John's Journal
Size (Or Lack Of) Is No Factor For Menahga’s Tarah Cleveland1/11/2013
Menahga senior Tarah Cleveland doesn't allow a lack of height to stop her from being a basketball star. Read Brian Jerzak's story by clicking here.
Hitting 600: New Prague’s Gunderson On Verge Of Milestone 1/9/2013
First things first: Ron Gunderson doesn’t want anyone making a fuss. But that’s just too bad, because the New Prague High School girls basketball coach – the only coach the Trojans have had since the program began in 1976 – is deserving of a fuss. A great big fuss.

Gunderson doesn’t worry about records or career victory totals or any other mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with today’s team and the next game. As he told me after the Trojans lost at home to Red Wing on Tuesday night, “We’ve got to look forward, not backward.”

There is plenty of reason for people in New Prague to look ahead with glee. Gunderson is on the cusp of his 600th career victory, which would make him only the fourth girls basketball coach in Minnesota history to reach that mark (five boys basketball coaches have done so). Gunderson’s record is 599-285.

Shortly after the start of Tuesday’s Missota Conference game, it became pretty obvious that victory No. 600 would not come easy. While New Prague’s shots rolled off the rim with tremendous consistency, Red Wing shot the lights out, constructed a 14-point halftime lead and took home a 61-51 victory. The Wingers’ star was senior Tesha Buck, who made eight of 12 three-pointers and scored 31 points. New Prague’s Annie Dittberner had 15 and Lexi Ruehling 14.

“They did what they do and they did it well,” Gunderson, 59, said of the Wingers (11-2), who are ranked fifth in Class 3A and certain to jump ahead of the third-ranked Trojans (9-3) when the next rankings are released by Minnesota Basketball News. The next opportunity for Gunderson’s 600th win will come Friday night at Chanhassen.

When it happens, Gunderson is likely to simply shrug his shoulders and pay tribute to all the players he has coached through the decades, as well as the support his teams have received from the community. And New Prague fans have had plenty to cheer about: The Trojans have won 12 conference championships and played at state tournaments in 1992, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. They were 3A state champs in 2000.

The state’s all-time leader in girls basketball coaching victories is New London-Spicer’s Mike Dreier with 778, followed by Myron Glass of Rochester Lourdes with 700, Randy Myhre of Barnum with 626 and Gunderson. Myhre retired after last season and the other three are still piling up victories.

Gunderson is a graduate of Minnetonka High School and Mankato State University. He was hired out of college at New Prague, where he teaches seventh-grade science at New Prague Middle School. The principal there, Tim Dittberner (Annie’s father) is a former coach who has seen Gunderson in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.

“He would never be a coach without teaching,” Dittberner said. “He’s a teacher first and he’s one of our best teachers, he’s a leader on our staff. He says teaching middle school is the fountain of youth. And he just loves working with the kids.”

One of those kids, in fact, was the person who informed Gunderson that he was one victory away from 600. A student walked up to him Tuesday morning and said, “Coach, I’m going to be at your game tonight and see if you can get your 600th.” Mr. Gunderson’s response: “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t know,” he said. “Maybe our kids knew and that was a little added pressure, and Red Wing knew and they weren’t going to let it happen.”

Like Gunderson, Tim Dittberner has coached a state championship team; his LeSuer boys won the 1986 Class A title and also went to state in 1985 and 1988. More recently, Dittberner filled in as boys coach in New Prague when coach Jeff Gravon was undergoing cancer treatments. After Gravon died in January 2009, Dittberner remained as coach and led the Trojans to state in 2009 and 2011.

One of the reasons the fans are anxious to celebrate Gunderson’s milestone is because of the sadness everyone went through when Gravon passed away. Those feelings returned in December when longtime Trojans gymnastics and golf coach Matt Shetka – who won state titles in both sports – died of an apparent heart attack while shoveling snow.

If a few tears are shed when No. 600 is achieved, they will be tears of happiness for another beloved coach.

“He’s got great rapport and very high expectations, and the kids love him,” Dittberner said. “He’s very demanding but he’s got a great sense of humor. I’m so happy to have him.

“He can adapt to the kids that he has so well. This team is not loaded with talent but they play so well as a team. He’s made the adjustments that needed to be made to be successful. He’s so darn competitive, and the kids make that commitment and success breeds success. My daughter loves playing for him.”

By the time Annie Dittberner was born in 1995, Gunderson was nearing 20 years on the job.

“He’s one of the most intense people I know,” Annie said. “He really gets after it in practice and it really shows on the court. He really stresses defense, that’s kind of what we’re all about.”

The first MSHSL state girls basketball tournament was held in the fall of 1974, with the first winter season a year later. Gunderson has seen the sport develop from the beginning.

“The game has changed, the athletes have changed, it’s an entertaining game now,” he said. “The kids are bigger and stronger. When I started, if there was a 6-foot kid on a team, and there might have been one in the conference, that was a post and she didn’t move so well. Now that’s a point guard. So many things have changed for the better and it’s been really fun to see this thing evolve.”

I asked Gunderson what his career might have been if not education. In a pretty good sign that he landed in the right profession, he could not come up with an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t. This is just something I think I always wanted to do. To this day, I don’t know what else I would do. My two older brothers became life science teachers. I don’t know if that made a difference, maybe it was in the genes.”

As with all longtime successful coaches, consistency is important to Gunderson. For example, his top assistant coach, Mike Tschimperle, began coaching eighth-graders in New Prague in 1980 and joined the varsity staff a few years later.

“Ron was probably a little more intense back then,” Tschimperle said. “He’s still intense but I think he’s learned to control his intensity. He’s always been a believer in working hard, the blue-collar type athlete. He’s a team person. Off the court Ron is pretty quiet. He doesn’t like the limelight.”

No he doesn’t, but he’s going to have to put up with some celebrating after the Trojans’ next victory.

The storyline will be different when Gunderson retires from teaching and coaching (which he has no plans to do, he said). He will go out with no fanfare.

“He’s told me when he’s done there’ll be a note in the box and there’s no goodbye,” Dittberner said. “That will be a sad day. And I’m not talking coaching, I’m talking teaching; it will be a sad day.”

For now, however, a big celebration awaits.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 393
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,500
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Let’s Celebrate A Great Example Of Two-State Sportsmanship1/6/2013
I was sitting courtside at Target Center on Saturday, watching the four boys high school basketball games in the Timberwolves Shootout. The games were well-played and the competition intense, but in the midst of all that I received an email that needed to be shared.

The email, from Marshall High School activities director Bruce Remme, describes a great example of sportsmanship by a team from Sioux Falls, S.D., that played in Marshall on Friday night. I posted the letter on the MSHSL Facebook page a few minutes after reading it, and the response from our Facebook friends was tremendous.

The letter is below, followed by the Facebook comments. These are the kinds of positive stories that need to be shared, enjoyed and celebrated …

John,

We had a great experience last night that I thought you would appreciate.

Last night (Friday 1/4/13) we hosted Sioux Falls Lincoln in a border battle boys basketball game. It was a well-played, physical high school basketball game that ended in a 81-65 victory for the home team. However, it was what happened after the game that made the night memorable.

Immediately following the game, we began cleaning up the gym so we could get set up for our annual gymnastics invitational Saturday morning. As we were busy working, the players from Lincoln began filing out of their locker room and into the hallway where they were gathering while waiting for the rest of their teammates to finish up. As the Lincoln players began noticing our gymnasts, parents, custodial staff start the parade of mats and equipment across the hall from gymnastics practice facility into the main gym, something wonderful happened. The Lincoln players pitched in.

After just having lost a hard-fought game, the players from Sioux Falls Lincoln set down their bags, shed their coats, and helped move all of our gymnastics equipment into the gym. They did so unsolicited and with smiles on their faces. It was one of the classiest gestures I’ve had the pleasure to witness by any high school team.

The team from Sioux Falls Lincoln left Marshall with their first loss of the season and a couple cases of PowerAde as a thank you for their muscle. But what they left here was far greater. They left an outstanding impression of kindness and a great display of sportsmanship. They helped remind us all that high school sports provide more opportunities than competition alone. Hats of to the Lincoln Patriot players and coaches for being first class on and off the court.

Thanks for the opportunity to share. Have a great weekend.

Bruce

Here are the Facebook comments ...

Very cool. Thanks for sharing these stories John.

No stat sheet will reflect this kind of assist.... kudos to those young men (coaches and parents too) from Sioux Falls.

Well done! Thanks for sharing

Pure. Awesome.

That is really awesome! Good for them!

Hats off to Sioux Falls Lincoln!!! Losing isn't easy, but they saw what was most important which is helping others. They are to be commended for being great players and more importantly great human beings.

Those are the stories that should make the news! Kudos to the coach and parents for doing a good job raising great kids!

Thanks for sharing, we need to hear more of these kind of stories

Thanks for sharing this. Class act all the way.. Talk about winners!

Those young men have certainly been parented and coached "right." We are all winners for having this shared with us! Thanks for sharing....that is a wonderful story.

Hats off to the parents, coaches and players, you are a class act and so very impressive. It's not all about winning and losing, it's about the life lessons learned along the way.. Way to go, well done.

How impressive! Kudos...these young men obviously have had some great role models and their community and school should be VERY proud.

Talking about spreading the love! Nice!

Great story!!

What great sportsmanship! These are the stories that the media needs to share and broadcast.

Thanks for sharing. Seems like we only hear bad things. This made my day

Awesome!!! I wish more kids were like this

This is wonderful! True sportsmanship and most important character, the coaches, parents, and most importantly the players from SF Lincoln can be proud of themselves, this is what it is all about~ total class act!

That's my alma mater! So proud!!!

Love it! I graduated from there too. Good people in Sioux Falls. It was a great place to grow up!

Very cool!

Now that sounds like a community I want to live in! Oh wait, I will be!

Sweet!

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 391
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,402
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Braemar Arena: The Heart of Edina Hockey1/6/2013
Since 1965, Braemar Arena has been the home of Edina hockey. To read Brian Jerzak's story about one of Minnesota's legendary arenas, click here.
Zach Gabbard: The Inside Story As Only A Mom Can Write It 1/3/2013
Every high school sports fan in Minnesota knows the Zach Gabbard story … or at least we think we do. The Perham basketball player collapsed on the court nearly two years ago, and his recovery and emotional return to his team provided memories that none of us will forget.

But there is much more to Zach’s story, especially from the first frightening days after his cardiac episode at the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton gym and hospitalization in Fargo. Several times, doctors told Zach’s family that he would not surivive. They were asked if they wanted to see Zach one last time before he died.

But he did survive, and Zach’s story is told in a book written and self-published by his mother, Meridee Gabbard. The title is fitting: “You’re Never Promised Another Day.”

Writing the book and reliving those times was emotional for Meridee, who told me, “I cried the whole time I was writing. I was reliving it and crying.”

She wrote most of the book during the summer of 2011 but waited for the 2012 state tournament before finishing it. Perham won the Class 2A state championship in 2011 and finished third in 2012. In 2011 Zach surprised everyone by leaving a rehabilitation facility in St. Paul and joining his team for state tourney games at Williams Arena and Target Center. In 2012 he was back in uniform at state, watching the action from the bench.

Zach is now attending Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls and is a student manager for the men’s basketball team.

“He has some short-term memory problems and we’re working on that with him,” Meridee said. “Basketball has always been a passion for him.”

The book is a day-to-day diary of sorts, based largely on a journal that Meridee began keeping during the ordeal and postings on Zach’s CaringBridge website. The details are sometimes frightening …

“During the late afternoon hours Zach underwent his first open heart surgery to have the VAD inserted – this would allow his heart to rest. Some sort of cold thermal blanket, which reminded me of a silver air mattress, was placed on top of Zach’s body to keep his vitals cold; he remained in critical condition. Sometime after the surgery we were told that his vitals had weakened and he wasn’t going to make it. The doctor asked us if we wanted to go see him one last time. Preparing ourselves for the worst, Steve, Courtney and I went to talk to Zach and told him how much we loved him and that now was not his time. The three of us left the room sobbing beyond belief. Within minutes after talking to Zach the doctor came and told us that his vitals had improved and he was doing better!”

Meridee survived a brain tumor in 1982 and she leaned on her own experience when her son’s life was in danger.

“During those first few days when the doctors kept saying, ‘He’s not going to make it,’ for me, it was my brain tumor; ‘He IS going to make it.’ I knew he could hear us.”

Meridee told me that writing a book was something she never thought she would do, but the process was therapeutic for her.

“There were a lot of people during this experience who said, “You’ve got to write a book. This is too miraculous.’ I thought they were nuts. … It was never on my bucket list, but it’s off there now. I wrote it for people who follow Zach but also I wanted to write it for Zach when he’s ready.”

A Facebook page for the book has been created; search for “Zach Gabbard Book” on Facebook. Meridee has already sold several hundred books. The cost is $14.99 plus shipping and they can be ordered by sending an email to Meridee at mgabbardzg3@hotmail.com.

It’s well worth it.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 383
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,357
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn