John's Journal
Debate, Football, Band And More: Edina Junior Is A Busy Young Lady1/14/2014
If there are any busier high school students in Minnesota than Annika Smith-Ortiz, it has to be a very short list. The Edina junior will compete in the state debate tournament Friday and Saturday at the University of Minnesota, and that activity is just one of many for her.

“There’s so much to do in life and I might as well get it all in there when I’m young,” she said.

In addition to taking part in Lincoln-Douglas debate, Smith-Ortiz was a junior varsity kicker on the Edina football team last fall, plays softball, is on the Nordic ski team, is vice-president of her school’s Latin club and a captain for Sober Squad. Her current classes include Advanced Placement U.S. History, AP U.S. Literature and Language, AP Three-Dimensional Art and Design, Enriched Biology, Pre-Calculus and Latin 4. She also plays tenor saxophone in the varsity band, baritone saxophone in jazz band and marches in the football halftime shows while wearing her football uniform.

Oh, and she biked across the country last summer from South Carolina to California, nearly 3,200 miles over six weeks.

When I asked if she ever had any free time, Annika laughed and said, “I try and work it in there. It usually comes in the form of sleep and napping, maybe reading.”

This will be her first time competing at state debate. Her Twitter username offers a clue about why she is talented in debate; it’s“I LIKE ARGUING.”

“I really like to argue,” she said. “I think for me, it’s a lot of looking at the news. I’m really interested in the news and being able to see the full side of things. In debate you’re forced to debate both sides of the argument, and you get caught up. It’s fascinating for me to see the world and get caught up in topics that you never would have thought about otherwise.”

Annika isn’t alone in being a very busy member of a debate team; the activity is populated by bright, energetic, well-rounded students. One of her Edina debate teammates, Arvind Veluvali, for example, will compete in Lincoln-Douglas at state and also is a member of the Hornets swimming and diving team.

Annika (in the center of this photo) became interesting in kicking footballs in eighth grade, when students got to try it in gym class.

“I thought it would be really cool to do this,” she said. “It was so much fun to get onto the team, form relationships and play a sport I love. I try to be as much of a team player as I can.”

Annika didn’t have any time for football last summer while biking across the country, but in previous summers she worked out with linemen and defensive backs, “trying to get a feel for the team. I love football and just being part of it is awesome.”

She enjoys watching football on TV. When I asked if she had seen any of last weekend’s NFL playoff games, she said, “because of debate I came home and took a nap and got ready for finals.”

This is indeed finals week at Edina, and Annika will miss two final exams Friday because of the debate tournament.

“I think the leadership and the voice that debate gives people is really incomparable to other activities,” she said. “It really teaches you to get up in front of crowds, and as you advance further, more and more people are expecting you to do well. It’s kind of like pitching or kicking; you’re the only one being watched. In every sport it’s a different sort of activity while debate is more of a mental awareness, a mental game.”

She is uncertain of her career plans, saying the medical field is one possibility.

“I would love to go into medicine of some sort. And last year I did an English project called a passion project, and my project was on teen homelessness. I’d like to do anything that gives back to the community. Anything that encourages leadership and people to step forward and make a difference.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 259
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,811
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Boys Swimming: Rochester Century Reaches The Century Mark 1/10/2014
ROCHESTER – One-hundred is a nice round number. And when the boys swimming team from Rochester Century reached the century mark in victorious dual meets without a loss Thursday evening, it was a very nice deal for a team that doesn’t even have a home pool. And notice that I didn’t refer to the Panthers as a “swimming and diving” team … because they have no divers.

No pool. No divers. And here they are, 100 dual victories in a row and counting since their last dual-meet defeat in December 2004. The Panthers outscored Rochester John Marshall 94-84 Thursday at John Marshall’s pool, and celebrated with little more than cookies … some of which were topped with “100” in frosting.

“It’s a great achievement and it’s unreal,” said Century coach Linda Freeman (pictured). “It will obviously end at some point; this is a competitive sport and someone always loses and someone always wins. No one goes through life never losing so this is a fairy tale.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national record for consecutive dual victories in boys swimming and diving is 165, set by Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Arizona, between 1977 and 1993. It can be difficult to find such records in Minnesota, but St. Thomas Academy went 125-0 in dual meets from the beginning of the 1995 season through 2009.

Freeman did not have any assistant coaches for her first three years as head coach. This season, however, her staff includes Scott Diercks, who has a dozen years of experience as a high school swim coach, and her brother Doug Freeman, a volunteer coach. Doug was a champion swimmer at John Marshall in the early 1970s and swam at the University of Arizona.

The Panthers practice in the Mayo pool, often working out from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“We have to rely on the good graces of our buddies,” Freeman said of Mayo. “We never get first choice, we’re always second. It’s tough, but no pool, no problem.”

No boys swimming team from Rochester has won a state team championship since 1964, when the winning school was simply named Rochester High because it was the only public high school in town. Century has had five individuals win state titles during the 10 years of the current streak; the most recent was Chris Freeman (Doug's son) in the 500 freestyle in 2011.

“We don’t have open enrollment down here,” Linda Freeman said. “ So it’s swimming upstream when we get in with the big fish.”

At the Class 2A state championships last year, Alexander Kofler placed sixth in the 100 breaststroke and Jason Tri was 12th in the 200 individual medley and 50 freestyle. The Panthers placed 17th in the team standings.

The Panthers have competed without any divers since 2007. The reason?

“I wish I knew,” Freeman said. “We go into every stinking meet 13 points behind.”

Indeed, John Marshall outscored Century 13-0 in the diving competition Thursday. The Panthers led the team scoring 44-18 before diving and 44-31 afterwards.

The lack of divers, while a little odd, doesn’t dim the team’s accomplishments.

Kofler said being part of a program that has won so many consecutive dual meets “means a lot to me. Just seeing the whole team pull together and really work hard during all those years, all these generations and classes of swimmers. It means a lot to finally know we did it, we made it to triple digits. It’s a big benchmark for us. Obviously we want to keep it going, but that hundred was the big thing we wanted to go for.”

Freeman became the Panthers’ head coach four years ago when the streak was at 76 consecutive wins. The team’s original co-coaches were Kent Quackenbush and Dale Magnuson (Magnuson currently coaches the Century girls). Magnuson was the solo boys head coach for six years before Freeman took over four years ago, when the streak was 76 in a row.

Freeman and the swimmers almost never talk about the streak, instead taking the position that working hard and staying together will result in good things.

“It’s a situation that I have downplayed quite a bit, and every season and every meet we have to go out and start again,” Freeman said. “I don't talk about it a lot except to say, ‘Forget it and just swim.’

“It’s been a great opportunity for them to realize what a champion is. A champion is humble, has great pride, and lets his swimming do the talking. I always tell them it’s one meet at a time, one swim at a time. It will take care of itself.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Century-John Marshall meet, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 256
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,611
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Old Dutch Honors Go To Apple Valley Wrestling, Cretin's Sam Neumann1/9/2014
The wrestling team from Apple Valley and Cretin-Derham Hall basketball player Sam Neumann are the recipients of this week's Old Dutch Team and Athlete of the Week honors.

The Apple Valley Eagles continued their wrestling domination by capturing the championship of the 12th annual Clash national duals tournament in Rochester. The Eagles defeated teams from Alabama, Illinois, New Jersey and Minnesota in winning the 32-team tourney.

Apple Valley, which is ranked No. 3 in the nation, defeated second-ranked Oak Park River Forest of Illinois to clinch the title. Apple Valley also won Clash titles in 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Neumann, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, had a memorable weekend, surpassing the 1,000-point milestone on Friday and putting on the best performance in the four-game Timberwolves Shootout on Saturday.

Neumann scored 25 points in a victory over Park on Friday night, moving him past 1,000 career points. On Saturday he made nine of 15 three-point shots and scored 39 points as the Raiders lost a close game to Bettendorf, Iowa, at Target Center in the Timberwolves Shootout.

Neumann scored 24 points in the second half, and his 39 points rank sixth all-time in the Timberwolves Shootout. Duluth East’s Rick Rickert tops the list with 44 points, and Kevin Love scored 41 at the Shootout when he was in high school.

Congratulations to the Apple Valley wrestling team and Cretin-Derham Hall's Sam Neumann for being this week’s Old Dutch High School Team and Athlete of the Week!
Caleb Thielbar: From Randolph To The Major Leagues 1/3/2014
The first time I interviewed Caleb Thielbar was nearly 10 years ago, during the spring of 2004. He was a junior at Randolph High School and part of a Rockets baseball team that was attempting to reach the state tournament for the first time in school history.

Here’s an excerpt from my story that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune …

--The Rockets have been playing together since they were little kids running around on the picturesque ball diamond on the west edge of town, and they consider that their strength. “We've been playing together for so long, since at least third grade," said junior Caleb Thielbar, who is 6-1 on the mound and hitting .483.

Caleb not only has a copy of the story, he told me Friday night in the Randolph gym, he has the actual printing-press plate of that page from the sports section. Hearing that is an honor for any reporter, but the hometown honors all went to Thielbar on Friday, which was proclaimed “Caleb Thielbar Night” as the Randolph girls and boys basketball teams played host to Maple River in a Gopher Conference doubleheader.

Caleb had autographed baseballs, hats, a jersey and other items, and he shook the hand of every raffle winner who took home a prize. Randolph and Twins uniforms, along with several photos of Caleb, were framed, unveiled to the crowd and will be displayed in the school.

Think about that 2004 baseball season and fast-forward to the 2013 baseball season, when Thielbar made his major league debut with the Twins. The lefthander had a 3-2 record with an outstanding 1.76 earned-run average in 49 appearances, all in relief. He was named the Twins’ rookie of the year.

He played college baseball at South Dakota State and was selected by Milwaukee in the 18th round of the 2009 amateur draft. He was released by the Brewers in late 2010 and was with the St. Paul Saints in 2011 before signing with the Twins in August that year.

It’s pretty much a dream come true – based on hard work and great support -- and Caleb said as much when we chatted after the formal ceremony between games.

“I guess when you grow up in a town like this, you have to be accountable for yourself,” he said. “If you’re not a good kid, people know about it within the next day. I don’t think it’s that hard to carry that over later in life. There are people who get caught up in different things and change a little bit; I’m trying my best not to do that.”

Thielbar made his first two major league appearances in Atlanta last season, and Randolph superintendent Mike Kelley told the crowd Friday that the games were on TV in the school commons. “I had a tear in my eye,” Kelley said. “For all the students sitting here, the real hope for us as educators is that they have the confidence to chase their hopes and dreams.”

Caleb wasn’t highly recruited out of high school. “At that point I wanted to go to college, I wanted to play ball, I wanted to find a college that had the major I wanted (wildlife and fisheries management),” he told me as we talked in the school kitchen. “I just kind of stumbled into South Dakota State and it ended up working out. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

He was an all-state baseball player in high school (with a 9-0 record and 0.69 ERA as a senior) and honorable mention all-state in basketball. He was a four-year basketball letterwinner, averaging 23 points per game. He has spent time working out in the Randolph High School weight room with the local kids. But he recently bought a house in Brookings, S.D., and now calls that his home base.

“I like pheasant hunting a lot so South Dakota is a perfect fit,” he said. In addition, he can throw with catchers from South Dakota State during the winter.

When Caleb spoke to the big crowd in the gym, he began by thanking all his coaches, starting with his father. He told the kids to pursue their dreams.

“You need to believe in yourself and have a good supporting cast,” he said. When we talked privately, he told me, “I had a good group of coaches around me who taught me to work hard and go after whatever you want to be. It doesn’t have to be baseball. You’ve got to have something that you want to strive for, and whatever that is, just work hard.”

Not long ago Thielbar was just another journeyman ballplayer, hoping for a chance to prove himself. He’s taking nothing for granted as a new season nears. He said the only difference now is what he called “the wondering.”

“The wondering whether you can play there,” he said of the major leagues. “I feel like I proved myself, so it’s just a matter of being able to keep doing that. They say the toughest thing is staying there, not getting there. I just want to prove that I can belong.”

He’ll always belong to the folks in Randoolph.


*Schools/teams John has visited: 254
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,477
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Farewell To Hockey At The State Fair Coliseum12/23/2013
By Dave Wright
Special Contributor

The news wasn't unexpected. The amazing thing was the place lasted as long as it did. It has been announced that Warner Coliseum on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds will no longer have ice after this season. The final game will be on February 29 when the Section 4AA final is played.

I worked the first game in the place -- a college game between St. Thomas and Hamline in 1975. Two years later, the St. Paul City Conference began moving games away from the St. Paul Auditorium. Soon after, the North Suburban began to move in with a regular slate. In its heyday, there were prep and college games three to five nights a week. Dick Stanford, who had already been doing the state tournament, was hired as the main public address voice for the first several years of the place.

When Dick was named to handle the duties of the North Stars, he pulled back severely and only worked a few games a year after that. I filled in for Dick and eventually got the main job when he decided it was too much to be at both venues.

Section 2 was the first to see the wisdom of playing sectional games there. At the time, the section consisted of North Suburban Conference teams in the south with the St. Cloud and Duluth schools in the north. There was a rotation set up. One year, the Coliseum would host the section semifinals and the finals would head to Duluth for a Saturday afternoon finale. The next year, the venues would be reserved.

Thus it was that Cloquet was playing St. Cloud Apollo in a semi when Corey Millen, perhaps the best-known player in the state, went into a corner and got crushed from behind. He left the ice with a broken ankle. To some, it looked like Cloquet's state tournament dreams went with him. Instead, the Lumberjacks broke away from a 3-all tie and scored eight straight goals. Coon Rapids won the other game and went to Duluth thinking they were headed to a state tournament. If they had been at Coliseum, that might have happened. But this was the Duluth Arena and the home-backed Lumberjacks ran them off the ice.

The next year, however, it was Cloquet's hearts that were broken. Columbia Heights, with a goalie by the magical name of Reggie Miracle, had won its way into the final. The Fire Marshall was told to go fishing as bleachers were installed within 10 feet of the penalty box. The final number was never officially announced but suffice it to say it was way more than capacity. You could hardly hear yourself at ice level. The Hylanders, who had never gone to a state tournament, won an earsplitting double OT game and the Lumberjacks, who probably had a better team than the one that had gone the year before, were left to wonder what happened.

The mind wanders. There was the Section 4 final between South St. Paul and Cretin-Derham Hall. The Raiders were newbies at this, having survived a double OT semifinal against Henry Sibley. Their goalie -- Finbar Murphy -- gave the heavily favored Packers fits all night but finally surrendered a goal to break a tie with 20 seconds left. The happy SSP fans littered the ice and then headed back to town to start celebrating.

It was nearly 10 minutes before the ice was ready. CDH coach Jim O'Neill looked at the matchup and called a timeout. The puck went down and I looked up and saw Chris Weinke suddenly break free for the net. He fired into the far corner of the goal and the game was headed into OT. It didn't last long and before South St. Paul knew what had happened, their season was over.

A year later, the Packers were back and feeling very good about themselves. Their opponent was another upstart who had never gotten that far before, Simley. The Spartans were understandably nervous and fell way behind early. It was 9-2 going into the third period when Simley suddenly started scoring goals. In a matter of a few minutes, a running-time game had turned into a 9-8 game. Russ Welch, the South St. Paul coach, looked like he had swallowed a mouse. SSP finally scored into an empty net and ended up winning the section final by the unlikely score of 11-8.

When full, it was hard to hear the buzzer at the zamboni end of the ice. One night, Edina came over to face Hill-Murray. In both the JV and varsity games, the team behind scored a tying goal with 0:00 on the clock. In both cases, the buzzer didn't go off. It was no malfunction. There is a split second between a clock hitting zero and the buzzer going off. It had happened twice in one night. The timer was a rookie working his first night in the place. It took a long time to explain that this wasn't his fault.

That experience did HM coach Jeff Whisler well later that year when, in the section semifinal, Park did the exact same thing to tie a game 7-7. Whisler just stared at Greg Shepherd -- the same referee who had worked the Edina game earlier this year in disbelief. Shepherd looked at the table in equal disbelief. The poor timer could only shrug his shoulders and sigh.

There was nothing to do but start playing overtime. After 14 goals in 45 minutes, there was none for 30 until the Pioneers finally scored.

When the girls state high school tournament got too big for Aldrich Arena, it came to the Coliseum for a few years. The 1998 tournament stands out in memory. Few of us had ever seen anything quite like Eagan's Natalie Darwitz dashing to and fro out of the building's tight corners. Darwitz, however, didn't get to the televised title game. (Eagan had to settle for the consolation crown.) Apple Valley, which had won the first girls title three years earlier, battled Hibbing/Chisholm/Nashwauk-Keewatin for 45 scoreless minutes. The Eagles scored in overtime for the only 1-0 final in girls hockey history.

Stuff just happened there. There was the night when Johnson's Herb Harvey got mad when he was called for a penalty and heaved his stick from the blue line over the glass and into the seats. The stick ricocheted and hit a guy standing behind the glass. He was unhurt but a little startled.

Two years ago, Blaine came into a section final there feeling good. Their opponent -- Maple Grove -- had never gone to a state tournament and the Bengals had won the previous five section titles at the Coliseum. But Blaine's best player got a five-minute major and a misconduct in the first 15 seconds of play. By the time he got out of the box, it was already 6-0 and the game was a wreck. Blaine could do no right and Maple Grove could do no wrong. It ended up 15-1 and it couldn't end fast enough.

We could go on but you get the idea. The place will always be stuck in a lot of folks' memory banks. One of them came up to me in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. He said, "Excuse me, but aren't you the guy who does the p.a. at the Coliseum? You did my section final game."

I asked where he played.


"Harding? Let me think. Oh, yes. They was a section final in the mid 80s when they played South St. Paul. They lost 2-1 but I remember a Harding kid had a breakaway near the end of the game but didn't score."

The guy looked up with a smile. "That was me," he said.

"Goalie made a great save on you," I countered.

At least I hope he did.