John's Journal
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
New Rules: The Way Hockey Should Be Played1/18/2012
Jake Horton, one of the captains of the Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey team, played hard and played safe Tuesday night when the Red Knights had their first game under Minnesota’s new rules. The final score at the St. Louis Park Rec Center was Benilde 8, St. Francis 1, but the number of goals was almost inconsequential to the style of play.

Safer hockey is, hopefully, the new normal in Minnesota.

“It’s especially dear to our team, knowing that one of our players went down with one of those hits,” Horton said. “It’s definitely a lot more in our hearts when we’re out there.”

The senior defenseman was speaking of Jack Jablonski, of course. A few hours after Tuesday’s game ended, an optimistic message from Jack’s family was posted on his Caring Bridge site. The update included these words:

--“We're thrilled that Jack is able to sit up several times a day.”

--“Jack is getting stronger by the day, and that brings him closer to moving on to rehab. We're excited for him to begin the next chapter of his life.”

Benilde home games offer plenty of ways to support Jack and his family. His number 13 has become a familiar sight in rinks across the state. A large table in the arena lobby Tuesday held t-shirts, sweatshirts, mittens, hats, buttons, stickers, wristbands and more, with all proceeds going to the Jablonkis.

The Red Knights have Jack’s 13 sewn onto their jerseys and placed on their helmets. The St. Francis team brought along a poster in support of Jack, signed by players and other students, that was taped to the glass.

A saga that began on Dec. 30, when Jack was injured as he was checked into the boards, now continues with what everyone hopes is a better game. Last weekend the MSHSL instituted stiffer penalties for checking from behind, hits to the head and boarding, and this week’s games are the first tests of the change.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly allowed me inside the locker room during his pregame talk. (Video is posted on the MSHSL Facebook page.) The coach was direct and clear as he spoke.

“It would be tough, unless you’re living under a rock, to not have seen what the rule changes are,” he told the Red Knights.

“The line’s supposed to be in the sand: check from behind, boarding, hits to the head, that’s an automatic five (minutes). And you know what that means. That’s five minutes we’re short and they can score as much as they want. It can also carry a 10-minute misconduct and a DQ, which would put you out for the next game, as well. Honestly I’m not worried about it because that’s not our game, we don’t play that way.

“There are going to be mistakes made, that’s the nature of the game. We like to pride ourselves on a smart game, and we’re going to be smart all over the ice but we’re going to be smart about this, too. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also the way you’re going to win the game. You start doing this crap, you’re going to lose hockey games. Being safe and taking care of each other, and taking care of the other team you’re playing against is important, as well.”

One five-minute major for contact to the head put a St. Francis player in the penalty box early in the first period, but only minor penalties for holding, charging, elbowing, hooking, etc., were called the rest of the way.

The officiating crew of Brian LaShomb, Brad Larsen and Adam Knutson talked to the captains (Horton and Christian Horn from Benilde-St. Margaret's and Zach Foesch and Cameron Kaehler of St. Francis) about the rule changes on the ice as the teams warmed up.

Their message was as clear as Pauly’s: “You guys know what’s going on right? The onus is on you. If you see that hit, stay away from it. We hope there’s none of that. That would be awesome.” (Video also is posted on the MSHSL Facebook page.)

The game was one-sided, with the Red Knights outshooting St. Francis 56-12. Grant Besse, a junior who has made a verbal commitment to play at the University of Wisconsin, scored four goals and junior T.J. Moore scored twice.

After the game, Pauly was confident that everybody is on board with the new brand of hockey.

“First and foremost, I think the kids are very much aware of the rule,” he said. “That’s a good start. Hopefully we can keep their attention. The five-minute major came into play with one hit to the head, but honestly I don’t think I saw another play like that throughout the evening. Truth be told, I think some of the minors they’re calling now, I think that’s been stepped up. Which is good.”

St. Francis coach Tyler Schaff said that prior to the rule changes, playing a physical style would probably have been the Saints’ game plan against the fast-skating Red Knights.

“To play against a team like Benilde with all their skill, usually you’d want more contact,” he said. “We had a few more penalties today but they adjusted well to it. They keep their hands down, they see the number and they’re not going at them, they’re just containing. It was a lot better.

“We talked about Jack Jablonski and we also had a couple of team meetings where we went over the rules for the new penalties. These guys are a good group, they respect the rules, they respect the coaches and their teammates. They want to do what’s best.”

The Red Knights’ Horn said the changes are clearly the best thing for the game.

“It definitely does change the game quite a bit. There’s room for those younger guys who are skilled and fast and have good hands, they can step up and make something happen. They don’t have to wait until they’re seniors to really get noticed. There are those guys who are big and like to be enforcers; they have to play a different game now. They’ve got to find out what their game is, really, instead of trying to make it to the next level off of just being able to make big hits and everything.

“It really makes the game what it should be; skilled hockey up and down the ice, passing the puck, stickhandling, shooting and scoring goals, and goalies making saves.”

Horton agreed, saying the rule changes “really bring awareness to the kids and it makes the game more of what it should be, fast-paced, up and down the rink like it should be. It’s not about the big bruisers, the big hits along the boards or from behind. We want it back to the way it should be played; fast-paced hockey, scoring goals, stopping pucks. It’s good to have it back that way.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 251
*Miles John has driven: 5,583

--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
The Anatomy Of A Surprise Hockey Announcement1/15/2012
At 10 p.m. Saturday, the news began flying around Minnesota and beyond on social media, web sites, television and radio: The MSHSL had implemented immediate changes in hockey, stiffening penalties in an effort to eliminate dangerous hits that can result in injuries.

Once the decision was made, the timing of the announcement hinged on some secrecy, some trust in the media and the belief that about 15 teenage athletes would keep quiet on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else.

The process of making the change took some time. You can even flip the calendar back to last summer, when a meeting of the MSHSL Hockey Advisory Committee was scheduled for Jan. 10, 2012. That committee includes boys and girls hockey coaches.

Clearly, recent injuries to Benilde-St. Margaret’s sophomore Jack Jablonski and St. Croix Lutheran senior Jenna Privette raised the issue’s importance. Safety is paramount in high school athletics, and coaches, officials and others decided the time was right to take a stand against dangerous play.

Last Tuesday, the Hockey Advisory Committee met at MSHSL headquarters in Brooklyn Center. As Saturday night’s MSHSL announcement said, “The committee members had already established contact to the head and checking from behind as ongoing areas of concern to discuss prior to the recent injuries of the two players who remain hospitalized. At the meeting the committee members immediately established a priority to address the issue of proper contact in the game.

“The boys' and girls' coaches on the committee quickly agreed that the best way to address increasing violent hits was to escalate the penalty structure and to get all parties involved (coaches, players, officials, fans) to seek to change the culture of the game.”

The committee settled on the changes in penalties that were announced Saturday night. The National Federation of State High School Associations quickly approved the changes, and the next challenge was the timing of the announcement. Since hockey games were played Saturday, the announcement was made after those games had been played and before games resumed this week. That way, everyone involved would be aware of the midseason changes with no confusion about when they took effect.

A demonstration session was held Friday afternoon at an ice arena in Andover. Girls and boys from the Andover High School teams, along with their coaches and two officials, were asked to demonstrate several plays – incorrectly and correctly – as a crew from KSTC Channel 45 (the MSHSL’s TV partner) filmed the session and MSHSL staff took still photos.

The still photos are part of a slideshow demonstration that also was released Saturday night, and KSTC is in the process of producing a video that will further explain the changes. That video will be posted on mshsl.org as soon as it is finished.

Before the Andover hockey players took the ice, MSHSL associate director Craig Perry explained what they would do, talked about the timing of the announcement on Saturday night and gave them this final instruction: No Tweeting, no Facebook.

A few selected media members who regularly cover the MSHSL were informed of the decision a couple of days before the announcement, on the condition that the news be withheld until 10 o’clock Saturday night. This specifically allowed the two Twin Cities newspapers – the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune – to have stories about the changes in their Sunday print editions.

The media members were invited to the Friday session in Andover, where reporters interviewed MSHSL staff, officials, coaches and players, and photographers shot photos and video. Their stories began appearing online at 10 p.m. Saturday.

I was knee deep in the internet Saturday evening, well before and long after 10 p.m. At the stroke of 10, MSHSL assistant director and web guru Chris Franson posted the news release about the changes on www.mshsl.org (he and I had been corresponding via text message during the evening, and a few seconds before 10 he sent me a text that said “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … “).

Also at 10, I posted this message on Twitter: “MSHSL stiffens hockey penalties for checking from behind, boarding, contact to head. Changes effective immediately,” followed by a link to the news release on www.mshsl.org.

While Chris Franson was posting the news on the web site and I was Tweeting it (as well as posting a link on the MSHSL Facebook page), MSHSL director of information Howard Voigt was using a mass email to send the news release to media members around the state.

The news spread very, very quickly. Broadcasters who had received the email as their 10 p.m. newscasts began hurriedly announced the rule changes, promising more information would follow.

The Twitter traffic was big. Here are a few examples of what was written…

--“Huge step for high school hockey. Great to see immediate change.”

--“I am glad MSHSL is being proactive, need USA Hockey to make this a bigger priority.”

--“The NCAA needs to make CFB (checking from behind) a five and a game misconduct like MSHSL just imposed.”

--“Very glad to see MSHSL rule changes. Those recent injuries really bother me.”

--“The new MSHSL rules for hockey are welcomed. I wonder how the on-ice officials feel about it. Will it be harder to police, sort out?”

--“MSHSL already taking bows for new checking rules. Give it time & coaches will say that refs have gone nuts calling majors & DQs.”

--“These penalties don't go far enuff - a rule breaker should be ejected, banned from high school hockey”

A news conference will be held Monday at the MSHSL office, allowing all media to have their questions answered. A few hockey games will be played around the state Monday evening, and as the season continues the new rules will be employed.

We will see what happens in the future. And now you know how we got here.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 249
*Miles John has driven: 5,558

--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
Sportsmanship, Human Kindness Trump Wins And Losses1/13/2012
This email arrived at MSHSL headquarters today. It is very self-explanatory...

I just wanted to share my story with you in the hopes that the deserving people would get some recognition. My name is Steve Schreiber. I am the head girls basketball coach in Menahga. I've been the head coach for the past three years and the culture we've developed here is a very tight-knit group of girls that both myself and my assistants care about very much.

The past week has seen an 11th-grade student in our school pass away and a 12th-grade student from neighboring Sebeka pass away. Being a small school the death in our student body was very devastating but many of the girls were friends or relatives of the girl who died in Sebeka as well. It is the toughest week I've had as a teacher or a coach and to see the team that I am so close with really hurting has made me hurt as well.

On Thursday, January 12th, my girls left school early to go to the funeral in Sebeka. We picked them up after the funeral and drove straight to our game with Bertha-Hewitt. Menahga and Bertha girls basketball haven't really been on the best of terms over the past handful of years so I didn't really know what to expect. We had just come off a rough, heartbreaking game against Nevis Tuesday night (and not heartbreaking because we lost, but more so because of some of the extracurricular things that happened and the pain my girls were going through). I was afraid of what another game like that would do to them.

Before the game even started Bertha's star player, Arei Stokes, came and gave me a sympathy card to read to my girls. I chose to hold off until after the game. When I read it, I saw the appreciation in all my girls' eyes. It truly meant a lot to them. The game played out and it gave my girls a few hours of relief from the pain and grieving they are going through. It was a hard-fought, but clean, game that allowed both teams to have fun.

After the game was over the Bertha girls were so respectful towards my girls, with some of them even coming over after the handshakes to give my girls hugs.

It truly meant so much to me to see the outpouring of positive thoughts towards my girls. Notice, I didn't mention a score, or who won or lost. That's because it didn't matter. The Bertha girls basketball team and coaching staff aided my team and me personally in our grieving process and for that I am so grateful.

Steve Schreiber
Menahga Public School