John's Journal
There’s No Stopping Sauk Rapids-Rice Runner Matt Kruger9/18/2012
Matt Kruger is a high school athlete. That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter that the senior from Sauk Rapids-Rice runs on the junior varsity cross-country team. Or that he usually doesn’t finish among the leaders. Or that he is blind.

Matt Kruger is a high school athlete. A condition called retinitis pigmentosa may have gradually taken away his sight since he was young, but it’ll never get his determination or his desire to be part of the team.

“It’s important to him to be a part of something and a part of the school,” said Matt’s mother, Ann Kruger. “It’s been a very important part of his life.”

Matt also wrestles for the Storm, which seems a bit more understandable. But a blind runner, competing on cross-country courses that vary widely … that seems like a dangerous proposition. This is where Wade Cruser comes in.

Cruser, a former wrestling coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice, runs with Matt at most races (photo). They both hang onto a lanyard, which keeps them connected yet allows each to run freely. As they run, Wade guides Matt and tells him what to expect.

“I guess the way to put it is that I describe the course as best I can,” Cruser said at last week’s Lucky Lindy meet in Little Falls. “Today I was pretty much constantly trying to remind him, ‘OK, hills, hills, up and down, trust your footing,’ that type of thing.”

Other runners help Matt maintain his conditioning and fill in when Cruser can’t be at a competition. During practice, teammates grab the lanyard and take off alongside Matt. He views cross-country as a great way to stay in shape for wrestling, and he is indeed in great shape: lean, strong, muscular. He’s been running cross-country since seventh grade.

Yes, he occasionally falls while running. That’s something he takes in stride.

“This year it hasn’t happened but last year it was just about every meet,” Matt said. The result is “just like skinned knees and stuff.”

Sauk Rapids-Rice coach Marie Zeilenga said, “His mom, bless her heart, is totally accepting when he falls. That worries me, and he does fall. But he’s very confident in his running. It doesn’t even faze him.”

When Zeilenga (pictured helping Matt with his race number) became the Storm cross-country coach last season, she wasn’t worried about Matt’s ability to run, but keeping him safe was a concern.

“I’d say one of our biggest challenges as coaches right now is to fit him with the right person. Because there are limitations to what he’s doing but yet he’s totally capable. So it’s finding the right runner for him to make sure he’s safe out on the roads and out on the trails.

“It is a challenge and a blessing.”

Matt is a popular guy. His teammates greet him when they approach; “Hi Matt” is a common refrain around the Storm. And when he runs in a competition, it seems like nearly everyone watching calls him by name and shouts encouragement.

“Everybody knows who he is,” Cruser said. “There usually isn’t a section on the course where somebody isn’t yelling his name. He’s kind of a star.”

When the Luck Lindy race ended, other runners approached Matt and reached out to grab his right hand and shake it, telling him “Nice run” or “Good job.”

As Matt and Wade cooled down from their run, Ann approached with a bottle of Gatorade for each of them. The three chatted and laughed.

“He’s pretty quiet,” Ann said of her son. “At home he’s not so quiet. He will verbalize. He has expressed how it makes him feel good to be part of the team and do things like this.

“We are lucky. We really have an awesome school. They have really embraced him and we couldn’t ask for anything more. They are awesome at every level.”

Those good feelings go both ways. Matt’s coaches and teammates are there to support him and cheer for him, and Cruser is there when the starter’s pistol goes off.

“I enjoy coaching so I enjoy helping kids,” he said. “Matt wants to run, so let him run. He’s such a great kid, it’s hard to say no, it’s hard to not do anything you can for him.”

Matt Kruger is a high school athlete.

--To see a photo gallery of Matt in action, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 90
*Miles John has driven: 1,601
(*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
MSHSL Student Media Day With The Minnesota Twins9/17/2012
If you’ve seen the photo gallery on the MSHSL Facebook page, you already know what took place Saturday at Target Field. The Twins played the Chicago White Sox, with four members of the MSHSL Student Media program watching from the press box.

Actually, three students were in the press box and one was shooting photographs from field level, next to the Twins dugout. Yes indeed, it was an outstanding day.

The students attending the game were (from left to right in this photo) JoNathan Chartrand of Chisago Lakes, Nick Wagner of Ada-Borup, Zach Burnside of White Bear Lake and Jared Rubado of Brainerd. The Twins also provided their parents with tickets to the game at no charge.

Our group gathered at the Target Field media entrance at 10 a.m. – more than two hours before game time – and we were greeted by Chris Iles from the Twins corporate communications department (and a graduate of Eagan High School). After a quick elevator ride down a couple of floors, we were escorted into the Twins clubhouse, where Kent Hrbek was chatting with some of the current Twins.

Next was a private visit with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire in his office. He shook hands with the students and they asked questions; as the discussion went on, the topics ranged from baseball to college football to the military.

After that the students were served a fine pregame meal in the Twins dining room, where they all shook hands with Hall of Fame pitcher and Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven. Then came a trip to the field, where the grounds crew was preparing for the game.

From there the group was escorted to the press box. Like the rest ofTarget Field, the press box is among the finest in all of sports, and we had a great spot from which to watch the game. Although we didn’t stay in the press box the whole time …

That’s because we had other people to meet. The students were taken to the Twins Radio Network booth, where play-by-play announcer Cory Provus read their names and schools on the air. Analyst Dan Gladden handed his headset to JoNathan Chartrand, who sat in Dan’s chair for an inning.

The booth next door is where Twins general manager Terry Ryan watches the games, and that was the next stop. Ryan shook hands with the students, talked about what he looks for when watching baseball and answered questions from them.

After watching the remainder of the game from the press box, the students returned to Gardenhire’s office for his postgame session with the media. As the media members left, the students remained for another private chat with the manager. He asked them, “Did everybody have a good time today?”

The answer was easy. Thanks to the Minnesota Twins for an unforgettable experience.

--The students are writing about their experience, and their stories will be posted here on John's Journal.

--See more photos on the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 80
*Miles John has driven: 1,667
(*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
A Lesson In DeLaSalle Victory: Always Be Ready9/14/2012
Reid Travis, the starting quarterback at DeLaSalle, is a physical specimen who stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 240 pounds. The multi-talented junior is being recruited by Division I colleges in both football and basketball.

Billy Hart is a 5-foot-11, 165-pound sophomore backup quarterback for the Islanders. And in DeLaSalle’s wacky and wild 35-28 victory at St. Croix Lutheran on Friday night, guess which quarterback was the hero?

Yes, this was one for the little guy. Hart threw touchdown passes of 70 yards to Aaron Warren and 53 yards to Jareid Combs in the fourth quarter, with the second score clinching the decision between teams ranked No. 1 in Class 4A (DeLaSalle) and No. 1 in 3A (defending state champ St. Croix Lutheran).

The Tri-Metro Conference game in West St. Paul had a little of everything: turnovers, penalties, big plays and key moments. Travis was ejected in the third quarter for throwing a punch after being tackled along the sideline. In stepped Hart, with St. Croix Lutheran leading 20-13.

“We came through with a gutty performance,” Islanders coach Sean McMenomy said. ”Reid getting thrown out kind of fired up the guys, and they said, ‘Hey, we can do it on our own and show what DeLaSalle football is all about. We’ll buckle down and do whatever it takes to win.’ ”

On Hart’s first snap he handed off to Chris Williams, who raced 63 yards for a touchdown. The kick by Andrew Ajaluwa made it 20-20 heading into the fourth quarter. DeLaSalle (3-0) went ahead 27-20 on Hart’s 70-yard hookup with Warren, but the Crusaders (2-1) responded when Lincoln Hochmuth threw to Cody Sticha on a 9-yard fade route; St. Croix went ahead 28-27 when Jackson Goplen ran in the two-point conversion.

The Crusaders stopped DeLaSalle on fourth-and-four and St. Croix had the ball on the Islanders’ 24 with 3:40 left. But then – turnover/big play – the Crusaders fumbled and DeLaSalle recovered. Shortly thereafter, Hart found Combs for the final touchdown of the night, then the same pair connected for the two-point conversion.

Everything was sealed when GeVelve Gandy, who had scored the first touchdown of the game on a 30-yard run, intercepted a Hochmuth pass with 61 ticks remaining.

So Billy Hart, where you nervous?

“Just a little bit,” he said. “But all summer I was in a passing league with these guys.”

Aha, there’s a big piece of the winning formula. While Travis was busy with summer basketball, Hart was the guy running the offense during summer passing league action.

“He’s the one who throws all summer long, so he’s had plenty of reps throwing it and it obviously showed tonight,” McMenomy said. “He’s fearless. He’s our workhorse in JV, he came in and he was fearless tonight.”

Hart said he didn’t see the play that took Travis out of the game.

“No, not really. They said, ‘Just be ready.’ I got the call because they said Reid was out. I just had to step up and be a player.”

And in the the young quarterback’s view, what was the biggest play of the game? Surely he would choose either of his two long scoring passes, right? Wrong.

“It was my first handoff, to Chris, when he scored the touchdown,” Hart said. “That really turned the momentum around.”

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

*Schools/teams John has visited: 80
*Miles John has driven: 1,529
(*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
Winning Is Fun, But The Team Comes First In Shakopee9/13/2012
The biggest cross-country news of the young season was delivered at last week’s Titan Invitational in Montgomery. The headline: “Maria Hauger Finishes Second.”

This was newsworthy because the Shakopee senior and three-time Class 2A state cross-country champion had not lost in Minnesota since the state meet of her eighth-grade year. The surprise came via talented Blake junior Clare Flanagan, who finished 18 seconds ahead of Hauger in Thursday’s 4,000-meter race. Flanagan is the defending state champion in Class 1A

As I talked with Hauger after the race, she expressed great respect for Flanagan and a knowledge that the season has barely begun. A year earlier in Montgomery – the only race where the two stars (pictured here; Hauger in red) have competed against each other -- Hauger had finished more than a minute ahead of Flanagan. Hauger’s time Thursday was 14 minutes, 13.3 seconds, her slowest in two years.

“She’s really gotten better,” Hauger said of Flanagan. “Whatever she did over the summer, good job.

“It just motivates me more. I’m not slowing down, right now I’m really in the high-mileage stage. Once I start dropping down I think my times will get better.”

But there is more to this story than who reached the finish line when. There’s no doubt that being a successful athlete is important to Hauger, but her role as a teammate is equally as important. Hauger and fellow seniors Alli Lynch and Winona Rachel have been team leaders for years now, since they were eighth-graders and helped Shakopee finish sixth at the Class 2A state championships. The Sabers have finished eighth, 11th and and fourth at state in the last three years.(Pictured, left to right, are Rachel, Hauger and Lynch.)

“We have three seniors and they’re all fabulous,” said coach Mark Neu. “All three were state entrants, all three were on the team when we went to state the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time.”

Hauger is the undisputed star, the rarely beaten runner who gets all the publicity. But beyond the headlines, the story of the Shakopee seniors is very special.

“It’s a team,” Neu said. “Team first. That’s our philosophy. Maria’s job is to get that number one finish. And she tries not for herself but for her team. Winona’s job is to beat the No. 2 on the next team, and that’s how they do this.”

In the 24-team girls varsity race in Montgomery, Shakopee won the team title. Hauger finished second, Winona was sixth, eighth-grader Tess Misgen was 10th, Lynch was 24th and junior Alyson Walker was 50th. The Sabers finished one precious point ahead of second-place Prior Lake, so every last step by every runner was important.

“I get emotional about it, but this is a group of three seniors that has done it together,” Neu said. “I say that all the time but it always comes out ‘Maria this and Maria that’ … because she’s one of the best in the state, ever. But it’s a team. Maria has meant a lot to the school, to the city, she’s meant a lot to me. I have the utmost respect for all three of those girls. They never don’t give their all; practice, school, family, friends. I don’t know how they do it.”

During the 2011-12 school year, the Sabers’ top five runners combined for a grade-point average of 3.98.

“They’re not just running, they do it all,” Neu said. “They have given me more than I give them.”

Misgen, the youngest member of the varsity squad as an eighth-grader, said the older girls were instrumental in her decision to try cross-country. Misgen didn’t know who Hauger was until two years ago.

“I saw her once at a basketball game and I decided I wanted to try it and see how good I would do,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. And I love having someone to look up to on my team. She tries so hard to do good and I want to be like her and try just as hard, because she gives it her all.

“I like being able to run with someone like that, too, because not very many people get a chance to run with someone on that high level. She always gives advice, and oftentimes I’ll go up to her for even more.”

People watch Hauger and her teammates run and finish strong, but it’s what happens behind the scenes that is a true testament to the Sabers’ team-first attitude.

One more example: The captains traditionally clean the bus when the team returns to Shakopee from competitions. But Hauger, Lynch and Rachel didn’t need to be named captains to take on that responsibility; they’ve been cleaning the bus since they were in eighth grade.

“Maria, Alli and Winona have cleaned that bus every day since the first race,” Neu said. “Maria wins the state championship, she cleans the bus. That’s the kind of kid she is.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 58
*Miles John has driven: 1,609
(*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