John's Journal
Thinking Back To Ten Years Ago This Week9/8/2011
I’ll always remember where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had an appointment to speak to a class at Bloomington Jefferson High School, and I turned on the radio at home as I was getting dressed for the day.

There was talk of something bad happening in New York City. I turned on the TV in the kitchen and saw a big black smoldering hole in the side of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane had apparently struck the building, but nobody knew anything more than that. Before long another aircraft blasted into the other twin tower.

I drove to Bloomington Jefferson, arriving a few minutes early. I listened to the radio in the car for as long as I could and then walked into the school and was escorted to the room where the Sports Literature class was meeting. There were televisions in the classrooms, but because of construction work in the school none of the TVs were working. I told the class everything I had learned from listening to the radio, and then we were all in blackout mode.

After the class period ended, I drove to the Star Tribune building in downtown Minneapolis. Like everyone else in the newsroom, I watched the scenes on television. The Pentagon was on fire … a plane had apparently gone down in Pennsylvania.

Fast-forward a few years and I was back at Jefferson, writing about a memorial stone that had been installed at the school in honor of former Jaguars quarterback Tom Burnett, who died when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. I also wrote about former Blake linebacker Gordy Aamoth, who died in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11. The stadium at Blake now bears his name and a twisted beam from the World Trade Center is on display at the stadium.

In the Sept. 14, 2001, edition of the Star Tribune, I wrote a column under the headline “High school sports can help the healing.” I had spoken with people at Colorado’s Columbine High School as well as Osceolo High School in Wisconsin, where a traffic accident had claimed twin brothers a few weeks before Sept. 11. That column seemed to resonate with readers at the time, and to this day people occasionally will mention it to me. I have heard from a few people who say they saved that column, and they read it every day as Sept. 11 comes around. That is equally touching and humbling.

Here is that column as it appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sept. 14, 2001…

High School Sports Can Help The Healing

In the horrible wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all after-school activities were canceled Tuesday in the Jefferson County (Colo.) School District. This didn't surprise Ed Woytek, the athletic director at Columbine High School.

The day's events hit Columbine hard, especially the senior class. They were freshmen on April 20, 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

"Our coaches and all of us are on kind of a fine line, especially with what happened here previously," Woytek said.

Columbine still is recovering from that day. Recovery also is an ongoing process in Osceola, Wis., where twin brothers Eric and Aaron Kipp, 18, died in a car accident on the way to football practice 30 days ago.

With thousands of innocent people presumed to have perished this week, what do you say? How do you heal? Maybe it's best to listen to the kids. That's among the lessons learned at Columbine and Osceola.

"Pretty much all of them are saying to us, 'We need to be a family,'" Woytek said. "Because that's what happened a few years ago; they got with family. And that's where we need to be, that's where our American people need to be, is with family."

After the Kipp brothers died, football practices were stopped for a short period. But soon, everyone wanted to return -- or try to return -- to some sense of normalcy.

"Very soon, the kids were ready to go back," said Osceola coach/principal Mike McMartin. "They said, 'Coach, I need to keep busy.' And they were right. When we jumped back into it, although they weren't the best practices in the world, there was almost a big sigh of relief that they could start moving forward and take with us all the good things that the boys had shared with us for so many years, instead of thinking about the bad."

Activities went on as scheduled Tuesday in Osceola, the day of the attacks.

"We just really felt during that time it was massively important that we show to the kids, 'Hey, we're going on. We're not going to let these people defeat us or take us off our feet here. We're going to move forward and be proud,'" McMartin said.

At Columbine and Osceola, tragedy struck a specific community of people. This week, tragedy struck us all.

The Columbine Rebels take a 1-1 record into tonight's game at Dakota Ridge. Osceola is 3-0 and the homecoming opponent for rival St. Croix Falls. The games go on, as do our lives.

"Everybody keeps saying we'll never get back to normal, just like our nation will never get back to normal," Woytek said. "But hopefully we're going to get as close to normal as we can."

So if sporting events are part of your normal routine, stick with it. If you haven't been to a high school game in years, tonight would be a wonderful time to go. Get away from the television, escape the headlines. Find a seat in the bleachers and take a break, however temporary, from all that's gone so wretchedly wrong in this world.

Watch the team captains shake hands before the coin flip. Hold your hand over your heart during the national anthem as the flag flutters at half-staff. Bow your head during the moment of silence to honor this week's victims. Get on your feet for the opening kickoff. Watch our young people -- players, cheerleaders, fans -- as they smile, holler and laugh together during this evening that is tradition both athletic and social. Buy popcorn, listen to the band, cheer first downs, simply celebrate.

Maybe administrators at every school can find a recording of God Bless America, and across our states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and beyond -- we'll sing together when the game ends. Just like a family.
A Big Loss For Wayzata Football And Latest Cross-Country Rankings9/7/2011
If you watched Wayzata’s 31-14 victory over Rosemount in the Class 5A football state title game last year, you remember the performance of then-sophomore Mitchell Underhill. He ran 12 times for 247 yards and touchdowns of 45, 66, 58 and 58 yards.

Underhill suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week’s 47-20 season-opening victory at Prior Lake. Wayzata will play at Eagan this Friday.

--The top-ranked teams remained unchanged in this week’s cross-country polls released by the coaches association, but there were some shifts at the top of the individual rankings.

In Class 1A girls, Blake’s Clare Flanagan has risen from No. 7 in the preseason rankings to the current No. 1 spot. And in Class 2A boys, Wayzata’s Josh Thorson has moved from No. 2 to No. 1.

Here are all the rankings…

CLASS 2A

Boys Teams
1. Stillwater
2. Wayzata
3. Rosemount
4. Edina
5. Moorhead
6. Andover
7. White Bear Lake
8. Eastview
9. Mounds View
10. Eden Prairie
11. Owatonna
12. Sartell – St Stephen
Others receiving votes: Burnsville, Forrest Lake, Mahtomedi, Monticello

Boys Individuals
1. Josh Thorson, Wayzata
2. Zach Roozen, Mounds View
3. Glen Ellingson, Moorhead
4. Cole O'Brien, Burnsville
5. Riley Macon, Rochester Mayo
6. Tom Linner, Stillwater
7. Nathan Rock, Rosemount
8. Mubarik Musa, Worthington
9. Jan Ketterson, Bloomington Jefferson
10. Joel Reichow, White Bear Lake
11. Joey Duerr, Chaska
12. Connor Olson, Wayzata
Others receiving votes: Tyler Broadwell, Sartell - St Stephen; Ahmed Bule, St Paul Central; Will Burke, Edina; Wayde Hall, Stillwater; Sidney Speir, Eagan; Parker Wharram, Mound Westonka

Girls Teams
1. Monticello
2. Lakeville South
3. Eden Prairie
4. Andover
5. Prior Lake
6. Wayzata
7. Roseville
8. Eagan
9. East Ridge
10. Sartell
11. Alexandria
12. Stillwater

Girls Individuals
1. Maria Hauger, 11, Shakopee
2. Jamie Piepenburg, 12, Alexandria
3. Erica Seidenkrantz, 12, Monticello
4. Nicole Heitzman, 11, Andover
5. Amber Seidenkratz, 10, Monticello
6. Kaelyn Williams, 12, Robbinsdale Cooper
7. Jenna Truedson, 9, Bemidji
8. Danielle Anderson, 11, Eagan
9. Emily Knapczyk, 12, Armstrong
10. Chrissy Monson, 11, Albert Lea
11. Taylor Scholl, 12, Prior Lake
12. Piper Bain, 12, Edina

CLASS 1A

Boys Teams
1. St. Cloud Cathedral
2. Minnehaha Academy
3. Perham
4. Esko
5. Winona Cotter
6. Waseca
7. Blake
8. Albany
9. Mora
10. Plainview-Elgin-Millville
11. LaCrescent
12. St.James

Boys Individuals
1. Brandon Clark Blake
2. Jonnathan Surber St. James
3. Shane Streich Waseca
4. Byron Schuldt Nevis
5. Matt Welch Proctor
6. Nick Stoks Canby-Minneota/LinHi
7. Jacob Siekmeier Math&Science Acad
8. Cade Ekstrom Madelia/Truman
9. Charlie Lawrence Foley
10. Jesse Delgado Waseca
11. Matt Schrupp Winona Cotter
12. Micheal Wagner Eveleth-Gilbert

Girls Teams
1. Adrian
2. St. Cloud Cathedral
3. Blake
4. LaCrescent
5. Waseca
6. Albany
7. Annandale
8. Park Rapids
9. Perham
10. United South Central/AC
11. Trinity at River Ridge
12. Esko

Girls Individuals
1. Clare Flanagan Blake
2. Jordan Kopplow Adrian
3. Cheyanne Bower S., James
4. Victoria Alexander Lake of the Woods
5. Emi Trost Cannon Falls
6. Greta Danielson St. Cloud Cath.
7. Jordan Chancellor Blake
8. Sally O”Brien Waseca
9. Kallyn Knutson Esko
10. Lydia Lutz Park Rapids
11. McKenzie Holt St. Cloud Christian
12. Megan Sauer Adrian
Volleyball Rankings: More Change At The Top In 1A9/6/2011
For the third time in as many weeks, there is a new team in the No. 1 spot in the Class 1A state volleyball rankings. Nevis was No. 1 in the preseason poll, Wabasha-Kellogg was in the top position last week and this week Bethlehem Academy is the new No.1.

The 3A and 2A leaders remain unchanged, with Bloomington Jefferson No. 1 in 3A and Jackson County Central No. 1 in 2A.

Bethlehem Academy has played two matches and has a record of 1-1. But the Cardinals’ opening opponents have not been slouches. Bethlehem Academy lost to Lakeville North (the defending 3A champ and current No. 2 team) 3-0 in the season opener and then went to Marshall (No. 5 this week in 2A) and came away with a 3-0 win.

Here are this week’s rankings, courtesy of the state volleyball coaches association…

CLASS 3A
1. Bloomington Jefferson (14) 261
2. Lakeville North (3) 236
3. Wayzata 222
4. Blaine 196
5. Lakeville South 175
6. Shakopee 174
7. Centennial 150
8. Eden Prairie 113
9. Andover 71
10. Eagan 59
Others: Hopkins (42), Chanhassen (32), Waconia (28), Hill-Murray (22), Burnsville (21), Apple Valley (8), Minnetonka (2)

CLASS 2A
1. Jackson County Central (8) 133
2. Stewartville (1) 127
3. Belle Plaine 112
4. Lesuer-Henderson 108
5. Marshall 103
6. Maple Lake 77
Kasson-Mantorville 77
8. Byron 74
9. Wadena-Deer Creek 67
10. Visitation 39
Others: Jordan (28), Esko (6), Caledonia (6) Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (4)

CLASS 1A
1. Bethlehem Academy (9) 190
2. Wabasha-Kellogg (2) 176
3. Nevis (2) 158
4. Mayer Lutheran 155
5. Minneota 144
6. Win-E-Mac 127
7. Southwest Christian 123
8. BBE 112
9. Canby 71
10. Ada-Borup 59
Others: MACCRAY (31), Mabel-Canton (7), Sebeka (6), Hancock (6), Martin County West (5)
Remembering A Teammate, An Opponent And What Sportsmanship Means9/6/2011
WABASHA – Across Minnesota last Friday, 104 high school football games were played. Every one of those games was important, but what took place prior to one specific game was very, very special.

It was a scene unlike anything I have witnessed in several decades of writing about sports of all kinds, from the professional ranks to the youth level. I doubt I will ever see anything like it again. The story, which began a year ago with a terrible tragedy, continued Friday evening with memories, tears and special tributes.

Cole Younker was 16 years old when he was killed in a car accident on Sept. 10 last year. He was a passenger in a car that collided with a semi-trailer on Highway 61 in Wabasha. Cole was a three-sport athlete at Wabasha-Kellogg High School.

On Friday, Southland High School’s football team played at Wabasha-Kellogg in the first game of the season for both teams. As Southland coach Shawn Kennedy told me, “We wanted to do something in honor of and in memory of the young man who was killed. We wanted to do something to really show true sportsmanship.”

It was a simple act, really, involving the planting of a tree and releasing of balloons. But simple acts can have the greatest impact.

The planning began when Southland athletic director Bill Feuchtenberger phoned Wabasha-Kellogg athletic director/football coach Nick Richmond. “He said Southland wanted to do something when the time was right,” Richmond said. “We decided we were going to do a tree and he said, ‘Whatever it takes, just send us a bill and we’ll do it.’ ”

Cole’s mother, Bonnie Younker, was asked to select a tree and she picked out a beauty. It’s a red maple, which will someday stand 35 to 40 foot tall. It was paid for by Southland. Between warm-ups and the start of Friday’s game, both teams lined up on either side of the planting site, which is in a corner of the football/track complex. Four captains from each squad placed the tree in a hole (that had been dug by Richmond a day earlier) and then used shovels to fill in the dirt around the trunk.

Bonnie stood with the Wabasha-Kellogg Falcons and cried while the tree in memory of Cole was planted. When the job was done, she hugged all eight captains.

It was quite a sight: young boys in football uniforms (minus helmets) taking their time and working together to get that tree started on its new life. A few fans gathered around to watch. Some of them cried and others sniffed back the tears.

“I’m very fortunate, along with the rest of the coaching staff, in that we get to play in a conference, the Three Rivers North and South, in which all of us coaches get along very well,” Kennedy had told me earlier. “When something like this happens, I think it affects everybody. He was a son, a sibling and it was a devastating thing. Why not try and do something in his honor, to really show that it’s only a game and to really show true sportsmanship? We always talk about being a class act at Southland, and Nick does the same thing over here, and that’s what it’s all about.”

On the right shoulder of each Falcons jersey this season are two small black numbers: 32. That was Cole’s number. Stickers with his number were affixed to their helmets. Some of the players had written Cole’s initials, CJR, on black anti-glare patches they wore under their eyes. Some have tattoos dedicated to Cole.

On Thursday, Richmond sat down to watch the film from last year’s game between Wabasha-Kellogg and Southland. He admitted that it was hard to watch as Cole made tackles, and he didn’t let the players watch the video.

“The one-year anniversary is coming up and the kids are still feeling it,” he said.

As a recording of the national anthem was played, the teams stood in lines at each end of the field. Bonnie Younker and several other women then brought out bundles of balloons and handed one to each Falcon. The players had written notes to Cole, which had been placed inside the balloons. As the balloons were released into the warm Minnesota sky, they floated up and began taking a southwesterly tack toward the nearby Mississippi River.

“I get goosebumps when I say this, but this is why we do this,” said Kennedy. “I’m starting my 27th year of coaching. And let me tell you something, I think this is pretty special to be able to be a part of this and help do something for Wabasha and for the family.

“I lost my father when he went in for gall bladder surgery and never came home. It just brings back those kinds of feelings for me personally. I am very blessed, because 55 of these kids drove six and a half hours in a snowstorm to be at my dad’s wake service. That’s pretty special. It’s only a game, and this puts it in perspective that there are more important things.”

The game ended with Southland winning 48-0. But that’s not the memory that will remain. The sight of a grieving mother, of young boys doing something larger than themselves and their game, of all those balloons sailing away ... all of it unforgettable.

“In a weird way, I expected a call from them just because I know coach Kennedy,” Richmond said. “From the first time I met him, he was a class act. I love the guy. So I knew it was coming. How do you show sportsmanship better than what they’re doing?”

As the season opener neared, some of the Falcons wrote notes to Cole that were separate from the notes that sailed away with the balloons. One of them read:

“Hey buddy, we miss you. It’s not the same here any more. We’re playing for you, OK? Thanks for everything you’ve ever done to and for me. Miss you.”

--To see a photo gallery of the tree planting and balloon release, as well as video, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 15
*Miles John has driven: 1,466

--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
Future Gophers QB Helps Journalist Break The Rules9/2/2011
NEW PRAGUE -- There is a cardinal rule in this business of sports writing: You never conduct interviews until after the game has ended. That’s why I was quite surpised when Mankato West football Mark Esch offered to let me violate that rule Thursday night.

There was no drama taking place. The West Scarlets had long ago tied a big ribbon on their season-opening victory over the New Prague Trojans. The score was 22-0 after one quarter, 52-0 at halftime and 60-6 with a few minutes to play in the fourth quarter as I stood on the West sideline chatting with Esch.

There was no mystery about who the media would interrogate after time ran out. West quarterback Philip Nelson, who might be the highest-profile high school player in Minnesota, had put on a big show. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound senior completed 10 of 16 passes for 184 yards and five touchdowns, and also ran the ball 11 times for 135 yards and another score. And that was just in the first half; he didn't set foot on the field after halftime.

Nelson committed to the University of Minnesota in February, and Thursday’s performance is sure to be noticed by Gophers fans. I was looking forward to interviewing the three-year starter following the usual timetable: 1) game ends, 2) teams shake hands, 3) coaches speak to their players, 4) reporters ask questions.

But out of the blue, Esch said, “John, would you like to talk to Philip now?” I stammered and stuttered a bit, surprised by the in-game offer. I said, “That’s something I would never ask to do, but if it’s OK with you, sure.” So the coach hollered, “Phil!” Nelson walked over to us, Mark introduced his quarterback to the guy from the MSHSL and the pre-postgame interview began.

“I just knew the Gophers was where I wanted to go,” Nelson said. “The coaching staff has such a hard-nosed program, they’re disciplining everybody, they’re going to make me a better person and I think they’re going to start winning sooner than what a lot of people think. That really excites me. I want to be part of my home state and help turn around the program.”

The final score was Mankato West 60, New Prague 14 and the entire second half was played under running time. Rules allow running time to be used in the fourth quarter when the margin is 35 points or more, but coaches have the option to speed the clock sooner. Shortly before halftime, Esch asked the officials if they would talk to New Prague coach Jim Benick about going to running time right away in the second half, and that’s what happened.

West is ranked No. 1 in Class 4A for good reason ... and Nelson is the biggest reason. He connected with Hunter Friesen for touchdown passes of 16, 11 and 24 yards, and found Konor Severns for scoring plays of 26 and 12 yards. Nelson also ran for a 12-yard score and Jordan Hage had a 5-yard TD carry for the Scarlets.

“I think the game has really slowed down for him, even from last year to this year,” Esch (right) said. “He put on an extra 20 pounds in the offseason. He sees things well and he’s focused.”

The West defense, meanwhile, held New Prague to less than 50 yards of offense in the first half; the Trojans never got within 45 yards of the end zone until the third quarter.

“He did a nice job,” Benick said of Nelson. “He executed, he’s physical, he put the ball on the money. He’s a nice player, a nice competitor. The best way to stop him is keep him off the field. And we weren’t doing that at all.”

Nelson, who kicked off four times and would have punted if the Scarlets had lined up in punt formation in the first half, said, “I think we played really hard. We executed really well offensively and defensively and we just played an all-around great game. But there’s always room for improvement.”

West had an overall record of 34-3 in the past three season. They won the 2008 Class 4A state title (when Nelson started one game as a freshman), lost in the state semifinals in 2009 and in the state quarterfinals last season. Nelson has started every game since the start of the 2009 season, and his goal this season is to take home another state championship.

“I’m so excited for my senior year,” he said. “This is our senior class’s last chance to play together and win state, and I’ve been looking forward to my senior year more than anything else. This is the most unbelievable year that you can ever experience, playing with the kids you grew up with. We’re taking it week by week.”

It’s safe to consider Week 1 a smashing success ... even if the rules of journalism were ignored.

--To see a photo gallery from Thursday's game, as well as a postgame video interview with Nelson, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 13
*Miles John has driven: 1,295

--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