John's Journal
All Smiles In Esko: New Stadium, New Turf And A Big Win 9/28/2013
ESKO – First, some relevant numbers from a fun-filled Friday at a football game in northern Minnesota: 28, 14 and one.

The final score in the Great Polar Alliance White Division contest was the Esko Eskomos 28, Two Harbors Agates 14. The key number, however, is one. As in one community coming together for one purpose. And Friday was the one night when everything culminated in one glorious celebration.

After the game/celebration had ended, I asked Esko senior quarterback Marc Peterson about the day.

“Oh, it was fun,” he said, speaking for the whole town. “It was awesome.”

Let’s go back a few years to where Friday’s story began. In the town that’s 10 miles south of Duluth, Les Knuti Field had been in use since the early 1970s. But it was aging as the new century began and everyone knew something should be done. In 2009 a referendum seeking funds for a facility upgrade failed. In 2012 the field’s bleachers were condemned and the fast-failing stadium lights were removed. The knockout blow came in June 2012, when the old ballyard fell victim to massive flooding, as did nearby baseball and softball fields and other places to play.

At this point, drastic action was needed. A committee called Esko Pride was formed last year. The group put together efforts to raise community awareness of the need for improved facilities, and students pitched in to go door to door, do TV interviews, write letters to the editor and hold events. On election day, voters approved an education levy as well as a facilities referendum. The facilities plan called for a grass field, but people in town wanted to strive for more.

Another new group, the Esko Turf Club, was formed in January of this year with the goal of raising enough money to add artificial turf to the football/soccer field that was under construction. In no time, the goal was reached. Installation of a SprinTurf surface began when the snow melted.

“To see the transformation from before to now, the way we envisioned it and the way it is now, it’s even more grand than what we imagined,” said Esko activities director Chad Stoskopf. “When you see it on paper, it looks nice and it makes sense, but to see it now kind of takes your breath away. It’s better than we could have ever anticipated.”

It is a showplace. The playing surface is raised so it’ll take a whale of a flood for high water to ever reach it. An igloo is painted on the 50-yard line, and both end zones are painted blue with “ESKOMOS” in large white letters. A new metal grandstand sits on one side of the field, topped by a roomy pressbox; new baseball and softball fields are under construction behind the bleachers, and windows in the “back” of the pressbox will allow it to be used for those fields, too.

The scoreboard is behind the visitor’s bench, opposite the grandstand. That’s a unique spot for a scoreboard and it works amazingly well … why didn’t anyone think of that before? On a fence behind the scoreboard is a long line of banners from businesses that supported the project.

The Eskomos played their first four football games this season on the road at Cloquet, Moose Lake-Willow River, Deer River and Duluth Marshall. All that time, finishing touches were being put on the new stadium. A flagpole had not yet been installed by Friday’s game, but local Cub Scouts proudly held the stars and stripes at midfield while the Esko choir knocked out a tremendous rendition of the national anthem.

The Esko football players had not practiced on their new field before facing Two Harbors. In fact, none of the Eskomos had even stepped on the field until early Friday morning.

“We were all hootin’ and hollerin’ and having a good time,” said Peterson, who completed nine of 11 passes for 170 yards. His favorite target, junior wide receiver Aaron Olson, caught four passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

Imagine that … a football game in Minnesota with a Peterson throwing to an Olson.

The victory gave Esko (which reached the Class 3A state quarterfinals last year) a 3-2 record, and the loss was the first after four wins for the Agates. The Eskomos were thrilled with their dominant victory, in which senior John Carr ran for two short touchdowns and senior Earl Brinkley returned a fumble 51 yards for a score. But the thrills went much further.

“It’s great,” Olson said. “I’m thankful for everybody who donated to the Turf Club and the school and the whole community for giving money.”

The sense of anticipation had been growing since voters approved the facilities referendum, and it grew exponentially when turf became a reality. This is a great big deal for a great small school; Esko’s 9-12 enrollment is 367 students. The only smaller school in Minnesota with a turf field is Sauk Centre (306 students).

“Ever since the flood, ever since the suggestion that they were going to do something like this, we’ve been looking forward to this,” Peterson said.

And oh, what a night it was. The game capped Homecoming week, which is always festive in itself. During the pregame ceremonies, skydivers delivered the game ball, a soccer game ball (the Eskomos girls soccer team played its first game on the field Saturday vs. Princeton) and an Esko flag … although the parachutist carrying the football lost a battle against a strong breeze and landed outside the stadium. Another neat touch: the word "Family" on the back of every Two Harbors jersey.

At the coin flip, four members of the 1946 Esko football team were honored; that was the first football team in school history. The head official wore a microphone so everyone could hear the explanations for penalties (there weren’t many).

There was a long line for food at a mobile barbecue stand. There was popcorn and commemorative T-shirts. The field is located a few blocks from the high school, and one of the most impressive pregame sights was a parade on foot – cheerleaders, football players, soccer players and students of all ages – from the school to the stadium.

And the band. My goodness, the Esko band. I go to a lot of high school events all over the state, and this band is something very special. No uniforms, no marching, but no matter. The orchestra, under the direction of Richard Mowers, was positioned on small bleachers behind the north end zone. And once they began playing, they seemingly never stopped playing. They played during timeouts, they played during halftime, between quarters … they even played between plays. A referee’s whistle would blow, Mower would wave a hand, and we would hear the Flintstones theme song or the Scooby Doo theme song or a snippet of a rock and roll classic … and as the ball was snapped for the next play the music stopped. Only to resume at the next whistle. Amazing. Incredible. Pure entertainment and fun.

After the game, the Esko football players stood in front of their band and applauded. The football team applauding the band. How stunningly cool is that?

That scene was the perfect ending to a perfect celebration that was years in the making. What has happened in Esko is a testament to hard work, commitment, community involvement and reaching a goal through total teamwork. And there’s no better lesson for our young people than that.

Eskomos, you are my heroes.

--To see a photo gallery from Esko, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 71
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,638
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn
Congrats To Waseca's Thomas O'Neil, Old Dutch Athlete Of The Week9/25/2013
Thomas O’Neil, quarterback at Waseca High School, has been named the Old Dutch High School Athlete of the Week.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior amassed 507 yards of total offense and had a hand in five touchdowns as the Waseca Bluejays remained undefeated last week with a 43-27 South Central Conference victory at Fairmont.

Thomas carried the ball 26 times for 309 yards and four touchdowns, while completing 10 of 17 passes for 198 yards and one touchdown. His touchdown runs, all in the second half, were from 46, 44, 83 and 5 yards. For the season he has rushed for 11 touchdowns and thrown for eight. He is a three-year starter for the Bluejays and is a captain on the football and basketball teams.

O’Neil is on the A honor roll and is involved in Advanced Placement courses. He is involved in Waseca Community Education, volunteers as a youth football and basketball coach and referee, and is active in his church.

Waseca, which is ranked ninth in Class 4A, will play at home on Friday vs. undefeated Blue Earth Area, the top-ranked team in Class 3A.

Congratulations to Thomas O'Neil for being this week's Old Dutch High School Athlete of the week!
Nominate Your Favorite Athlete For Old Dutch Athlete Of The Week9/22/2013
Nominations are open for this weekly honor, and you can find all the details by clicking here.
A Coach Tells His Team: ‘This Has Gotta Be Fun’9/20/2013
Through many years of writing about high school activities, I often have been fortunate enough to go behind the scenes. Sometimes that means I’m standing on a practice field or court as a team goes through a workout. And sometimes I am inside a locker room as a coach says a few final words to the team before a contest begins.

Every time I step inside a high school locker room and listen to a coach talk to athletes, I have the same thought: If every parent, grandparent and fan of this team could be here, they would realize how lucky their children are. I have listened to dozens of pregame talks by dozens of different coaches in different sports. The messages are similar, because our coaches realize what is most important. Yes, winning is definitely part of the equation. But the coaches who truly understand the life lessons that they are teaching rarely even use the word “win” in pregame talks.

Earlier this football season, I was behind the scenes with the Farmington High School football team a few minutes before kickoff. The Tigers gather in the school’s weight room before home games, where they sit and listen to coach Mark Froehling’s final instructions. Froehling’s words are similar to what other coaches say to their athletes; this is just one example of many such talks. I happened to record audio from inside the weight room, and Froehling has granted me permission to publish his words.

Please read this coach’s words, understand his message, and realize how important our coaches and teachers are to shaping the lives of our young people ... who are in great hands.

Here is what Farmington football coach Mark Froehling told his team …

“We’ve got to be ready to play. I want to see effort and I want to see execution, right away. Let’s be moving out there, let’s get this thing going at our pace, not at their pace. Let’s dictate the pace, let’s run ‘em out of gas and take care of business, fellas. We’ve got to withstand any initial surge they might have.

“We know how to face adversity. This is football, gentlemen. There is always going to be adversity, nothing’s going to be perfect. There are going to be things we’ll have to overcome. Let’s not pretend that nothing bad’s never going to happen. We’ve just got to be prepared for it; how are we going to react to it? It’s a sign of the character of this team. And we know what kind of character we have, right? We know we can handle anything if we handle it together, can’t we?

“We’ve got to be able to play this one play at a time, right? Whatever happened on the last play, do we really care about that? No. Does it really matter what the next play is, the play after the one that’s being played right now? No. Will you please give me great focus on that play? Work your technique, do your job; you know your buddy’s counting on you to be focused right then, don’t you? He needs you. We all need each other, and let’s be sure we’re all taking care of our friends out there on the football field.

“Let’s show respect for our opponents tonight by the way we play the game. Every time we walk out on that field, we’re going to respect the game and make sure that we’re playing good, tough Tiger football. Gentlemen, let’s bring it in here and take a knee. What a beautiful night for the game of football, right fellas! This has gotta be fun, and let’s be thankful for being able to be here.”

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 68
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,455
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn

Old Dutch High School Athlete of the Week: Carter McCauley, Owatonna9/19/2013
Owatonna High School senior Carter McCauley had an outstanding week for two different Owatonna teams, helping the soccer team win two games and kicking a game-winning field goal on the final play in the biggest football game of Week 3.

In an 8-2 soccer victory over Albert Lea, Carter moved from his normal position as goalkeeper and scored one of the Huskies’ goals in the Big 9 Conference victory. Two days later he recorded the shutout in goal and had nine saves as the Owatonna soccer team defeated Mankato West 3-0. It was his third shutout and sixth victory of the soccer season.

Carter capped his big week by kicking a 38-yard field goal on the game’s final play, lifting top-ranked Owatonna to a 24-21 victory at second-ranked Mankato West in a matchup of Big 9 Conference teams and the top two teams in the Class 5A rankings.

Carter, who also is a star on the Owatonna baseball team, is one of the top students in his class, excels in math and science and hopes to study biochemistry in college.

Congratulations to Carter McCauley for being this week's Old Dutch High School Athlete of the week!