John's Journal
Day One: 17 Hours, Five Teams, 191 Miles And Lessons Learned8/11/2014
I was walking from the football locker room to the gymnasium at Park High School. The closer I got to the gym, the louder the music became until I recognized the tune: the Ozzy Osbourne classic “Crazy Train.” I walked into the gym to see the cheerleaders doing their stuff while the pep band played before a large contingent of students and other fans.

This was at 11:40 p.m. Sunday. Monday was the first day practices could be held for fall sports in Minnesota, and the Park football team was getting a jump. The Wolfpack team entered the gym shortly after I did, which had the fans on their feet as the band played the school song. Coach Darin Glazier took the microphone and thanked the band, cheerleaders and fans for being there, introduced the team captains and talked about the season ahead.

Shortly before midnight, Glazier said “Let’s go” and everybody went out to the stadium. The lights were turned on at the stroke of midnight as the football players whooped and hollered and began drilling.

For the 2014-15 school year, Monday was day one. Or Day One if you prefer. After my “Park After Dark” visit, I returned home and slept for a bit before visiting four other teams on Day One. Here’s what happened …

11:35 p.m. Sunday/ 12-year-old Jake Kuemmel, son of Park activities director Phil Kuemmel, handed me my first Diet Coke of the new year. It was a 12-ounce shortie, since we all know late-night caffeine can be a sleep-stopper. Jake and his dad stood at the panel of switches that operate the lights at the stadium, with Phil waiting until Monday’s official arrival to flip them on. By this time the team was waiting in one darkened end zone and the fans were in the darkened stands. And then: Let there be light … and a new season.

1:06 a.m./ Arrive home and hit the hay (miles traveled: 51.6).

6:30 a.m./ Alarm clock blows the whistle and off we go.

6:58 a.m./ Turn the key in the John’s Journal Toyota Camry and hit the road.

7:52 a.m./ Arrive at Wayzata High School in Plymouth (miles traveled: 87.6).

The Trojans won Class 2A state championships in girls and boys cross-country last year, after which girls coach Dave Emmans was named girls cross-country coach of the year by the National High School Coaches Association.

Boys coach Bill Miles, who began his cross-country coaching career 45 years ago at Cretin High School and has been at Wayzata for 39 years, welcomed 140 boys and five assistant coaches to the first day of workouts. With those large numbers, it was no surpise that Day One logistics included eight color-coded clipboards that carried various informational categories.

“It’s a new start, obviously,” Miles said. “It’s exciting to see all the kids and sort of thrilling to see the new kids, the kids who haven’t been here before. You hope that they end up having a four- or six-year high school experience for a lifetime of running and being part of that running community. It’s very fun that way.

“It’s like the first day of school. It’s a new start and everybody can relate to that.”

9:02 a.m./ Arrive at Minnetonka (miles traveled: 101.8).

The girls soccer team is practicing on one of the schools’s four artificial-turf fields. Coach Jeff Hopkins -- whose team won the 2A state championship last season – and his assistants are watching juniors and seniors in the tryout phase of the preseason. Twenty-nine players are wearing numbered jerseys, playing seven-on-seven on two shortened fields as the coaches make marks on clipboards.

The Skippers’ practice began at 8 a.m. and ends at 9:30. They will return later in the day for another workout. Before they depart, Hopkins leaves them with a few brief messages: “Have a passion and be able to compete.” And “We want you to have an impact on the field, in the classroom and in the community.”

“We’re really excited,” Hopkins told me as we chatted about Day One. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to come in, and we look for kids who are passionate to be here. I always tell the girls on the first day, ‘The best job you can ever have is to play soccer and be with your friends.’

“I think the expectations are high. But I always say that we have a whole different team each year. The expectations are that we continue to try to be competitive and try to develop players and also try to win.”

Rebekah Thoresen, one of the seniors on the team, said, “The total goal would be to win state again. That’s like a total dream of everyone. Even though we won last year, winning it two times would be the best gift ever in our senior year.”

10:16 a.m./ Arrive at Southwest Christian High School in Chaska (miles traveled: 119.8).

The Stars won the Class 1A state volleyball championship last year with a team dominated by a superb senior class. On Day One, 29 girls (ninth-graders through seniors) are on the court with coach Greg Sayuk. The first day of practice means working on more than volleyball skills, however.

“On Day One every year we spend a lot of time talking about expectations; what the coaches expect of the players and more importantly what the players expect of each other,” Sayuk said. “We kind of have three things that we’re looking for. One is represent the program; two is love everybody else first, making sure you put your teammates before yourself; and the third thing is personal responsibility.”

Sayuk and his wife Kari were expecting the volleyball season to be interrupted by an important event: the birth of their first child. The due date was Sept. 1, but Dominik Sayuk chose his own birthday, arriving five days before practice began.

11:47 a.m./ Arrive home, grab some lunch and get some other work done (miles traveled: 152.3).

3:45 p.m./ Arrive at South St. Paul (miles traveled: 171.7).

Everything was different on this practice field. This wasn’t Day One for the Packers but Day Six; they will play a Zero Week game against Chanhassen and began practice a week early in order to do so. They were wearing full pads and playing full-contact football. This was spirited, this was up-tempo.

One of the quarterbacks lined up behind center and shouted “Ninety-Eight! Ninety-Eight! Milwaukee!” The ball was snapped and the pads popped. Head coach Chad Sexauer exhorted the defense, “Eleven helmets to the football!”

“For us it’s been five kind of fun days, enjoying and talking about kids and the great things they’re doing,” Sexauer said. “And then Day Six becomes kind of that contact thing, and four or five kids who were off your radar, all of a sudden they put pads on and they pop onto your radar.”

South St. Paul has one very un-secret weapon in assistant coach Paul Miller, a 1968 Packers grad who coached Apple Valley to three big-school state titles in 16 years, is a former Packers head coach as well as a head coach on the collegiate level at St. Olaf, Hamline and Minnesota-Crookston.

“He’s that Russell Crowe, Beautiful Mind,” Sexauer said. “He just has that ability; he thinks football and lives it and is always doing what’s best for kids. What a mentor for me. I’ve learned so much from him.”

That’s what Day One and Day Six and every day to come is all about for every team. Learning, having fun, doing what’s best for kids.

5:01 p.m./ Home sweet home (miles traveled 191.9).

--To see a photo gallery from John's Day One visits, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 191
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Prepping For A New Year, Including Zero Week Football7/31/2014
Summer is rapidly winding down, with practices for fall sports officially beginning on Aug. 11. But 33 football teams will get a head start on the 2014 season, beginning practice on Aug. 4 and playing Zero Week games on Aug. 22 or 23.

Zero Week is a tool that helps schools fill their eight-game regular-season schedules. All Zero Week teams will have a bye week later in the season, when no football-specific workouts can be held. With the debut of district football scheduling in 2015, Zero Week will not be needed.

The MSHSL board of directors will hold its first meeting of 2014-15 on Aug. 5 at Ruttger’s Bay Lake Conference Center near Deerwood. The agenda for the meeting can be found on the main page under “League News.”

I’m always on the lookout for great stories, and I’m excited as a new school year begins. Feel free to send me an email and tell me what’s happening with your team, your school, your conference, etc.

Zero Week Football Games

Friday, Aug. 22 (all games at 7 p.m.)
Park Center at Richfield
Chanhassen at South St. Paul
Worthington at Redwood Valley
Southland at Caledonia
Fillmore Central at Chatfield
Brooklyn Center at St. James
St. Clair at Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity
Bethlehem Academy at Mankato Loyola
Rushford-Peterson at Kingsland
Goodhue at Wabasha-Kellogg
Glenville-Emmons at Lanesboro
LeRoy-Ostrander at Houston
Spring Grove at Lyle/Austin Pacelli
Mabel-Canton at Randolph
Chaska at Menomonie, Wis.
Minnetonka at Hudson, Wis.
Superior, Wis., at Hopkins

Saturday, Aug. 23
Providence Academy at Crookston, 2 p.m.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 0
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Flashback to 2012: From Nine-Man to 6A, The Football Season Is Underway7/23/2014
As the first day of practices for fall sports -- Aug. 11 -- draws closer, here's another story from the John's Journal archives. This one comes from late August of 2012 and two Zero Week football games; a nine-man contest between Wheaton/Herman-Norcross and Underwood, and a big-school game between Hopkins and the team from Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas...

I can summarize my Zero Week football experience in several ways…

--The gastronomical tally was one bratwurst, one hot dog, one hamburger and three Diet Cokes.

--Mileage? I drove 396 round-trip miles to Underwood for a Friday night nine-man game between the Wheaton/Herman-Norcross Warriors and Underwood Rockets, followed by a short 54-mile round-tripper to Hopkins on Saturday afternoon to watch the Class 6A Royals host the Episcopal Knights of Houston, Texas.

--Competitively, I saw 68 points scored along with turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and magnificent plays.

--Weather? Friday evening was picture-perfect in Underwood, with a nice breeze blowing across Otter Tail County. The conditions at Hopkins were a little on the damp side, with showers playing stick-and-move during the game.

What I will remember most, however, are a coach’s pregame words on Friday and the postgame statement of another coach on Saturday. They offer auditory bookends to a football weekend and shed a bright light on what our world of high school activities is all about.

Wheaton/Herman-Norcross coach Tony Thiel, whose team played in the Prep Bowl last season, has only two starters back this year. But every season is a new journey.

“They want to get back there (to the Metrodome),” Thiel told me before the Warriors met Underwood. “We’re not living on the laurels of last year’s team, we want to make our own identity.”

Things worked out pretty well for the Warriors, who beat Underwood 26-8.

The other bookend came after Hopkins defeated Episcopal 20-14 in a game that came down to the final play. The Royals led 14-0 at halftime before Episcopal scored twice in the third quarter to force a 14-14 tie. Hopkins quarterback J.T. DenHartog scrambled for a 41-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the game ended with Episcopal completing a long pass to the 3-yard line.

As Hopkins coach (and quarterback’s dad) John DenHartog talked to his euphoric players, he said this: “High school football is about making great memories. And after the season you’ll have a great memory.”

These two games were played in two distinct settings – one in a small town and one in a large suburb – but the essence was the same. After months of lifting weights, training and weeks of workouts, it was time to play for real.

THE FIELD IN UNDERWOOD is a lush carpet of nature’s green grass, with a row of small trees behind each end zone. The school grounds back up the home sideline, with a parking lot and a gravel road behind the visitor’s side. As the Underwood Rockets took the field for warm-ups – and whenever they made a great play – fans sitting in their cars honked the horns. That is a glorious signature sound of American small-town football.

Underwood principal and athletic director John Hamann said a handful of cars were parked in prime spots at 7:30 Friday morning. “People are absolutely crazy,” he said with a smile.

The Zero Week game in Underwood provided a prime scouting opportunity for teams who will face the Rockets and Warriors later this season. Only five other games were played within Minnesota’s borders on Friday, so nine-man coaches were thick in Underwood – carrying clipboards and notebooks, jotting down jersey numbers, diagramming plays and gathering gridiron intel.

Visiting fans are at a distinct disadvantage in Underwood, especially early in the season, because they are forced to squint into the bright sun as they watch the early action. By the time the sun said goodnight, the scene was enough to make a small-town native weep: young boys flipping footballs and chasing each other behind the grownup fans, who were standing along a single wire fenceline on both sidelines … two little girls sitting with their backpacks and candy, one stride behind the goal line … four older girls laying on blankets next to the scoreboard, which carries the logos of the local Lions club, a bank, a gas station and other supporters of the Rockets.

At halftime, with his team holding a 14-8 lead thanks to a short touchdown pass from Jake Rinke to Carter Thiel with one second on the clock, coach Thiel told his players, “What happens if they don’t score in the second half? We win.”

The prediction came true. Wheaton/Herman-Norcross did all the scoring in the last two quarters, leaned on impressive defensive footspeed and got the win.

“For the first time out I am very pleased,” Thiel told me at game’s end. “Underwood’s a quality football team, they’re going to win a lot of games. I’m very happy with the way we played.”

A PARKING LOT AT Hopkins was designated as “Handicapped and VIP Parking.” I snuck into that lot but made the rookie mistake of not bringing along a jacket or umbrella. Whenever rain began to fall, I scurried from the field to the press box. It was dry most of the time, but the 6A crowd at Hopkins was smaller than the nine-man crowd at Underwood the night before.

Episcopal is a private, coed school with about 300 male students. Due to conference changes (much like Hopkins and the other four Lake Conference teams), Episcopal was looking for a game to fill its schedule. Knights coach Steve Leisz is a 1984 Minnetonka graduate, and the parents of six Episcopal football players are Twin Cities natives.

The Knights flew in on Friday and had a walk-through on the artificial turf at Hopkins in the afternoon. Their postgame plans Saturday included a cruise on Lake Minnetonka, although the gloomy weather – and the last-minute loss – could have combined to dampen the mood just a but.

A group of Episcopal cheerleaders also made the trip, bringing along a pair of Texas flags. This was a rare sight: Lone Star flags flying over a Minnesota football field. The Texans also brought some star-studded athletes, including senior quarterback Austin Robinson (who saw several passes flutter off the fingers of receivers) and sophomore running back Tyreik Gray, whose cutting, leaping, 67-yard run to tie the score 14-14 was the play of the day … until young DenHartog’s second touchdown all but clinched the victory for the home team.

“We were just pumped to be able to play a team from Texas,” J.T. DenHartog said. “Everyone talks about how great Texas football is, and we came out with the mindset that we wanted to prove everyone wrong and not play for just Hopkins but play for every team in Minnesota. To prove that Minnesota is just as good, and now even better, than Texas football.”

J.T.'s father talked about the Royals hanging together when they could have folded, and how the experience will pay dividends down the road.

“At times we played really well and at times we showed that we’re pretty young and in the first game of the season we made a lot of errors, too,” the coach said. “But our effort was certainly there and I liked the way our team didn’t point fingers and didn’t get down when things didn’t go well. I liked how they stuck together and supported each other. It’s a fun group to work with and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this year.

“I think it shows if you do things right and support each other as teammates and work hard and try hard, good things happen. We tell the kids that message and they got to live it out a little today.”

Hard work in the offseason. Lessons learned on the practice field. And gratification now that the games are for real.

It’s going to be a great year.
Flashback to 2011: A Stroke Of Wild Inspiration7/16/2014
Here's another look back in John's Journal history. This story was posted in February 2011 under the headline "Girls State Hockey Tournament: A Stroke Of Wild Inspiration."

As Edina junior goaltender Maddie Dahl walked into the media room after the Hornets had earned a spot in the Class 2A state championship game Friday night, I said to her quietly, “That stick really IS magic.”

She whispered, “It is!”

Dahl had just finished her second shutout of the tournament as Edina beat Hill-Murray 2-0 to move into Saturday’s state championship game against Minnetonka. The stick we spoke of is a very special goalie stick, a gift that Maddie isn’t afraid to credit for her sterling performance at Xcel Energy Center.

In Thursday’s semifinals Dahl shut out Rosemount 6-0. There was undoubtedly a little magic at work, magic that began a couple hours before game time thanks to the generosity of injured Wild goaltender Josh Harding.

Harding is sidelined with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, suffered during the preseason. So while the Wild are in California, he’s back here in Minnesota going through the rehab process. He was on the ice at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday morning when the Edina Hornets arrived at the arena for their opening game.

Some of the Hornets saw Harding from the concourse level, but Dahl was the only one to run down the stairs to reach ice level. “He’s my idol,” she told me Friday before Edina met Hill- Murray in the semifinals.

She isn’t afraid to admit that she had her face pressed up to the glass to watch Harding. As his workout ended, he began picking up pucks and gathering his equipment. Then he did something that Dahl certainly did not expect. He picked up one of his sticks and tossed it over the glass to her.

Did somebody say “stunned”?

“I was like, ‘Wow!’ I thought he was going to take it back,” Maddie said. “I got kind of nervous and I ran really fast up the stairs.”

Her teammates, having witnessed the tossing of the stick, met Maddie at the concourse level and gathered around the stick; an honest-to-goodness NHL goalie’s stick. Harding is lefthanded and Maddie is righthanded, but what the heck does that matter? It just means she is less likely to use it on the ice and break it or see some similar catastrophe take place.

The story, however, doesn’t end there. Maddie and her teammates went down to the locker room level, where Harding was standing outside the Wild locker room holding a bottle of water. He saw Maddie carrying the stick, gave her a fist bump and said to her, “Good luck.”

But, again there’s more. Maddie doesn’t know who did what, but somehow, someway, somebody had Harding autograph the stick when she was otherwise occupied before the game. All she knows is that before the game, Harding had autographed it. Plus, he came into the locker room and again told Maddie, “Good luck.”

He had written on the stick, “To Maddie. Good Luck!” He signed his name and his number, 37.

But wait. The story isn’t over. You know that Maddie shut out Rosemount, making 24 saves. When I asked her what she did with the stick after the game, she smiled. Then she told me this: she slept with it.

And it’s a pretty safe bet that she slept with it again Friday night.
Flashback to 2010: MACCRAY golfer Tricia Kienitz7/13/2014
While we're all on summer break from high school activities, this is a good time to look back on some memorable John's Journal stories. This story was originally posted on May 17, 2010 under the headline "MACCRAY Golfer Trisha Kienitz: A Smile, An Inspiration"

Trisha Kienitz has heard the question several times during her golf career. She doesn’t know when it will be asked -- maybe at the first tee, maybe a few holes into a round -- but eventually a competitor’s curiosity at seeing Kienitz use a golf cart to get around the course will lead to the inevitable question.

It happened a couple weeks ago as Kienitz, a senior at MACCRAY High School, hit another tee shot straight down the heart of the fairway. A girl in her foursome asked, “Why do you have a cart?”

Trisha’s answer was short and sweet: “Artificial leg.” The reply was even shorter: “Oh.”

Oh. Right. Artificial Leg. Sweet.

Trisha, 18, tells the story – as she does just about everything else -- with a smile. She walks the school hallways in Clara City with a smile. She smiles as she pulls up the fabric of her jeans to reveal the flesh-toned prosthetic right leg that begins at her hip and is strapped around her waist.

She smiles as she recounts qualifying for the Class A state tournament the past two years, and continues to smile as she talks about her goal of returning this year.

Artificial leg? No big deal.

She played in several Junior PGA events last summer, wearing shorts on occasion. The prosthetic skin on her knee was stretched and torn, and contrasting-colored tape had been used to repair the damage. Her playing partners didn’t realize that Trisha had a fake limb; they saw the tape and thought she just had a knee injury.

“I said, ‘No, I have an artificial leg.’ And they said, ‘We can’t even tell.’ Most people can’t.”

She walks with a slight limp. Because carrying her clubs for 18 holes would be difficult, Trisha has a special exemption from the Minnesota State High School League to use a cart during competitive rounds. And that’s the only difference between her and every other high school golfer in the world … except for the fact that she is gunning for her third trip to state.

“She’s got a great swing,” said MACCRAY girls’ golf coach Terri Zondervan. “And a lot of it is mental, and she’s pretty steady and very focused. She practices a lot, she has great dedication to the game.”

Balance is crucial when hitting a golf ball, and the simple fact that Trisha basically does so while standing on one leg is remarkable. She was born without a right leg and spent much of her early years hopping on her left leg. She smiles (of course) as she talks about it.

“When I was little I just hopped around the house,” she said. “So I have good balance. Mainly all my weight’s on my left foot all the time (while swinging a golf club). That’s why it doesn’t go very far.”

No, her length off the tee doesn’t draw oohs and aahs. But her accuracy is another matter. Trisha rarely sees anything but the middle of the fairway. MACCRAY boys’ coach Gary Nelson recalls watching Trisha hit a shot out of bounds during the state tournament two years ago; she had to stop and think about the proper procedure when that happens.

“She said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ She just hasn’t hit one off to the side too many times,” Nelson said.

“I hit it straight,” Trisha said. “They don’t go very far but they go straight. Some of those girls can hit it so far, but then they go right or left.”

She tied for 39th at state as a sophomore and tied for 17th last year. This year’s Class A state tournament will be held June 16-17 at Pebble Creek Golf Club in Becker.

“I just want to make it,” she said. “I’ve seen kids go to state before and then they don’t make it back their senior year. I’m just working on getting there and hopefully finishing in the top eight.”

Trisha finished second in last Friday’s Camden Conference tournament at Marshall Golf Club. Minneota’s Taya Kockelman was the medalist with an 86 and Trisha was three shots back. The Wolverinesof MACCRAY (which is shorthand for the communities of MAynard, Clara City and RAYmond) will compete at a subsection tournament in Benson on May 28 and the Section 5A tourney in Marshall June 4.

Between those tournaments, graduation at MACCRAY will take place May 30. Trisha is the oldest child of Wendell and Kelli Kienitz. Her sister Katie is 16 and brother Brady is 6. Trisha plans to attend Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, study agribusiness and try out for the golf team.

Trisha began playing golf with her grandfather when she was 7 years old. Then came summer leagues and a growing love for the game.

Asked what she likes about golf, Trisha lit the fuse on another big smile.

“Oh, everything,” she said. “You learn more than golf. You learn the rules and you learn how to be more responsible.”

And you learn how to answer a few questions along the way, too ... with a smile.