COLERAINE – It’s no secret that I have a lot of fun in my job. I also drive a lot of miles. The fun and the miles I accumulated Thursday was something special.
I was enticed via Twitter to drive to Greenway High School – a 450-mile round trip for me – to attend two events: the second annual Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin Titan Invitational cross-country meet at Eagle Ridge Golf Course, followed by a big rivalry volleyball match between Hibbing and Greenway.
It was an outdoor/indoor bash, featuring lots of outstanding competition, enthusiastic fans and community pride.
Speaking of Twitter, that electronic messaging system has clearly taken over the world. The invitation to come to Coleraine arrived via this Tweet: “@MSHSLjohn Would love to have you visit the Range for big CC meet and great VB rivalry on 9/5 in Coleraine!”
Several Tweets later, my trip was booked. Then came this Tweet from a member of the Greenway volleyball team, senior Kate Kuck: “Excited for @MSHSLjohn to come and watch our game against Hibbing! Everyone else should come too! #volleyballgame #Thursday #bethere!”
Greenway (high school enrollment 239) and Nashwauk-Keewatin (129) have cooperative teams in cross-country, football, golf and boys hockey. The Greenway-only teams are the Raiders; Nash-Kee teams are the Spartans; the coop teams are the Titans. One of the key participants in Thursday’s action, however, was not affiliated with any of the “home” teams … at least not officially.
Hannah Johnson, 23 (pictured), is the first-year volleyball coach at Hibbing, as well as one of the most famous athletes in Greenway history. Hannah was an all-state volleyball player for the Raiders, played collegiately at Minnesota Duluth and began her coaching career last season at Mesabi East. She took over at Hibbing this season when Gail Nucech retired after the most illustrious coaching career in Minnesota high school volleyball history. Nucech – who was in the Greenway gym as a fan Thursday night – began the Bluejackets volleyball program in 1969, led the team for 44 years and finished with a state-record 884 victories.
“Of course I would like to follow in her footsteps, success-wise,” Johnson said. “She’s built a great program. I came into this program and I started from scratch from a lot of aspects, but these girls knew what they were doing and they’re very coachable kids. They make my job easy.”
Johnson had not been in the Raiders gym since graduating from high school. Her return didn’t go exactly as she had hoped; Greenway swept the Bluejackets 25-22, 25-21, 25-23 in front of a large crowd that included a vocal band of Raiders students.
“I haven’t watched a Greenway volleyball game since I played in one,” Hannah said after the match. “And nothing has changed, nothing. The fans are still amazing. The fans are really what keeps the energy going; the atmosphere in here is great. It’s fun to play here.”
The cross-country meet and the volleyball match began in the same way: with the Greenway band playing the national anthem. Kudos to the musicians and their director, Sander Grotjohn, for hauling their instruments to the golf course, where they warmed everyone up with “Born To Be Wild,” “Louie Louie” and other tunes.
Also, I would like to officially extend personal kudos to the officers of the Coleraine Police Department. When I arrived at the golf course, the officers were allowing teams and coaches to park in the crowded clubhouse lot while fans were asked to park along the roadway and walk to the course. One of the officers looked at my, uh, graphically enhanced car and said, “Are you guy who’s on Twitter?” Yup. Busted … and getting a good parking spot. That evening at the volleyball match, I was standing outside the gym in a line of fans waiting to buy tickets when another officer came out and waved me through. “I thought that was you,” he said. Love those guys.
The cross-country meet was everything anybody could have hoped for. Seventy-five degrees, bright sunshine, a beautiful golf course. Esko won the girls team title and Esko and Proctor tied for first on the boys side. The individual winners were Esko’s Kailee Kiminski and Mesabi East’s Samuel Johnson.
Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin cross-country coach Will Floersheim is a young coach who knows how to make a meet special. The first event was a short run for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, followed by junior high and junior varsity races before the varsity competitions. Winning teams received delicious trophies: sheet cakes commemorating their accomplishment. I’m not kidding. Sheet cakes.
I arrived at the volleyball match as the teams were finishing warm-ups. Karen Tomberlin Gym is named after a former Greenway coach; Karen’s daughter, Rhaya Tomberlin-Anderson, is now the Raiders volleyball coach. Lineage is big in this story, and yes, Rhaya was Hannah Johnson’s high school coach.
“When she was a freshman at UMD and we took our varsity team to their team camp, she coached them throughout the team camp,” Tomberlin-Anderson said. “I was there to watch and at the end of that camp I said, ‘Hannah, you’ve got a gift. You’ve got to coach.’ I don’t know if she had thought about it before that, but I knew then that she would be an excellent coach.”
The Greenway players certainly remembered Hannah from her high school days. And Hannah was familiar with them, as well.
“I worked with them almost every single summer at UMD camps,” she said. “I know every single one of these kids.”
And just about everybody in the gym knew Hannah Johnson. It had to be a little strange, however, seeing their hometown hero wearing Hibbing blue instead of Greenway Green.
“It’s cool to see their fan base, and I know a lot of people were out here tonight for Greenway, but I know a lot of people came to support me,” Hannah said. “I come from this community and I’ll be part of this community forever.”
It's a great place to call home.
--To see a photo gallery from Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 45
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 1,818
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn