John's Journal
History Is Made By St. Cloud Christian Volleyball Team8/30/2012
CAMBRIDGE -- Nervous? Nope. Excited? Absolutely. That’s how Toria Gillson, a senior at St. Cloud Christian School, described Tuesday night’s historic volleyball match.

Not only was it the varsity season opener for the Warriors, it was the first varsity volleyball competition in school history. And that made it very, very special.

“I don’t really get nervous, I get excited,” Toria said afterwards. “And I was really excited.”

The first varsity match also was the first varsity defeat, but the 3-1 loss to Cambridge Christian at the Armed Forces Reserve Community Center in Cambridge was historic nonetheless. St. Cloud Christian is a tiny school, with K-12 students -- including a high school enrollment of 60-some kids -- learning together in a former St. Cloud elementary building.

“We’ve got a bunch of excited kids who want to be athletes and we try to find places for them,” said athletic director Paul Hastings. In most cases, places for St. Cloud Christian athletes are found through cooperative agreements with St. Cloud’s other, larger high schools: Apollo, Tech and Cathedral.

St. Cloud Christian’s first true “home” team was track and field, with the first varsity squad competing in 2007. Cross-country followed in 2009. The school’s most successful current athlete is McKenzie Holt, who placed fourth in last year’s Class 1A state cross-country meet, then last spring was second in the 3,200 meters and third in the 1,600 at the 1A state track meet. Holt is a junior this year.

The school’s volleyball program, which began in 2005, has been built on a steady diet of junior varsity and C squad competition.

“In the last couple years we felt we’ve been competitive against the JV and C teams we’ve been playing, and other coaches have said, ‘Hey, you’re ready for varsity,’ ” Hastings said.

On Tuesday in Cambridge, St. Cloud Christian had 10 enthusiastic varsity players dressed in purple uniforms, black calf-length socks and black shoes. The first game against Cambridge Christian was tied 20-20 before the home team pulled away for a 25-21 win. Cambridge Christian won the second game 25-23, St. Cloud Christian captured the third game 25-17 and the third game went to Cambridge 25-17.

The Warriors’ first varsity match lasted a little more than 90 minutes and was followed by nothing but smiles.

“I think the nerves kind of got to them a little bit,” said coach Karla Hultgren. “They were really excited about having the opportunity to play a varsity game and being in the game most of the time. I was really happy about that.”

When I asked Karla to compare this year’s team with what she saw when the program began in 2005, she smiled and said, “It’s a night and day difference. We had girls who hardly knew the game of volleyball. And now we have kids who play Junior Olympic volleyball, kids who have come through the ranks, and it’s really become a family. That’s what’s really cool.”

A major piece of becoming a varsity program was joining a conference. The Warriors are a member of the Christian Athletic League, whose other members are spread around the state and beyond. They include Cambridge Christian, Christian Life in Farmington, Faith Christian in Rochester, Mountain Lake Christian, Immanuel Lutheran in Mankato, Good Shepherd Academy in River Falls, Wis., and several schools in the Twin Cities.

The Warriors will play their next five volleyball matches on the road before the next historic step: their first home match. Since their school has a very small gym (“We’d be running into the walls all day,” Gillson said), the Warriors will play their home matches at St. Cloud Cathedral. The first one will be against Hope Christian School of St. Paul on Sept. 24.

“Thank goodness that Cathedral is so gracious to open their school to us,” Hultgren said.

Laura Knoblauch, a St. Cloud Christian senior, would have been overjoyed had the team won Tuesday. But she was happy nonetheless.

“I think we did really well,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud. Honestly, I feel better that we played really, really well in this game. I feel better about that than if we had won and it had been easy. We really stepped up and we did a good job.”

Knoblauch, who has been part of the volleyball program throughout her high school career, talked about the change in the last four years.

“It’s really different. We’ve improved so much. It’s such a blessing. I don’t have any words to describe it. We’ve improved so much and come so far. It’s so cool.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 19
*Miles John has driven: 800
(*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
New Award Will Honor Athletes Of The Week 8/29/2012
In partnership with Old Dutch and WCCO-AM 830, the MSHSL is proud to announce the Old Dutch High School Athlete of the Week award. Under this program, Minnesota high school athletes will be honored every week for their contributions as athletes, students and community members.

The athletes will be recognized on WCCO-AM 830 every Tuesday evening during the “Sports To The Max” show with Mike Max and every Wednesday morning during “The WCCO Morning News With Dave Lee.”

Old Dutch is the sponsor of the award. In addition to being honored on WCCO-AM 830, recipients also will receive a plaque to commemorate their achievements and be honored online by the MSHSL and WCCO-AM 830.

The first award winner will be announced on WCCO-AM 830 on Sept. 4-5. Athletes can be nominated by sending an email to MSHSL media specialist John Millea at jmillea@mshsl.org

Nominations should include the following …
--Student’s name, school and grade.
--Athletic accomplishments during the past week. Please offer detailed statistics.
--Information about the student’s academics and/or community involvement.
--If possible, include a phone number where the student can be reached (student’s cell phone is best) and a school photo of the student (the type of photo used in school yearbooks or graduation photos).
Veteran Journalist Brian Jerzak Joins The John’s Journal Team 8/27/2012
With the start of a new year of high school activities, we’re happy to announce the addition of a new member of the John’s Journal staff.

Brian Jerzak is a veteran reporter who will add his high school sports expertise to John’s Journal. Brian has been covering high school athletics in Minnesota for more than 10 years.

He has written about wrestling for The Guillotine publication and website for a decade, including coverage of the state wrestling tournament. For several years Brian worked as the main football writer and also covered basketball for MinnesotaPreps.com, a branch of Rivals.com. He has written about basketball, hockey and wrestling for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Hub websites, has covered the National Football League for GridironExperts.com, contributed college and high school wrestling stories for Intermat.com and college hockey stories for Collegehockeynews.com.

Brian is a native of Milaca, Minn., and a graduate of Saint Cloud State University. He lives in Apple Valley with his wife and two sons.
From Nine-Man to Class 6A, The Football Season Is Underway8/25/2012
I can summarize my Zero Week football experience in several ways…

--The gastronomical tally was one bratwurst, one hot dog, one hamburger and three Diet Cokes.

--Mileage? I drove 396 round-trip miles to Underwood for a Friday night nine-man game between the Wheaton/Herman-Norcross Warriors and Underwood Rockets, followed by a short 54-mile round-tripper to Hopkins on Saturday afternoon to watch the Class 6A Royals host the Episcopal Knights of Houston, Texas.

--Competitively, I saw 68 points scored along with turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and magnificent plays.

--Weather? Friday evening was picture-perfect in Underwood, with a nice breeze blowing across Otter Tail County. The conditions at Hopkins were a little on the damp side, with showers playing stick-and-move during the game.

What I will remember most, however, are a coach’s pregame words on Friday and the postgame statement of another coach on Saturday. They offer auditory bookends to a football weekend and shed a bright light on what our world of high school activities is all about.

Wheaton/Herman-Norcross coach Tony Thiel, whose team played in the Prep Bowl last season, has only two starters back this year. But every season is a new journey.

“They want to get back there (to the Metrodome),” Thiel told me before the Warriors met Underwood. “We’re not living on the laurels of last year’s team, we want to make our own identity.”

Things worked out pretty well for the Warriors, who beat Underwood 26-8.

The other bookend came after Hopkins defeated Episcopal 20-14 in a game that came down to the final play. The Royals led 14-0 at halftime before Episcopal scored twice in the third quarter to force a 14-14 tie. Hopkins quarterback J.T. DenHartog scrambled for a 41-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the game ended with Episcopal completing a long pass to the 3-yard line.

As Hopkins coach (and quarterback’s dad) John DenHartog talked to his euphoric players, he said this: “High school football is about making great memories. And after the season you’ll have a great memory.”

These two games were played in two distinct settings – one in a small town and one in a large suburb – but the essence was the same. After months of lifting weights, training and weeks of workouts, it was time to play for real.

THE FIELD IN UNDERWOOD is a lush carpet of nature’s green grass, with a row of small trees behind each end zone. The school grounds back up the home sideline, with a parking lot and a gravel road behind the visitor’s side. As the Underwood Rockets took the field for warm-ups – and whenever they made a great play – fans sitting in their cars honked the horns. That is a glorious signature sound of American small-town football.

Underwood principal and athletic director John Hamann said a handful of cars were parked in prime spots at 7:30 Friday morning. “People are absolutely crazy,” he said with a smile.

The Zero Week game in Underwood provided a prime scouting opportunity for teams who will face the Rockets and Warriors later this season. Only five other games were played within Minnesota’s borders on Friday, so nine-man coaches were thick in Underwood – carrying clipboards and notebooks, jotting down jersey numbers, diagramming plays and gathering gridiron intel.

Visiting fans are at a distinct disadvantage in Underwood, especially early in the season, because they are forced to squint into the bright sun as they watch the early action. By the time the sun said goodnight, the scene was enough to make a small-town native weep: young boys flipping footballs and chasing each other behind the grownup fans, who were standing along a single wire fenceline on both sidelines … two little girls sitting with their backpacks and candy, one stride behind the goal line … four older girls laying on blankets next to the scoreboard, which carries the logos of the local Lions club, a bank, a gas station and other supporters of the Rockets.

At halftime, with his team holding a 14-8 lead thanks to a short touchdown pass from Jake Rinke to Carter Thiel with one second on the clock, coach Thiel told his players, “What happens if they don’t score in the second half? We win.”

The prediction came true. Wheaton/Herman-Norcross did all the scoring in the last two quarters, leaned on impressive defensive footspeed and got the win.

“For the first time out I am very pleased,” Thiel told me at game’s end. “Underwood’s a quality football team, they’re going to win a lot of games. I’m very happy with the way we played.”

A PARKING LOT AT Hopkins was designated as “Handicapped and VIP Parking.” I snuck into that lot but made the rookie mistake of not bringing along a jacket or umbrella. Whenever rain began to fall, I scurried from the field to the press box. It was dry most of the time, but the 6A crowd at Hopkins was smaller than the nine-man crowd at Underwood the night before.

Episcopal is a private, coed school with about 300 male students. Due to conference changes (much like Hopkins and the other four Lake Conference teams), Episcopal was looking for a game to fill its schedule. Knights coach Steve Leisz is a 1984 Minnetonka graduate, and the parents of six Episcopal football players are Twin Cities natives.

The Knights flew in on Friday and had a walk-through on the artificial turf at Hopkins in the afternoon. Their postgame plans Saturday included a cruise on Lake Minnetonka, although the gloomy weather – and the last-minute loss – could have combined to dampen the mood just a but.

A group of Episcopal cheerleaders also made the trip, bringing along a pair of Texas flags. This was a rare sight: Lone Star flags flying over a Minnesota football field. The Texans also brought some star-studded athletes, including senior quarterback Austin Robinson (who saw several passes flutter off the fingers of receivers) and sophomore running back Tyreik Gray, whose cutting, leaping, 67-yard run to tie the score 14-14 was the play of the day … until young DenHartog’s second touchdown all but clinched the victory for the home team.

“We were just pumped to be able to play a team from Texas,” J.T. DenHartog said. “Everyone talks about how great Texas football is, and we came out with the mindset that we wanted to prove everyone wrong and not play for just Hopkins but play for every team in Minnesota. To prove that Minnesota is just as good, and now even better, than Texas football.”

J.T.'s father talked about the Royals hanging together when they could have folded, and how the experience will pay dividends down the road.

“At times we played really well and at times we showed that we’re pretty young and in the first game of the season we made a lot of errors, too,” the coach said. “But our effort was certainly there and I liked the way our team didn’t point fingers and didn’t get down when things didn’t go well. I liked how they stuck together and supported each other. It’s a fun group to work with and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this year.

“I think it shows if you do things right and support each other as teammates and work hard and try hard, good things happen. We tell the kids that message and they got to live it out a little today.”

Hard work in the offseason. Lessons learned on the practice field. And gratification now that the games are for real.

It’s going to be a great year.

--To see photos and a video from the weekend's football games, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 17
*Miles John has driven: 718
(*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
Football Season Has Arrived … I’ll See You At Underwood And Hopkins8/23/2012
The football season kicks off with eight Zero Week games on Friday and two on Saturday. I’m starting the season in grand style Friday, driving to Underwood to watch the Rockets play host to Wheaton/Herman-Norcross in a big Nine-Man matchup.

These are two teams with strong traditions. Underwood reached the Metrodome two years ago before losing to Cromwell in the state semifinals and Wheaton/Herman-Norcross played in the Prep Bowl last season, falling to Edgerton-Ellsworth 36-28.

Sixty-miles separate Wheaton and Underwood, and I’ll be making a 334-mile round trip for the game, heading there in the afternoon and returning to the Twin Cities afterwards. I’ll sleep fast and be at Hopkins on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game between the Royals and Houston (Texas) Episcopal.

I’ll combine the two games into a story that should be posted here Saturday evening, and photos from each game will magically appear on the MSHSL Facebook page. I’ll also be offering Twitter updates from both ballgames.

Here's the schedule (with last season’s records) ...

Friday, all games at 7 p.m.
Holy Angels (8-2) at Edina (5-5)
St. Paul Humboldt (0-8) at Columbia Heights (0-9)
Mesabi East (2-6) at Eveleth-Gilbert (0-9)
Minnetonka (8-3) at Arrowhead (Hartland, Wis.) (8-2)
Lewiston-Altura (5-5) at Cochrane-Fountain City, Wis.
Bertha-Hewitt (2-7) at Hancock (1-8)
Minnesota Valley Lutheran (4-6) at United South Central (1-8)
Wheaton/Herman-Norcross (12-2) at Underwood (7-3)

Saturday
Houston (Texas) Episcopal (7-3) at Hopkins (3-6), 1 p.m.
Russell-Tyler-Ruthton (3-5) at Pipestone (0-9), 7 p.m.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 13
*Miles John has driven: 268
(*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