John's Journal
A Lucky Stick Named Gandalf, Familiar Champs And New Stars6/8/2012
It’s an 85-mile drive from Klas Field at Hamline University in St. Paul to Caswell Park in North Mankato. Wonderful things happened at both places Friday and I enjoyed the heck out of the day, spending the morning at the state track meet before boogeying down to Mankato for the three state championship softball games.

I saw veteran athletes continue to dominate the track scene, I saw a young sprinting phenom whose name will surely become famous before her prep career is over, and I saw a softball team rally around a stick. No, not a softball bat but a stick. Let’s start there...

NEW ULM’S BIG STICK

To the girls on the New Ulm High School softball team, the stick is known as Gandalf. The only Gandalf I know of is a character in J.R.R. Tolkien's novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I’m making an educated guess that the New Ulm girls saw the stick and immediately compared it to the staff carried by Gandalf (portrayed by Ian McKellen) in the movies of the same names.

Gandalf is a good-luck charm, there’s no doubt about that. And the Eagles needed a little luck Friday, when they very nearly lost to St. Anthony Village before rallying for an eight-inning victory.

New Ulm trailed 5-4 before tying it 5-5 in the top of the seventh on an RBI single by Katie Frost. The teams went to the eighth inning with that score and New Ulm made the top of the eighth count. They loaded the bases with one out and went ahead 6-5 on a passed ball. And then came a big magical Gandalf moment: Brittany Hoffman hit a long fly ball that bounced off an outfielder’s glove before dropping beyond the fence for a home run.

It was a 9-5 game, and nerves tingled on both sides when St. Anthony Village loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth before New Ulm got the final out.

New Ulm coach Kristi Andersen Loose said the result came in “typical Eagle fashion. The girls come out like rock stars, get behind maybe a little bit, but they don’t lose confidence, they don’t lose faith, they just keep coming back. You never know how it’s really going to happen.

“They came through and they did it. It wouldn’t have been a state championship win if it would have happened any other way. It had to be a come-from-behind victory or it just wouldn’t have been in Eagles fashion. What a great team to coach. I’m proud of them and they make me look so good.”

Then came the key line of questioning: What’s with the stick the girls were carrying around and passing to each other during the postgame celebration? The coach explained.

“At the beginning of the season we were at practice and they found this goofy-shaped stick. We had this infatuation with sticks; they found sticks and they’d bring them, playing music on them and making goofy noises out of them.

“One of our players, Liz Guggisberg, said, ‘Why are you messing with those stupid sticks. I have some pretty cool sticks at home; my dad whittles these sticks.’ She brought this majestic Gandalf and the girls were like, ‘Oh my God, this is better than anything we’ve ever had!’ ”

The Eagles have rallied around Gandalf all season, giving it special treatment when things are going good and hoping it will help when they aren’t.

“They know it’s a goofy little thing,” the coach said, “for them to smile and relax and take their mind off the game a little bit.”

TRACK STARS, OLD AND NEW

Most of Friday’s events at the state track meet were prelimaries, setting up Saturday’s lineup of championship events. But some events were finals on Friday, and familiar names were seen everywhere.

One state record fell when junior Jessica January of Richfield broke her own mark in the 100-meter hurdles. She led the Class 2A prelims with a time of 14.32 seconds; her previous record was 14.33. She will gun for her third state title -- and maybe another new record -- in that event Saturday.

Another current state record-holder is Park senior R.J. Alowonle, who set a state mark in the 300 hurdles earlier this spring. He almost broke the record in the 2A 100 hurdles Friday, winning the prelims in 13.88 seconds; the state record is 13.85, set by Rick Schroeder of Owatonna in 1981. Alowonle led the prelims in the 300 hurdles Friday and won a state title in the triple jump.

St. Francis junior Maggie Ewen (pictured) won the 2A discus for the third year in a row and Andover senior Thomas Anderson won the 2A boys shot put; both are state record-holders. Shakopee junior Maria Hauger won the 2A 3,200, as she did in 2010, Minneapolis Southwest’s Tatyana Pashibin won the 2A girls high jump for the second year in a row and Lakeville South’s Lee Bares did the same in the 2A boys pole vault.

And here’s a new name, one which you will want to remember: Wensia Johnson. She is an eighth-grader from Alexandria whose performance Friday offered a glimpse of what could become a legendary career.

Johnson came within a whisper of the state record in the 2A girls 100 meters. She led the prelims with a time of 11.74; the record is 11.73, set by Windom’s Heather Van Norman in 1986. Johnson also had the fastest time in the 200 prelims and helped Alexandria advance to Saturday’s finals in the 4x100 relay. Who knows what she has in store for Saturday, not to mention future years?

And here’s a name that was not very familiar prior to last basketball season: Carlie Wagner. If you recall, the sophomore from New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva set the hoops world on fire in March, setting a single-game state tourney record with 48 points in the third-place contest and also setting an overall tourney record with 112 points in three games.

In Friday’s Class 1A state track competition, Wagner won the high jump championship with a height of 5 feet, 6 inches.

Saturday will be a track-only day. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

TOURNEY TIDBITS

--It was a bit warm in Mankato on Friday, and the heat even affected some electronic hardware. A fellow from Maple Grove was using an iPad to track the 3A championship game statistics, but the device was overheating. The guy peeked into the small travel trailer that serves as tournament headquarters and asked if the ceiling air-conditioning unit was working. It was (barely) and he held up the iPad in a serious search for cooler air. It seemed to help … a little.

--A special shout out to the softball coach who said to me, “I love you on Twitter.” Right back at you, coach.

--To see photos (and a fun video clip) from the state softball tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

--Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 13 for the spring tournaments.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 663
*Miles John has driven: 8,337

--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
History Is Made And Longtime Sebeka Coach Enjoys Every Minute6/7/2012
NORTH MANKATO – State tournaments are always filled with good stories. One of the best tales here at the state softball tournament is one that resounds with longevity, dedication, love and plain old hard work.

Sebeka is making its first appearance at the softball tournament, and everybody around town was pulling for coach Diane Pettis to finally get here. She has been a teacher and coach at the school since 1976 and has coached softball, volleyball, cross-country and track … but had never taken to a team to a state tournament until now.

Diane is the kind of person who always has a bounce in her step, but she’s been a little extra giddy since the Trojans qualified for state.

“Oh my gosh, what a feeling,” she said Thurday before Sebeka met four-time defending champ New Life Academy in the Class 1A quarterfinals at Caswell Park. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve come down and watched the years that I’ve been coaching softball. And to be part of this now, it’s just an experience. And what a venue. This is wonderful.”

Pettis has come close to state tourney berths in the past, but as Sekeba athletic director Josh Haag said, “She’s knocked on the door a few times but she’s always had it shut in her face, until this year.”

Yes, this year has been special. The Trojans brought a 21-4 record to state, capped by a somewhat surprising victory over New York Mills in the Section 6 championship game. Sebeka trailed 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning when Pettis had a little talk with the players.

“I said, ‘Girls, we’re not going to hit a home run, we just need singles.’ ”

Soon thereafter, with one out and two runners on base, freshman Natalie Stiles belted a walk-off home run. All of a sudden, the Trojans were headed to state.

Pettis said, “Everybody looked at each other like, ‘What just happened?’ It was goosebumps.”

Or as senior infielder Jessica Lillquist explained, “Natalie bombed a home run and it was unbelievable.”

Pettis is a native of Bemidji and graduate of Bemidji State. Her first teaching job came in Sebeka all those years ago, and she never left. That’s the sign of a pretty good fit.

“It’s my first and only job,” she said.” In two years I was going to go back to school, but I never left.”

She has coached softball for 16 years while teaching physical education and health from the start of her career.

“I started out coaching volleyball, basketball and track and field. Then over the years it’s just evolved; it went down to two (sports), then it went down to three with junior high. About eight years ago I said we needed a young person with volleyball so I just took softball. I could have retired a couple of years ago but I’m still having fun.”

Junior pitcher Brett Brockpahler said getting the coach to state is a big, big deal.

“Yes, very much so,” she said. “She’s wanted it so bad. It’s exciting, it’s a great feeling.”
Pettis has been teaching and coaching in Sebaka longer than Haag has been alive. The athletic director said, “Diane’s a fun one to work with. And when it comes to these girls, it’s all about doing what’s best for them. She really has them at heart and goes out of her way to help them out and make sure they succeed.”

The Trojans lost a 2-1 decision to New Life Academy, but that did little to dampen the coach’s enthusiasm.

“The kids were kind of nervous batting probably more than they should have been,” Pettis said. “We batted tight. But I can’t fault our effort; we came to play and we played. I’m still excited.”

TOURNEY TIDBITS

--When Stillwater wrapped up an 11-0 victory over Farmington in Thursday’s Class 3A quarterfinals, winning pitcher Hannah Heacox had no idea that she had just become part of state tournament history

Heacox threw the 33rd no-hitter in tournament history and struck out 10 batters. But she was totally unaware of the no-hitter until it was announced via the public-address system.

“I had no idea,” she said. Had she ever pitched a no-hitter before? “I don’t remember. I don’t think so.”

--When New Ulm Cathedral defeated Red Lake Falls 10-0 in the Class 1A quarterfinals, the state’s all-time leader in career softball coaching victories increased that number once more. Cathedral coach Bob Mertz, in his 33rd year, is now 672-120. His teams have been to 13 state tournaments and have won six championships.

--One of the day’s heroes was Cloquet senior Kayla Masessa. She hit a two-out, three-run, walkoff homer in the bottom of the seventh inning to lift the Lumberjacks past Mound Westonka 4-3 in the 2A quarterfinals.

--To see photos from the state softball tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

--Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 9 for the spring tournaments.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 643
*Miles John has driven: 8,162

--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
Lacrosse Announcement Is Exciting News For Minnesota Players6/6/2012
This is a big week for lacrosse in Minnesota, with the girls and boys state semifinals and championship games taking place at Chanhassen High School. The week’s biggest lacrosse news, however, came when Augsburg College in Minneapolis announced it will begin fielding an NCAA Division III varsity women’s lacrosse team in the spring of 2014.

There are currently no NCAA men’s or women’s lacrosse programs in the state, and lacrosse enthusiasts hope that Augsburg’s decision will spark similar announcements in other schools. Augsburg is a member of the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and most of those colleges currently field club teams for men and women.

“It’s awesome,” said Rachel Aiken, girls lacrosse coach at Chaska/Chanhassen and president of the girls lacrosse coaches association. “The club level here is very competitive and has done wonders for our sport but it still doesn’t have ‘NCAA’ next to it, which is really important.”

In 1995 Augsburg became the first college or university in the Midwest to sponsor a varsity women’s ice hockey team. Lacrosse will become Augsburg’s 21st varsity sport and 11th for women. The addition of women’s lacrosse is expected to add 25 to 30 female student-athletes to the college. That fact was exciting to coaches of the teams playing in the girls state lacrosse tournament.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Eden Prairie co-coach Judy Baxter, whose team defeated Apple Valley 11-2 in Wednesday’s semifinals. “It’s a step in the right direction for women’s lacrosse here in Minnesota. We are so excited, and hoping there is a domino effect and a lot more to follow. It offers opportunitiies for girls here in Minnesota who don’t want to leave the state for college.”

Blake coach Laura Mark, whose team defeated Stillwater 17-10 in Wednesday’s other semifinal, tried to count down the closest colleges or universities that have varsity women’s lacrosse.

“Marquette University has a DI program, so that’s huge. The University of Michigan is starting a women’s Division I program, so is the University of Colorado, Denver University. So it’s coming. But for us to have an NCAA program in the state of Minnesota, it’s huge.”

Augsburg will hire a head coach this summer and the recruiting process for the inaugural team will begin during the 2012-13 school year. Women's college lacrosse is a spring sport, and competition will begin at Augsburg in March 2014.

Apple Valley coach Alexandra Ross, who played on the club lacrosse team at the MIAC’s College of St. Benedict, said she is hoping other schools will quickly follow Augsburg’s lead.

“With how many Division III schools we have in this state, and they have such great reputations academically, I believe they can pull men and women players from all around the nation and keep some of these great athletes, instead of having them leave the state to play,” she said.

“It means a lot of these girls who are high-caliber athletes won’t be leaving the state to find colleges to play for, which is only going to help grow the sport. Our youth girls don’t have college games to go watch, so this is big to get them to see high-level lacrosse.”

Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport for women at the collegiate level, with a 31.7-percent increase in NCAA schools sponsoring the sport from 2006 to 2011, according to U.S. Lacrosse. There are currently 216 NCAA Division III schools that sponsor lacrosse, up from 169 in the 2006-07 season.

“There are such great athletic traditions here in Minnesota,” Mark said. “So let’s keep them here.”

--To see a photo gallery from Tuesday’s girls state lacrosse semifinals, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

--Diet Coke Count: 3 for the day, 5 for the spring tournaments.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 619
*Miles John has driven: 7,982

--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
Lacrosse Lightning In A Bottle: Eastview’s Big Two Lead The Way 6/5/2012
After his team won a big game Tuesday night and advanced to the state championship contest, Eastview boys lacrosse coach Tim Roche talked about one key component – or maybe two key components -- of his team.

“We thought all year we had the No. 1 and No. 2 best players in the state,” Roche said, talking about senior Jacob Heppner and junior Ryan McNamara, who just happen to own two of the game’s most prestigious awards.

Heppner was named this season’s Mr. Lacrosse by the state coaches association and the St. Paul Pioneer Press has named McNamara its player of the year. That’s a pretty tough combination to beat, as all but one of the Lightning’s opponents have discovered this season.

Tuesday evening’s 15-6 victory over Edina at Chanhassen High School pushed Eastview’s record to 15-1. The lone loss was a 9-8 decision against Lakeville North; the Lightning avenged that defeat with a 9-5 win over Lakeville North in the Section 4 playoffs.

McNamara (right) was the star of Tuesday’s game, finishing with four goals and four assists. Three of his goals came in the third quarter, when Eastview outscored Edina 5-1 to open an 11-5 lead.

“He’s a great player,” Roche said of McNamara. “He’s been doing that all year for us. He’s a complete player, he can put the ball in the net, he makes his teammates better. He did a great job of making his teammates better today.”

Heppner assisted on McNamara’s third goal and scored Eastview’s final goal unassisted before hobbling off the field with an injured ankle.

“On that last goal I kind of rolled it a little bit but it’ll be all right,” he said with a bag of ice taped to his right ankle.

Roche said of Heppner, “He brings veteran leadership. He’s righthanded but we put him in spots where he’s lefthanded a lot, so over half his goals this year are with his left hand. He’s right up there, top 10 in goals and top 10 in assists in the state. The Mr. Lacrosse award recognizes what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.”

Roche has been Eastview’s coach throughout the varsity program’s six-year history. This is the Lightning’s fourth appearance in the state tournament; their best finish was runner-up to Minnetonka in 2009. None of the current players were on that team.

Last season ended with Eagan beating Eastview in overtime in section play. Ever since that day, the Lightning’s No. 1 goal has been getting to state and taking home a championship trophy.

“It’s what we’ve been working for,” Heppner (left) said. “Now we’ve got one more game to finish it.”

Top-seeded Eastview will meet No. 3 seed Eden Prairie in Thursday’s championship game at Chanhassen. The Eagles advanced with a 15-2 victory over Totino-Grace in Tuesday’s second semifinal. Brooks Armitage made a pretty significant statement, scoring five goals for Eden Prairie.

Eden Prairie has never won a state title in three championship-game appearances. The Eagles lost to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the inaugural 2007 title game, to Blake a year later and to Benilde-St. Margaret’s last year.

If Eastview is to win its first title on Thursday, McNamara and Heppner will have a great deal to do with the outcome. I asked each of them to describe the other.

“There are not too many people who are better than that kid,” Heppner said of McNamara. “He works harder than anyone I know and that’s why he’s so good. In lacrosse, lifting or conditioning he’s always the hardest worker. Playing alongside that kid is nice because you’ve got someone to back you up if you’re not doing well.”

Conversely, McNamara said Heppner has “speed, vision, he can go with both hands, he’s so quick he always finds seams to find me or Tanner (Hamill) wide open. He’s just got great vision.”

McNamara also spoke about Tuesday’s big victory, while looking toward Thursday.

“As a team we had a great game, probably one of our best,” he said. “But we can still play better.”

That’s a scary thought.

--To see a photo gallery from Tuesday's games, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 601
*Miles John has driven: 7,906

--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
Baseball, Golf, Lacrosse, Tennis, Softball, Track … 6/4/2012
Take a few deep breaths, make sure your gas tank is full and pack a lunch ... and a dinner and maybe some snacks. This is the single busiest week of the year when you look at all the action taking place around the state in spring sports.

There are section tournaments in baseball, girls golf and boys golf as well as state tournaments for girls and boys lacrosse, boys tennis, softball and state girls and boys track. In other words, if you can’t find an event to attend this week you’re not looking very hard.

Section tournaments can be found on baseball diamonds and golf courses all over the state. State lacrosse tourney games will be played at Chanhassen High School, boys tennis at the University of Minnesota Baseline Tennis Center (Class 2A) and Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in south Minneapolis (Class 1A), all three classes of softball will be played at Caswell Park in North Mankato and the two-class state track meet will be held at Hamline University’s Klas Field in St. Paul.

The weather is always a factor, but so far the forecast for this week looks excellent. I always have an umbrella in my car, but hopefully we won’t need any such equipment this week. The biggest issue for me when the schedule is so packed with big events is trying to figure out where to be.

I sat down Sunday evening with a calendar, the tournament schedules, a Minnesota highway map and an Ouija Board and tried to come up with a tentative plan. At this early point in the week, this is what I came up with…

Monday: Baseball.
Tuesday: Tennis and lacrosse.
Wednesday: Tennis and lacrosse.
Thursday: Softball, tennis and lacrosse.
Friday: Track and softball.
Saturday: Track.

My driving plan looks something like this: Minneapolis to Chanhassen to Minneapolis to Chanhassen to Mankato to Chanhassen to St. Paul to Mankato to St. Paul. I think.

I’ll be posting frequent updates and photos throughout the week on Twitter (follow @MSHSLjohn), with photo galleries and tidbits going up on the MSHSL Facebook page.

Honk when you see me driving by!

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 597
*Miles John has driven: 7,846

--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