John's Journal
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
A Season Interrupted By Cancer, But Plenty To Be Thankful For9/1/2011
Nick Manzoni’s coach calls him a ridiculously talented soccer player. Which is part of the reason why not being able to play this season is ridiculously hard for the Orono senior attacker. But cancer does ridiculous things.

Manzoni, who was a Class A first-team all-state player a year ago, was considered one of the top candidates to be named Minnesota’s Mr. Soccer at the conclusion of the 2011 season. But over the summer, tests for recurring pain and soreness in his right calf showed Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare disease that accounts for only one percent of childhood cancers.

That means Manzoni (No. 10 at right) is undergoing chemotherapy, which is a weekly routine right now, followed by surgery in September and then more chemo. It also means no soccer this fall.

Not playing is “ridiculously hard, to be honest,” Nick said Wednesday night at Orono before the fifth-ranked Spartans lost a 3-2 overtime decision to St. Michael-Albertville. His doctors believe the cancer was found early enough that he should get a clean bill of health at the end of the treatment regimen. But again, sitting out his senior year is hard on him as well as his teammates.

Nick had 18 goals and 10 assists last season, when the Spartans reached the state quarterfinals. Fellow senior Willi Semsch said Nick’s play was crucial in getting through the Section 6 playoffs in 2010.

“In the section semifinals against Breck we were up 1-0 and he hit a shot from probably 35 or 40 yards out, chipped the goal, and that was pretty cool,” Semsch said. “And in the section finals against Benilde, which is probably our biggest rival, he pretty much dominated that game and scored two goals. That was huge.

“We’ve just got to step up as a team, all of us. No one of us is as good as him, so we’re going to have to do it as a team, as a whole. We’ve got to support each other.”

Another senior, Mason Whitney, said playing without Manzoni is “a huge difference because we had to completely change our offense. Generally our offense was kind of ‘Get Nick the ball, watch him dribble and watch everybody else run,’ because sooner or later about four people would draw to him and he would pass or just keep on dribbling and score a goal.”

Orono coach Brad Carlson said Manzoni is “a ridiculously good soccer player. He’s the complete package in soccer and he’s as smart as a whip.”

The cancer was diagnosed in June, and it wasn’t long before Debbie Manzoni saw a sight that brought her to tears … but these were tears of gratitude for Nick’s friends.

“He’s got some great, great, great buddies on the team and everywhere,” she said. “Nick started losing his hair and he got it buzzed but he said, ‘Nope, this won’t do. It’s still patchy.’ ”

So Nick and some of his friends shaved each other’s heads. “I came home to see all these bald heads sitting in the basement,” Debbie said. “I just started crying.”

At the Spartans’ first game this season, headbands bearing Nick’s number 10 and his initials (NWM for Nicholas William Manzoni) were unveiled. That’s just one of many ways Nick has been supported by his teammates, his friends and their families.

“He’s got good friends and they care about him a lot,” Carlson said. “His first week in the hospital, Willi and Mason spent the nights with him.”

Nick was preparing for a college showcase soccer event when the pain in his calf returned for the second time this year. He still plans to play college soccer, but the schedule has just been adjusted a little.

“I’ll see how I recover from this whole thing, but right now the plan is to recover by the end of January, get back on my club team and start playing a lot,” he said. “I might take a gap year to try and get in better shape.”

Semsch remembers Nick saying he had a pain in his leg, but soreness and minor injuries are nothing out of the ordinary for athletes.

“Then one day he said it might be cancer, and he told me a couple days later that it was cancer,” Semsch said. “I wanted him to be out on the soccer field with me, because he’s a really, really good player. And he’s one of my best friends, so it was tough in both senses.”

Before the Spartans opened the season at home against Maple Grove last week, Semsch asked Manzoni if he planned to be there. “He was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to kill me to not play.’ I know it’s just killing him,” Semsch said.

Whitney was on a school trip to Spain when he learned of Nick’s diagnosis. “It was a huge blow,” he said. “My friends told me online and I couldn’t really call him or anything. When I got home I just drove straight to the hospital.

“It’s really tough. It’s tough on all of us, and I would imagine it’s just tenfold and way, way worse for him. He doesn’t like to show his emotions that much but you can tell it’s just eating him up not being on the field, not playing with us. We’ve been building up to our senior year, we’ve been talking about it since day one. We went to state last year and we were planning on going even further this year.

“This is a huge wakeup call, when one of your best friends goes out. Everything’s fine and dandy, nobody’s ever been even sick, really. And then he ends up getting cancer.”

Cancer is certainly bad news, but there has been plenty of good news since Nick was diagnosed. The best bit of medical information came when the Manzonis learned that the cancer had not spread from Nick’s calf.

“We had so many people praying for us, and three prayers were answered,” Debbie said. “It could have spread to his lungs, to his bones and to his bone marrow. And each day for three days we received the results of those tests, saying, ‘Not in his lungs, not in his bones, not in his marrow.’ Thank you, Lord, for that good, good news.”

Nick goes into the hospital every Monday for chemotherapy, which is administered intravenously. He stays for three or five days each time. The chemo has had no side effects other than the loss of his hair.

“The doctor said he’s been like the poster child,” said Debbie. “There are a lot of things to be thankful for in the midst of a really awful, scary thing.”

--To see more photos, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 11
*Miles John has driven: 1,241

--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
A New Look And A New Season For Two Volleyball Powers8/30/2011
FARIBAULT -- Change was in the air for both teams long before Lakeville North and Bethlehem Academy opened the volleyball season here on Tuesday night. And then the whistle blew, the first ball of the season was struck and change was transformed into action.

Each team is ranked No. 2 in its class, and the 3A North Panthers defeated the 1A Bethlehem Academy Cardinals 25-16, 25-19, 25-22 in a great old gymnasium that included a nearly full house, a pep band, cheerleaders and an enthusiastic student section celebrating the first day of school at Bethlehem Academy.

About those changes …

Lakeville North was coming off a historic season. After 14 trips to the state tournament and five runner-up finishes between 1981 and 2007 (the first four as Lakeville, the fifth as Lakeville North), the Panthers finally won it all in 2010. But the landscape shifted dramatically during the offseason as coach Milan Mader retired after several decades and and hitter Taylr McNeil, who has already made a verbal commitment to play at the University of Minnesota, moved to Eagan and now is a sophomore for the Wildcats. McNeil’s sister Kellie, the 2010 player of the year in the state, is now a Gophers freshman.

North’s new coach is Steve Willingham, who was an assistant to Mader from 1986 to 2005.

The changes have not been quite so dramatic at Bethlehem Academy. The Cardinals lost all-state players Jena Budde and Victoria Nass to graduation but longtime Franz Boelter remains at the helm. The big adjustment for the Cardinals is that for the first time in eight years they are not coming off a trip to state.

Between 2002 and 2009, the Cardinals won 1A championships in all the odd-numbered years and finished second in all the even-numbered years. That string of state appearances ended last year with a loss to eventual state champion Wabasha-Kellogg in the Section 1 tournament finals.

The Cardinals are ready to begin the journey toward another possible state appearance, and as Boelter said after Tuesday’s match, the road is just beginning.

“We hung in there,” he said. “They made enough mistakes to help us out, and we made enough mistakes to prevent us from winning a set. It was a little bit of a sloppy first match, but at least we stayed competitive and hopefully we worked out some of the jitters and the kinks. We’ll certainly have a chance to get better, and we’ll certainly be pretty good by the end of the season.”

The sentiments were similar on the other bench. “I thought we played about how we expected,” Willingham said. “We’ve got a long way to go in some facets of the game. There are some things that we do really well right now, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to get better at them, either.”

North is skilled and powerful. Sophomore Alyssa Goehner and senior Kelly Nizzari, a pair of 5-foot-11 outside hitters, combined for 28 kills and 6-foot senior Nicole Latzig finished with five kills and a sterling .416 hitting percentage. Senior setter Jessica Wolf ran the offense nicely, recording 32 assists.

For the Cardinals -- who always rely on great defense -- junior hitters Maddie Borwege and Jessie Mathews combined for 16 kills and 5-11 ninth-grader Lauren Mathews had four while seventh-grader Payton Nutter and senior Daisy Jo Robinson combined for 21 assists.

“We are young and some of our youth has some experience,” Boelter said. “We’ve got a number of kids playing their first varsity match, and there was an excitability factor against a good team. (Lakeville North is) going to be a very good volleyball team, I think we’re going to be a very good volleyball team, and they’re just ahead of us right now.”

Lakeville North and Bethlehem Academy have been meeting during the regular season for several years now. The reasoning is simple: face the best competition you can and you’ll be well-prepared for the postseason. And opening the season in such an intimate, loud, crowded setting adds even more.

“This gym is awesome, isn’t it? You won’t play in a space like this very often,” Willingham said. “And there are only a couple of them left in high school volleyball, so that’s always fun. … We want to play the best teams, and Franz’s teams always play defense. And if you don’t play defense with them, they’re going to hand you your lunch. It was a fun match and we love playing these guys.”

TIDBITS …

--The Bethlehem Academy band – including a couple of cheerleaders who picked up their instruments between cheers -- put on a sterling performance before the match started. How nice is this: a play list that included songs by Lady Gaga, The White Stripes, the Spencer Davis Group and Roy Orbison.

--The out-of-town media was very well-treated by Bethlehem Academy athletic director Ed Friesen. Before the match got going, Ed handed me a complementary diet soft drink that shall not be named and a world-famous Bethlehem Academy chocolate chunk cookie.

--Celebrities in the crowd: It was a pleasure to chat with former Apple Valley coach Walt Weaver, who has forgotten more about volleyball than I will ever know. I also ran into veteran broadcasters Mike Morrissey, who has been behind the microphone since 1967. Mike had the night off, and his colleague Gordy Kosfelt handled play-by-play duties for KDHL in Faribault.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 9
*Miles John has driven: 1,199

--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
Bloomington Jefferson, Wabasha-Kellogg New No. 1 Volleyball Teams8/29/2011
The state volleyball rankings are only in their second week, but there has already been change at the top.

Preseason 3A No. 1 Lakeville North is No. 2 this week behind Bloomington Jefferson, and in 1A Wabasha-Kellogg has risen from No. 2 to No. 1 ahead of previously top-ranked Nevis (now No. 4).

Jackson County Central maintained the No. 1 spot in 2A. Here are the rankings …

CLASS 3A
1. Bloomington Jefferson (10) 220
2. Lakeville North (5) 196
3. Wayzata 188
4. Blaine 167
5. Lakeville South 159
6. Shakopee 138
7. Centennial 113
8. Eden Prairie 106
9. Hopkins 95
10. Andover 60
Others: Eagan (53), Hutchinson (26), East Ridge (21), Waconia (21), Apple Valley (19), Totino-Grace (10), Prior Lake (9)

CLASS 2A
1. Jackson County Central (4) 150
2. Lesuer-Henderson (3) 145
3. Stewartville (2) 132
4. Belle Plaine (1) 116
5. Marshall 102
6. Maple Lake 92
Kasson-Mantorville 92
8. Visitation 75
9. Wadena-Deer Creek 55
10. Byron 12
Others: Caledonia (7)

CLASS 1A
1. Wabasha-Kellogg (7) 158
2. Bethlehem Academy (1) 151
3. Mayer Lutheran (1) 139
4. Nevis (2) 137
5. Minneota 112
6. Win-E-Mac 102
7. BBE 99
8. Southwest Christian 94
9. Canby 56
10. Ada-Borup 47
Others: MACCRAY (39)
Zero Week Football: The Games, The Food, The Livestock And More8/27/2011
Before getting into the details of this little essay, let’s quickly recap what has taken place in the last few days:

The MSHSL announced a robotics partnership … the football season began with seven Zero Week games … the competive season opened for volleyball, cross-country, soccer and girls swimming and diving … I spent 13 hours behind the wheel over three days going to New London-Spicer, Fulda and St. Peter and had more fun than should be allowed by law.

Robotics is an activity that has been growing around the state as well as the country, and the MSHSL’s partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) will help expand opportunities for students in Minnesota.

And if robots can be taught to play football, I know a few coaches who would be very happy if the robotic gridders could avoid turnovers and penalties, because that was a major theme of the two Zero Week games I witnessed. There were six turnovers in Murray County Central’s 24-18 double-overtime win at Fulda on Thursday, and nine turnovers in St. Peter’s 7-0 victory over visiting Minnewaska on Friday. I’m not sure how many penalty flags were thrown, but a bunch of officials may need treatment for sore shoulders after tossing all that yellow laundry.

“We had a lot of turnovers that we can’t afford, and they did, too, and there were a lot of penalties with it. But we came away with the win,” said Murray County Central coach Chris Davis.

The Fulda-Murray County Central and Minnewaska-St. Peter games were stark contrasts. Fulda and MCC in Slayton are only 13 miles apart. They have a cooperative team in wrestling and have been meeting on athletic fields for as long as anyone can remember. Thursday’s game appears to be the last time they’ll meet in football, however, because Fulda will move from Class 1A to Nine-Man beginning with this year’s playoffs.

“Fulda’s always a tough opponent,” Davis said. “I got here 14 years ago and I think they were playing each other 100 years before that. It’s always a good game.”

It’s a different story with Minnewaska (in Glenwood) and St. Peter. They are 150 miles apart and to anyone’s recollection they had not met in football since around 1990. St. Peter coach Brian Odland said Zero Week was a big thing for the Saints, who in order to play eight games in 2010 faced Blue Earth twice during the regular season and could have had a third meeting in the playoffs.

WHEN ZERO WEEK WAS studied and approved, I bet few people realized that conflicts with the state fair would be a factor. Murray County Central running back Austin Kluis had to choose between playing football at Fulda or showing cattle at the state fair (he chose football) and four Minnewaska starters missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because they were showing livestock at the fair.

But Zero Week scheduling has paid dividends for Murray County Central in three major ways: it removed a previous conflict between the county fair (when many players are showing livestock) and the first week of practice, the Rebels will play Adrian this Thursday and still enjoy a long Labor Day weekend, then take their mandated bye week and have extra time to prepare for their Sept. 16 Homecoming game against Canby.

“Zero Week has been fantastic,” Davis said. “There’s not one negative thing.”

INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM: Fulda co-coaches Mike Pagel and Greg Erdmann allowed me inside the locker room (which is also the wrestling practice room) before the Raiders took the field. The 20 boys in uniform listened to their coaches talk about new rules this year and about their last chance to play MCC.

“We’re ready guys,” Pagel told the boys. “On offense we’re going to run, run, run. Play hard, hit hard and do it right.” After everybody took a knee for a few silent seconds, Pagel said simply, “Let’s go. Good luck.”

LET’S TALK ABOUT food, which always is part of football games (at least for me). Fulda boosters served a terrific pregame meal, with your choice of a burger or brat with chips, drink (Diet Coke in my case, of course) and a homemade cookie or bar for six bucks. Best deal in town. In St. Peter I had the good ol’ concession standby: two hot dogs and a soft drink that shall not be named.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK (Part I, overheard in St. Peter) ... Teen Girl A: "Is the game over?" Teen Girl B: "No, it's halftime." Teen Girl A: "I don't understand football."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK (Part II, overheard at halftime in Fulda while Michael Jackson’s 1972 version of “Rockin’ Robin” was played on the sound system): “This is old music. But I’m only 12 and a half.”

SEASON'S BEST HAIRCUT ... St. Peter's Jordan Phillips has a dandy. To see it displayed in a postgame video interview, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD …

--The year has barely begun and I’ve already driven more than 1,000 miles. At least it ain’t snowing. In this stretch I hit the A&W in New London, McDonald’s in Windom and assorted convenience stores for refreshments (as well as, uh, refreshment breaks).

--This week’s animal count: Two live pheasants, two dead raccoons.

--Favorite sights: The vast array of American flags that line Highway 60 in Elysian, as well as beautiful Lake Elysian.

--You know you’re at a small-town football game when: The officials pull up behind one end zone in two vehicles and set up lawn chairs for their halftime break.

--You knew football season had arrived when: The first song played on the Fulda PA system was Kenny Chesney’s “The Boys of Fall.”

--Media pros I chatted with at the games: Joe Brown of the Marshall Independent, Aaron Hagen of the Worthington Daily Globe, Dirk Abraham of KDOM radio in Windom, Chad Courrier and Pat Christman of the Mankato Free Press, Dave McClurg of KMGK radio in Glenwood and Erick Lind of KEYC-TV in Mankato. In St. Peter I also had a nice chat with my friend Tim Kennedy of Gustavus Adolphus College; Tim was the longtime sports information director and was recently named assistant vice president and director of multimedia innovation (that title means we talked about things like Twitter and Facebook).

--Football’s everywhere: As I drove out of St. Peter and headed home Friday night, I hit the AM radio scan buttom. The dial stopped on some fuzzy play-by-play of a football game. I couldn’t make out many details until I got out in the country and the signal cleared up. The Byrd High School Yellow Jackets had just defeated the Southwood Cowboys 21-0 … in Shreveport … Louisiana.

--To see photo galleries from the games in Fulda and St. Peter, check out the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 7
*Miles John has driven: 1,129

--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