John's Journal
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
Thinking Back To Thirteen Years Ago This Week9/11/2014
I’ll always remember where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had an appointment to speak to a class at Bloomington Jefferson High School, and I turned on the radio at home as I was getting dressed for the day.

There was talk of something bad happening in New York City. I turned on the TV in the kitchen and saw a big black smoldering hole in the side of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane had apparently struck the building, but nobody knew anything more than that. Before long another aircraft blasted into the other twin tower.

I drove to Bloomington Jefferson, arriving a few minutes early. I listened to the radio in the car for as long as I could and then walked into the school and was escorted to the room where the Sports Literature class was meeting. There were televisions in the classrooms, but because of construction work in the school none of the TVs were working. I told the class everything I had learned from listening to the radio, and then we were all in blackout mode.

After the class period ended, I drove to the Star Tribune building in downtown Minneapolis. Like everyone else in the newsroom, I watched the scenes on television. The Pentagon was on fire … a plane had apparently gone down in Pennsylvania.

Fast-forward a few years and I was back at Jefferson, writing about a memorial stone that had been installed at the school in honor of former Jaguars quarterback Tom Burnett, who died when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. I also wrote about former Blake linebacker Gordy Aamoth, who died in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11. The stadium at Blake now bears his name and a twisted beam from the World Trade Center is on display at the stadium.

In the Sept. 14, 2001, edition of the Star Tribune, I wrote a column under the headline “High school sports can help the healing.” I had spoken with people at Colorado’s Columbine High School as well as Osceolo High School in Wisconsin, where a traffic accident had claimed twin brothers a few weeks before Sept. 11. That column seemed to resonate with readers at the time, and to this day people occasionally will mention it to me. I have heard from a few people who say they saved that column, and they read it every day as Sept. 11 comes around. That is equally touching and humbling.

Here is that column as it appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sept. 14, 2001…

High School Sports Can Help The Healing

In the horrible wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all after-school activities were canceled Tuesday in the Jefferson County (Colo.) School District. This didn't surprise Ed Woytek, the athletic director at Columbine High School.

The day's events hit Columbine hard, especially the senior class. They were freshmen on April 20, 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

"Our coaches and all of us are on kind of a fine line, especially with what happened here previously," Woytek said.

Columbine still is recovering from that day. Recovery also is an ongoing process in Osceola, Wis., where twin brothers Eric and Aaron Kipp, 18, died in a car accident on the way to football practice 30 days ago.

With thousands of innocent people presumed to have perished this week, what do you say? How do you heal? Maybe it's best to listen to the kids. That's among the lessons learned at Columbine and Osceola.

"Pretty much all of them are saying to us, 'We need to be a family,'" Woytek said. "Because that's what happened a few years ago; they got with family. And that's where we need to be, that's where our American people need to be, is with family."

After the Kipp brothers died, football practices were stopped for a short period. But soon, everyone wanted to return -- or try to return -- to some sense of normalcy.

"Very soon, the kids were ready to go back," said Osceola coach/principal Mike McMartin. "They said, 'Coach, I need to keep busy.' And they were right. When we jumped back into it, although they weren't the best practices in the world, there was almost a big sigh of relief that they could start moving forward and take with us all the good things that the boys had shared with us for so many years, instead of thinking about the bad."

Activities went on as scheduled Tuesday in Osceola, the day of the attacks.

"We just really felt during that time it was massively important that we show to the kids, 'Hey, we're going on. We're not going to let these people defeat us or take us off our feet here. We're going to move forward and be proud,'" McMartin said.

At Columbine and Osceola, tragedy struck a specific community of people. This week, tragedy struck us all.

The Columbine Rebels take a 1-1 record into tonight's game at Dakota Ridge. Osceola is 3-0 and the homecoming opponent for rival St. Croix Falls. The games go on, as do our lives.

"Everybody keeps saying we'll never get back to normal, just like our nation will never get back to normal," Woytek said. "But hopefully we're going to get as close to normal as we can."

So if sporting events are part of your normal routine, stick with it. If you haven't been to a high school game in years, tonight would be a wonderful time to go. Get away from the television, escape the headlines. Find a seat in the bleachers and take a break, however temporary, from all that's gone so wretchedly wrong in this world.

Watch the team captains shake hands before the coin flip. Hold your hand over your heart during the national anthem as the flag flutters at half-staff. Bow your head during the moment of silence to honor this week's victims. Get on your feet for the opening kickoff. Watch our young people -- players, cheerleaders, fans -- as they smile, holler and laugh together during this evening that is tradition both athletic and social. Buy popcorn, listen to the band, cheer first downs, simply celebrate.

Maybe administrators at every school can find a recording of God Bless America, and across our states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and beyond -- we'll sing together when the game ends. Just like a family.