John's Journal
Sights And Sounds From A Week Of Tournament Play10/27/2014
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.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 102
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,691
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Nicollet: Football, Food And A Room With A View 10/22/2014
NICOLLET – With a postseason-opening victory in hand and the reserves playing out the final minutes of Tuesday’s nine-man football game, the topic of discussion on the Nicollet Raiders sideline turned to something very important in this southern Minnesota town of 1,126 carnivores: meat.

A discussion between seniors Colin Bloemke and Andrew Radke went like this…

Colin: “How many pounds of summer sausage did Schmidts sell last year?”

Andrew: “More than you can ever imagine.”

Schmidts and George’s City Meats & Sausage Shop are two of Nicollet’s best-known businesses, with jerky, beef sticks, sausage, bacon, bratwurst and other delicacies being sold to locals as well as customers far and wide. Some of the Raiders are employed at the meat shops, which leads us to something else Nicollet is famous for: football.

The Raiders were nine-man state runners-up in 1999, 2002 and 2009 and have gone to the state playoffs four other times, most recently in 2010, 2011 and last year. They defeated Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman 42-8 Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Section 2 playoffs; they will take a record of 8-1 into Saturday’s home semifinal against Madelia.

The best-known Raider is senior quarterback Dalton Elliott, who holds state records for career touchdown passes (106) and all-purpose yards and is close to records for career passing yards, attempts and completions. In Tuesday’s game he threw scoring passes of 4 and 26 yards to Kenny Fischer and also ran for three TDs. (On Elliott’s heels in the career TD pass category is Blooming Prairie senior John Rumpza, who has 105 after throwing for three scores Tuesday in a 60-13 Class 1A Section 1 victory over Fillmore Central.)

“I get a lot of flack for playing nine-man, but football is football,” said Elliott, who is hearing from North Dakota State, Drake, all the Northern Sun colleges and others. He plans to make his college decision after playing in the Jan. 4 Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Orlando.

Elliott (pictured) is one of eight seniors on Nicollet’s 26-man football roster. The high school enrollment is 72, making the Raiders the epitome of small-town football.

Nicollet’s football field and school sit on the northeast corner of town, and until this season the scoreboard operator, public-address announcer, statisticians, media and others were relegated to sitting in the top row of the metal bleachers. But a big change arrived in time for the 2014 season in the form of one of the best press boxes in the state.

It’s a unique deal, because the press box came from Raceway Park in Shakopee, an auto-racing track that closed a year ago. After Raceway went dark, Nicollet athletic director and assistant football coach Kevin Christenson was brousing online auction sites when he saw a press box for sale.

The purchase was made, a crane was hired to remove the box from Raceway Park and install it atop the bleachers in Nicollet, surrounded by a spacious patio on three sides. Thanks to the local Lions Club and other community volunteers who helped with the project, the Raiders have a press box that’s better than what most of the big Twin Cities schools have. Game film can be shot from the roof and the press box is air-conditioned, too.

“It’s more than we would ever need,” said head coach Tom Murphy, who has been guiding the Raiders for 24 years and reached the 150-career-victory milestone this season. “No.1, it’s nice. No. 2, we try to be very hospitable. Kevin always has some food up there.

“At our first game, a reporter from the New Ulm Journal said, ‘I hope it’s OK but I ate like five sandwiches.’ We’ve heard a lot of positive comments on the press box. It’s kind of finished our facility. It gives it a stadium look, even though it’s in a small town.”

I can testify about the food. Murphy had samples from both meat markets waiting for me in the press box, and there was an all-out buffet on a table in the back. Crock pots, barbecued beef, summer sausage, bratwurst, pickles, chips, brownies, bars and just about everything you can imagine. The officials at Tuesday’s game came up for a bite at halftime, and I wondered if they would decide to spend the rest of the night at the buffet. Who could blame them?

A small town, a strong football tradition, a record-setting quarterback, a playoff game, a beautiful evening on the prairie, all the food you can swallow, a sensational view of the action and the nicest folks you'll ever meet. There’s a name for that.


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

*Schools/teams John has visited: 88
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,338
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Four To Enter Basketball Coaches Hall Of Fame10/20/2014
The Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association has named four men who will be inducted into the MBCA Hall of Fame November 1, 2014. The purpose of the MBCA Hall of Fame is to give special recognition to the people of Minnesota who have made significant contributions to promote high school basketball in the state via their achievements and service.

The 2014 inductees are:

· Gary Holmseth – Blue Earth Area

· John Holsten– Glenwood/Alexandria/Brandon-Evansville

· Larry McKenzie– Mpls. Patrick Henry/Academy of Holy Angels/Mpls. North

· Dean Schnaible – Adrian

The induction ceremonies will be held at the MBCA Hall of Fame Luncheon on Saturday, November 1, 2:00 p.m., at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Minneapolis.

--Gary Holmseth coached basketball at Blue Earth H.S. for 28 years, 23 as the head basketball coach. Gary became the head hoops coach at Blue Earth in 1989 and led the Bucs program until his retirement at the conclusion of the 2012 season.

Coach Holmseth ranks at the top for career victories in Blue Earth hoops history. Under his leadership, the Bucs captured multiple South Central crowns and won six Sub-Section titles. He finished his career with a winning record against every South Central Conference opponent. Gary was selected as Section Coach of the Year four times; 1992, 1999, 2001, and 2005.

He served as a MBCA Section Representative for over 20 years and coached in the 2007 and 2012 MBCA All Star Series. In addition to coaching basketball, he also coached Cross Country, Football, Golf, and Track. As a head track coach, he led the Blue Earth Area Girls to a State title in 1985. Coach Holmseth retired from coaching with an overall record of 355-214 as a varsity boys basketball coach.

--John Holsten just completed the 41st season of a coaching career that began at Alexandria H.S. in 1973. After serving as a Boys Assistant Coach for 5 seasons, John assumed the reins of the Cardinals Girls program in 1978. After two years in that position, he accepted the Head Boys coaching position at Long Prairie H.S. and embarked on a career in which he has served as a head Boys coach at Glenwood, Alexandria, and Brandon-Evansville.

Coach Holsten has led teams to six Conference titles, five District titles, and four Section championships resulting in State Tournament appearances in 1985 (Glenwood), 1997, 2001, and 2002 (Alexandria). John was selected as District Coach of the Year four times and earned Region/Section Coach of the Year honors three times. In 2007, he was recognized with the 3M Excellence in Coaching Award. Coach Holsten is retired from teaching but continues to serve as the Head Boys Basketball Coach at Brandon-Evansville where he will enter the 2014-15 season with an overall record of 420-378 as a varsity boys basketball coach.

--Larry McKenzie led Minneapolis Patrick Henry to four consecutive Class AAA State titles in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. During Larry’s tenure at Patrick Henry he led The Patriots to six Minneapolis City Conference championships, three Twin City Championships, and six Section titles in addition to the State tournament “ 4 Peat.”

In his 9 years at Patrick Henry, his cumulative record was 210-50. After coaching semi-pro basketball for a short time, Larry returned to coaching high school athletes as the head coach at the Academy of Holy Angels and, as at Henry, established the Stars as Conference and Section title contenders. In 2013, Coach McKenzie returned to his Minneapolis roots by assuming the reins of the Minneapolis North program and brought them within one win from a State Tournament berth while playing a squad of primarily underclassmen. Larry’s coaching achievements earned him recognition from his peers as the recipient of four Section Coach of the Year awards and honors as the 2001 State Class AAA Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year.

His service to the game is exemplified by his participation as a member on the MSHSL Boys Basketball Advisory Committee. He is the author of three books and is a motivational speaker.

--Dean Schnaible began his coaching career 55 years ago as the junior high basketball coach at Hills H.S. In the 1965-66 school year Hills and Beaver Creek consolidated and Dean served the next 12 years with HOF Coach Hugo Goehle in establishing and leading the Patriot program to great success in southwest Minnesota. After 12 years at H-BC, Coach Schnaible accepted the Head Boys Basketball position at Harrington, Nebraska and led them to a 15-5 record.

In 1974, Dean was offered and accepted an elementary teaching, head basketball, and head baseball position at Adrian. During the next 18 years, he led the Dragons to winning records almost every season highlighted by a 20 win season and District 8 title in 1985 and an overall mark of 89-16 during a five year span in the early 80’s. He retired from teaching in 1998 but was “coaxed” back into volunteering as a coach for the girls team and subsequently became a head coach and/or assistant coach for girls programs at Ellsworth and Worthington.

Three years ago, he was again “coaxed” into serving as the Head Boys Basketball Coach at Adrian, a position which he retains entering his 55th season as a coach. Dean’s coaching achievements have earned him recognition from his peers as he has been the recipient of numerous Coach of the Year honors in boys basketball, girls basketball, football, softball, and baseball. As a head basketball coach (Boys and Girls), he is a member of the 400 Win club with a record of 480-127 over his 27 years as a head coach.
Taking Care Of The “Other” Team When Times Are Tough 10/9/2014
I often receive reports of great things that take place at high school events. This one is particularly touching, because it embodies so many positives that are a major part of school activities.

The report below was written by Michael Isola, a good friend and talented journalist who covers sports in Wadena and the surrounding area on his website, Michael sent the following to me, wondering if I would like to write about what took place at a recent volleyball match. There’s no way I can capture the story as well as Mike did, because he was there to see it and shoot photographs. Here is the email I received from Mike…

Good afternoon John,

Attached you'll find a photo I had taken during the Pink Out Breast Cancer volleyball match between host New York Mills and Verndale on Thursday, October 2.

Both teams are Park Region Conference rivals and the match was a key battle between the two schools. Although Henning is the conference leader and will win the title, there is a three-way battle between NYM, Verndale and Sebeka for second place. So this was a big match with a lot at stake.

However, something happened that still gives me goose bumps.

Prior to the match, a program was held to honor breast cancer survivors. This year the annual Pink Out event took on a much more somber tone due to the fact that the Verndale head coach, Shelley Glenz, was recently diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. Shelley was unable to coach from the bench as she was recovering from a recent chemo treatment, I believe.

Her oldest daughter Jordyn Glenz (a junior) read a statement from her mother that night that brought a lot of emotions to light. When she was done speaking, two players from New York Mills came over to comfort her and give her a hug (which I captured). All of a sudden, the whole New York Mills team came over and surrounded Jordyn for a big group hug.

I was very touched by this gesture. In my 20-plus years of covering sports at all levels, I have never seen such a class act towards another player, and a rival player. Sure, I've read about plenty of wonderful displays of sportsmanship (including quite a few by you), but have never witnessed something like I saw on that Thursday night. Of course, I've witnessed the occasional player helping another player off the field or giving a hand once in awhile ... but not this.

Shelley has three daughters who play volleyball for the Lady Pirates: Jordyn, Shania and Morgan. This display by a rival team affected everyone that night.

This act of compassion toward a player on the “other” team, especially one who is scared of losing her mother to cancer, speaks volumes about the character of these fine young ladies that was on display that night. Volleyball took a back seat to something far greater ... and that is love and compassion. To show you care and support another player in a time of need was one of the greatest things I've had the pleasure to witness.

Kudos to these athletes, and to their coaches and their parents for raising such wonderful young ladies.

The photo shows Lydia Irons (left, obstructed) and Ellie Rutten (facing camera) of New York Mills hugging Jordyn Glenz (back/sideways to camera) after she finished reading the teary and touching letter from her mother.

I was unable to post this photo to my Beyond the Bleachers Facebook page until Sunday after I had gotten back from attending an out-of-state wedding. Within four hours the photo had exploded online ... as of now I have more than 12,816 hits, 449 likes and 26 shares. Unbelievable.

Thanks John, have a great week

Victory Day In Grand Rapids: Football And Big Smiles10/6/2014
GRAND RAPIDS – Eric Soderberg, starting senior quarterback for the Grand Rapids football team, was leading a group of QBs in drills Saturday morning at Noble Hall Field. The athletes each took a snap and navigated several cones while running with the ball.

At the end of the drill, Soderberg and the other QBs gathered together in a tight huddle, each put one hand up in the middle of the pack and Soderberg said, “QBs on 3!” They all hollered, “One! Two! Three! QBs!!”

It was absolute magic. These weren’t the other high school quarterbacks; these were cognitively and physically impaired children from Itasca County who had been invited to the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks’ first Victory Day event.

Did I say it was magic? Here’s how senior Levi How described the day: “I love it. If there’s one kid smiling today, it makes the whole day worth it.”

Greg Spahn, who is in his first season as the Grand Rapids football coach, put Victory Day on his to-do list as soon as he was hired. Victory Day was started in Trenton, Michigan, in 2010 by a high school coach named Aaron Segedi, a cancer survivor who wanted to give back to the community. Spahn corresponded with Segedi during the Grand Rapids planning stages, and Saturday’s event was a big hit.

The varsity football players worked with the impaired kids on several drills at the same time; running backs swerved around pads on the ground, defensive players put big hits on pads held by varsity Thunderhawks, receivers ran pass patterns and caught the ball.

Everywhere, varsity athletes cheered and their guests smiled.

“It’s just so much fun to have our players see the impact they have and give back to some of these kids who aren’t able to experience football,” Spahn said.

Sixteen kids – some in wheelchairs or walkers -- joined the football team and one young lady spent her morning with the cheerleaders, who performed routines and kept the enthusiasm high. Members of the Thunderhawks marching band provided the school song and other tunes, and longtime Thunderhawks public-address announcer Roy Tovionen provided play-by-play from his perch in the press box.

This hasn’t been a great season for the Thunderhawks. On the same field Friday night, they lost to Alexandria 56-6 to send their record to 0-6. (Spahn smiled before Saturday’s festivities as he said, “I’ll tell you one thing: This will go better than last night.”)

“We’re rebuilding the football program and I think this will be a big piece, to show our kids how to give back and the impact that they have,” Spahn said.

“I hope it shows them the importance they have simply by being a football player, and the impact that they can have on other people. Hopefully it compels them later in life to continue to give back in some capacity. It makes our community better, it makes our players better, and I can’t ask for much more.”

The varsity Thunderhawks wore their black jerseys and their guests wore the team’s white game jerseys. It didn’t matter that the jerseys were so big that they covered some of the kids’ knees; just being able to be a real football player, even if for just one morning, was everything.

“It’s cool,” said senior Dillon Campbell. “We get to do this every Friday night and we don’t think anything of it. And they get to come out and do it once and they absolutely enjoy it.

“The best part is watching them have fun and enjoy themselves. I love watching them smile when they get done with the drills. It’s awesome.”

After all the athletes had taken a turn at each drill station, the day culminated in a very special way: Each guest player scored a touchdown.

The varsity offense lined up against the varsity defense, with one of the guest athletes lined up at running back at about the 30-yard line. Soderberg barked out signals, adjusted his offensive teammates … a linebacker hollered out the defensive calls … and at the snap of the ball a player in a white jersey either took a handoff or caught a short pass and headed for the end zone followed by a convoy of running, cheering, hollering Thunderhawks.

Tovionen did a splendid job in describing the action. “Xavier takes the ball around the right side! Cuts to his left! He’s shedding tacklers! He’s at the 10! The 5! Touchdown!!”

As each player crossed the goal line, they were engulfed by Thunderhawks, offering high fives and pats on the back, with an occasional player lifted up in the air. The band played the school song, the cheerleaders raised their voices to the sky and moms, dads and other visitors wore giant smiles.

One player had a little trouble in hanging on to the ball, but each time he fumbled it he picked it right up and – encouraged by his Thunderhawk buddies – just kept covering ground. In the end zone, the celebration was wild.

“Way to go, Logan! Way to stick with it!”

“I think it’s a great thing to do, to be able to put a smile on these kids’ faces,” Soderberg said. “It’s just awesome to see their faces light up when we play football with them.”

Oh, the smiles. Magic. Pure magic.

--To see a photo gallery from Victory Day in Grand Rapids, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 86
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,198
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn