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.
--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