John's Journal
Coaches vs. Cancer In St. Clair: Smiles, Love And Support 1/31/2014
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)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
From Windom Exchange Student To MVP To The Super Bowl (In Denmark)1/29/2014
By JOEL ALVSTAD
Sports Editor
Cottonwood County Citizen, Windom

First-year Windom Eagle football coach Bobby Elwell got a pleasant surprise after the first day of practice last fall.

A foreign exchange student was coming to live with the Wayne and Julienne Antes family, whose son, Kyle, was a junior on the Eagle football team.

"I thought, ‘Great. We’ve got a kicker,’" Elwell said.

It turns out August Nielsen meant a lot more to the Eagle program than the sterotypical exchange student on an American football team.

Nielsen played five years of American club football in his homeland, Denmark, before coming to Windom.

"Usually, a foreign exchange student that comes out for football is pigeonholed as being the kicker," Elwell said. "August told me right away that kicking was probably the one thing he wasn’t comfortable doing. Hopefully, it’s something that we see more of when exchange students come to the U.S."

Nielsen went on to be the Eagles’ leading rusher and one of the team’s leading tacklers. His teammates voted him as the team’s Most Valuable Player after the end of the season. (In the photo, a Danish TV cameraman films and interviews Nielsen last week.)

But now, Nielsen is bringing his football talent to an audience of 1.5 million.

Last Monday, a Danish television crew was in Windom, taping a segment with Nielsen. The segment will appear during the pregame of the Danish broadcast of the Super Bowl.

"They called me a couple of weeks ago," Nielsen said. "They wanted a Danish person who was in the States playing football to do a story on prior to the Super Bowl. They asked to come here to do a little story.

"The theme is on how the sport is growing in Denmark, but they are also going to talk about concussion awareness, so they’re talking to doctors about what concussions do to the brain and talking to someone who wrote a book on the effects of concussions."
Elwell noted that one of the co-workers of the video crew had known August and knew he was playing in the U.S., prompting the call to set up the shoot.

Nielsen talked to Elwell about getting some equipment and some of his teammates together for a little bit of a pick-up game for the crew to tape. School was out for a teacher inservice, but several Eagle teammates came to school to brave the elements for some football in the snow.

"Most of what they filmed was while I was playing, and they asked questions while I was in the locker room," Nielsen said. "It’s pretty exciting knowing I’ll be on TV in front of that big an audience."

Nielsen said that the Danish TV audience for the Super Bowl is relatively small compared to the U.S., but he noted that American football is growing in popularity in Denmark and throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, Elwell said he feels blessed to have had the chance to coach August during his first season as a head coach.

"It was a very unique situation, having a foreign exchange student with the kind of football skill set that August has," Elwell said. "In talking to some of the other coaches in the area, they all seemed to agree that he was one of the best foreign exchange students they had ever seen on a football field. It was something we weren’t expecting, but it was certainly beneficial for our program to get a kid with that kind of ability and talent.

"More important was his work ethic and his willingness to do whatever it took for the team to have success. He was a real pleasure to have on our team, especially as a first-year coach. The guys really had a lot of fun having him around, and he set a great example."

Elwell noted that many schools, and Windom in particular, encourage foreign exchange students to be active in extra-curriculars to become acclimated to American culture. This fall, Windom’s exchange student population was seen on the football field, the volleyball court and on stage during the fall musical.

"That's something Windom takes a lot of pride in, and we’re very happy we could help August with the adjustment to the U.S. But the impact he had on our guys and our program is what we’re going to take out of this experience the most," Elwell said. "Seeing August flourish socially was probably the most rewarding part of the experience. He was pretty shy and quiet the first couple of days, but he really became a big part of the kids’ group and the school in general, in a pretty quick fashion. A lot of that has to do with the passion he brought to the football team.

"He got to know the guys pretty fast and they got to know him. His host family was a great fit for him. August and Kyle are kind of cut from the same cloth. They enjoy a lot of the same things and the Antes family has done an amazing job getting August involved. There wasn’t a huge adjustment period for him."
Scott West: The Most Unique Wrestling Team In Minnesota 1/27/2014
The most unique high school wrestling team in Minnesota is Scott West. If this fact leads a few folks to say things like: “Where is Scott West? … I’ve never heard of that town,” that’s OK.

Scott West is a cooperative team, with athletes from Jordan, Belle Plaine and Holy Family Academy in Belle Plaine. The towns are only seven miles apart on Highway 169 in Scott County ... the west side of Scott County, to be precise.

“A lot of people ask where Scott West is. They think it’s a city,” said junior David Flynn, a two-time state qualifier who finished fourth in Class 2A at 113 pounds last year.

What makes the wrestling team unique is that Jordan and Belle Plaine compete against each other in every other sport. But in wrestling, boys from both schools come together. The change from competitors to teammates is especially stark when football season ends and wrestling season begins.

“A lot of the guys on the wrestling team are in football and we compete against each other,” said junior Andrew Fogarty, who placed third (at 138 and 160) in the Class 2A state tournament as a freshman and sophomore. “It’s different when it’s wrestling season. In football we’re pretty competitive, our towns are close together and we’re really big rivals. Then the wrestling season comes and we drop all that and we’re friends again.”

There are 36 wrestlers in grades 9-12 this season, with 16 from Belle Plaine and 20 from Jordan. That’s a pretty even split for a team that always has high expectations.

The architect of the cooperative agreement was Kevin Slack. He coached wrestling from 1980 through the 2012-13 season, first at Belle Plaine and then with the cooperative, which was formed in the 1990-91 season. The accomplishments of his wrestlers and teams is first-rate: 134 state tournament qualifiers, 71 finishers among the top six at state, 14 individual state champions and 13 teams that qualified for state.

The cooperative team – which this season is one of 76 wrestling coops in the state -- was the best way to make sure neither school’s wrestling program fell victim to shrinking numbers.

“At the time, Jordan was having the start of a numbers problem,” Slack said. “At the same time, Belle Plaine was suffering a similar problem, maybe to a little lesser degree. The two towns looked at, ‘How can we get better?’

“Wrestling was an attractive situation to those in charge from the start and we were very happy with the way things were going. We worked very, very hard to never look at the program as two parts. We worked to make the program look as one, and it didn’t matter where the kids went to school. At end of the day they were all part of one program.”

The team practices at Jordan High School, with matches held at both schools. Belle Plaine teams are the Tigers, boys teams at Jordan are the Hubmen and girls teams are the Jaguars. The wrestling team has its own singular identity: the Scott West Panthers.

“I think that the success of the Scott West program over the years has helped create its own solid identity,” said Darren Ripley, who is a current co-coach with Jerold Stauffacher. “However it is still not uncommon for us to hear or to be asked, “Who is Scott West? Where is Scott West?’ We usually just kind of laugh it off and think to ourselves, ‘Maybe they haven't been following Minnesota high school wrestling for the last quarter century.’ ”

In the very early days of the cooperative, Slack said there were obstacles to overcome. Some people, for example, had a difficult time letting go of lengthy support of their hometown school and backing the new team.

“It takes a lot of work to make a coop work,” Slack said. “It’s very, very difficult to get two sides not to look inwardly and look at their own interests as the priority. That’s what makes some of the coops not be as successful as they want. It can be very difficult. That’s just human nature. Some of the parents grew up wrestling for Belle Plaine and Jordan. You have those feelings that don’t go away.”

These days, the routine for the wrestlers does not seem odd or difficult to anyone involved. When the school day ends and practice is on the schedule, wrestlers from Belle Plaine take the short bus ride to Jordan and go to the wrestling room. Once workouts begin, no one is a Jordan Hubman or Belle Plaine Tiger; they are all Scott West Panthers.

"What some may view as logistical hurdles, we just view as a way of life at Scott West,” Ripley said. “It’s just what we do. We have been together and at this for 24 years so those logistical hurdles really are just part of the process.”

A new high school was built in Jordan about 10 years ago. Before that, the practice routine was a little tougher. The team rotated practices every two weeks between the Jordan small gym/cafeteria and the Belle Plaine small gym/cafeteria, with wrestlers having to roll out mats every day.

With a spacious wrestling room now on hand in Jordan, “No wrestlers have to roll mats out and up for every practice and you also don't have to worry about ketchup, pickles or other food items on the mat,” Ripley said.

The Scott West Panthers will celebrate 25 years next season, and Slack was honored last week for his years of service – always without pay – to wrestling at Belle Plaine and Scott West.

A large new wrestling mat was dedicated to Slack before a match against Tri-City United. The mat is the largest in Minnesota, measuring 54 feet by 52 feet (the standard is 38 x 38). A large decal on the mat reads: “In Honor Of Kevin Slack/Coach 1980-2013.”

“Obviously, it’s very humbling,” Slack said. “You don’t have success like Scott West on the shoulders of one person. I’ve known from the start that no matter what my part was, it was only a part. We’ve had tremendous effort and time put in by so many people. It’s nice to be remembered, but sometimes it’s hard to accept.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 270
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,963
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

Two-Year District Football Schedules Will Begin To Take Shape1/24/2014
Here's further information on the plan for district football scheduling that was approved by the MSHSL board of directors on Thursday...

A statewide committee will decide on district lineups in the spring, and they will be finalized by the MSHSL board of directors over the summer.

Schools with football teams grouped into the same districts will be able to meet no later than August with a goal of finalizing football schedules for 2015 and 2016 by November 1.
A Momentous Change In High School Football Is Approved1/23/2014
Thursday’s MSHSL board of directors meeting was stunning in a couple of ways. First was the manner in which the 20 board members discussed and debated a proposal to completely restructure the format of regular-season football. I sat in the board room as a reporter for several years before joining the MSHSL staff nearly four years ago, and the serious nature of Thursday’s meeting was striking.

The board always does serious work in a serious way, but this debate was different. The members knew that if they approved the district plan – which they did by a vote of 19-1 – it would have an impact on every football team in the state. The plan was created as a way to solve scheduling problems faced by many schools in filling their eight-game regular-season schedules.

The other stunning part of the day was how football will change, beginning with the 2015 season. As outlined in a previous installment of John’s Journal, the district plan will place teams into large groups (at least 16 or more schools whenever possible) and schools in each district will work together to create schedules for each team. The postseason playoff format will remain unchanged.

Visitors are always allowed to speak before the board takes any action, and today six athletic/activity directors spoke in favor of district football. Only one of them was from the metro area. Here’s a recap of what each of them said…

--Les Zellmann, St. James athletic director and former board president. “We do a lot of things in this state that to a certain extent I think are cutting edge. Doing something out of the norm in terms of football scheduling is cutting edge. … The issue is widespread and it’s not going away.”

--Jeff Boran, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown athletic director and Gopher Valley Conference representative: In some years “it has been virtually impossible to develop a schedule. … This plan is a much better option (than section scheduling in the reguar season).”

--Ted Schultz, Minnetonka athletic director: “History has shown that what we’re doing isn’t working. … Before you is an opportunity to solve the problem and provide these opportunities for student-athletes. … It’s time for this board to take a stand and do what’s right for all the student-athletes in all the schools.”

--Chris Chalmers, Albert Lea athletic director: “It’s an excellent plan, even for schools that have eight football games.”

--Mike Schmidt, Staples-Motley athletic director: “We travel too far and too wide ... Our Friday night lights are dimming in outstate Minnesota. … Our football travel budget is bigger than basketball. We had a volleyball gate that was bigger than football.”

--Rob Norman, Blue Earth athletic director: “I’ve been an AD for 18 years and every year I’ve struggled to fill a football schedule.”

Board member Mark Solberg (AD at Cambridge-Isanti) told the board about a conversation he recently had with Brainerd football coach Ron Stolski. He quoted Stolski as asking, “What would reasonable people do and is this the best thing for students who play football in Minnesota? … Wrestle with it, then stand tall and take a vote.”

Board member and Hopkins AD Dan Johnson said, “I don’t know how a school or a conference loses in this initiative.”

Board members come from Underwood, St. Charles, Montevideo, Jordan, Little Falls, Rosemount, Northfield, St. Cloud, Cambridge, Hopkins, Eagan, Sauk Rapids, Ada, Harmony, Lakeville, Orono, Minneapolis, Jackson and Stanchfield. The only member to vote against district football was Rosemount AD Mike Manning.

--To read more about how district football will work, scroll down to the next story on John’s Journal (which previewed Thursday’s meeting).

ON ANOTHER FOOTBALL TOPIC …

The board approved the timeline for the 2015 football season and playoffs. Because of the availability of TCF Bank Stadium, the Prep Bowl will be played two weeks earlier than normal that year, on Nov. 14-15.

The regular season will remain at eight games and the playoffs will not be shortened; those were options the board considered. Practice will start on Aug. 10 and the first games of the regular season will be allowed to be played on Saturday, Aug. 22 … that’s the normal day for preseason scrimmages. So preseason practices will last for two weeks instead of the usual three before the first game.

--Also, the board tabled a proposal to change the structure of the Class 6A football playoffs, with members saying they wanted more input and more time. The proposal calls for each of the four 6A sections to be seeded 1 through 8, and all 32 teams to be placed into one tournament bracket with eight four-team sub-brackets. Four of those sub-brackets would consist of teams seeded 1, 4, 5 and 8, and the others would include teams seeded 2, 3, 6 and 7. This plan would ensure that No. 1 section seeds would not meet until the state semifinals.

AND IN SOFTBALL NEWS…

The board approved a request from the softball coaches association to add a fourth class in that sport, beginning in 2016. The current state tournament format will remain, with the six softball fields at Caswell Park in North Mankato able to handle four classes and consolation play in each class.

AND FINALLY …

--Joyce Swenson, state director of Minnesota Academic Decathlon, spoke to the board about a proposed partnership with the MSHSL. Academic decathlon involves competition in 10 areas; six relating to knowledge in the areas of economics, fine arts, history, language and literature, mathematics and science; three written and verbal communication tests; and a Super Quiz. The board may act on the proposal at its April meeting.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 270
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,963
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn