John's Journal
An Arm Injury, A Growth Spurt, And Everything Changed12/18/2013
After Tuesday night's basketball game at Park High School, East Ridge center Ryan Keenan exited the locker room wearing a baseball cap. To be precise, a Milwaukee Brewers cap. That seemed fitting because he's a baseball player who became a Division I basketball player. And it happened very suddenly

Keenan is a 6-foot-11 senior who has signed with Pepperdine. The university is in Malibu, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. So college basketball season will clearly mark a big change from Minnesota winters. But just the fact that Keenan will play major-college basketball at all seemed pretty far-fetched not too long ago.

"If you had told me I was going D1 at the beginning of the summer, I would have looked at you with crazy eyes," he said after East Ridge's 75-29 Suburban East Conference victory at Park. "It's been a fun ride."

Keenan comes from an athletic family. His father Dean is the boys basketball coach at St. Paul Harding and his grandfather Jerry Keenan is the longtime athletic director at Harding. But baseball had always seemed to be Ryan's sport. He was a pitcher with potential, but everything changed when two things happened: 1) He suffered an arm injury; 2) He grew amazingly tall.

"In ninth grade he was probably 5-11, and in 10th grade he was like 6-2," Dean Keenan said. "And then boom."

Ryan was listed at 6-10 last season, when he came off the bench behind Conrad Sexe, who is now a freshman at St. John's University. Keenan had never played AAU basketball until last summer, when Mitch Ohnstad -- Minnesota's Mr. Basketball in 1996 at Faribault and a former University of Minnesota player -- began working with him.

Keenan was playing with Ohnstad's summer team at a tournament in Milwaukee when Pepperdine assistant coach Bryant Moore began watching him. The school contacted the family and Dean, wife Heather and Ryan visited Pepperdine. Head coach Marty Wilson offered a scholarship while they were on campus and told them they could take their time in thinking about it. No time was needed.

"There was absolutely no question," Ryan said. "I looked at it between the University of South Dakota and Pepperdine. I knew what I wanted before I went to Pepperdine and it just blew me away. A great degree, that's what I wanted. It's all about the future. And compatibility with the coaches and the kids. They recruit absolutely high-character kids and I couldn't ask for anything better than those guys."

In an odd twist, Ryan's mother had dreamed of attending Pepperdine when she was a student at St. Paul Como Park.

"We've always joked about it," Dean said. "My father-in-law said to her back then, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for you to lay around on the beach.' She called me this summer from Milwaukee and said, 'You'll never guess who's watching him.' "

Ryan is a wonderful example of what can happen to athletes who don't appear to be ultra-talented at an early age. As a young player he was on B- and C-level basketball teams; he had never played with most of his current teammates prior to high school.

"He had great size as a ninth-grader and he hadn't quite grown into his body yet," said East Ridge basketball coach Paul Virgin. "We'll always take a chance on kids like that, because he had a lot of time. All the way up he was always a C player but he kept working. He's a great kid and he'll do anything you ask. I have him in my AP calculus class so he's very bright. He's doing all the right things.

"It's a great story for us and it's great for me as a coach. Ryan works our camps, and I can say, 'Hey, if you're a C player right now in sixth grade or seventh grade, here you go.' "

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 252
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,427
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Congrats To Eastview Girls Basketball, Old Dutch Team Of The Week12/17/2013
The Eastview Lightning are expected to move into the No. 1 spot in the Class 4A rankings this week after improving to 5-0 with a 56-64 win at top-ranked Hopkins. It was Hopkins' first home-court loss in almost four years.

Eastview also has defeated Chaska (ranked fifth in 4A), Monticello (ranked seventh in 3A), St. Paul Central and Park of Cottage Grove. The five teams that Eastview has defeated have a combined record of 23-1 in their other games.


Congratulations to Eastview Girls Basketball Team for being this week's Old Dutch High School Team of the Week!
From Lakeville North to Northfield, Berkvam Goes Home 12/11/2013
NORTHFIELD -- Andy Berkvam has been asked the same one-word question numerous times since leaving his longtime position as the girls basketball coach at Lakeville North last summer to become the boys basketball coach at Northfield. Why?

Some of the people who ask why are only thinking of the numbers. Numbers like more than 400 career victories, 10 state tournament berths and three state championships, which is what Berkvam accomplished in 23 seasons as the girls coach at Lakeville and Lakeville North.

Those figures contrast with some pretty measly numbers in Northfield's boys basketball history: Two winning seasons since 2004-05, with an average record of 9-14 during that time. The Raiders have not only not won a section title in that span, they have not even played in a section title game. And getting to state? Northfield boys basketball teams have in fact played in three state tournaments ... in 1916, 1928 and 1932.

Why? For Berkvam, the answer is pretty simple. Why not? He's a Northfield native who graduated from Northfield High School in 1984, and he wants to 1) find a new challenge, and 2) give something back to his hometown.

"I think the job kind of parallels the situation when I took the job in Lakeville," said Berkvam, 51, who is a member of the Northfield Athletic Hall of Fame as well as the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. "I look at it as a big challenge. When I took the Lakeville girls job, they had averaged three to five wins a year for a long period of time."

He had climbed every competitive mountain while in Lakeville, where he continues to work as a middle school physical education teacher. His wife, Marne Berkvam (also a Northfield native and NHS athletic hall of famer), is the principal at Lakeville North.

"It can be hard when you're expected to win 20 games and go to the state tournament every year," Andy Berkvam said. "Not that it's not fun. But it can wear on you. It's fun to do something new and build something new, and I want to give back to the community because I got so much from Northfield."

Berkvam thought about applying for the Northfield boys job two years ago, when Andy Jaynes was hired. Jaynes stepped down after last season because the job took too much time away from his young children.

"At that point (two years ago) Andy was interested," said Northfield activities director Tom Graupmann. "But it wasn't the right time for Andy. He had daughters in high school and he wanted to see them through."

The Berkvams' youngest child is in fifth grade, and the family built a new house in Northfield and moved after Andy changed coaching jobs.

"The timing was really good this time," Graupmann said. "When the job opened, Andy contacted me and said, 'This is something I really want to do. It's something I've always wanted to do.' He wanted to come back to Northfield, live here and coach here."

The only other time Berkvam has coached high school boys basketball was right after he finished his playing career at Mankato State University in 1986. He coached ninth-grade boys at Eden Prairie. When they were seniors in 1988-89, those players were the first Eden Prairie boys team to go to the state tournament.

"I had always planned to coach boys," Berkvam said. "I took (the Lakeville girls job) because it was a challenge."

He was a graduate assistant with the Mankato State men's team for one year after his playing career ended and was teaching in Lakeville when the girls basketball job opened up in 1990. He had previously applied to become the head boys coach; John Oxton was hired and remains the coach.

The Northfield boys team has won five games in each of the last three seasons. One of Berkvam's challenges is building the program from the ground up, and he has begun doing so with a strong focus on elementary players all the down to kindergarten. He had a program in Lakeville called "Adopt a Panther," which paired high school players with youth teams. A similar program has been started in Northfield.

"It's probably the best thing we did in Lakeville," he said. "They go to each other's games and spend time together. It connects younger players with older players, who are role models."

The Raiders are 1-2 this season, with a victory over Rochester Mayo and losses to Hastings and Rochester Century.

"He's very intense," Northfield senior captain Hunter Sannes said of Berkvam. "People look at him outside the basketball area, and he's a great guy. But when you get on the basketball court with him, it's hard, hard, hard. You better get going on defense. I love it. It's what Northfield needs for the basketball program."

With the Missota Conference disbanding after this school year, Northfield will become a member of the Big 9 Conference in 2014-15.

"I think it's a sleeping giant," Berkvam said of the Raiders basketball program. "It's the best of both worlds because we're in the metro but next year we'll be playing in the Big 9. I want to put a lot of time into it."

He doesn't, however, have any timetable for how long his coaching career will last. He's clearly in it for the long haul in his hometown.

"I can retire from teaching in six years," he said. "But I plan to coach for a long time. I want to put my stamp on this program, and there are a lot of good people helping me. Northfield is really hungry to win in basketball."

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 238
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,028
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Broken Neck, A Season Of Transition And Life Lessons 12/9/2013
This story has a very happy ending. Well, actually, we won't know how it truly ends until the hockey season ends. But we know how it began. With a broken neck.

Laura Slominski was excited as winter and her sixth season as head coach of the Edina High School girls team neared. The Hornets are one of the state's top programs, with four Class 2A state tournament appearances since 2009 and state runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011.

Everything changed, however, when Slominski played in a women's fall hockey league game on Sept. 29. She and another player were racing for the puck, they collided, and Slominski flew back-first into the boards. She knows she was lucky. There are plenty of what ifs; for example, what if she had gone in head-first and suffered a spinal injury?

Her spine was OK, but her neck was broken in three places on the C5 vertebrae. She underwent surgery, spent a week in the hospital, has been wearing a neck brace since then and is unable to skate or do any on-ice coaching this season. But again, she knows she was lucky.

"It gives you a new appreciation for people who have gone through similar situations but with much worse results," she said. "The first time being able to get up and walk, it was a whole new level of appreciation for me."

She will return to teaching math at Edina later this week, which will be a big step in getting back to normal. The neck brace should come off for good sometime in January, when the only physical sign of what Slominski has endured will be a great big scar on the back of her neck.

Slominski (pictured here with her players) was injured on a Sunday evening, and one of the first things she thought about in the hospital was finding a substitute teacher for her classes the next day. That was taken care of, but finding a substitute head hockey coach for the upcoming season was another matter. After the job was posted and interviews were held, former Wayzata boys hockey coach Dean Williamson was hired as interim head coach for the season. Slominski holds the interim title of assistant coach.

Williamson coached most of the Hornets varsity players when they were younger, and his daughter Taylor is a junior forward on the team.

"I knew all the kids, I tied most of their skates when they were five years old," Williamson said. "So from that standpoint I was happy to step in, as tough as it was to lose Laura. I'm just glad that she's back on track."

Senior captain Riley Anderson said, "I think it made it easier since Dean coached a lot of us growing up. That made the transition easier, but it is different."

Slominski attends the Hornets games (with the exception of a road trip to Warroad and Roseau in November), watches from behind the glass or the bleachers, consults with Williamson (they are pictured here) and talks to the team in the locker room between periods and afterwards. There's clearly a tight bond between the 33-year-old coach and her players.

"She came to school after her surgery," said senior captain Emily Eide. "All the hockey girls were called down to the athletic office and we didn't know what was happening. Then she walked in and it was a big shock. There were tears instantly."

Slominski said, "There has been so much support from everybody, and you know your family and closest friends will be there for you. The hockey kids are part of my family, too, and we talk about being a family.

"It's a lot easier for me right now because they're in good hands and they're having a good experience. It's hard for both sides to be used to something and have it change so quickly and so close to the start of the season."

The Hornets are off to an outstanding start. They have 10 wins, no losses and one tie and are ranked No. 4 in Class 2A. A big test will come Saturday when they meet top-ranked Minnetonka.

"No matter what's going on, Edina never changes its expectations," Slominski said. "We have expectations that we'll be at the top at the end of the season, and they're playing great hockey right now. Emotionally, I think they're in a very, very good place and they're being well-coached. They're responding very well to what's happening. It's a very strong team, and a lot of it comes down to the chemistry and the character that's there."

Since her injury, Slominski has used a CaringBridge website to keep family and friends updated on her progress. Some of the posts were short updates on her surgery and rehabilitation, but Slominski wrote some longer messages. On Oct. 27, the day before girls hockey practice began around the state, she wrote about the lessons she learned from the coaches she has played for, and offered advice to high school players. Some excerpts ...

--"I was so blessed to have incredible coaches my whole life. Yes, we always wanted to win, but I knew they cared so much about me as a person. It was just as important for them to help me and my teammates to develop as people as it was for us to win games. These life lessons that I was taught and the mental toughness I gained through being an athlete has given me the strength I have needed to be so positive in my journey."

--"Girls, as you go through tryouts, be confident, give all that you have to give so that you can walk away with no regrets, and make the most of every moment this season. We always talk about how you want to give your best because you don't know what is going to happen in life. This is another reminder for me as 4 weeks ago from this very moment, I was getting ready to put the kids to bed and then headed off to my hockey game, just as I have done many times. ... I can't control what happened to me, only how I react to it. I am glad that I have given my all to coaching for the past 5 years at Edina so that when I have to sit this one out it is with no regrets. ... Remember to focus on what you can control, and give your all in everything you do, so that when all is said and done you can walk away with no regrets and you can be proud of all that you and your teammates have accomplished together."

Slominski's doctors have told her to stay off skates for at least six months. That's a long stretch without hockey for someone who grew up with the game. Slominski graduated from Burnsville High School in 1998, where she was her school's Athena Award winner and was named Minnesota's Ms. Hockey. She played hockey and was a team captain at the University of Minnesota, worked as an assistant coach at St. Olaf College, head coach at Bloomington Kennedy, assistant at St. Cloud State and assistant at Minnesota before taking over as Edina's head coach in 2008.

"I was hoping to get back (on the ice) during the second half of the season," she said. "It's kind of like jumping back on the horse. But you never know what can happen in practice; sometimes a player will slide into you and knock you off your feet. It's probably good for me that the doctor said at least six months, because it will force me to be 100 percent fully recovered."

In the meantime, the season will continue and the Hornets will keep playing ... for themselves, their school and their coach.

"It's a great group of kids," Dean Williamson said. "I just want to make it a special year for the seniors and I'm just holding the car keys until Laura's ready to roll. We're excited to have her come to these games and she looks fantastic. Her spirit is a big part of our team this year."

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 236
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,986
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Some Decisions Made, Big Football Decisions To Come 12/5/2013
The MSHSL board of directors held a lengthy discussion about a proposal to revamp regular-season football at its meeting Thursday, with no decisions made as more information is gathered from schools.

The plan, called District Football Scheduling, would (as described in a previous installment of John's Journal) group teams into districts as a method to assist schools in filling their football schedules. Schools around the state have asked for assistance in fixing the problem, and a select committee developed the District Football Scheduling concept.

The board approved the dates for the 2015 Prep Bowl at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. The Prep Bowl games will be played Nov. 13-14. The board had previously approved a move to TCF Bank Stadium for the Prep Bowl in 2014, with championship games to be played on Nov. 21-22, 2014.

Other football issues remain to be settled for 2015. Because the Prep Bowl will be played earlier than normal (due to TCF Bank Stadium availability), the board discussed several options pertaining to the regular-season format in 2015. They included the possibility of starting the season earlier, playing a seven-game regular-season (instead of the normal eight games) and an abbreviated playoff format. Board members want to gather more information before voting on a football plan for 2015; a vote is expected at the next meeting on Jan. 23.

The 2015 football season is a major issue, but scheduling problem will not be an issue in 2016 and thereafter, because the Prep Bowl will move into the new Vikings Stadium in 2016.

The board approved several other actions ...

--The placement of Benilde-St. Margaret's into the Metro West Conference and St. Thomas Academy into the Metro East.

--The 2014 state soccer tournament will be held at St. Cloud State's Husky Stadium, with semifinals and finals played Oct. 28-29-30. The 2015 state soccer semifinals and finals, also at Husky Stadium, will be played Nov. 3-4-5.

--An MSHSL partnership with the Minnesota High School Press Association.

--An expansion of varsity baseball rosters from 18 to 20 players.

Discussion items included a recommendation from the softball advisory committee that softball go from three classes to four classes. No vote was taken at the meeting. Another discussion item was a proposal from the Minnesota Academic Decathlon program to have it become affiliated with the MSHSL; no discussion was held and the item was withheld until the board's January meeting.