John's Journal
Seeing Is Believing: The Amazing Courtney Durant2/21/2015
Nearly 100 athletes competed Friday during the team portion of the state gymnastics championships at the University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion. Very few of them, and nearly no one watching from the stands, realized how remarkable one of the competitors was.

Her name is Courtney Durant and she is a senior at Cambridge-Isanti. Courtney, a two-time team captain for the Bluejackets, competed in floor exercise and vault. During the regular season she also competed on the balance beam and uneven parallel bars.

The remarkable part of the story is that Courtney’s vision is less than perfect. In fact, she 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 of your vision gone.

“What everyone respects the most about her is that she could complain, she could use that as an excuse, and she never does that,” said Cambridge-Isanti coach Wendy Rooney.

Courtney knows nothing different, either in attitude or vision. Her vision has been impaired since birth and to her it’s no big deal. She started in gymnastics when she was 4 years old.

“My mom put me in it because it was kind of the easiest thing,” she said. “I can’t really catch a ball; well, I can but it’s not the easiest thing to do.”

When Courtney was younger, coaches would put white chalk lines on the edges of the beam for her. These days, a coach stands near the vault springboard and in the corner of the floor exercise area to give Courtney some visual assistance.

Rooney said, “When she does a back one and a half twist on floor, it’s kind of funny because we call that a blind landing. And for Courtney, that’s even more true than for anyone else. I always stand in the corner because she’s not able to focus on something to spot her landing like most gymnasts.

“We always joke that when I wear a hot pink sweatshirt she makes her tumbling passes the best because she’s able to see the color the easiest.”

Courtney wears corrective lenses but she is not able to drive a vehicle. But her drive is incredible, as is the inspiration and team leadership she provides.

“Oh my gosh,” Rooney said. “The girls absolutely adore her. She’s one that they go to.”

Courtney has amazed a lot of people with what she has accomplished, including a certain medical professional.

“Her eye doctor has actually come to some meets,” Rooney said, “because he cannot believe what she does.”

--Photo by MNPrepPhoto.com

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 372
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 7,665
Cymbals Of Excellence, Energy And Fun2/19/2015
The best game of the girls state hockey tournament, as well as the game that provided the biggest crowd and best atmosphere so far, took place Thursday afternoon when second-seeded Edina defeated Buffalo 3-1 in the Class 2A quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center.

It was a whale of a game. After two scoreless periods, the unseeded Buffalo Bison (21-8) took the lead on a goal by Abby Halluska in the first minute of the third period. Bison goaltender Kendra Carlson was the star of the game at that point, repeatedly turning back the Hornets (21-7-1) and finishing the game with 37 saves.

Edina tied the score 1-1 when Emily Oden scored at 3:32, and another goal by Odin made it 2-1 before en empty-netter by Taylor Williamson secured the victory.

Halluska, Carlson, Oden … they were heroes on the ice. The best performance off the ice came from Anna Albitz, who plays the cymbals in the Edina band. Anna is a senior and one of six cymbals players in the band. She plays the contrabass clarinet in concert band, but she loves the cymbals because clanging those two big discs against each other and twirling them around while boogying is just too much fun.

“You can dance and sing while you play them, and be super energetic,” she said in what became a very historic moment for me in my many years of writing about sports: The first time my postgame interrogation process was focused on a band member instead of athletes and coaches.

“I definitely have a lot of fun,” Anna said. And there is no doubt about that. Other people in the Xcel Center press box noticed Anna as she stood in an aisle, swaying, dancing, singing and having more fun than anyone.

“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.”

You go, Anna.

HILL-MURRAY 6, EASTVIEW 1
Laura Anderson scored two goals for the defending state champion Pioneers, who will meet Edina in Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal. Hill-Murray (23-5) had 38 shots on goal to 14 for the Lightning (14-13-2).

MINNETONKA 5, ANDOVER 0
The top-seeded Skippers (22-6) got two goals from Kipper Keller and outshot the Huskies 25-4 in advancing to the semifinals. Andover (14-13-2) goalie Cassidy Stumpo made 20 saves.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH 3, BLAINE 1
Morgan Morse had a hat trick before the second period ended and the fourth-seeded Cougars (24-4-1) held off the fifth-seeded Bengals (20-8-1) to advance to Friday night’s semifinals against Minnetonka.

TOURNAMENT TIDBITS
--This is a busy week for the pep band from Thief River Falls. They played a formal concert at home Tuesday, came to St. Paul and performed at the Prowlers’ quarterfinal victory in Wednesday evening’s 1A hockey tournament, arrived home at 2:20 a.m. Thursday, played at a boys hockey section game at home Thursday evening, and will load up at 4:45 Friday for another trip to St. Paul and the girls state semifinals at 1 p.m. That's roughly 1,200 miles and five performances at three venues, playing two different sets of literature (pep band and concert music) over five days.

--Frances Marshall, senior goalie for the Prowlers, is also a math wiz. She was named first-team all-conference for the Thief River Falls Math League team, meaning she was one of the top eight season scorers in their division.

--Teams that play the first game of a session usually get a chance to walk out on the ice before dressing for the game. The Minnetonka players were on the ice about 90 minutes before game time Thursday, taking pictures of each other and having a great time. One of them looked up at the giant mega-scoreboard and screamed: "Hey guys! I can watch TV while I play!"

FRIDAY’S GAMES
Class 1A Semifinals
Blake vs. Red Wing, 11 a.m.
Thief River Falls vs. South St. Paul, 30 minutes after end of first game

Class 2A Semifinals
Hill-Murray vs. Edina, 6 p.m.
Minnetonka vs. Lakeville South, 30 minutes after end of first game

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 356
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 7,585
Girls State Hockey: Prowlers Take Their Shots2/18/2015
The Thief River Falls Prowlers made a pretty strong offensive statement in Thursday’s Class 1A girls state hockey quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center. The top-seeded Prowlers defeated New Ulm 5-1, but that wasn’t the big number. The eyebrow-raiser was this: Thief River Falls (24-1-3) put a tournament-record 58 shots on goal.

New Ulm (19-9) goaltender Karlie Ries played a tremendous game, stopping 53 of those shots. The previous record for shots on goal in one game was 56, set by Breck in a 12-1 quarterfinal victory over New Ulm in 2011.

Thief River Falls needed 24 shots to get its first goal, with Kora Torkelson scoring twice in a two-minute span of the second period.

RED WING 3, ALEXANDRIA 0

Wingers goaltender Ashley Corcoran stopped 25 shots, Reagan Haley scored twice and Maddy Hardman had one goal. Hardman’s goal at 5:57 of the second period broke a scoreless tie and gave Red Wing (20-8) a lift.

“In the first period I think we had some nerves, but we settled down after that,” Corcoran said. “Once Maddy got that first goal I think we all got pumped up and excited for the rest of the game.”

Third-seeded Red Wing, which also had 25 shots on goal, will meet second-seeded Blake in Friday’s semifinals. Red Wing has lost to Breck in the state semifinals the last two years, and three years ago the Wingers fell to Breck in the semifinals.

“They looked pretty good,” Red Wing coach Scott Haley said of Blake, which beat Hutchinson 9-0 in the day’s first game. During the regular season Blake beat the Wingers 6-1.

“We know Blake well, probably too well,” Haley said. “We played them during the regular season and we struggled against them. Candidly they might be the best team in girls hockey. They could possibly win a double A championship. We’re going to have our hands full.”

Asked if Blake was a good fit for Class 1A, Haley said, “No. I love (Blake coach) Shawn (Reid) dearly and they are good kids over there. But it’s not really a fair fight. But that still makes it really cool that we get an opportunity to play them.”

Haley and Reid were teammates at Lakeville High School.

“It’s really difficult in the sense that we’re not even a co-op school,” Haley said. “My area to pull from is Frontenac to Welch. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the evil empire or anything like that. They’re pulling from the whole Twin Cities. But that doesn’t mean every private schools needs to go up to Double A.”

BLAKE 9, HUTCHINSON 0

Karlie Lund had three goals while Carly Bullock and Lucy Burton each had two goals for the second-seeded Bears (25-4). The two-time defending state champions had a 42-3 advantage in shots on goal over Hutchinson (16-11-1).

Blake goaltenders Anna Kruesel Halley Fine each tied the state tournament record for fewest stops in one period (zero). Kruesel did so in the second period and Fine did the same in the third. Hutchinson’s Ellie Lenarz stopped 42 shots.

SOUTH ST. PAUL 5, HIBBING-CHISHOLM 1
Abigail Felton and Anna Barlow each scored two goals and Sydney Conley made 23 saves as the fourth-seeded Packers (16-11-2) advanced to Friday’s semifinals against Thief River Falls.

THURSDAY'S CLASS 2A STATE QUARTERFINALS

Eastview (14-12-2) vs. #2 seed Hill-Murray (22-5), 11 a.m.

Buffalo (21-7) vs. #3 seed Edina (20-7-1), 30 minutes after 11 a.m. game

Andover (14-12-2) vs. #1 seed Minnetonka (21-6), 6 p.m.

#5 seed Blaine (20-7-1) vs. #4 seed Lakeville South (23-4-1), 30 minutes after end of 6 p.m. game

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 348
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 7,545
Eighteen Years After Debut, Natalie Darwitz Is Back At State 2/16/2015
In February 1997, a 13-year-old seventh-grader took the state of hockey by storm. She was a quick-handed, fast-skating little bit of a thing from Eagan High School and she finished with nine goals and three assists in three state tournament games.

That state tourney was held at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum. When the 2015 state tournament takes place this week at Xcel Energy Center, that little bit of a thing will be back on the big stage as a head coach.

It’s been 18 years since Natalie Darwitz made her state tournament debut. Now 31 years old, she will be behind the bench when Lakeville South meets Blaine in the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday night. Darwitz played on two NCAA championship teams at the University of Minnesota and is a three-time Olympian, but her high school memories remain fresh.

“I talked to my dad before the first game (at state in 1997),” Darwitz, 31, said Monday. “I was so nervous. He said, ‘Hey kid, it’s just another game. Go and do your thing.’ ”

She did just that, scoring four goals, all unassisted, in a 9-3 win over Hopkins. A throng of reporters waited outside the Eagan locker room, and when the youngster stepped out to be interviewed, she seemed even tinier without her skates. I was there and I will never forget watching her play and watching her interact with the media.

“I remember coming outside to the reporters,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘This is awesome, we won the game, we’re moving to the right (side of the bracket).’ It was quite a first impression for me and my teammates.

“After the game it felt good to get that first one under your belt. It calmed us down. That first game is so huge.”

Facing Mounds View in the 1997 state semifinals, Eagan won 6-1 with Darwitz scoring her first goal 29 seconds into the game, having a hat trick before the second period ended and sitting on the bench for the final five minutes.

After that game, Eagan coach Steve Eggleston told me, “On one of her goals she went through two people, went to the left, went to the right, then hung on and hung on and put it in. I keep saying it: She's so exciting that you never know what she's going to do.”

Darwitz scored two more goals in the championship game, in which Eagan lost to Hibbing 6-3. She played in two more state tournaments as an eighth-grader and a sophomore before skipping her junior and senior years at Eagan while taking classes online and training and playing with national teams.

“I remember growing up always watching the boys play at the Civic Center,” she said. “For me, to go to state as a seventh-grader, I was as nervous as all get out. It’s such a big deal. Especially in my path, growing up, those four days in March you were glued to the TV or you were going down to the hockey expo. It was really a built-in tradition.”

Now there’s a new tradition at Lakeville South. Darwitz is in her fourth year as the Cougars coach. They have a record of 23-4-1 and decades of coaching experience. Darwitz’s staff includes her father Scott Darwitz and Merlin Ravndalen; both are former Eagan head coaches. Ravndalen coached the Wildcats at state in 1998 and 2000, while Scott Darwitz did the same in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2012.

“Those two have tons of state tourney experience,” Natalie said. “Between the three of us, it’s always good to fall back on experience. They can bring their knowledge of when they coached at Eagan.”

There is plenty of excitement at Lakeville South, including among the hockey players. Darwitz is trying to make sure excitement doesn’t get in the way of playing hockey.

“We’re pretty clear as a coaching staff. I’ve been a part of teams in the past that fell victim to saying, ‘OK we got here.’ We tell them we’re going to compete for a state championship. We’re not going just to participate.

“It’s drastically changed over the last 10 years. There’s more hoopla, more distractions, and I can relate to that with the Olympics. There are so many distractions and you’ve got to remember that we’re here to play. Enjoy the moment, take it all in, but we’re here on a mission and we have goals. The girls are on board with that; 8 p.m. Thursday against Blaine is our objective.”

That’s another way of saying, “Go and do your thing.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 340
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 7,505
She Dances To The Music (Even Though She Can’t Hear It)2/11/2015
(NOTE: With the state dance tournament being held this week at Target Center, it's a good time to reprint one of my favorits stories from the winter. This story originally appeared on Dec. 18.)


Imagine this: You are a member of a high school dance team, and nothing is more important to your performance than hearing the music and the cues it provides.

Imagine this: You are deaf.

Erin Barrett doesn’t imagine this scenario. The junior at Roseville High School is indeed deaf and she is indeed 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 Roseville coach Brittany Rehling. “It’s super amazing.”

With the assistance of interpreter Alene Ray (pictured with Erin), Erin told me, “I’m not really hearing the music so I have to follow what everybody else is doing. I have to think about it, like ‘What are we going to do?’ and I’m counting as well, plus I’m looking at the coaches and the interpreter. I’m picking up all this visually and the team is sort of communicating with me and it sort of flows that way. If I’m stuck I just sort of follow what they’re doing and keep in the flow. It’s not easy.”

Erin was born in China, lived in an orphanage and came to the United States when she was 13, adopted by Sue and David Barnett of Roseville. She doesn’t remember ever being able to hear; she thinks she may have lost her hearing when she was ill as a very young child.

She splits her school days between Metro Deaf School in St. Paul and Roseville High School. She joined the Raiders dance program last year, which was an adjustment for her new teammates.

“I think they were at first kind of like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I instill a lot of trust in the girls,” Rehling said. “I noticed on the first day it was kind of an adjustment, everyone tried to not watch her interpreter. This year it’s really come together and everyone just talks to Erin like she can hear us.

“We don’t really acknowledge it, but at the end of the day you look back and realize she doesn’t hold back and isn’t treated any differently at all. That’s the most beautiful thing of all. She’s just like any other member of the team.”

Prior to Monday’s Suburban East Conference dance championships at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, the Raiders high kick dance team was going through its final practice. Rehling sat high in the gymnasium bleachers, directing traffic.

The coach asked, “Erin, are you behind Fortune?” Ray relayed the question and Erin nodded. Rehling then counted off “1! 2! 3! 4! …” as the team resumed its routine. As the coach counted, Ray held up fingers to match the count so Erin knew the cue. And once the routine began, she was perfectly in step with everyone else.

“She somehow finds that beat and stays on the beat,” Rehling said. “Sometimes girls who can hear have trouble keeping up.”

According to Sue Barnett, “When competition started and people started to find out that there was a deaf dancer on the team and they couldn't pick out who the deaf dancer was, it made Erin feel good. During last year’s dance season, we started to see a girl become more confident within herself, seeing that she can do something that is very challenging and being successful at it. …

“She learned about being challenged with something and keeping at it, and it gave a good feeling when she accomplished it, that she was just part of a team and that her deafness wasn't stopping her from doing things that hearing people do.”

Rehling, a 2007 Roseville graduate, said one of her high school dance teammates was partially deaf.

“Erin kind of resonated with me,” she said. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, someone hard of hearing is on the dance team?’ I was really excited to hear about Erin. She’s great.”

Erin said, “When I came in the first year they were all talking and I was like, ‘Sorry, I can’t hear you’ and they were looking at me like, ‘What? How are you going to do this?’ I knew I would be fine. They started to understand, we went along and everything was good. I’m not afraid of anything.”