John's Journal
Selfless Moorhead Athlete Makes A Wish For Others 5/7/2020
Scott Verkuilen was at pretty much rock bottom last August. Shortly before his senior year and final football season at Moorhead High School was to begin, he was hospitalized. There was surgery. Then chemotherapy.

He was, as he told me recently, "really, really sick."

He was undergoing treatment for nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma, which is as scary as it sounds. Visitors from Make-A-Wish Minnesota were with Scott in the hospital, asking if he had any wish that they could help fulfill.

The options were amazing. Did he want to go skydiving with Dwayne The Rock Johnson? How about traveling to Australia or another exotic location?

Verkuilen talked with his parents about the possibilities. “The options were completely wide open,” he said.

But Scott also thought about Moorhead. He had lived in Little Falls until sixth grade before moving to Moorhead. And he loves Moorhead; his friends, his school, the community, the tradition, the Spuds.

Last fall, voters in Moorhead overwhelmingly approved the construction of a new high school. Verkuilen thought about that, came up with an idea and made his wish known. He wanted his school to have a world-class weight room.

“I thought what better way to not only better myself but to help those around me,” he said. “That pay-it-forward movement, treat others as you would like to be treated. I knew the school was getting redone and I knew sometimes those expenses get overlooked.”

And that's when others jumped in. Moorhead High School strength and conditioning coach Cory Herrmann, who coaches the Spuds weightlifting team, spread Scott's story and wish through contacts nationwide. A monetary contribution from Make-A-Wish Minnesota got the ball rolling. Power Lift, a company specializing in weightlifting equipment, got on board, as did similar firms Intek Strength and Dynamax, along with the Moorhead school district. Essentially, the new weight room will receive $200,000 worth of donated gear.

“It gives you goosebumps just thinking about it,” Spuds head football coach Kevin Feeney said of Scott’s wish.

All the Spuds football players and coaches gathered for an online team meeting one evening last week. Representatives from Make-A-Wish Minnesota and Power Lift were also on the video call as Scott learned that his wish had been finalized and a top-shelf weight room would serve Moorhead students for many years to come.

“For a teenage kid, a high school kid, to come up and think of something like that to give back, rather than take a trip somewhere you always wanted to go, I thought it was fantastic,” Herrmann told Verkuilen.

Scott said on the call, “I just wanted to make sure that everyone knows they are not alone.”

That was a sentiment that helped carry Scott through surgery, chemotherapy, loss of his hair and everything that went into his recovery. He now has a clean bill of health. After his final chemo treatment in December at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, his teammates and other friends filled the lobby with smiles, hugs and cheers as Scott rang a celebratory bell.

“Before all this happened, I would have told you Scotty was one of those guys who was wise beyond his years,” Feeney said. “He’s a very mature young man. Going through this process, I could not believe how he handled it and how he consistently worried about everybody else and not himself.

“Our team learned so much, like you’re never alone. Our team rallied around him. The kids who went through this with him understand his legacy. He was as strong as he could be and more selfless than he should have been. This group understands that legacy and it will be easy to keep that legacy more visible for future generations.”

Scott will enroll at Concordia University in Moorhead this fall on a pre-med track with the goal of becoming an oral surgeon. It will be a grand day, in three years or so, when he helps cut the ribbon on the weight room that will have his name on the wall. Weight plates will bear some of his signature phrases, such as “Never Alone.”

The Moorhead weightlifting team began when Scott was a ninth-grader and he loved it from the start; the room, the work, the support, the goal-setting.

“The team was really important to me and coach Herrmann has been a mentor for me,” he said. “He gave us an opportunity to be a part of something great.”

Verkuilen missed his junior football season when he suffered a hand injury during summer training. He wrestled that winter and had what he called a “decent season.”

His cancer battle began last July began when tumors were discovered in his neck. A lymph node the size of a golf ball was surgically removed. And here he is now, ending his high school days with health, a smile and a joyous attitude.

“I received a few messages from various teammates, saying this was inspirational,” he said. “I just wanted to pay it back. I hope that it inspires others to leave a mark on the world.

“It’s a dream that came true. I’m so unbelievably grateful to everybody.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
Robotics Communities Inspire With Collaborative Efforts Amid Pandemic5/5/2020
By Amy Doherty
MSHSL Assistant Director

A sweeping pandemic of global reach has forced nearly everything to a halt and has resulted in a spring season unlike any that we have experienced. High school students have been sequestered by distance learning and unable to participate in spring activities. There is no doubt they are making a great sacrifice for the health of their communities. Statistics reveal teenagers are among the least likely to suffer from severe consequences if they become infected with COVID-19. While many of them would only have mild symptoms if infected, they have been asked to pause their lives to help prevent the spread of the virus.

While social media is often blamed for spreading negativity, my Twitter feed has been filled with uplifting stories. Teams are bonding together by making inspirational or funny videos and sharing snapshots of their virtual chat gatherings. They are discovering new ways to unite.

Just ask the students in Minnesota's high school robotics communities. Within days of the virus first spreading to Minnesota, these students with unique skillsets and vast engineering knowledge were brainstorming ways they could safely help their communities. Among the first I saw on social media was the Robettes, the team from Visitation School, encouraging one another to make fabric facemasks so hospital-grade masks could be used by those most in need. Babbitt's Northeast Range Iron Mosquitos adapted their robot to transport groceries from the store to customers' cars to respect social distancing recommendations. Moorhead Spudnik used their team's promotional button maker to create "Immuno-compromised" buttons for a local clinic to share with patients.

Mechatronics of Alexandria, NoMythic of Great River and Avalon schools in St. Paul, C.I.S. of Becker and many others gathered their collections of safety equipment -- masks, gloves and safety glasses -- to distribute to local health care facilities. The Becker team partnered with a local company, COR Robotics, to deliver LEGOs and drones to younger students who are participating in remote STEM camps. And recently, NoMythic created a Slack workspace to help organize the efforts teams are putting into supporting their communities.

The greater robotics community also downloaded open-source models for their nearly universal 3D printers. They crafted plans to make face shields combining 3D-printed visors with clear sheets. Clear plastic report covers that students would have used only a month earlier were now being used as shield plastic.

KnightKrawler Robotics of Irondale High School was one of the first to start face shield production, along with creating a website to collect orders, and helping coordinate efforts among many teams. They have already created thousands of face shields for frontline workers at numerous local hospitals, law enforcement, elderly care and other facilities. KnightKrawler has also shared thousands of clear plastic parts to other teams to assist in their PPE production. The team is on track to soon receive orders for more than 10,000 face shields. These students, and those from other teams, are not just helping on the periphery like many of us are attempting to do. They are making life-saving equipment for those frontline workers that we are counting on to keep us safe.

With support from coaches, these high school students have used the skills they learned through their robotics experience to go beyond what anyone would have expected from teenagers in a pandemic. We will never forget the sacrifices and vast contributions that Minnesota’s high school students have made during this time. They provide inspiration for all.
Family Takes Priority Over Hoops For Apple Valley’s Goring5/1/2020
Tyus Jones has accomplished many great things on the basketball court. He scored 13 of Duke's final 21 points, including a dramatic three-point shot, as the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA national championship game; he was named the Most Outstanding Player. He was a first-round draft pick of the Timberwolves that year and is currently playing with the Memphis Grizzlies.

But one of his favorite memories came at the end of his junior year at Apple Valley High School. In the 2013 Class 4A state championship game at Target Center, the Eagles defeated Park Center 74-57. As Apple Valley coach Zach Goring sent in reserves and starters headed to the bench late in the game, Jones and Goring shared an emotional moment.

"We hugged on the court and we both started crying," Jones said. "That moment meant a lot to both of us. We started together and the program went to places we never imagined. We had gone through so much together, we could finally say that we won a state championship. We wanted to bring that first one to Apple Valley.”

The Eagles also won state titles in 2015 and 2017 during a historic run of success led by Jones, Gary Trent Jr. (now with the Portland Trail Blazers), Tyus' younger brother Tre (who has declared for the NBA draft after two seasons at Duke) and a host of other talented players.

Goring, who recently stepped down after 11 years as head coach, took five teams to the state tournament. He's a homegrown Apple Valley Eagle, graduating from the school in 1995 before playing basketball at St. Cloud State. He was an assistant coach at Apple Valley for seven years before replacing Mike Fritze as the head coach.

Goring, 43, is the father of 11- and 13-year-old children. As they got older he was pulled in two directions – coaching and fatherhood – and his family is the priority.

“When I took the job at Apple Valley I had a two-year-old and a newborn baby,” he said on a recent episode of the Preps Today with John Millea podcast. “That was 11 years ago, and now fast forward to today and I have a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old. I think all coaches come to a point where you're so busy with your own kids and then trying to run a basketball program, and that's just what I ran into.
“So I just felt out of fairness to my kids and also the kids at Apple Valley High School that I'd step away at this time and let them have someone that can really get after it.”

Goring will miss a lot about being a head coach, but not the year-round duties that never seem to let up. In the spring his players had speed and strength training four days a week after school. There were 20 summer workouts plus summer league games. The fall brought more speed and strength training after school, booster club meetings, fundraising and more, followed by a regular season and postseason that can be a grind.

“It just adds up,” Goring said, “and you get moving so fast. I just felt like it was time for me to step back and take a little bit of a breath. It was a very hard decision, one I really wrestled with a lot. But I think it's the right one.”

Goring is forever grateful to Fritze, was the Eagles head coach in football as well as boys basketball; he later became head football coach at the University of Minnesota Crookston. As an assistant coach, Goring ran summer basketball camps at Apple Valley. One day Fritze said to him, “What would you think about you being the head coach and me being your assistant, just flipping roles?” (This photo is of the 2013-14 team.)

Starting with the 2012-13 season and continuing through 2017-18, Apple Valley lost only 14 games over those five campaigns. In two of those seasons the Eagles did not lose after Jan. 1.

“Me and Zach have a great relationship,” Tyus Jones said. “Zach kind of followed me coming up in the grade school system and I think in the back of his mind he wanted to be the head coach one day at Apple Valley. It's kind of crazy how the timing worked out. His first year coaching was my first year playing varsity as an eighth-grader, with both of us not really knowing what to expect for our own individual careers. I think that brought us closer.”

The Jones brothers and Trent were the well-known stars, but Goring coached a long list of other players who went on to play college basketball.

“Obviously Tyus and Tre were the top point guards in the country but we just kind of had every position filled in there for nine years,” he said. “Tom Schalk was a Division 1 player (William and Mary) with us when Tyus was in ninth and 10th grade. Brock Bertram played at Texas Tech, Cam Kirksey had a great college career at Mankato, Dennis Austin played at Upper Iowa, Harry Sonie played at Augsburg, Dustin Fronk at St Thomas. Luke Martens at Winona State, Zach Korba played at Bethel.”

Another former player, Trey Pipkins, is now an offensive lineman with the San Diego Chargers.

“You get groups that come up together and know how to play with each other, and you're bound to have success,” Goring said.

With the highest-profile players drawing interest from the nation’s top college programs, Goring developed relationships with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self of Kansas, Tom Izzo at Michigan State and many others.

“It was a treat,” Goring said. “I could tell you so many stories. Coach K would come to open gyms so you're sitting with him in the corner and then Bill Self would walk through the door. Scott Drew from Baylor would be there and Tom Izzo and just all these great names.

“Tyus was going to commit on a Friday and I'm driving to school that Wednesday morning two days before he commits. It’s 6:45 in the morning and my cell phone rings. I answer and this gentleman says, ‘Are you here.’ And I said, ‘No, I'll be there in about 10 minutes, who's this?’ And he says, ‘This is Bill Self, I'll meet you at the gym.’ And he was there, doing his last push to get Tyus. He hopped a plane at 4:30 in the morning from Kansas and zipped up here to try to lure Tyus to Kansas.”

Goring – who operates a busy landscaping and lawn care business and works as a substitute teacher at Apple Valley -- doesn’t offer any guarantees that he will be able to completely stay away from high school basketball, even next season, although he doesn’t want to work as a head coach right now.

“I might coach somewhere else, maybe showing up in November and spending two hours at the gym and then being able to go home at night,” he said. “The year-round thing just kind of wore me out and I didn't think that I could commit to that.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

Shutdown Diary: We'll Get Through This Together4/29/2020
The previous entry on this blog came from a coach in northern Minnesota. Today we hear from an activities director in southern Minnesota, with an honest and sad yet optimistic message to students and the community. I invite you to submit your own thoughts about the shutdown to me via email at jmillea@mshsl.org

April 24, 2020
Rebel Country,

I wish I could be contacting you today with some better news. I've been going back and forth, trying to come up with the perfect words in response to Governor Walz and the Minnesota State High School League's latest determination in regard to the school year and the cancellation of spring activities and athletics. The unfortunate reality is that it's such a struggle because this is uncharted territory. We've never seen anything like this before. There is no blueprint for handling the cards we've been dealt in the last month, let alone the last 24 hours.

I want to start by saying that I'm in full support of the decisions that have been made for our Minnesota schools. As always, the most important thing is the health and safety of our students, and I firmly believe our leaders have acted in the best interest of our kids given the current circumstances. As an Activities Director, I want more than anything for our kids to be able to step out there, compete, and proudly represent our school and communities the way they always have. That said, through it all I've been impressed with the open lines of communication from our leadership. While some gut-wrenching decisions have had to be made, I know the well-being of our students and student-athletes has never been in jeopardy. For that, I am thankful.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make this any easier. It's not easy on our schools and communities. It's a challenge for our staff, coaches, and advisors. It's tough on our parents, and most importantly, it's hard on our kids.

To our underclassmen, stay the course. My hope is that through this challenge, you gain a greater appreciation for the privilege of participating in high school athletics and activities. While we're unable to compete this season, use this hurdle as motivation and fuel for the future. I look forward to seeing you get back out there.

To our seniors, we're here with you. I have a hard time putting into words how I feel that you didn't get to finish your final chapter here. I'm so proud of your dedication to the silver, red, and navy blue. Our programs were the better for your efforts. While this didn't end the way any of us would have liked, I'm confident in the direction you all are moving because of the resolve you've shown through this trying time. I look forward to celebrating your future accomplishments and thank you for your commitment to USC. You are a special class and you will be missed!

To the USC community, we'll be back. If I've learned anything over the last few years, it's that the people of Rebel Country are resilient. The type of people who are willing to help their neighbors and who rise to the occasion when the going gets tough. I've had the privilege of seeing this firsthand in the face of our most recent adversity, and this leadership by example is perhaps the most valuable thing our youth will learn from this experience when all is said and done.

In a time where there is still so much uncertainty, I'm sure of one thing. We will get through this, and we'll get through this together. We'll rally and we will fight back. We'll take the hardship, learn from this experience, and end up on the other side a stronger USC. As we continue to battle one of our toughest opponents, I'm reminded of a line in our fight song that rings so true. "As Rebels we stand together, showing our might forever." It's what we've always done here in Rebel Country. I see no reason we'd change that now.

Joe Kuechenmeister
United South Central Activities Director/Dean of Students
Shutdown Diary: Sadness Shows You Care 4/27/2020
With spring sports cancelled in Minnesota, we again find ourselves in uncharted waters. We all are processing this in our own ways. Here is a message from Nathan Johnson, boys track and field coach at Proctor High School, to athletes and parents.

Greetings,

By now I am sure all of you know that our season is officially "over" - it never really got to start I guess.

I am sad. I know that you folks are sad. I KNOW the athletes are sad!

This is a time that is hard, maybe even impossible to process right now. So many things are changing and they seem to change daily. Our routines are thrown off. What is normal anymore?? I don't know if I am smart enough to answer those questions, but we want the answers!

Right now things seem to be overwhelming. It seems hopeless. And this is how we are SUPPOSED to feel right now. BUT - I also KNOW without any doubt that this too shall pass. My grandpa used to say this a lot. It is a saying that I have held on to my whole life.

The coaches MISS you. We LOVE watching you work hard and compete. We LOVE seeing you triumph. I know that I like to see people win events, but to me as a coach "success" for me in sports is more about striving to be better as a person, a student and as an athlete. Your performances and your PR's ARE successes and I LOVE seeing them. This seems to have been taken away from us.

We are in a different environment now. It is hard to see past the sadness. You SHOULD be sad - it shows you CARE!

So how do we move forward - as a team, as coaches, as parents/guardians, as athletes? I don't have the magic answer for that. But - know that your coaches are here for YOU. Anytime!

Here is a video I found that helped me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLYECIjmnQs

How does this video apply? EVERY ONE of the people listed in the video were thrown something they had no control over that could have devastated them. Yet they persevered.

Every one of us will persevere. We will pick ourselves up. It may take a while but we WILL BE BACK!

Sometimes we joke and mock the idea of #RailStrong - but let's think about that. We are a railroad town and what does a RR locomotive ride on? STEEL. OK - Coach J is getting cheesy right? Well - maybe - but think about that rail. The steel in that rail is STRONG. It has to be to take the weight. But it bends a little, the rail flexes to carry the weight. That is what being a RAIL means. And ALL of you are RAILS! That rail cannot perform without ALL the other rails on the track. As a team we are like those rails working together. Thus? We are RAILS - strong, tough, flexible, working together, supporting each other to achieve, to conquer whatever is put in front of us. And we are in a situation that none of us want to be in. We have lost something that we wanted. So now is the time to be that RAIL.

Let's support each other! We are still a TEAM. Know that your coaches are still here for you. Be sad, but start thinking about being that RAIL. Who do you know who needs support? Your siblings? Your parents/guardians? An elderly person that you know? Reach out to the seniors! Seniors - you lost your last season - you are sad. You might be angry. That is NORMAL. You are going to go on and do GREAT things! Your class is united forever because of this. Know that as your coach my respect of you may be unmeasurable. You have my everlasting respect.

Reach out if YOU need support! But know that in time this too shall pass and WE WILL BE BACK. The steel in our RAILS cannot be broken.

Stayed tuned to the Social Media Pages. I will continue to post things. I will continue to send e mails. We are still a team!

Parents/Guardians thanks for your understanding during this wild time! Please show this to your athlete(s). I am going to send this message to their school email account, too.

I will be staying in touch! THANKS and PLEASE STAY SAFE!!!!

Nathan P. Johnson
Social Studies/English Teacher
Mallet Adviser
Head Boys Track Coach/Assistant Football Coach
Proctor High School


I invite you to submit your own thoughts about the shutdown to me. Send them via email to jmillea@mshsl.org