John's Journal
Things Are Always Looking Up At Burnsville Ice Center1/25/2013
The Burnsville Ice Center is one of the iconic hockey arenas in Minnesota, with two Olympic-sized rinks covered by a beautiful wooden domed ceiling. Read Brian Jerzak’s story about the home of the Burnsville Blaze by clicking here.
Basketball Is A Family Game At Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted1/23/2013
Howard Lake is a basketball town, and the Gagnons are a basketball family. Three generations inhabit the current Lakers of Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School. Hubert Humphrey and a nun also are part of our story … and we’ll get to that in a bit.

Steve Gagnon, 64, coaches the boys ninth-grade basketball team. His son Chad, 40, is the boys varsity coach and grandson/son Cole is a ninth-grader on the junior varsity and varsity squads. The family routine was as usual Tuesday evening when the Lakers played host to the Maple Lake Irish in a Central Minnesota Conference game(s).

Steve coached the ninth-graders in a 6 o’clock game at the middle school in Howard Lake. At the same time, a mile out in the country to the south, Cole played in the JV game at the gleaming, four-year-old high school. All three Gagnons (it’s pronounced “gon-you”) were together when the varsity game tipped off; Chad coaching, Cole on the bench and grandpa sitting in the bleachers behind the team.

Before game time, Steve unwrapped a fresh sleeve of paper cups for the Gatorade jug. He wheeled a giant baskeball storage bin on and off the court for pregame and second-half warm-ups. He also drives the team bus for road games; he has been doing that – and driving a regular school bus route – for 35 years. Oh, he has keys to the gym, too. And that’s of vital importance.

“We’re kind of a basketball family. I was kind of a basketball rat,” said Steve, who some around town still call “Gunner,” a nickname coined during his sharpshooting days at St. Mary’s Catholic school in Waverly. “It’s very rewarding. We spend a lot of time in the gym. And that’s all we do.”

Chad said his father’s influence is one of the main reasons he became a coach.

“It is, it really is,” he said. “He’s been coaching for I don’t know how many years. I’ve grown up around basketball my whole life, and our whole family has.”

The previous boys head basketball coach, Merrill Skinner, is a Hall of Famer who coached the Lakers for more than 30 years and piled up more than 500 victories. Steve was on Skinner’s coaching staff; Chad played for Merrill and was an assistant for a few years before taking over as head coach five years ago. Chad previously was the head coach of the girls team.

“We had a great head coach around here for a long time,” Chad said. “My dad worked under Merrill and I was fortunate enough to play under him, so I was in the gym with my dad all the time. It’s great growing up in this community. Howard Lake is a basketball community. People show up and people care about our high school teams.”

After Tuesday’s game, a 67-60 Lakers victory, the last people in the gym were all Gagnons, including Cole and his three younger siblings. Their proud grandpa helped rebound missed shots.

Gunner nearly never became the Gunner who would score more than 1,400 points in his high school career at St. Mary’s. He was a self-admitted “hothead kid” who quit playing basketball in sixth grade. But then came an intervention by a higher power.

“One of the nuns said to me, ‘You know, you’ve got some ability and you should stick with it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t like it anymore.’ She told me to give it another week and I did. It turned out OK. It was real good advice.”

The late Hubert Humphrey -- mayor of Minneapolis, U.S. senator and vice president -- had a home in Waverly. While Humphrey was vice president under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, Gunner and his buddies liked to sneak onto the Humphrey lawn and take a dip in the swimming pool.

As an adult, Steve operated the municipal liquor store in Waverly for 35 years and played a lot of hoops, often five or six nights a week. His competitive basketball career came to an end just two years ago, after he filled a spot with some younger buddies. The guys said they needed Gunner as their seventh or eighth player, but when he arrived at the gym he was the fifth player.

“I played the whole game and I played pretty well, but I couldn’t tie my shoes for two days. And my wife said, ‘That’s it. I’m not tying your shoes anymore. Give it up.’ ”

Chad -- who finished his high school career in 1990 with more than 1,000 points -- is grateful that his father is there for the Lakers ninth-grade players, but Steve does a lot more than just coach.

“It’s a key grade where you want the fundamentals taught and he does a great job with those kids,” said Chad, who played basketball and baseball at Hamline University and now teaches sixth-grade math. “The other thing is he does a lot behind the scenes; opening the gym, he’s driving the bus, at our summer tournaments he fills in if I can’t be there, he does a lot of little things that people don’t see.”

Steve has thought about spending the winters in a warmer climate, but the lure of grandkids and basketball is keeping him in his favorite place: the gym.

“I just love being in the gym, watching kids grow up,” he said. “I should have been retired many years ago, but they keep you young. You can get old pretty fast if you don’t do anything.”

--See a photo gallery from Tuesday's night game on the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 419
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,821
(*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
Marcus LeVesseur Takes Over Hopkins Wrestling Program1/19/2013
When the wrestlers at Hopkins High School ask their first-year head coach about his athletic accomplishments, they usually are curious about mixed martial arts. And yes, Marcus LeVesseur has a solid history in that sport, compiling a record of 22-7 since going pro in 2003.

If they want to see some eye-popping numbers, however, the Hopkins wrestlers need to do a little research on their coach’s mat career. The Royals might be too young to remember what LeVesseur did in high school and college, so here’s a short summary…

--LeVesseur was a four-time state champion in high school, winning titles at Minneapolis Roosevelt in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and Bloomington Kennedy in 2001. Four wrestlers have won five state titles and LeVesseur is one of only 12 with four championships. With an overall high school record of 218 wins and 12 losses, he ranks 21st on the state’s all-time victories list.

--He compiled a record of 155-0 at Augsburg College and won four NCAA Division III titles, becoming only the second wrestler in NCAA history to complete a four-year undefeated career. LeVesseur also was a first-team all-MIAC quarterback at Augsburg.

Any further questions?

“Every day, every hour,” LeVesseur said, “one of them is asking me, ‘When’s the next fight?’ The kids ask me about finding a video online and I say, ‘No, I’m not worried about fighting right now. My only focus is coaching wrestling now.’ ”

With his mixed martial arts career on hold during the wrestling season, LeVesseur is in the very early stages of building what he hopes will become one of Minnesota’s premier programs. He had been an assistant coach at Hopkins for five years before former coach Pat Marcy resigned after last season, so he is well aware of the task at hand.

“I knew the team, I knew the structure and really kind of knew what to expect,” he said. “First and foremost, I think the team I have is the perfect challenge for me to build this program. In five or 10 years I would like to see this program represent Hopkins at the state tournament, year after year after year.”

The challenge is getting from here to there. LeVesseur, 30, is working on building feeder programs in the community, but with a twist. In many locales, wrestling starts with preschool and young elementary-age kids. LeVesseur is doing the opposite, starting with high school kids, then going into junior high and older elementary kids.

“It’s a hard challenge,” he said. “We try to see, first and foremost, which kids have relatives who are young and we try to get them in and bring their friends in. Typically, you go from elementary up. We’ve been working in reverse. We’ve been getting into the junior high level; we have a pretty decent junior high program. Now we’ve got to get into that fourth, fifth and sixth grade, then second, third and fourth. Once we get down to those grades, we’ll be rocking and rolling.”

Hopkins has qualified for the state team tournament only twice, in 1989 and 2011. This year’s team is extremely young, but that’s where building a program always starts.

“Our team is very green,” LeVesseur said. “We graduated 14 seniors last year, and they averaged nine or 10 years of experience. What I have this year in average years of wrestling experience is probably about three. We have a lot of first-year, a lot of second-year, a few third-years.”

The task at hand was evidenced in Thursday’s Senior Night home dual against Eden Prairie. The Eagles defeated Hopkins 51-18. Neither team is ranked among the top 10 in Class 3A by The Guillotine and Hopkins has no individuals ranked in the top 10 at any weight class (Eden Prairie has two).

The Royals’ focus, however, is not on things like rankings. It’s on building, working, learning and competing.

“(LeVesseur) keeps us battling, and that’s important, “said Matt Parker, a junior who wrestles at 285 pounds. “Right now wins and losses don’t really matter to us, it matters how hard we fight.”

Hopkins activities director Dan Johnson has been impressed with what he’s seen from the new head coach.

“Every year as an assistant he kept getting a little stronger and a little more invested and he was doing a nice job with the kids. I was pleased that he was interested in becoming a head coach,” Johnson said. “He’s really worked at it, he’s done all the coaching preparation, asked a lot of questions and is trying to figure out what his coaching style is. The kids say they’re in good competitive shape and they’re working hard at becoming better wrestlers. Hopefully all those things will come together.”

LeVesseur, who works as a para-professional at Hopkins High School, has a few credits left to complete his degree in health and physical education. When the wrestling season ends he will resume training for his mixed martial arts career. His most recent competition was in early December.

“Right now there’s not a whole lot of training,” he said. “I’m working full-time and coaching, which is like a second full-time job. There is honestly no time for me to give my all to the sport so MMA is on the back burner right now. When the season’s over I’ll still be working full-time but I’ll have more time to get in competition shape.”

His wrestlers ask him about mixed martial arts, and once in a while one of them will ask about his high school and college wrestling career.

“Some know about it, some don’t,” he said. “It’s hard to really know if they thoroughly understand what it means. If you didn’t know about it prior and no one told you, you’re not going to hear it from me.”

Johnson called LeVesseur “a very sincere young man. I think the kids understand that he’s genuine with them, honest with them, will tell them straight. Obviously he knows wrestling and he wants what’s best for the program and the kids. That makes all the difference in the world.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Eden Prairie-Hopkins match, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 417
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,656
(*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
Uniting Coaches, Community And Athletes At St. Anthony Village1/16/2013
(Editor's note: St. Anthony Village High School has been named a national "program of excellence" by Coach and Athletic Director magazine. The school was featured in the magazine, and we are reprinting an edited version of the story here.)

--St. Anthony Village High School shares the credit for creating one of the nation’s best sports departments

By Kevin Hoffman, Associate Editor, Coach and Athletic Director magazine

It’s homecoming day at St. Anthony Village High School, and it’s only fitting that the football team’s biggest game comes on an unseasonably frigid fall afternoon. After all, unusual climate is a Minnesota hallmark.

Hundreds of fans scream with excitement as their Huskies trounce a weak conference foe. Their eyes are fixated on the action, but it’s what is taking place off the field that makes St. Anthony Village the distinguished model for athletics it is today.

Parents comprise the “chain gang,” clutching cold beverages as they scurry up and down the sidelines. Other community volunteers take tickets and sell snacks as coaches and administrators greet visitors or oversee the day’s activities.

It’s this support system, partnered with the school’s commitment to student growth, that earned St. Anthony Village recognition in Coach And Athletic Director’s 2012 Interscholastic Sports Program of Excellence. (In this photo, from left: Wayne Terry (principal); Summer Minnich (activities and athletics assistant); Troy Urdahl (activities, athletics and facilities director); and homecoming king and queen Quentin Stille and Mary-Clare Couillard join Coach And Athletic Director associate editor Kevin Hoffman.)

“It’s the people,” says Troy Urdahl, the school’s director of activities, athletics and facilities. He firmly believes that without the staff and community backing, the department’s initiatives would be next to impossible to achieve.

“It’s not because we have more money—it’s certainly not that. It’s because we have great people to work with. They all believe in the same philosophy, and they’re all pulling in the same direction.”

Urdahl’s theory is accepted throughout the department, and the credit is not only awarded to the staff and parent volunteers. It’s also shared with the students who sincerely believe that lessons taught through athletics are the path to a brighter future.

St. Anthony Village’s coaches embrace that dual role. Few of their actions are more telling than the development of a new book club where members of the sports department discuss literature that helps them evolve as coaches and role models for their student-athletes. (Pictured is a tug-of-war during the Homecoming pepfest.)

The first book club meeting was held in October, shortly after sunrise before most students arrive on campus. More than 20 people attended the voluntary session, and Urdahl hopes it grows from there. The group’s first book was Joe Ehrmann’s “Inside-Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.” It sparked discussion about coaching styles and even inspired some to tell personal stories about their role models as student-athletes and how those lessons helped shaped the leaders they are today.

“We hear about all the great things that can come from sports, but you need to be purposeful for that to happen,” Urdahl says. “If you’re not purposeful and you’re not really making an effort to see those good things through to the end, the opposite might happen.
“The book club is just one example of us collectively, purposefully trying to move ourselves forward in that direction.”

Sports captains each summer are treated to a “Captains Clinic,” which includes all teams in the school’s conference. The annual event is designed to educate athletes about the true meaning of being a team captain. Urdahl and school principal Wayne Terry say there is more to team leadership than earning the prestigious captain’s title, and they want to equip students with the confidence to emotionally motivate those around them and handle difficult situations.

Terry adds that there is a mandatory online captain’s certification course that team leaders must complete. The four-hour class has the same purpose—education.

The Captain’s Clinic has become a staple with the school’s athletic conference, but Terry says there eventually came a moment when he questioned whether the opportunity should be extended to other campus leaders—band, student council, speech, etc. The school was determined to create leaders, and it didn’t want to limit that learning opportunity to just those who played sports.

Terry says he brought the idea back to Urdahl, who ran with it. That led to the creation of the Leadership Congress, which pulls together St. Anthony Village’s most influential students and mentors them to become exceptional citizens outside the school.

It’s difficult to determine whether the school’s concept works, but administrators here sincerely believe the evidence shows it has merit. It’s hard to argue, especially considering the record of student-athletes, who boast a GPA of 3.126—significantly higher than the 2.753 carried by the school’s general population. (Pictured is football coach Todd Niklaus.)

Parents and community members are widely pleased with St. Anthony Village’s success. After all, it’s difficult to call for change when your school consistently ranks among Minnesota’s best for GPA and ACT scores. But there are still ways the school can extend a helping hand.

Each sport is required to commit to one community service act each year. The football team hosts a clinic with the Special Olympics, preparing them for an annual flag football game that this year is hosted by the University of Minnesota.

One of the most difficult aspects of working with the community is fostering a healthy relationship with parents—one that’s often distorted by conflicts involving their children’s role in various programs.

Niklaus has a specific method for bridging that gap, and it involves letting parents play “Monday evening quarterback.” Following each game, Niklaus holds a one-hour meeting on Mondays and welcomes parents questions, ranging anywhere from playing time to questioning his in-game calls.

He provides honest feedback and sometimes video evidence to back his decisions. He says that open relationship clears the air and can even lead to special bonds with some of the parents.

St. Anthony Village goes further in encouraging parents to get involved in a responsible way by asking them to take part in a “Role of the Parent in Sports” course offered through the National Federation of High Schools. The online class takes just 30 minutes, and any parent who completes it earns a $5 credit applied toward registration fees.

“Our parents are very involved, and they’re a part of what makes our athletics and activities so great,” Urdahl says. “I don’t know many places where you could rely on volunteers as heavily as we do. It’s just the quality of people that we get to work with every day.”

Support is widespread, but it all comes back to the people under St. Anthony Village’s roof that make it such a special institution. Students say they have a unique trust and bond with teachers and coaches that they’ve come to appreciate. It pays dividends in the classroom and the playing field.

“Coaches bring up the point that homework and school is always more important than practice,” says senior Dan Zeller, a member of the football and golf teams. “Since we’re a small program most of us aren’t going to go on to bigger things in sports, so we’re going to go professional in other things in life. That’s what we’re going to focus on.”
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.”