John's Journal
A Dedication To Dance At Prior Lake1/15/2013
By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal Correspondent

Eleven years ago they didn’t exist. Ten years ago they were funded exclusively by passionate parents. Three years ago they were struggling to place ninth in a 10-team competition. Last year they missed state by one place. Despite being in one of the toughest sections in the state, they have a great chance this year to make their first trip to state. The story of the Prior Lake High School dance team is one of an extremely dedicated group of parents, coaches and athletes.

Parents came to the school board 11 years ago, wanting to start a varsity dance team. The school board OK’d it with one condition – the parents raise all the money for year one.

The parents did it and with the support of athletic director Eric Rodine slowly built the program from the ground up. Although the school is still not able to fund the program one hundred percent, the parents’ financial burden has been reduced over the years.

The program struggled in the early years, but that all started to change when head coach Cristi Falkenberg took over. Falkenberg danced in high school in Lakeville and while still in college started her coaching career. She taught dance at Just for Kicks in St. Cloud, was made director in Mora and coached at Lakeville North – all while in college. After graduation she started her own Just for Kicks studio in Prior Lake and was still a coach at North until becoming the head coach at Prior Lake.

Falkenberg was just what the program needed.

“There was not a whole lot of structure with the program,” said Falkenberg. “There were too many people involved with running the program.”

One of this year’s senior captains – Jenna Gregor – saw the new coaching staff’s impact right away.

“Cristi has been an amazing coach. She shaped me into the dancer and athlete I am now. She has done that for all our dancers. She knows how to talk to each of us, how to get us to work hard and how to set goals. All our coaches are strong dancers and have helped us as a team.”

“(The coaching staff) is really good at telling us ways to improve as individual dancers and as a team,” continued Gregor. “They are good at motivating us and they always know what we need to do to succeed. They are always pushing us at practice.”

The new coaching staff also started to change the mentality of the dancers.

“Many of the girls didn’t realize dance was really a team sport, not just an individual sport,” said Gregor. “Dance is the ultimate team sport, because if you are not all together, then you are not going to succeed.”

Falkenberg’s approach didn’t sit well with everyone right away.

“I am a planner, I am a rule follower,” she said. “I came in with a strict plan and this is how I do things. Prior Lake was a little shocked by that, they had never had that. They had never had someone that said here is the schedule; this is how it is going to be. At first they were a little skeptical of me. Who is this girl who is coming in and changing the rules, the schedule, she’s adding a handbook, practices are mandatory, there is summer stuff going on. I think it was a big shock at first.”

The more she was able to establish herself, the more her approach started to catch on.

“Last year, after our first competition,” said Gregor, “we didn’t do well and right after that it clicked with us. Before our next competition we all worked together and we were able to place third the next week.”

“Going into my second year it was a breeze,” said the third-year head coach. “We were placing at competitions and were doing well so people started to trust me. They could see it was working, the girls were getting stronger, we have a coach that cares about us, that wants to see the girls truly improve and the program improve.”

Falkenberg and her staff made an effort to get the word out about the team. They did a lot of things in the community, were in parades and games. The publicity helped increase the team’s numbers from 24 the fall before she took over to around 50 in two years. Soon the ultimate example that the new coaching staff was making their mark with the athletes took place. The dancers were asking the coaches to give them more to do. Instead of weight training two days a week, the dancers insisted on three days a week.

The organic desire to keep improving launched a summer boot camp. It is a workout that would seem fit more for a football team than a dance team, but one that the dancers wear as a badge of honor and has helped get them even closer to their goal of a state tournament berth.

“The girls were assigned teams and we would do relay races and a whole bunch of different things like going out on the football field flipping the big tractor tires. They loved it,” Falkenberg said. “When I asked the girls what they liked about dance team, it was boot camp. They are basically doing games, but it is conditioning them and they are competitive and want their team to win.”

With powerful Eastview and Burnsville both in the Lakers’ section, third place – and a state berth – has been the goal this year. They know they can do it, especially in the Jazz category. Dance competitions are split into two styles, Jazz and Kick. Kick is usually the style you might see at halftime of a football game and is easy to pick out because of the long kick lines. Jazz is based more off flexibility and effective turns. Both styles competed Saturday at Lakeville South in the “South for the Winter” dance competition.

While I will not claim to be an expert, it was clear to even a novice like me that the Lakers were one of the strongest teams at the competition. It was easy to see the difficulty level of their routine was above most of the teams I was able to watch. Their routine was not only difficult, it also appeared very crisp. With 13 teams competing in Kick and 14 in Jazz, the judges agreed, giving the Lakers a tie for third place in Jazz as well as another third place in Kick.

“I said (to the team) the other day, ‘Do you know how close you are to State? Do you know how close it is? State is sitting in the palm of your hands. You just need to grab it and lock onto it and just take it,” said Falkenberg.

“Our team has our goals set high,” said Gregor. “We work every day to try to accomplish them. Hopefully we will be able to make it to state in February.”
Confidence And Speed: Nothing Stops Waconia’s Joe Dertinger 1/11/2013
The conditions for Alpine skiing during Friday’s Buck Hill Invitational in Burnsville were less than perfect: the snow was wet and sloppy and the racers had trouble navigating the course. But Joe Dertinger is used to dealing with – and beating -- adversity.

The junior from Waconia High School is no different than any other athlete on the slopes. He sails downhill, skiing around each gate with precision and powering through the finish line. What he does on the slopes each winter – as well as on the baseball field when the weather turns warm – is pretty astonishing, considering that he walks, runs and skis with a prosthetic right foot and has only two fingers and a thumb on each hand.

“When this all started we were afraid of what he couldn’t do, and he’s shown us that there was nothing to worry about,” said Joe’s father, Mike Dertinger. “We’re very proud of him. He’s taught us a lot, too.”

Joe was born with a disfigured right foot and fingers; his twin sister Johanna was born with no similar issues. After surgery when he was 14 months old, he was fitted with a prosthetic ankle and foot at Shriners Hospital and he hasn’t slowed down since.

As his mother, Sue, explained, “He’s not afraid to try.” She described his activities as occasionally “a little too fast, a little too daredevil, a little too much.”

Waconia is part of a cooperative Alpine ski team with Mound Westonka. Friday’s competition was a long day, with frequent interruptions while crews worked on maintaining the condition of the snow. It was less than perfect, but simply being able to ski makes Joe smile.

“It’s independence, freedom, it’s a lot better than sitting around all day,” he said between runs. “You can go fast.”

Going fast is what Joe really likes. While on a recent ski trip to Colorado, he wore a video camera while racing down the slopes.

“He brought back the video of himself going 65 miles an hour down the hill, and that freaks mom right out,” Joe said with a smile.

Joe began skiing at 5 years old through Courage Center, which has several locations in the Twin Cities and Duluth. His love of the sport has given him opportunities to train and compete with organizations like the Disabled Sports USA Alpine team and the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

After Joe's most recent races at the National Competition Center (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colo., he is in the top 80 in the international paralympic rankings among standup skiers and top 12 among U.S. men's standup skiers in slalom, giant slalom and super g. He won a gold medal in the 18-under giant slalom and may soon be a member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team and possibly compete in the Paralympics.

“With all the skiing I do, racing against able-bodied people and disabled people, it’s just a lot of fun,” he said. “And when you do good, that gives you confidence that you take other places.”

On the slopes, wearing boots and gloves, Joe looks like every other skier. Occasionally, someone will notice a patch on his jacket from the National Sports Center for the Disabled or similar organization and ask, “Do you ski with them? Are you a coach of something?”

When he replies by saying, “No, I’m an amputee,” the response is usually along the lines of, “Oh, cool!”

“That’s a lot of fun, to get that reaction from people,” Joe said.

Mike and Sue say they have never heard their son ask, “Why me?” Joe was the target of what they called “grief” from other kids when he was in elementary school and into middle school, but they knew a corner had been turned when something special happened.

“A kid on the bus asked him where he could buy a prosthetic leg,” Sue said, “because he wanted one like Joe.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 413
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,542
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

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

*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 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 …


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.


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!


*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 John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn