ST. CLAIR – The gesture was simple but powerful. It was silent but emotional.
Before the St. Clair boys basketball team played host to Minnesota Valley Lutheran on Thursday night, St. Clair coach Charlie Freitag held the microphone at center court and said a few words about the day’s Coaches vs. Cancer activities.
On this bitterly cold night, which had been preceded by a serious snowfall, basketball was played in the main gym and a wrestling triangular in a smaller, older gym. Between the two, the school commons was a beehive. Kids were having their faces painted, lollipops and valentine carnations were sold, dinner featuring pork sandwiches was available and pink was everywhere, including shoelaces and wristbands.
This is the fourth year the Cyclones have hosted a Coaches vs. Cancer night. Nine-hundred dollars was raised the first year and $7,800 the second year. Last year’s 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. Money raised goes to the American Cancer Society.
But numbers tell only a small part of the story. Freitag talked about all the volunteers who pitched in, thanking everyone for their support. Everyone in the gym was standing as he spoke, and then he made a simple request. He asked everyone to sit down … everyone except those who were cancer survivors.
Six or seven people remained standing, ranging from grandparents to a member of the pep band. To honor them and their journeys, members of the basketball team went into the stands carrying a rose. Each survivor received a rose and a hug, offering a smile in exchange.
Freitag also talked about those who had been lost to cancer, including Neal Lang, who was diagnosed with cancer two weeks before the start of his senior basketball season in 2012. Neil was 19 when he died a year ago this week.
“It’s an unfortunate one, but it’s a great story that a community like this can come together,” Freitag, a 1997 St. Clair graduate, had said to me earlier in the evening.
Indeed, it is incredible to see a community of only 850 people raise so much money. Donations come in all sizes; the biggest single method is a program in which local and area businesses pledge a dollar amount for each point scored in the basketball game.
St. Clair beat Minnesota Valley Lutheran (which is in New Ulm) by a score of 72-52. Business had pledged a total of $80 per point, and the 124 points resulted in $9,920. When all the donations are finalized, the total could be in the neighborhood of $25,000.
Freitag was an assistant coach when he first delved into Coaches vs. Cancer. The main reason was pretty simple: he kept receiving mail from the American Cancer Society. And in a very short period of time, St. Clair became one of the nation’s top Coaches vs. Cancer sites.
“When you walk through the school, it’s unbelievable, with what the administration and the backers and some of the groups in the school have done,” Freitag said. “For us, to be the largest event in the state and seventh-largest in the nation, in a town of 850 people, it shows there is support not only here, but in Mankato, Madison Lake, all the surrounding area.”
Cancer has touched many families in St. Clair, including school staff and students. Amid the pain and sorrow that can result, Thursday’s event was filled with smiles. Cyclones cheerleaders sat on their matside pillows and performed synchronized routines as the St. Clair wrestling team hosted a triangular wth New Ulm and River Valley (which is a cooperative team involving Sleepy Eye and Springfield).
Little kids wearing painted faces played in the commons as their parents and grandparents enjoyed dinner. The pep band – wearing pink, plastic hard hats -- performed on the stage in the small gym and later played pregame music in the big gym. The walls of both gyms were covered with small placards in honor of cancer survivors; Coaches vs. Canver in the big gym and TakeDown Cancer (a wrestling-focused effort) in the small gym.
At halftime of the basketball game, a paper airplane contest was held, with winners successfully landing their aircraft inside the mid-court circle. After the game, both teams gathered for a photo. Again, smiles abounded.
Plenty of work goes into the event, work that is well worth the effort.
“I want to make sure it’s a great night,” Freitag said. “Not good, but great.”
--To see a photo gallery from St. Clair, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 275
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,169
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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