With another great year of stories and memories in the books, I’ve been looking back over 2013-14 in John’s Journal. I have posted 162 stories since August and have driven more than 13,000 miles in visiting events and schools all over our state.
There are way too many highlights to do justice to them all in one recap, but here are my personal Top 10 John’s Journal memories from 2013-14 …
NUMBER 10/ The Iron Range, Where Runners Run And A Volleyball Hero Returns (Sept. 6)
This was a highly Twitter-infused expedition for two events in one day: a cross-country invitational and a volleyball match. The invitation to come to Coleraine arrived via this Tweet from Will Floersheim, the Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin cross-country coach : “@MSHSLjohn Would love to have you visit the Range for big CC meet and great VB rivalry on 9/5 in Coleraine!”
Several Tweets later, my trip was booked. Then came this Tweet from a member of the Greenway volleyball team, senior Kate Kuck: “Excited for @MSHSLjohn to come and watch our game against Hibbing! Everyone else should come too! #volleyballgame #Thursday #bethere!”
NUMBER 9/ All Smiles In Esko: New Stadium, New Turf And A Big Win (Sept. 28)
This is one of of the greatest examples of community pride I have ever witnessed. An aging, decrepit football/soccer complex was finally sent packing by a massive flood in 2012. That’s when people stepped in and stepped up, raising awareness prior to a successful education levy and facilities referendum. The facilities plan called for a grass field, but people in town wanted to strive for more.
The Esko Turf Club was quickly formed, and money was quickly raised to install artificial turf and create what would become a first-class facility. I was there for the first event, a Week 5 football game with Two Harbors. On a glorious evening, the great Esko pep band played, the game ball was delivered by parachute and Cub Scouts held the flag as the Esko choir sang the anthem.
NUMBER 8/ The Orono Pep Band Makes Me Happy (March 12)
During the winter state tournaments, I was begging on Twitter to hear a pep band play “Happy” by Pharrell. The Mighty Mighty Orono band came through for me at Williams Arena during the boys state basketball tournament. I love it when bands take requests.
NUMBER 7/ Old Coach, New Team: Park Christian Makes History (March 13)
The Park Christian boys basketball team lost in the first round of the state tournament, but coach Erv Inniger was all smiles afterwards. The 69-year-old was joyous because he had experienced a wonderful journey, a journey that he never knew was coming until he decided to take over the Falcons for one season. He had never before coached a high school team despite a basketball resume that’s hard to match.
Inniger played at Indiana University in the 1960s and with the ABA’s Minnesota Muskies in 1967-68. His coaching career began at Golden Valley Lutheran College, followed by five years at Augsburg College and then a lengthy career as the coach at North Dakota State from 1978 to 1992. When Inniger retired at NDSU, he was the program's all-time winningest coach.
“It’s been a ball,” he said. “Who gets an opportunity like this? It’s been so special.”
NUMBER 6/ At Cambridge-Isanti, A Thunderous State Tourney Sendoff (May 15)
Several times, I had heard Cambridge-Isanti athletic director Mark Solberg talk about the sendoff when the Bluejackets adapted bowling team goes to the state tournament. He always said, “It’s the loudest our gym is all year.” He was not kidding.
The rally has become an annual tradition. Students and staff leave their classrooms and greet the bowlers with cheers as they enter the gym while the pep band plays the school song. Coach Steve Tischer spoke, as did senior members of the bowling team. The entire team was introduced, along with assistant coaches and student managers.
NUMBER 5/ Friday Was A Pretty Fair Day For Jackson County Central (Aug. 24)
How many reporters get to combine the State Fair and a high school football game into one story on the same day? Thanks to two Jackson County Central football players, I am a member of that very exclusive club. On a Friday morning I spent time in the Fairgrounds swine barn with Nolan Hohenstein and his crossbred barrow, as well as in the sheep barn with Scott Christopher and his blackface lamb.
That evening, Jackson County Central opened its season at St. Louis Park. Nolan arrived during warm-ups, putting on his football gear inside a port-a-potty.
NUMBER 4/ Caleb Thielbar: From Randolph To The Major Leagues (Jan. 3)
The first time I interviewed Caleb Thielbar was in June 2004. He was a junior at Randolph High School and part of a Rockets baseball team that was attempting to reach the state tournament for the first time in school history.
Nearly 10 years later, I interviewed Thielbar on “Caleb Thielbar Night” as the Randolph girls and boys basketball teams played host to Maple River in a Gopher Conference doubleheader. Thielbar made his major league pitching debut with the Twins in 2013 and was named the Twins’ rookie of the year. On this night back in his hometown, Caleb had autographed baseballs, hats, a jersey and other items, and he shook the hand of every raffle winner who took home a prize.
NUMBER 3/ Coaches vs. Cancer In St. Clair: Smiles, Love And Support (Jan. 31)
This event was further proof that high school activities can have positive impacts that extend far beyond a game and a final score. On a frigid winter evening, St. Clair hosted its fourth annual Coaches vs. Cancer night. Nine-hundred dollars was raised the first year and $7,800 the second year. In 2013 the total was almost $24,000, making it the largest Coaches vs. Cancer event at any school in Minnesota and the seventh-largest in the nation.
NUMBER 2/ A Selfless Act, A Hack Saw, And A Lesson For All (April 7)
I can’t take any credit for authoring this story. It came from Ryan Giles, the girls basketball coach at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison, who wanted to share a story about the selflessness of one of the players. In an email, Ryan wrote about junior guard and team captain Alaysia Freetly, who was named the team MVP.
The next day, she came to Giles with a request: She wanted to share the award with junior Kaitlin Connor and eighth-grader Kelsea Lund. She told the coach that they were just as deserving as she was. Giles, who teaches Industrial Technology, used a hack saw to cut the plaque into thirds.
NUMBER 1/ Southland’s Riley Schmitz: Heart, Desire Make Up For Limited Vision (Oct. 15)
Southland football player Riley Schmitz can’t see the farm, the silos or the livestock that surround the Rebels’ practice field. Even though he has been practicing on these fields since he was a fifth-grade football player, clear vision for the senior extends no farther than the end of his arms. Those are two remarkable facts: Riley is a football player who is legally blind.
“His heart, his desire is tremendous,” said coach Shawn Kennedy. “He is absolutely so passionate about football.”