John's Journal
Mahnomen: A Special Place With Football At The Core9/24/2014
MAHNOMEN – The hospital in this northwest Minnesota town is close to the high school football field. Very close. Maybe too close. It’s right across the street, just a few paces from the home sideline for the Mahnomen Indians.

After Week 3 of the football season, Mahnomen Health Center appeared to be on the brink of being home away from home for the Indians. Was it a coincidence that a big red electric sign screamed “EMERGENCY”?

“We’re in disarray right now,” coach John Clark Jr. said a few days before the Indians hosted Lake Park-Audubon last week in a game between unbeaten teams. In a 35-14 victory over Fosston seven days earlier, injuries stacked up like firewood.

The starting quarterback suffered a shoulder injury and left the game, the backup quarterback went out with a broken wrist, and the third-string quarterback was already sidelined with a concussion. Jon Hoffner, a senior running back who played a little at quarterback as a freshman and then missed two seasons because of injuries, became the emergency QB. And that’s not all. The Indians’ two starting running backs also left the Fosston game with injuries.

Mahnomen has won the last two Class 1A state championships and came into the Lake Park-Audubon game on a 31-game winning streak, the longest current streak in Minnesota (the state record is 76 by Stephen-Argyle from 2003 to 2008).

But heading into Week 4, questions surrounded the Indians: Are they vulnerable? Was this a true emergency?

It took all of two plays to find the answer. Junior quarterback Tom Pavek -- with his left (non-throwing) shoulder all strapped up after suffering a separation and three sprained ligaments a week earlier – ran 65 yards for a touchdown on the second snap. The next Mahnomen possession ended with another strong statement of the same distance, a 65-yard pass from Pavek to Luke Warnsholz.

Pavek added scoring runs of 61 and 23 yards, Dylan Reitan (another resurrectee from the Week 3 injured list) ran for touchdowns of 11 and nine yards and Mahnomen sailed to a 45-7 win. Crisis averted.

“We kind of went through this last year and we were able to weather it,” Clark said of the injuries. “The kids are excited, they know they are close to playing. That’s small-town football.”

Small-town football indeed. A few hours before kickoff Friday, Clark was walking across Main Street in this town of 1,214 people. A guy sitting in a parked car hollered out the window, “Clark! Good luck!” The coach replied, “Thanks bud! See you there!”

There is plenty more to Mahnomen than football. The Health Center cares for people from all over the area, White Earth Tribal and Community College and the Mahnomen Public School District provide quality educational opportunities, and Shooting Star Casino and Hotel is a popular destination. But in the autumn, football is king.

“This is a special place and football is at the core of that,” said Clark, who grew up in the nearby town of Ogema and graduated from one of Mahnomen’s longtime rivals, Waubon High School, in 1990.

Football fans in Mahnomen know how to get to the Prep Bowl, whether it’s held in the Metrodome, the University of Minnesota stadium (the championship game site for 2014 and 2015) or the new Vikings stadium, which will begin hosting the Prep Bowl in 2016. The Indians made their first state tournament appearance in 1974, and they have been regulars ever since.

In fact, no high school team in the state has played in more Prep Bowls than the Indians, who have done so 13 times. They own eight state championships, coming in 1980, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2013.

The first six of those state titles came when Hall of Famer Ken Baumann was the head coach. Clark was an assistant for two years before becoming head coach when Baumann retired in 2000. Baumann ranks fifth among Minnesota high school football coaches in career victories with a record of 287-66-2.

“It’s all about tradition here and we follow it every year,” Pavek said after the victory over Lake Park-Audubon, in which he carried the ball 12 times for 209 yards and completed three of seven passes for 106 yards.

Before putting on a varsity uniform, Pavek was a student manager beginning in sixth grade. Like most of the kids in town, he has been attending games as long as he can remember.

When I asked Pavek why the team has been so consistently strong, he said, “It’s all about winning the next play.We just fight through each thing, whether it’s getting that extra yard before the first down or stopping the other team on fourth team.”

When Clark was growing up in Waubon, he wondered what made Mahnomen special on the football field. And even now that he’s the Indians coach, he doesn’t seem completely certain of the specific reasons for the success.

“You always wondered, ‘How are they so good?’ or ‘What makes them so good?’ You hear about the tradition and all that. And to be a part of it, it’s a special deal. It’s hard to explain, hard to describe. It’s in the blood, it’s in the water up here.”

Clark had warned me that Friday’s crowd wouldn’t be as big as when the postseason rolls around. It was impressive nonetheless, with fans watching intently and cheering throughout the game. The noise level will only increase as the season moves along toward the ultimate competitive goal: another Prep Bowl.

“When you’re in the playoffs or at the Metrodome and you hear the crowd roar, that’s pretty special,” Clark said. “It’s too bad more people don’t get to experience that.”

--To see a photo gallery from Mahnomen, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 74
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,663
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Brief Note About Something Neat9/23/2014
Here’s another wonderful example of all the positives that are part of high school activities…


This is a note that Coach Haugen and myself received after the Pelican Rapids vs. Warroad football game on Friday night. With all the negatives in pro football, it is nice to receive an email like this. We’re proud of the kid’s parents for teaching him and his brothers to do the correct thing. This player has a twin brother; both are starters on the offensive line, linebackers, and one is the punter and the other is our place kicker.


Derrick Nelson
Assistant Principal/Activities Director
Pelican Rapids High School

Coach Haugen

Just wanted to send you this message on something that I saw on Friday night in Warroad.

As I was leaving the football complex with my children after the game was delayed by weather, I saw #53 on your team reach down and pick up some money that a girl had just dropped and then he caught up to her and gave it back.

While many high school students would have hung on to it and considered it their lucky day, he did the right thing and returned it to her.

I tell my teams every year that in addition to being great athletes they need to strive to be great people. People always want to focus on athletes when they do something negative and it is often overlooked when they do something positive like this.

Please shake this young man's hand for me and tell him to keep up the good work. Good luck on the rest of your season.

Jay Hardwick
Warroad Head Boys Hockey Coach
Everything Is Big At The Milaca Mega Meet 9/21/2014
MILACA – Every year when the Milaca Mega Meet is held, the key word is Mega. This is the big one, with 150 schools and more than 5,900 cross-country runners registered for the 2014 Mega Meet, which was held Saturday at Stones Throw Golf Course.

And it’s not just runners and coaches. It’s parents, grandparents, siblings, dogs, cars, buses, picnic lunches and more. The little town of Milaca (population 2,946) was absolutely inundated Saturday, with buses parked everywhere near the golf course and fans parking across town and being brought to the meet via shuttles.

The Mega Meet is a logistical challenge, including setting up and taking down all the course markings, flags, finish-line chute, etc., to the simple (or not-so-simple act) of running 19 different races between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Teams come from all over Minnesota plus North Dakota and Wisconsin, and a starter’s pistol is fired every 15 minutes as another race begins.

“This year it’s the biggest since I’ve been involved, and I believe these are the biggest numbers in the history of the race,” said meet director and Milaca cross-country coach Dave Dillan.

This was the 44th year of the Mega Meet, which began as the Princeton Invitational. It changed locations in Princeton a couple times, was moved to Milaca and a big area in the country in 1997, shifted to Foley for two years, returned to Milaca when the golf course became available and and has gotten larger every year.

“When we were in the field we loved the course but it was a little rough for the runners,” Dillan said. “The golf course is great.”

The racing order is straightforward. The day begins with races for seventh-, eighth, ninth- and 10th-grade boys and girls, followed by boys and girls varsity races with teams split into four classes. The final event of the day is an alumni race; the instructions read “participants must be an alumni of something.”

Now that the 2014 Mega Meet is in the books, these next few days will bring messages of thanks from all over.

“It’s probably the best part of doing this meet,” Dillan said. “We get emails and letters from parents and kids, saying this is the highlight of their running career and they look forward to coming every year. Those things are really nice to hear.”

The MSHSL state cross-country championships include a total of 696 runners, split into two classes for boys and two for girls (174 in each).

So imagine how hard it is to plan and execute a day of racing for nearly 10 times as many entrants.

“The logistics can be a litte hairy,” Dillan said. “We use every port-a-potty in town, I’ll tell you that. And it’s still not enough.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Mega Meet, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 74
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,663
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
For Years, Volleyball Has Been A Family Affair At Hopkins 9/17/2014
Nine years ago this week, I wrote a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Hopkins volleyball coach Vicki Seliger Swenson, who was about to give birth to twins. Back then, she and her husband Erik Swenson had one child, eight-year-old Samantha.

That story, from Oct. 14, 2005, included this passage:

--While mom and dad are anxious, big-sister-to-be is pumped. Samantha - the back of her shirt said “Lil' Swens” at Tuesday's match - cannot wait for the happy occasion. (She was a February baby, by the way, which made the whole thing much easier for all.) “She is pretty excited about this whole thing," Erik said. "She is a huge volleyball fan, a gym rat, she's at all of Vicki's practices, she goes to all the tournaments, all that stuff."--

On Tuesday evening I checked in with Vicki and Samantha (pictured) once again. Samantha Seliger Swenson is now a senior volleyball star on her mom’s team at Hopkins. Samantha, who has committed to the University of Minnesota, is ranked as the No. 8 recruit in the country by, is a USA Today All-American and had been listed on virtually every state and national all-star team.

When I asked Samantha what she remembers from that 2005 season, she smiled and said, “I remember that Hopkins went to state that year and there were so many exciting things happening. My mom was having twins, I was going to be a big sister, the team was going to state. That was a really happy time.”

Six days after that 2005 story was published, Vicki gave birth to Stella and Olivia. Less than a year later, the family dynamic changed dramatically when Vicki’s sister Teri Lee and her boyfriend Tim Hawkinson were murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Lee’s four children were in the home when the crime took place; their father had been killed in a car accident a few years earlier.

Vicki and Erik adopted Teri’s children, and the family immediately was too large for its small home. Through the television program “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” a spacious new home was built for the family of 10.

Now, niece Taylor is a junior at Marquette University, nephews Tyler (senior) and Trevor (sophomore) play football at Hopkins, niece Tara is a ninth-grader on the Hopkins varsity volleyball team, Stella and Olivia (who will turn nine on Saturday) are starting to play volleyball and six-year-old Eva will soon be doing the same.

Vicki, who helped author legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, gave up teaching when the twins were born and has devoted her life to her family. Erik, who was the head football coach at Blake in 2005, now teaches social studies and is an assistant football coach at Hopkins.

As Samantha plays for her mom in her final year of high school, she is grateful for the lessons she has learned.

“She’s a role model in all aspects of life, not just volleyball,” Samantha said Tuesday at Eden Prairie, where the Class 3A top-ranked Eagles defeated the eighth-ranked Hopkins Royals 3-0.

“She’s kind of taught me everything I know. I’ve been with volleyball and with her at all times, and it’s kind of shaped me into what I value and how I look at things. Having someone who supports me so much and is always there with me is pretty special.”

Vicki said, “It hasn’t really hit me yet. I looked at the schedule and realized we have three home matches left. So the reality is starting to sink in. We’ve been pretty spoiled with her in our program for six years.”

Samantha has basically run the show from her setter position for years and years. When she was in eighth and ninth grade, college coaches told Vicki that the youngster played like a college setter because she knew so much about the nuances of the game.

“Coaches like coach’s kids or little sisters for that reason, because they’ve grown up with the sport,” Vicki said.

Samantha’s decision to play for the Gophers was easy, despite some thoughts early in the process about attending college in California.

“When I was in middle school I thought I would want to go to Cal Berkeley or Stanford,” she said. “But then I realized if I went to California my family would only be able to go to a couple games a year, so it was really important to choose the U because they will be there at every match.

“I know how much I enjoyed watching volleyball when I was younger, and to have my little sisters watch me play is really important, too. Definitely being close to home is important.”

Samantha grew up with her mom’s volleyball teams, hanging around at practice, traveling to road matches and basically soaking everything up.

“I think she played on my ninth-grade team for about seven years, unbeknownst to me,” Vicki said with a laugh. “Because she would just disappear at practice. Most kids want to go to the after-school care, but she would choose to walk over to my gym and play with a ball, play with the older girls.”

And now, history is repeating itself. Stella and Olivia, who were the focus of a newspaper article before they were born, are now hanging around at practice, watching the Royals play, soaking it all up.

“They’re doing the same as Sam,” said Vicki.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 30
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,116
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
On “Play For Nat” Night, Communities Come Together In Fun, Support9/15/2014
KENYON – The message was simple: “Play For Nat.”

Nat is Natalie Hildebrandt, a sophomore volleyball player at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School. She was recently given a clean bill of health after two years of a knock-down, drag-out fight with cancer. Natalie’s hair is growing back, she has returned to playing volleyball and Thursday night was a celebration that will be remembered forever by those who packed the gym.

There were smiles. And a tailgate party. And a silent auction. And smiles. C-squad, JV and varsity volleyball between the Kenyon-Wanamingo Knights and the Cannon Falls Bombers. And smiles. Money was raised, including a “Dash for Cash” through the stands by head volleyball coaches Jen Nerision of K-W and Melissa Huseth of Cannon Falls – who are sisters – between the first and second sets of the varsity match. Ribbons were sold as another way to raise funds. There was a tug-of-war between the football teams from the two schools. Oh, and did I mention the smiles?

“It’s overwhelming,” Natalie told me. “It’s nice to see everybody come out and put this together.”

This was a team effort by lots of people; the Twitter hashtag was #TEAMNAT and that’s how I found out about the evening. Folks from Kenyon-Wanamingo began sending me Tweets about #TEAMNAT night, and making the decision to be there was mighty easy for me. All the money raised went to help Natalie’s family with medical expenses.

Natalie has been through more than anyone should have to face. She was diagnosed in March 2012 and went through chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer returned earlier this year, and she spent about a month and a half of the summer hospitalized in Rochester, where she underwent more rounds of intense chemo and a stem-cell transplant.

All the way through, she has been supported not only by her parents, Kevin and Renee, and her big sister Sarah, but by classmates, teammates and many others. After Natalie learned last March that the disease had returned, more than a dozen boys in town shaved their heads in support and several girls donated hair to Locks of Love.

“It’s very overwhelming,” said Renee, a second-grade teacher at Kenyon-Wanamingo. “To see the support and the love that all the people and all the kids have showed Natalie, we appreciate that so much. It’s just been unbelievable.”

“Play For Nat” was a culmination, a celebration, a turn for everyone to share in the Hildebrandt’s happiness.

Some of the biggest cheers of the night came when Natalie entered the JV volleyball game and served three consecutive points before returning to the bench. Players from both schools wore green socks and green Team Nat t-shirts as warmup tops; many of the fans also wore the same green shirts.

This clearly was not a typical high school athletic event. The purpose of supporting Natalie and her family was the focus, not the final score. Sportsmanship was strong but the effort of the athletes never wavered; whether on the volleyball court or when the Kenyon-Wanamingo and Cannon Falls football teams grabbed opposite ends of a thick rope and tugged on that sucker.

The most frenetic activity of the evening was the Dash for Cash. Nerision and Huseth (who has coached Natalie in offseason volleyball), carried plastic pails, ran up bleacher steps, leaped over seats and people as the fans cheered, all in an attempt to gather as much cash as possible before a timer expired. Wads of bills were squashed together and jammed into the pails.

When the volleyball match resumed, Nerision was not only the Knights’ head coach but head cheerleader, as well. When her sister called a timeout, Jen leapt to her feet and screamed, high-fiving each player as they came to the bench.

This went way beyond winning and losing. This went to the heart of everything that matters most in high school sports: working hard, supporting each other, learning, growing.

“I think it has definitely raised the school spirit around here,” Nerision said of all the support for Natalie. “It brings everybody together, it brings communities together, and that is pretty darn special.”

--To see a photo gallery from “Play For Nat,” go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 28
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,066
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn