John's Journal
Waconia Girls Basketball Team Gets Their Points Across 2/10/2014
Before the basketball season started, Waconia High School girls coach Carl Pierson worked out a promotional agreement with a local restaurant. At selected home games, fans would receive a free appetizer in the restaurant at Island View Golf Club if the Wildcats scored 80 points or more.

The plan didn’t exactly go as envisioned, especially for the restaurant providing all the appetizers.

“After the first game or two, we had to move the number up to 90,” Pierson said. “It was obvious we were going to score 80 a lot.”

That is an understatement. The Wildcats are averaging 93 points per game, which is more than any other girls team in Minnesota. Among the 10 girls teams with the most points this season, six are averaging in the 60s, one averages 70 and two (New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva and Maranatha Christian) average 80 or more. Waconia is at the top.

Eyebrows were initially raised after the Wildcats’ season opener, when they defeated St. Anthony Village 111-104 in a tournament at Hamline University. Waconia (Pierson and the team are pictured here) has scored 100 points or more five times since then (and given up 100 or more seven times). The most recent example was a 103-100 loss to Hutchinson on Friday night in a Wright County Conference game at Waconia. The first time those teams met this season, Hutchinson won 112-98.

“Our goal was to score 120 tonight, and I think if we shoot halfway decent free throws we get there,” said Hutchinson coach Tim Ellefson. Indeed, the Tigers made only 24 of 56 free throws.

Pierson made a drastic change in philosophy going into the season. Knowing that his team was undersized and would have trouble playing a half-court game against teams with more size, he decided to play a game of speed. The Wildcats run up the court and down the court, and then run on and off the court in two groups of five, with a few other players seeing playing time as needed. Their style usually forces the opposition to play equally fast. The Wildcats’ record this season is 7-11.

Lots of players play lots of minutes, lots of shots are taken – many from behind the three-point line – and players, officials and coaches are exhausted by game’s end.

“We sub so frequently,” Pierson said. “They just have to go as hard as they can for about two minutes and they get a break. My favorite line so far came after we played Buffalo. They beat us 112-104 and after the game (Buffalo coach) Scot Sorenson said, ‘I am exhausted.’ He just looked beat. He expended so much energy in that game.”

Hutchinson’s Ellefson said that during his team’s first meeting with Waconia, the iPad program they use to keep in-game statistics became useless when the score got to 100; the program was not built to handle triple digits.

At halftime of Friday’s game, the teams had combined for 103 points and 38 turnovers. That’s often the result of Waconia’s running, gunning style … high-scoring games with plenty of turnovers, fouls and free throws.

“We tried to put it all together into something that would fit our kids,” Pierson said. “It would work fantastically if we could make shots. We’re averaging 93 points a game but we’re not shooting the ball worth a lick.

“It’s very much an attacking style of offense. We put the ball in the hands of our point guard and say ‘Attack the rim.’ If somebody can kick out and shoot the three, we’ll do it. There’s not much to scout if you’re scouting us. We get shots off pretty quick.”

Junior point guard Anna Schmitt leads the Wildcats with a scoring average of 30 points per game. Also averaging in double figures are sophomore Madelin Dammann (13) and senior Miranda Schultz (12).

“There’s not a lot of standing around, obviously,” said Schmitt (pictured). “It’s fun. You get the team to shoot fast; if they make it or you get a rebound you’re pushing it as fast as you can right up the floor. It’s fun to get open shots all the time and knock them down.”

Pierson said the Wildcats’ style of play would be difficult without Schmitt.

“Anna is so fast and so explosive as a scorer. She’s worth the price of admission alone. She’ll shoot threes off the dribble, she’s unguardable. She’s averaging almost eight assists per game. She’d be averaging 10 or more if we would make some layups.”

Schmitt came into the season with 416 career points, and she has scored nearly 600 so far this season. She should reach the 1,000-point milestone this week.

Asked if his players were having fun, Pierson said, “The bottom line is they still want to win games, too. I think if we were 11-7 and not 7-11 it would be a lot easier to say yes.

“One thing I like about it is we get a lot more kids involved. There really is almost no such thing as a bad shot. Everybody has the green light all the time. It is entertaining for the fans.”

And oftentimes the fans get a free appetizer.

--To see a photo gallery from the Hutchinson-Waconia game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 281
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,407
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Governor Dayton Proclaims “Bob McDonald Day” in Minnesota2/10/2014
Governor Mark Dayton has proclaimed Tuesday, Feb. 11 as "Bob McDonald Day" in Minnesota, honoring the longtime boys basketball coach at Chisholm High School, who is in his 59th and final season.

Read the announcement from the governor by clicking here.
The Voice Of Hockey: Gary Thorne Set For Boys State Tourney 2/7/2014
If you want to listen to someone who is excited about the boys state hockey tournament, listen to the familiar voice of Gary Thorne. The veteran broadcaster, who is well-known for his work with the NHL, Major League Baseball, ESPN, the Olympics and college hockey and football, will handle play-by-play duties on KSTC-Channel 45 for the Class 2A state tourney March 6-8 at Xcel Energy Center.

I talked with Thorne on the phone recently, and his excitement was palpable. He has never attended the MSHSL boys state hockey tournament and he is thrilled to be part of it in 2014.

“It’s one of those events, that if you like hockey it’s certainly up there among the major events in the country,” he said from his Florida home.

Thorne has seen it all. As a radio broadcaster for the New York Mets, he made the call when a ground ball got past Boston first baseman Bill Buckner in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Currently he is a broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles; he also has been the voice of ESPN Radio’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts.

His hockey broadcasting career began at the University of Maine, his alma mater.
From 1992 through 2004, Thorne called NHL games for ESPN, ESPN2 and (beginning in 1999) ABC.

During his years in the NHL he came to know many players who grew up in Minnesota. He learned a lot about the state hockey tournament through those relationships.

“They’ve said that next to winning the Stanley Cup, winning the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament is their biggest thrill,” Thorne told me.

Several years ago Thorne met Dennis Silva, the KSTC executive sports producer in charge of MSHSL state tournament television coverage. As they chatted, Thorne told Silva to keep him in mind if Silva ever needed a play-by-play person for the state hockey tournament. When Silva contacted Thorne recently, they had a deal in a short period of time.

“I knew it was the No. 1 high school tournament in the country, with big crowds, a tremendous viewing audience and a great level of talent on the ice,” Thorne said. “I told him, ‘If you need anybody, give me a call.’ ”

Thorne is already doing homework for the tournament by following the top teams in Class 2A.

“I’ve got a rundown on the teams that might be likely to be involved, and their players,” he said. “I’m trying to get a little familiar with everything involved.”

His broadcast partner at the tournament will be Lou Nanne, who will be attending his 50th boys state hockey tourney. Thorne and Nanne have known each other for years.

“I’ve known Lou from his days in the NHL and we’ve crossed paths many times over the years, I believe going back to my days of doing college hockey at Maine. I couldn’t believe it when I heard this will be Lou’s 50th tournament. That’s just unbelievable. What a run.”

Thorne will arrive in the Twin Cities a few days before the tournament begins to have meetings with the rest of the KSTC broadcast team. He can hardly wait.

“Everyone’s told me that the atmosphere is one of the things that makes the tournament so special,” he said. “That it’s just unbelievable, the passion of the fans and the players. It’s engaging to me. I can’t wait. It will be great fun. It’s one of those things that will seem like it’s over before it starts.”

His contract to work at the tournament is for one year. But …

“That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen again.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 279
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,331
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Adapted Floor Hockey: Strategy, Competition And Lots Of Fun2/5/2014
Coach Dan Slinden was thinking about strategy. His team trailed by one goal in the final minutes when he had a quick chat with Jake Yancy, who already had scored once in Tuesday’s game.

Jake was taking a breather on the bench when Slinden asked him, “Can you go back in and score a goal?” Jake replied, “Give me one more whistle, coach.” The message was clear; Jake wanted to catch his breath for a few more seconds before returning to the action and doing everything he could to tie the score.

The plan didn’t work out, but that didn’t take anything away from a great day of competition as the Rochester Raiders defeated the South Suburban Flyers 3-2 in an adapted floor hockey game at Eden Prairie High School.

Floor hockey is one of four adapted sports offered by the MSHSL. The others are bowling, softball and soccer. They offer students with physical or cognitive impairments the opportunity to be members of teams that are engaged in competitive sports.

And the competition Tuesday was at a high level. Players from both teams kept the plastic puck moving all around the floor. Players wear protective gear such as helmets, facemasks and gloves, along with jerseys, short or long pants and athletic shoes. The athletes work extremely hard.

“We practice three times a week,” Rochester coach Jeff Copler said after his team’s victory. “We started practice right after Thanksgiving so we’ve been practicing for a little more than two months now.

“The kids do a great job. They really love coming out and playing hard. You can see the emotion out there.”

Sean Healy, a sophomore at John Marshall High School, scored two goals for the Raiders and Alex Steffl (senior at John Marshall) had one goal and an assist. Patrick Healy (also a John Marshall senior) got the assist on one of his brother Sean’s goals.

For South Suburban, Yancy (a junior at Eden Prairie) and Alexei Dickinson (ninth-grader at Valley View Middle School) scored the goals and Andrew Mortinson (junior at Bloomington Kennedy) assisted on both.

One of the best parts of Tuesday’s game was the cheerleaders from Eden Prairie. They watched and performed in one corner of the court, cheering for both teams. Many of the fans carried signs supporting their teams and athletes. Up-tempo music was played over the gym’s sound system during stoppages in play. It was a wonderful atmosphere.

“Every year we tell (the athletes) what a great opportunity this is to play adapted sports,” Copler said. “We tell them to make sure they appreciate it every day, because it’s the only program of its kind in the nation.”

Late in the game, Slinden was happy when Copler called a timeout. The Raiders had more players than the Flyers, and the short break gave Slinden’s crew a needed rest.

“With not as many numbers as Rochester, I play my timeouts (two per game) and just try to keep people fresh,” Slinden said. “You try to give them time when they need a break. So I was very happy when Rochester called the timeout.

“Every year we compete with Rochester and we’re very evenly matched. They have great coaching; Jeff does a great job, (assistant coach) Cass (Wiersheim) does a great job. It’s just a lot of fun playing them because it gets competitive and it brings the best out of our kids.”

The Raiders make five trips to the Twin Cities during the adapted floor hockey season, and metro teams go to Rochester for games.

“Some nights it gets to be some long road trips, but the kids enjoy it,” Copler said. “We get to stop on the way home and get a bite to eat, compliments of the Quarterback Club of Rochester. So the kids really appreciate having a nice meal on the way home.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Raiders-Flyers game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 279
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,331
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
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.

*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