Tournament time. We know what that means: elimination games, dreams realized, dreams ended. This week is emblematic of that, with state semifinals and championship games in soccer being played at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium Tuesday through Thursday, the state cross-country meet Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield, and section championships being decided in volleyball and football.
I spent last week traversing Minnesota to watch soccer and football playoff games; all told I saw seven games over five days.I have no idea how many high school athletic events I have witnessed in my lifetime, but I’m always amazed and grateful to see new places, meet new people and experience all the positives that come from these activities.
Here’s a day-by-day, place-by-place accounting of what I saw last week…
TUESDAY/ Nine-Man Football at Nicollet
The Nicollet Raiders were about to take the field against the Jaguars of Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman in a Section 2 playoff opener. Head coach Tom Murphy was giving his pregame speech in the locker room.
“Friday nights are special, but playoff football is even better,” Murphy told the boys, 26 football players in grades nine through 12 from a high school with a total enrollment of 72 students.
“We’ve got eight seniors who plan to take us on a long family vacation over these next few weeks,” the coach said. “We’re going on a family trip, boys, and it’s about being ready. Each week it’s a new destination, new challenges.”
The Raiders came away with a 42-8 victory during a lovely night on the Minnesota prairie. Murphy’s pregame words summed up what the postseason means.
“It’s about getting to that next step,” he said. “Commit to this like you’ve committed to nothing else. You won’t regret it, you won’t be sorry. That’s what it takes.”
WEDNESDAY/State Soccer Quarterfinals at Osseo
This was a doubleheader, with the two winning teams moving on to the Class 1A boys semifinals this week in St. Cloud. The teams advancing were St. Cloud Apollo and Mankato West.
Two thoughts: 1) Apollo should have a heck of a big crowd on hand at Husky Stadium when the hometown Eagles meet Mankato West on Wednesday morning; 2) The Mankato West Scarlets know how to perform a celebration dance. Matthew Ouren scored three goals on this night, and after each one the Scarlets ran en masse to a spot in front of their fans and their excellent pep band (pictured) and displayed some highly entertaining choreography.
THURSDAY/ State Soccer Quarterfinals at Chisago Lakes
Everyone’s first impression of the stadium at Chisago Lakes is always the same: Wow! What a facility! The surface is artificial turf and there is no track inside the stadium, putting the spectators right on top of the action.
The biggest hero of the evening was DeLaSalle’s Eli Baker, who scored on a penalty kick in overtime to boost the Islanders into the state semifinals against Chaska.
During the celebration I heard a DeLaSalle student scream, “We’re going to state!” I didn’t have the heart to offer a correction along the lines of, “Well, uh, actually your team just played its first game at state.”
Reporters are are accustomed to fending for themselves when covering high school events, and yes I’m talking about food. We don’t mind bringing a sandwich or hitting up the concession stand. At Chisago Lakes, though, we were treated like royalty. Shannon Hejny, the Chisago Lakes dance team coach, was our host and she kept bringing up goodies from the concession stand. Thanks!
FRIDAY/Section Football at Eagan
This was a rematch between Lakeville South and Eagan in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs. Eagan had defeated South 21-7 in Week 5 at Eagan; this game had the same result but much more drama, with Eagan scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion with 33 seconds remaining to secure a 30-29 win.
The weather – as it was all week – was outstanding. I am always impressed by the Eagan band (they even have a baton twirler!) and the famous Eagan student section, known simply as The Pit. They cheer, they stomp, they sway, they have a great time and display great sportsmanship. Every student section could learn a lot by watching The Pit.
SATURDAY/ Section Football in Becker
The Bulldogs played host to Delano in a Class 4A Section 5 semifinal game. Becker was a 40-7 winner, and part of the Bulldogs’ success is the numbers game. They had 91 players on their roster Saturday (the 9-12 enrollment is 769.). And that’s a part of a lengthy football tradition in Becker.
Dwight Lundeen was hired as the head coach when Becker started playing football in 1970, and 45 years later he remains the only coach the Bulldogs have ever had. Close behind Lundeen on the seniority list is Delano coach Merrill Pavlovich, who has been a head coach for 39 years. Between the two, they have coached for 84 years and walked the sidelines for a total of 866 games.
The tradition in Becker includes pork chops; they have been served at football games since 1974. As pork chop crew member Donn Larson told me, “They’re twice the size and half the price as at the State Fair.” They are so good that on occasion people will pay their admission to the a game, buy enough pork chops to feed the family and turn around and take them home for dinner.
The Becker coaches chew Double Bubble gum on the sidelines (a plastic bucket holds an ample supply). The gum of choice used to be Bazooka Joe (Lundeen has handed me a few pieces of Bazooka Joe right before kickoff on several occasions), but Bazooka is tougher to find these days so Double Bubble is the choice.
Another tradition at Bulldog home games is celebrating touchdowns by playing the 1977 song “Black Betty” by Ram Jam on the public-address system. With 40 points Saturday, “Black Betty” got significant air time.
One of the greatest Becker traditions of all takes place after games. The team gathers in an end zone for a few words from the coaches. When that ends, a gate swings open and families and friends flood the field for congratulations, commiserations, handshakes, hugs and photos.
“It’s an event, it’s special,” Lundeen said after Saturday’s game. “It’s a game and in the big picture of what’s happening everyday it’s not that important, but it is something that the town has rallied around and we’re proud of it. We’ll keep making it happen.”
One more thing about Becker: As the Bulldogs leave the field at halftime, a large throng of young kids lines up to get hand slaps from the players.
“We talk about it a lot; those who have gone before us and those that are coming behind us,” Lundeen said. “When we leave the field at halftime there are a couple hundred kids there, and our kids are supposed to slap every one of those hands. I don’t care if we’re ahead by 40 or behind by 40, we’re going to slap their hands. We want them to come to the games and be a part of this.”
That’s the whole thing right there, in every sport at every school in Minnesota and around the country. Communities rally behind their teams, cheering the victories and dealing with the losses as one.
Is there a better place to be than a high school event? If you haven’t done so in a while, get the kids and/or the grandkids and take in a game. The words of Tom Murphy will ring true for you, too: “You won’t regret it, you won’t be sorry.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 102
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,691
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn