John's Journal
Correspondent Report: Ulen-Hitterdal vs. Ada-Borup Boys Basketball2/4/2012
Here's a story from Friday night, detailing a big game in northwestern Minnesota...

No. 6 Spartans claim season's second win over No. 10 Cougars
One Gym, One Game, A Great Band And Enthusiastic Fans 2/1/2012
NORWOOD YOUNG AMERICA – Shortly after tipoff at Tuesday night’s boys basketball game between Mayer Lutheran and Norwood Young America, NYA coach Nat Boyer took his gaze off the game for a few seconds and looked across the court. He motioned for the NYA students to stay on their feet. After that, he didn’t have to remind the kids that their vocal chords were a vital component of the Raiders’ game plan.

The atmosphere at Norwood Young America – the district is known as Central Public Schools, also encompassing the communities of Bongards, Cologne and Hamburg – was electric for this Minnesota River Conference game. The winner would grab hold of second place in the league standings behind Watertown-Mayer and also elicit some bragging rights in the rivalry between schools that are less than 10 miles apart.

The pep band was terrific during pregame warm-ups, playing the Rocky theme song as the Raiders came running on the court. The repertoire of the band, under the direction of Adam Halpaus, also included the theme songs from Hawaii Five-O and Blazing Saddles, which warmed the musical heart of folks old enough to remember when those tunes were new. Fans bought walking tacos at the concession stand and came walking into the gym eating their walking tacos. The NYA players traded low fives with the band’s tuba player as they warmed up and some of the junior varsity basketball players – still in uniform – grabbed their instruments and took their spots with the band. The dance team put on a great halftime show.

The Norwood Young America student section was on point from start to finish, chanting and cheering, always standing. They froze in place while Raiders shot free throws, they stomped and they swayed as the home team got off to a rapid start and recorded a 69-54 victory.

“That’s what we needed to do,” said Boyer, who is in his first year at NYA after previous coaching stints at Tracy-Milroy-Balaton and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. “We knew we had to get off to a quick start and get our crowd, our sixth man, involved. I think that’s so important in high school basketball.

“(The students) ask me, ‘Do you want us to get into it?’ That’s what I wanted to bring here when I came, was to get the crowd into it. It’s about letting these boys come out and having that support behind them. It’s their show. This is their show and that’s what I want it to be.”

The sixth man had plenty to cheer for right away. The Raiders (10-6 overall, 5-3 conference) came out pressing and running and firing off three-point shots. A typical sequence went like this: Raiders center Luke Marschall blocks a shot, the ball is fired downcourt, Reid Stacken hits a three, the NYA lead builds and the faithful go nuts.

Five players scored in double figures for NYA, led by Ryan Marschall with 17 and Tom Messner with 15. Anthony Gruenhagen had 25 for Mayer Lutheran (14-4, 5-4).

NYA’s press pestered Mayer Lutheran throughout the game, which agan was part of the plan.

“That’s the way we play,” Boyer said. “We try to put as much pressure as possible on teams and make them make mistakes. We use a defensive style that’s known nationwide as ‘thug ‘em, mug ‘em.’ We want to be tough with them and make sure they’re as uncomfortable as can be. That’s what we look for. And if we can get it going on the defensive end, that’s going to lead our offense. It’s like they say: offense wins games, defense wins championships.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, Mayer Lutheran won 60-49 in Mayer on Dec. 22. Norwood Young America didn’t have its full roster that night, and playing rapid-fire basketball while down a man is tough. But the Raiders’ complete cast was on hand for the rematch, including the sixth man.

“I can’t say enough about our sixth man,” Boyer said.

That’s OK, coach. They speak for themselves.

--To see a photo gallery from the game, as well as video of the NYA student section and pep band, go the MSHSL Facebook page.

--Knowing my affection for a certain soft drink, Boyer had a cold case of Diet Coke waiting for me at the scorer’s table. Those 24 cans made their way to MSHSL World Headquarters on Wednesday, and you can see some photos from that event on the MSHSL Facebook page, too.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 257
*Miles John has driven: 5,827

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
New Richland Super Sophomore Carlie Wagner Is A Player To Watch1/30/2012
NORTHFIELD -- In preparing his team to face New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva and super sophomore Carlie Wagner on Saturday, Goodhue girls basketball coach Josh Weime used other talented opponents as comparisons.

“We tried to compare her to girls we play: ‘She’s kind of like this, but quicker. She’s kind of like that, but faster, shoots better, jumps higher.’ ”

In other words, Wagner is capable of doing a lot on the basketball court. In fact, Weime said, “She does things that we never see. How do you prepare if you don’t see it?”

Not surprisingly, Wagner was the star of Saturday’s non-conference game at Carleton College, scoring a school-record 39 points. New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, the second-ranked team in Class 2A, recorded a 77-68 victory over the Wildcats, who are No. 2 in 1A. NRHEG improved to 20-0 and Goodhue is 17-3.

New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva is one of only five undefeated girls basketball teams in the state, and the only one in 2A. (The others are Hopkins in 4A and Parkers Prairie, North Woods and Win-E-Mac in 1A.) Wagner has been a key to the Panthers’ success, and Saturday’s school record was only her latest headline.

University of Minnesota coach Pam Borton came to the first practice of the season at NRHEG. … Wagner scored her 1,000 career point in the ninth game of her sophomore year. … She holds the school record in the high jump. … In the first half Saturday, Wagner outscored the entire Goodhue team 22-21.

Opposing coaches have been trying to figure out ways to slow Wagner for years. NRHEG coach John Schultz, who was a youth coach when Wagner was in elementary school, remembers a fourth-grade coach shouting “Take her left side away! She’s lefthanded!” Wagner, however, is not lefthanded. “You can’t tell the difference,” Schultz said.

Wagner, a 5-foot-10 guard, dribbles and scores with either hand. She throws lob passes to talented teammates Anna Schlaak and Jade Schultz, who like Wagner are highly skilled in other sports, too. Schlaak, a 6-foot senior, will play volleyball at NCAA Division II powerhouse Concordia University in St. Paul. Schultz, sophomore daughter of the coach, is a dominating pitcher during the softball season.

Wagner is more prone to pass than shoot, and John Schultz said he has to remind Carlie that it’s OK to put the ball in the hoop.

“She will turn it over sometimes or be too unselfish, and I keep telling her, ‘Keep shooting.’ In her mind I think she knows how many points she gets and she wants to get rid of the ball. That’s the kind of person she is; she’s trying to keep her teammates satisfied.

“She’s a very humble kid. She’s worried more about her teammates and succeeding as a team.”

Saturday’s game was a chance for both teams to prepare for the postseason. The West Gym at Carleton College is a 94-foot court, the same size as Williams Arena and Target Center, where the state tournament will be held in March. NRHEG used the long court to full advantage, running a rapid-fire transition offense with defensive rebounds setting up lengthy passes to Wagner for easy layups.

“To tell you the truth I don’t even remember if any of the kids knew what offense we were running, because it was all transition,” John Schultz said. “Even if they had one kid back we were going to force the issue and push to the hole.”

Most of Wagner’s 22 first-half points came in a half-court offense, while the bulk of her 17 second-half points came on fast-break layups. With sophomore Mikayla Miller (30 points, 10 rebounds and five steals) leading the way, Goodhue whittled down NRHEG’s lead late in the second half. As the Wildcats were forced to foul in the final couple minutes, Wieme hollered, “Anybody but three!” Number 3 is Wagner, of course.

She said she’s been surprised by the attention she is receiving as a sophomore.

“You’ve just got to kind of go with it,” she said. “It’s exciting and cool and it’s kind of like you weren’t expecting it at this age. You just go with the flow.”

Another pleasant surprise has been the Panthers’ success this season. “We knew it was going to be special, but I don’t think we quite had the idea in our head that we were going to go undefeated,” Wagner said. “But it’s happened and we’re working really hard and molding together really well. Our chemistry is really strong on and off the court, and we just work really hard.”

With two high school seasons remaining after this one, Wagner’s future is bright. And there are more Wagners on the way; in fact seventh-grade twins Maddie and Marnie Wagner (pictured with Carlie) are already seeing some varsity playing time.

Carlie is the family star on the basketball court, but Marnie owns a 1-0 lead on Carlie in one statistic: total number of deer taken during the hunting season.

“She blew me out of the water,” Carlie said.

Marnie and Maddie saw some second-half playing time Saturday, and fans will keep seeing all the Wagner girls.

“We’re young,” John Schultz said. “Hopefully we’ll be around for a while.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 255
*Miles John has driven: 5,745

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
It’s Not The Score That Matters … It’s How Much Fun You Have1/27/2012
KENYON – Ninety seconds into Friday’s night girls basketball game between Pine Island and Kenyon-Wanamingo, we had a horse race in the making. Kenyon-Wanamingo senior star Shelby Auseth knocked down a three-point shot on the game’s first possession and Pine Island’s Courtney Pahl answered with a three ball on the other end. Boom boom and away we go, right?

From that point on, however, offense took a back seat. Way in the back, back by the tailgate. The final score was Pine Island 47, Kenyon-Wanamingo 30 and postgame questions about shot clocks were spoken in hushed tones.

But here is a key fact: Pine Island’s averages this year are 47 (offense) and 32 (defense). So the Panthers’ pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-shoot offensive plan and hustle-hustle-rebound-rebound defensive tactics worked out pretty nicely for the visiting team. And a visitor from the MSHSL had a grand time, as well, in his first visit to Kenyon-Wanamingo.

Auseth was the most effective scorer on the court, and that’s the case almost every time the 5-foot-9 senior sets foot on the court. She came in with a 25-point scoring average, and the fact that her team had a grand total of 30 says something about not only Pine Island’s defensive effort but about the style of play.

The Knights would much rather fight it out in an up-and-down, full-throttle contest, but coach Brent Lurken realized beforehand that Pine Island would not follow that script.

“That’s kind of where we thrive, and we knew they were going to slow it down,” he said. “Usually it’s a lot easier to slow a game down than it is to speed it up. But they’re a good team and they play great defense.”

This was an important game in the Hiawatha Valley League Blue division, where teams are starting to see some separation. Pine Island came into the game carrying a No. 7 ranking in Class 2A and a record of 18-1; the Panthers were 17-0 until a week earlier, when they lost at Goodhue, the No. 2 team in 1A.

That fact alone – Pine Island’s loss to Goodhue – should have brought some optimism to Kenyon-Wanamingo, considering that the Knights had defeated Goodhue three weeks ago (before Goodhue, uh oh, beat K-W in the rematch last Tuesday).

With Friday’s loss, Kenyon-Wanamingo fell to 13-5. That’s a great record considering the competition the Knights face, and the future is bright when look at all the young players on the squad: there are an awful lot of 10s and 9s on the “Grade” portion of the roster.

“We’re excited about the future,” Lurken said. “We have a lot of younger girls who play and they’re talented and our junior high teams are looking strong. So we’re excited about the future.”

Pine Island coach Rick Canton explained with great precision why his team’s games are so low-scoring: “Our games are low-scoring because people have a hard time scoring points on us.” Exactly.

“Some teams have slowed the game down on us,” he said. “On Tuesday (in a 42-38 win) Zumbrota-Mazeppa really slowed the game down on us. They went to some half-court sets. We don’t really like to do that. We like to transition. We didn’t press tonight because of Shelby Auseth; if she gets loose she’s so hard to defend.”

TIDBITS …

--The play of the game may have come in the final minutes, when Pine Island was attempting to strangle the clock under a Kenyon-Wanamingo full-court press. As Cede Finstuen held the ball in the backcourt and looked for an open teammate, Canton saw one of his players in the clear right in front of the bench. The coach pointed to the target and shouted, “Right here! Right here! Right here!” And sure enough, Cede threw the ball right to the coach. He made a solid two-handed catch and said, “Thank you.”

--The halftime entertainment was grand. For a dollar, anyone could attempt a half-court shot. Three kids hit the shot and won a two-liter bottle of pop.

--The unsung hero of the Pine Island team is senior Brenna Lien (right). She chose to give up playing basketball this season but the coaches wanted her to remain part of the team. So she plays a crucial role during every game, tracking statistics on an iPad.

“Brenna decided after last year that she wasn’t going to go out,” Canton said. “She’s a great kid and we asked her right before the season started, ‘Do you want to do our stats? We have an iPad, we want you to be part of it.’ She said she would love to. I hated to see her give up basketball because she’s such a great kid. But it shows a lot about all the girls in our program, that someone who decided to not play comes back and wants to be part of the program.”

--One final note: I could have watched the Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs play at Target Center on Friday evening, sitting in a suite via a free ticket that had been offered.But it was an easy decision for me to drive to the gym in Kenyon instead. In fact, I didn’t think twice.

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

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 253
*Miles John has driven: 5,701

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
Call Her Coach: Darwitz Takes Over At Lakeville South1/23/2012
K.K. Naasz, a junior center on the Lakeville South girls hockey team, heard the rumors last summer. She wasn’t sure if she should believe them, because they simply sounded too good to be true.

“It was a big secret for a long time,” Naasz said. “It started leaking out that Natalie Darwitz was going to be our coach and all of us were like, ‘What?!’ Then people were saying, ‘No it’s just a rumor.’ ”

Senior defender Tori Bailey, however, had the inside scoop. Because she is a team captain, Bailey knew the identity of the Cougars’ new coach before her teammates. And when the team gathered together at Hasse Arena late last summer and the new coach walked through the door, the excitement was evident.

“When we all met here at the arena that day, everyone’s face just lit up when she came walking in,” Bailey said. “Just the whole atmosphere, in the arena, and our team chemistry, everything just took a step forward. It was such a good feeling when she walked in.”

Like all young female hockey players in Minnesota, the Cougars knew all about Darwitz’s pedigree: star at Eagan High School beginning in seventh grade, career points and assists leader at the University of Minnesota, Team USA, the World Championships, the Olympics.

“She was my hero, ever since I was a little kid,” Naasz said. “Knowing her from the Gophers and Team USA, it was exciting. I remember going with my team as a little kid to games at the U and saying, ‘Oh, there’s my favorite player, Natalie Darwitz!’”

Darwitz was an assistant coach with the Gophers women’s hockey team when Lakeville South athletic director Neil Strader learned that she might interested in the coaching vacancy at South. Phone calls were made, interviews were conducted and the 28-year-old accepted her first head coaching job. She also had worked as an assistant under her father Scott Darwitz, the head girls hockey coach at Eagan High School.

When word of the hiring got out, Strader said “There was a lot of ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Is this a joke?’ After I assured people that it was true, everybody was extremely excited, especially me.

“Natalie’s a wonderful head coach, and she’s a better person than she is a coach. She’s an outstanding athlete, she brings to the table everything you’d want. I can’t say enough about her. She’s done a tremendous job leading our program and she’s brought a new excitement to this arena and to girls hockey in Lakeville. The Natalie Darwitz effect is definitely pretty big around here.”

Darwitz took over a team that has known success, reaching the Class 2A state tournament in the last two years (and losing in the state quarterfinals each time). The Cougars are 15-5-1 this season after a 3-1 loss at Eagan on Saturday in a battle of father and daughter.

Natalie Darwitz’s number has been retired at Eagan, and her father knows how important she has been to girls hockey in Minnesota. And he also knows that coaching is a great way to give back.

“Whatever Natalie can give back to girls hockey for the career she had, that’s what I’m so proud of,” Scott Darwitz said. “I go to a lot of Natalie’s games and I talk to the parents and the boosters and they’re really happy to have her there. I’m so proud of her for what she’s giving back to the game. That’s phenomenal.”

Natalie Darwitz has a business degree with an emphasis on sports management from the University of Minnesota, and she currently is working towards a teaching license in physical education at Concordia University in St. Paul. She’s on track to student teach next fall and have her teaching license next winter.

She said she was happy in her coaching role with the Gophers, but the challenge of coaching her own team was part of the attraction at Lakeville South.

“As I kind of evaluated myself and where I saw myself in five years, this was a good opportunity for me to take charge of it and take a step out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I was kind of at a crossroads in my life, making the transition from playing to coaching. I really enjoy coaching, it’s one of my passions in life. Switching gears from playing to coaching was something that really excited me about this job, to come to a newer program that kind of was starting to establish itself, had a lot of promise, a brand new rink. When I get opportunities I kind of want to evaluate them and if there’s something that can make me better and I can grow from it, then I want to take it on with a full head of steam.”

The players at South quickly realized that the person they knew only as a superstar athlete was also someone who was extremely approachable.

“Before this we admired her so much and she was famous. But now that she’s been around, we realize that she’s just another human,” Bailey said. “She is still a big idol in all of our lives and we all look up to her and hope to be like her, and who she is off the ice, too.”

Darwitz (pictured here with her father) admitted there was a learning curve for her, particularly in getting to know her players.

“I didn’t know a lot of the girls and I didn’t know much about the product on the ice,” she said. “Now, to see how far they’ve come, to get to know their personalities, it’s pretty fun to think back to when I had no idea who I was talking to. It took me a while to learn their names. We almost went old school, putting their names on tape on their helmets.

“I just love being back in the high school atmosphere. There’s nothing like high school sports, there’s nothing like school pride and facing a rival, having the band playing. There’s nothing like high school hockey. So when we played our first game, the goosebumps kind of came back. At the same time it feels like just yesterday when I was in high school. It’s just a fun atmosphere and I hope the girls don’t take it for granted, because there’s nothing like playing a high school sport, especially hockey in the state of Minnesota.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 253
*Miles John has driven: 5,605

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn