John's Journal
Two Teams Working Together: Competitors But Not Enemies 8/16/2013
FARIBAULT – Ken Hubert, coach of the Faribault High School girls swimming and diving team, made a pretty important statement as we were chatting Thursday: “We’ve got to teach our kids that the other team is our competitor -- we definitely want to beat them -- but they’re not our enemy.”

We were standing poolside, waiting for the swimmers from Winona to arrive. The Winhawks were running a little late, thanks to road construction, but the mood was light and everyone was expecting a fun practice session. And Hubert’s words summed up the experience perfectly.

The two teams were not going to compete against each other; this was not a scrimmage or anything of the sort. It was simply a practice … with two teams and two sets of coaches. After the Winhawks arrived, the fun and the work began.

Everyone swam some warmup laps before Hubert and Winona coach Steve Burt – they compete in triathlons together – talked about what the two-hour session would entail. But first, some introductions were in order. Hubert (who also is Faribault's athletic director) introduced himself and his coaching staff to the group, Burt did the same.

Then the girls -- eight or nine of them standing together in each lane – went through an exercise in making new friends. In each lane, everyone stated their name and their favorite color, and then one member of each team stood on the deck and, speaking to the entire group, introduced the members of the opposite team by name and favorite color. Laughter and applause ensured.

Sixty-eight athletes -- 31 from Winona, 37 from Faribault – were fortunate enough to be there. This was new for the Faribault Falcons (although they do travel to Duluth for a competition each season), but the Winhawks boys and girls swim teams take regular training trips. Following Thursday’s practice, in fact, the Winona team was headed to the Twin Cities for an overnight stay and a workout with the team from Richfield on Friday.

“The objective is to sort of break up the monotony,” Burt said. “We don’t go every year but we’ve been going a lot.”

After the workout ended, the athletes had pizza together and chatted like old friends. With their electronic devices back in their dry hands, they connected with each other on Facebook and Twitter in order to stay in touch. Because that’s what friends do.

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


*Schools/teams John has visited: 4
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 422
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn
It’s A New Season, A Fresh Start For The Blue Earth Area Buccaneers8/15/2013
BLUE EARTH – Wednesday was the final day of conditioning drills for football teams across Minnesota, with full pads and full contact coming into play Thursday. The Blue Earth Buccaneers, however, are already conditioned to one thing: winning a state championship.

The Bucs captured their school’s first football title last season, capping a 13-0 season with a 30-7 victory over Rochester Lourdes in the Class 3A Prep Bowl game at the Metrodome. They return five starters on each side of the ball this season, meaning expectations are high for 2013.

“I think at the beginning of every year there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” said Randy Kuechenmeister (pictured), who is beginning his 23rd year as head coach. “We always try and preach it’s a different year, we’re trying to focus on what we’re going to try and accomplish this year, not what happened last year. Obviously, like anybody we’re very proud of that accomplishment. Now we try to focus on this year.”

While the Buccaneers focus on the now, however, there are lessons to be learned from the then. Their run to the state title was a mild surprise, even to the coaches and players.

“I don’t think anybody went in thinking we were going to win the state championship,” Kuechenmeister said . “We had a good team the year before and we thought we could be very good. How good, we didn’t know. We were fortunate in that kids bought in, we had great leadership, we had different kids make plays and we kept getting better. That doesn’t always happen.”

Those lessons – work hard, stay together, one day at a time – could help propel Blue Earth to another memorable season.

“Just take one game at a time; that was kind of our strategy last year,” said senior David Franta, who rushed for 144 yards and two touchdown in the Prep Bowl. “Don’t look ahead, don’t be thinking about trying to make it to the state tournament or doing well at the state tournament. Just take the first game, win the week and move on to the next week.”

Two years ago, the focus in Blue Earth was on a pair of talented senior linemen. Jonah Pirsig is now a 6-foot-9, 308-pound redshirt freshman at the University of Minnesota and Sam Lee is a 6-5, 300-pound sophomore at Augustana College in Sioux Falls,S.D. Last season, they had departed for college and the spotlight went elsewhere.

“It might have frustrated some of us, because all they were focusing on was one person,” said senior quarterback Kysten Zierke. “Last year we were able to just be one group and that eventually came into focus once we got into playoffs and state. People noticed that we were better than the team a year prior (which finished 10-2, losing to Waterville-Elysian-Morristown in the state quarterfinals).”

As senior Gus Phillips – the Bucs’ leading tackler in the Prep Bowl -- said of the 2012 season, “It wasn’t just focused on one player, it was focused on the whole team.”

There are 85 Blue Earth football players this season in grades nine through 12. Of the 19 seniors, 16 play multiple sports. There are fewer farm kids than there used to be, but agriculture is never far off on the southern Minnesota prairie. Three practice fields are located behind the high school, and across a road stand tall rows of corn. As the Buccaneers walked to the fields for Wednesday evening’s workout, a pickup pulling a rack of hay bales rolled down the road.

Blue Earth High School became Blue Earth Area High School in 1990, with students coming from Blue Earth, Frost, Winnebago, Delavan and Elmore. Traditions and bloodlines are important; one example is Franta, the last in a line of four brothers to play football.

Another example: Six of the eight Blue Earth assistant football coaches played for Kuechenmeister. “They’ve aged a little bit but I haven’t,” he said with a chuckle.

Kuechenmeister is a native of Luverne who played high school football under Elmer Menage, who is a member of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Menage is also Kuechenmeister’s father-in-law.

A few years ago, people in Blue Earth realized that some talented young athletes were on their way to the varsity football team. These things often happen in cycles.

“In a smaller school it’s kind of the ebb and flow of things,” Kuechenmeister said. “We thought we had some good players coming, no question about it, and kids who love to play the game. One of the best things is in the last couple of years they’ve gotten along and they’ve played very well together. And that makes a huge difference.”

Eight players carried the football in last year’s Prep Bowl, and seven of them are back this season. Facts like that may portend that another special season could be taking shape.

But that doesn’t mean the Buccaneers are looking too far down the road. They will open the season at home against Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial on Aug. 29, but with the pads and real hitting still fresh, they aren’t getting ahead of themselves.

“We’ve got to come out every day and be focused on what we need to do,” said senior Greg Claeys.

Said Phillips, “We need to realize that last year was last year. It’s a new season, a clean slate.”

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


*Schools/teams John has visited: 2
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 352
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn
Next On The Schedule: A Visit To The Blue Earth Buccaneers8/13/2013
As we move through Week 1 of fall sports practices, I will be heading south on Wednesday for a visit to Blue Earth Area High School.

A quick Google search unearths these facts about Blue Earth:

• A sesquicentennial community founded in 1856.
• The birthplace of the ice cream sandwich.
• The center of America's longest highway, Interstate 90.
• The home of Minnesota's first stained-glass window.
• The seat of Faribault County and home to the historic 19th century County Courthouse.
• Home of the world's largest statue of the Jolly Green Giant, overlooking some of America's richest farmland.

How about that? My main focus, however, will be the Buccaneers football team. They won their school’s first state football championship last season, going undefeated and topping Class 3A. I’ll spend some time with the coaches and players, and also visit any other fall teams that are working out while I’m there.

I will fire off some photos on Twitter from Blue Earth, so be sure to follow me (@MSHSLjohn).

Remember, I’m always looking for great stories to tell. Feel free to fire off an email to and tell me what’s happening at your school.
It’s A Brand New Day For Teams -- Old And New -- In Cannon Falls 8/12/2013
CANNON FALLS --- Monday, as we all know, was day one for fall sports in Minnesota, with practices taking place at every school across the state. But at Cannon Falls High School, specifically for the girls and boys soccer teams, day one was Day One! As in the first day in school history that soccer practices were held.

The Bombers’ football, cross-country, girls tennis, volleyball and cheerleading squads were out in force, working through drills that are well-known to most athletes. The story was a little different for the soccer teams, with new players, new coaches and a new place to play.

Kids in first through eighth grade have been playing soccer in Cannon Falls for a long time through a local soccer association. The school board approved the addition of varsity, junior high and middle school soccer in May.

“It’s so exciting,” said girls soccer coach and English teacher Anne Davisson. “It’s been an interesting journey. It’s been years of people saying, ‘You’ll never have soccer’ and me wondering why not.

“I’m an English teacher and I find words pretty easily, but I can’t find words to describe soccer. I’m so pumped for these kids that they get a chance to experience it.”

This is a unique situation. The school district funds only transportation and officials, with the soccer association, families and community organizations pitching in to cover the costs of uniforms and equipment. The coaches are volunteers. With practice space at a premium on the high school grounds, the soccer teams practice and play across town on a field at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

“The community is very excited about it. Out of the feedback I’ve received, 90 percent has been positive,” said athletic director Jake Winchell. “The community really came together. We’ve had donations from groups in town to pay for equipment and uniforms and the church allows us to use their field free of charge.”

Cannon Falls is a member of the Hiawatha Valley League (the Bombers play football in the new three-division Southern Football Alliance) but because the soccer program got off the ground late, the teams will not compete in the HVL this season. The girls and boys teams will play five or six games; the boys will open the season with a home game against Byron on Aug. 22 and the girls’ first game will be at Winona Cotter on Aug. 24.

“Our goal is just to be competitive with the other teams,” said boys coach Adam Rueger, who works in the Goodhue County Public Works department and teaches driver’s education. “We don’t want to get blown away. We’ll start with the kids, wherever they are, and hopefully by the end of the season they’ve moved up a step or two or three so they can feel good.”

Cannon Falls (population 4,083) is located on Highway 52 between the Twin Cities and Rochester. The high school enrollment is 366 students. Athletically speaking, the most well-known of those 366 is probably Emi Trost (pictured), who won the Class 1A 800-meter championship at the state track meet in June. She was the state runner-up at 1,600 meters at that meet, as well as placing second in the 1A state cross-country meet the last two years.

In that 1,600 and the two cross-country championships, Trost was second behind Blake’s Clare Flanagan. Both are now seniors, but Blake has moved up to Class 2A in cross-country and track.

“That doesn’t mean there’s not somebody who’s rising up,” Emi said after Monday morning’s training run. “There are a lot of good runners.”

When I asked Emi about her goals this season, she replied with two. The first involved the team, which is of course what always matters the most.

“One of my goals as a captain is to be a good leader for our team and get more kids involved,” she said. “Another one of my goals is I want to win conference, section and state this year. I kind of want to do the whole shebang.” (Yes, she used the word “shebang.” Outstanding.)

The girls tennis team was practicing on courts at the school and the volleyballers were in the community center gym, where I asked coach Melissa Huseth about the start of a new season.

“Day one for me is just tremendous excitement,” she said. “The girls have been in the weight room and doing a bunch of volleyball stuff all summer. The night before our first day, I can’t sleep because I’m so excited.”

Day one was “intense,” said senior volleyball player Becca Vandenheuvel. “All these girls are determined, we all come in wanting to work hard. It’s great to see everyone again. We have six seniors, we’re ready to work hard.”

Later in the day, the football team practiced behind the school and the cheerleaders began learning their routines in front of the school. The football team will open the season Aug. 30 at home against Kasson-Mantorville, with the victor taking home the century-old Little Brown Jug.

At every stop, with every team, there was a grand mixture of intensity, fun, smiles and laughter.

As the girls soccer players went through the first practice in the history of the first team, Davisson was filled with energy; demonstrating, pushing, explaining, cheering.

“You’re going to just play,” she told the Bombers. “Pass to each other and talk to each other. Just play and have fun.”

Just play and have fun. That’s good advice, whether the team is 100 years old or just getting started.

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


*Schools/teams John has visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 112
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn
Preseason Rankings Arrive! Let The Season Begin! 8/11/2013
The first rankings of the 2013-14 school year are out, and congratulations to the state volleyball coaches association for being the first to email their rankings to me. This is a sure sign of the start of the fall season.

There are no surprises atop the three-class preseason volleyball rankings. Lakeville North (Class 3A), Marshall (2A) and Bethlehem Academy (1A) won state championships last season and they all stand at No. 1 in their classes as the 2013 season gets rolling.

To see the complete volleyball rankings in all three classes, check out the MSHSL Facebook page. Rankings in the other fall sports will also pop up on our Facebook pages as I receive them.

Let’s have a great year!