John's Journal
Out Of Nowhere, A Shooting Star Is Born 3/14/2013
The first star of the Class 1A girls state basketball tournament was an unlikely candidate for a roar from the fans and a series of postgame interviews. But that’s part of the magic of these things, and Upsala junior Kaelin Smieja was exactly that – magic -- on Thursday at Williams Arena.

Here’s the setup: coming into the Upsala Cardinals’ first-ever trip to the girls state tournament, Kaelin – who is not a starter -- had not exactly been a pillar of offense. Her scoring average was 2.53 points per game and (key statement alert) she had made seven three-point shots all year.

So what happened in Upsala’s 66-51 loss to Bethlehem Academy? That’s right, the kid lit up the Barn. She finished with a game-high 23 points and she made seven of 10 three-point shots. Not only did she tie her three-point total from the previous 30 games, she also tied the state tournament record for the most three-point baskets in one game. She now shares that mark with Esko’s Angela Grussendorf, who hit seven bombs in 1988 against Kenyon.

Kaelin had heard an announcement about something or other – and saw a standing ovation from the giant Upsala crowd -- after she fouled out with a minute to play, but she wasn’t sure of the specifics until I went through the details with her after the game.

“That sounds pretty cool,” said the newest member of the state tournament record book. “I knew I could make threes. When the first one went in I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty awesome.’ And they kept going in.”

Coach Paul Pelzer said he wasn’t as surprised by what Smieja did as where she did it.

“She’s a really good shooter. But for a bench player to do that in this atmosphere, that’s the surprising thing.”

The defeat put a mild damper on the Cardinals’ celebration, but there were still plenty of smiles.

“A few tears are falling,” Pelzer said outside the locker room. “But they know they gave it their all. They did what they could. I’m so proud of those girls; they will remember this for a lifetime.”

The coach’s daughter, senior Aimee Pelzer, had 16 points, seven assists and three rebounds in ending one of the finest careers in the history of Minnesota high school basketball.

Aimee came oh so close to becoming the first girls player to reach the 1,000-plateau in three categories. She finished with more than 2,600 points and more than 1,000 assists; had the Cardinals won Thursday (ensuring two more games) she might have cracked the 1,000-rebound mark, as well. She finished with 978.

The only boys player to reach 1,000 in those three categories was 2008 Ellsworth graduate Cody Schilling.


Bethlehem Academy’s quarterfinal victory Thursday continued what has been a great year for the Faribault school. The Cardinals’ football team advanced to the Class 1A Prep Bowl last fall before losing to Mahnomen and the volleyball team won the 1A state championship.

Nine of the girls basketball players also played volleyball, and senior hoopster Jessie Mathews was an all-state and all-state tournament volleyball player last fall. She is the school’s career girls basketball leader with 1,679 points and also is the career leader in assists and steals. She will play basketball at St. Mary's University in Winona.


The Minneota Vikings have played in three previous state tournaments, losing in the quarterfinals each time. So when they defeated Mountain Iron-Buhl 60-53 in Thursday’s 1A quarterfinala they found themselves in uncharted waters.

“Usually we’re moping around and figuring out where we’re supposed to go,” coach Chad Johnston said, smiling. “It feels good to get that monkey off our back.”

The Vikings will play Minneota in Friday’s semifinals at Target Center at noon, followed by Ada-Borup vs. Win-E-Mac. Ada-Borup defeated two-time defending state champ Maranatha Christian 70-53 and Win-E-Mac beat Mankato Loyola 59-49.


Bethlehem Academy coach Tammy Filzen has large cards that she holds up to call plays. My favorite was one that read: “2 Whales.”

Maranatha Christian also used signage, including “Box,” “Blitz” and “Motion High.” But nothin’ beats a pair of whales.


--With Upsala’s loss, all three first-time entrants in the state tournament are finished. In Class 2A, Pine Island and BOLD were defeated Wednesday.

--To see photo galleries from the tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.


*Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 8 for the tournament, 46 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 528
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,489
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
Some Survive And Advance, While One Coach Says Farewell3/13/2013
The girls state basketball tournament is a four-day affair that is always filled with stories of personal and team triumphs, and every so often someone says goodbye to the game.

On Wednesday at Target Center, St. Paul Central coach Willie Taylor (pictured) coached his final game with the Minutemen. Taylor, who has been a high school coach for 20 years (the last 15 at Central), announced before the tournament that he was stepping down to pursue college coaching opportunities. And the end came when the Minutemen lost to Osseo 63-56 in the Class 4A quarterfinals.

Asked what he will remember most from his time at Central, Taylor, 53, didn’t talk about basketball. He talked about young people getting an education.

“The big thing for me is every year I’ve been at Central, we’ve had kids going to college,” he said. “Not all of them played college basketball but they went on to college.”

Taylor coached Mounds View to the state tournament in 1994, and at Central his teams played at state in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and this year. Central won state titles in 2007 and 2008. He leaves the game with a 336-84 record.

“Central is me,” he said. “It’s part of my life. I love Central. I just think it’s time for me to try something else.”


Hopkins, the top-seeded team in Class 4A and the two-time defending state champion, rolled past St. Michael-Albertville 77-58 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The first word out of Royals coach Brian Cosgriff’s mouth when meeting the media afterwards was “ugly.”

He talked about how his team didn’t shoot overly well (40 percent), had too many turnovers (27, the same number as the Knights) and made less than half their free throws (23 of 28).

“But the bottom line is you’ve got to survive and advance,” he said. Hopkins will face Osseo in Thursday’s semifinals at Target Center. The Orioes beat St. Paul Central 63-56 Wednesday.


When Bloomington Kennedy and Eastview meet in Thursday’s 4A semifinals at Target Center, there will be secrets. The teams met twice in South Suburban Conference play, with Kennedy winning 57-49 on Jan. 2 and Eastview evening the score 66-46 on Feb. 15.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Kennedy coach Quintin Johnson, whose team beat Anoka 66-48 Wednesday. “Eastview is sitting there waiting for us for the third time.”

After Eastview defeated Rochester Mayo 54-40, Lightning coach Melissa Guebert said there will be no surprised in the rematch.

“We really respect each other,” she said. “Our kids enjoy playing against them and they enjoy playing us. It will be a really good matchup.”


Braham senior Rebekah Dahlman already was the state’s all-time career scoring leader, but she added another big number Wednesday in a 79-42 victory over BOLD in Class 2A. Dahlman had 40 points, which gives her 5,003 for her career.


After Mayo lost to Eastview at Target Center, the next game was between Pine Island and Providence Academy in Class 2A. Mayo coach Rich Decker and Pine Island coach Rick Canton go way back; Canton played for Decker when Decker was starting his coaching career at Kenyon in the late 1970s. Canton also was an assistant under Decker Bethlehem Academy in Faribault for one year.

Decker is no stranger to state tournament, at least on the boys side, having brought Kenyon to state in 1980 and Rochester Lourdes in 1999 and 2000. He was inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2003 and resigned from coaching and retired from teaching at Lourdes in 2004 after 20 years there and a career record of 527-203. Until taking over the Mayo girls team this season, he had spent eight years as coaching B squad boys at St. Charles.

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction to see the team be successful and see the school be successful,” Decker said. “You’ve got to be really proud of our kids. They got a lot better as the year went on, and that’s what you want.”


When I asked St. Michael-Albertville coach Kent Hamre how this year’s Hopkins team compared to past Hopkins teams and the great teams in recent memory, his answer was, as they say, outside the box.

“You’d have a better chance of comparing them to NSIC teams,” he said, referring to the NCAA Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. “They would be a top five team in the NSIC.”


Two teams Wednesday forgot to read the pre-tournament information packet, which spells out that each team must bring its own basketballs for warmups. So if you noticed teams using only three balls (borrowed balls) to loosen up, you know which teams were guilty.


In the Class 3A quarterfinals at Williams Arena, top-seeded Richfield had plenty of fans cheering for the Spartans. Thirty-eight buses carrying 1,800 K-12 students made the trip to see the Spartans defeat Hill-Murray 54-35.

Pine Island, which lost to Providence Academy 33-22 at Target Center Wednesday evening in 2A, brought the whole town on nine school buses for fans, three charter buses and another bus for the band. And in 2A at Williams Arena, New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva fans filled seven coach buses and four school buses. The Panthers defeated Pelican Rapids 62-49.


Leo the Lion from the Hopkins Royals is one of the greats. And the St. Paul Central Minuteman is equally awesome.


--Defending state champions: 4A Hopkins (two-time), 3A DeLaSalle (two-time), 2A Providence Academy, 1A Maranatha Christian (two-time).

--Faith Patterson was the coach of the last team to win three consecutive titles; Minneapolis North in 2003, 2004 and 2005. She now coaches DeLaSalle, which is seeking to match that three-year championship run.

--Upsala in Class 1A and Pine Island and BOLD in 2A are making their appearances in the state tournament.

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


*Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 4 for the tournament, 42 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 528
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,489
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
Thursday's Games In Girls State Basketball Tournament3/13/2013
The girls state basketball tournament will continue Thursday with games in three classes; all except 2A. Check out the schedule by clicking here.
The Hockey Fans’ Take On The State Hockey Tournament3/11/2013
The history, the fans, the tradition, the spectacle ... the boys state hockey tournament has something for everyone. Brian Jerzak talks to the fans at the nation's premier high school tournament. Read his story by clicking here.
A Remarkable Championship Game That Will Be Discussed For Years 3/9/2013
Saturday’s Class 1A boys hockey state championship game was one that will be talked about for years to come, for varying reasons. For one, it was St. Thomas Academy’s last game in 1A before opting up to Class 2A next season, and the Cadets capped their time in the smaller class with a 5-4 victory for their third consecutive title and fifth in eight years.

Another reason was the way the game ended. Hermantown led 4-2 late in the second period before the Cadets scored three goals in the third, including the winner by Tommy Novak with six seconds to play.

But most of all, chatter will center around decisions by the officials in the final stages of the game. After a penalty was called on Hermantown, the Cadets scored the winner on a power play. The Hawks and their fans will aways believe that the officials should have called a similar penalty on St. Thomas Academy.

“I didn’t think we should have had a penalty on the one at the end,” Hawks coach Bruce Plante said, speaking in a measured tone. “And then we had the same type of thing at the other end. I thought they should have made a call right there. Their guys wraps our guy up and skates around. That’s the way I saw it, anyway.”

The Hermantown players were absolutely crushed after losing in the state championship game for the fourth year in a row and to the Cadets for the third straight time. During the postgame ceremony, there was no Hermantown rush to accept the runner-up trophy. Senior captain Jake Zeleznikar took it, skated to the bench and handed it to one of the coaches. While the Hawks sat in a silent locker room, the trophy was on a table outside the closed locker room doors.

Few teams ever play in a state championship game, doing so four years in a row is nearly impossible … and losing all four years is pure heartbreak. Especially when you’re playing the best game of your life and leading 4-2 in the final period.

“I loved our effort,” Plante said. “I thought it was the greatest effort ever. It was great. They played hard and played well. I don’t think we can play any better than that.”

In the locker room, he told his players that he loved them. He told reporters, “This is probably the most difficult loss I’ve ever had in my life.”

Plante and Cadets co-coach Greg Vannelli both showed their emotions afterwards, but when discussing massively different topics. Plante talked at length about the public school vs. private school debate, while Vannelli had tears in his eyes when asked about the fact that so many people outside of St. Thomas Academy don’t care for the Cadets.

A reported asked Vannelli a clearly satirical question: When you move to 2A, will you miss all this love and affection? The coach fought back tears and said simply, “I’m proud of our guys. It’s tough. We had a target on our back all year and to come through like this was really great.”

Next question: Do you get tired of wearing the black hat all the time? Vannelli’s reply: “We just focus on the positive things. I can’t control what other people think. I’m just proud of our guys.”

A question to Plante included the word “hatred” for the Cadets, and he quickly jumped on that interpretation.

“I have no hatred for the Cadets. And that’s another misconception that I heard on TV yesterday, that the coaches don’t like each other. That’s not true. I have nothing against the Vannellis, they’re great coaches, they do a good job of what they do. I don’t buy this private school philosophy, that’s all. I don’t think you should be able to get kids from Wisconsin and Missouri and all over Minnesota and make a team and play single A hockey. I don’t think it’s right. And I certainly don’t think it should be in single A hockey. We’ve been so unbelievably fortunate to be able to be in this championship game four times, it’s amazing, really.

“You saw how they played. These guys can’t play any harder than that. We don’t have three first lines; they have four. We just can’t pull guys like that. And I’ll tell you something else; this year I had nine parents, kids, (who sent) emails who wanted to move to Hermantown and play for us. You know what I tell them? ‘Stay there and play with the kids and do your best there and make everyone in your community proud.’ That’s what I tell them.”


--Hermantown's initial goal against St. Thomas Academy was the first goal scored against the Cadets in five-plus postseason games. At that point, St. Thomas Academy had outscored its last nine opponenets 80-3.

--Before games, players stretch, jog and otherwise limber up in the open spaces underneath the Xcel Energy Center stands. Before the 1A championship game, I walked past the official’s locker room and saw one of the officials – wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers – jumping rope. It’s all about preparation.

--Cheap, unclassy shot by the St. Thomas Academy students, who chanted “Fire Bruce!” – a personal reference to Plante. Behavior like that is embarrasing to their school and their alumni.


CLASS 1A: Hermantown’s Chris Benson was the recipient of the award.

CLASS 2A: Ryan Lundgren, Duluth East.


CLASS 1A: Matt Colford, Breck; Colton Poolman, Tommy Hajicek, East Grand Forks; Alex Funk, Rochester Lourdes/Stewartville; Neal Pionk, Chris Benson, Travis Koepke, Adam Smith, Hermantown; Jack Dougherty, Wyatt Schmidt, Matt Perry, David Zevnik, St. Thomas Academy.

CLASS 2A: Meirs Moore, Alex Toscano, Phil Beaulieu, Duluth East; Jacob Dittmer, Moorhead; John Dugas, Zach LaValle, Sam Becker, Mitch Slattery, Hill-Murray; Parker Reno, Andy Jordahl, Connor Hurley, Dylan Malmquist, Edina.


--Breck 3, East Grand Forks 2: The Mustangs scored all three goals in the second period and defeated the Green Wave in the third-place game. Tommy Hajicek scored both goals for East Grand Forks.

--Duluth Marshall 6, Rochester Lourdes 5: The Hilltoppers finished fifth by winning a game that saw six goals in the first eight minutes. Connor Flaherty and Matthew Klassen each scored twice for Marshall.


--Duluth East 7, Wayzata 3: Alex Toscano and Phil Beaulieu each scored twice for the Greyhounds as they beat the Trojans in the third-place game.

--Moorhead 5, Eastview 2: The Spuds survived 37 minutes worth of penalties and eight Eastview power-play opportunities to win the fifth-place game at Mariuccu Arena.


*Diet Coke Count: 5 for the day, 16 for the tournament, 38 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,439
(*During the 2012-13 school year)