-Balaton was a 1A state playoff team, Wabasso went 9-2 and lost to Dawson-Boyd in the Section 5 title game, and Springfield is a traditionally powerful program. Three of the teams come from the Little Sioux Conference and three from the Southern Minnesota Conference.

“There’s some pretty good football down here,” Tracy-Milroy-Balaton co-coach Derek Flann – owner of a world-class Fu Manchu moustache -- said in an understatement.

As the scrimmage schedule wound down, everyone headed to the school parking lot for lunch. The hungry horde sat on wooden benches at wooden tables; sweaty, tired players demolished their paper plates filled with food.

“The parents have really taken care of all the work away from the football field for us,” Flann said. “We’ve got a group of parents who go out and get a bunch of sponsorships, they set everything up, they get the food ready. All we’ve got to do is coordinate the teams that are coming.”

Indeed, kudos to the parents from Tracy-Milroy-Balaton for a solid lunch that sent visitors home with full tummies. And thanks to all the friendly officials, coaches, players, parents and fans who said hi.

I can’t wait for my next trip.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 15
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 915
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn