John's Journal
The Best of John's Journal: No. 6/ A Season On The Road With The Windom Eagles7/14/2019
This is No. 6 on the list of my favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. I rode the bus with the Windom football team to a game in Jackson, which was nothing special because the Eagles played every game in the fall of 2018 on the road. They are a very inspirational group. This story was originally posted on September 23.

WINDOM – Kevin Heggeseth turned the key and fired the engine in the school bus at 5:15 p.m. on Friday. The Windom Area Eagles football team was on the road again, players sitting side by side and their gear loaded onto a trailer pulled behind bus No. 23.

As the bus headed south on U.S. Highway 71, one of the last sights on the edge of town was Island Park, home of the Eagles football and baseball teams. The place was nothing but mud, and that had little to do with recent heavy rain. Flooding from the Des Moines River, which circles the park like a mean, muddy snake, took a big bite into Island Park over the spring and into summer, and it was now a construction site. New irrigation was being sunk into the earth, low spots were being raised and grass seed and sod will come soon.

It will be a showplace once again, but during this football season the Eagles are homeless. Friday's 21-mile trip to Jackson County Central was another chapter in an eight-game regular season of loading the bus at school, unloading the bus at someone else’s field, playing the game and returning to Windom.

"It’s pretty sad, not being able to experience the environment of playing at home again,” said senior Nick Nolt. “The Friday night lights, your home crowd, there’s nothing better than that.”

The Friday night lights were certainly shining in Jackson, where the JCC Huskies are one of the top programs in Class 3A. They brought a No. 5 ranking and 3-0 record into this Week 4 game and defeated the winless Eagles 51-0. The JCC band was on hand, as were cheerleaders waving three giant flags bearing a J and two Cs, folks from the local American Legion post marching with the pregame colors, and the Lions Club selling pork chops on a stick.

Nobody in Windom is experiencing anything similar this autumn. The situation is the same at Kenyon-Wanamingo, where a new football field and the school’s first track are being constructed this fall, leaving the Knights with only road games.

The Windom school board approved the work at Island Park in August, shortly before football practice began. Head coach Travis Martin, who was an assistant the past two years, immediately let his players know what the 2018 season would entail.

“It’s a credit to the kids, they haven’t let it bother them,” said Martin, 28, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., who teaches science. “Most of my kids play baseball and the summer town team didn’t get to play any home games, either.

“I’ve got a tremendous group of seniors, really solid kids. They’ve been resilient. Last year we rolled through our season with 28 players. Now we have 36, and our eighth grade has 25, so there’s hope on the horizon. They’ve gone through some battles, so at this point it’s just one more thing for them to handle.”

Windom is not currently known as a football town. The Eagles won three games in 2015, two in 2016 and finished 3-6 last season. Numbers have been an issue, but Martin is confident that things are on the upswing. The 2018 team is young, with a sophomore quarterback and freshmen playing important roles.

Things were not looking great a few days before the game in Jackson. A handful of players were ill, but thankfully almost everybody was on the bus Friday night.

Like most of the players, Martin listened to music through earbuds during the ride to Jackson. “The same kind of stuff I listened to when I played,” he said; Eminem, “The Boys of Fall” by Kenny Chesney.

The bus was quiet as it rolled past cows, corn and soybeans, the crops having made the big turn from summer green to autumn shades of gold and brown. Swans paddled around on Laurs Lake, giant wind turbines rotated in the sky and before long the Jackson water tower and grain elevators appeared in the distance under a patchwork of clouds and blue.

A sign stated that the Jackson County Central National Honor Society was in charge of keeping this stretch of roadway clean, followed by notice that the bus was entering Jackson (population 3,299). The bus ducked under Interstate 90, with ramps marked for Albert Lea to the east and Sioux Falls to the west.

The field in Jackson was damp but not soaked; Huskies coach Tom Schuller explained the site was once a gravel pit and drainage was not a problem.

After warmups, Martin spoke to the Eagles on a practice field behind the north end zone. “This is our opportunity,” he said. “We only get so many of these. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Jackson County Central took advantage quickly, scoring a 50-yard touchdown on the game’s second play. The busiest Eagles player might have been senior punter Tim Ingram. The halftime score was 24-0.

“We can still make a fight out of this,” Martin said to the boys during the intermission. “We’ve got to believe. They expect us to come out and roll over. Don’t do it.”

Although outnumbered and outsized, the Eagles did not roll over. Neither did their cheerleaders, who remained upbeat throughout the evening as a large contingent of Windom fans cheered for their boys. None of that, however, changed the outcome; running time was used in the fourth quarter and the game ended at 9:08 p.m.

As the players climbed back aboard bus No. 23, they grabbed sandwiches, chips and drinks that had been prepared – as for every game this season -- by their mothers. Martin, the last to board, asked one of his assistant coaches, “Got 36, coach?” Yes, all 36 players had been accounted for and the wheels began turning at 9:28.

Quiet talking, joking and laughter were heard on the ride back to Windom, with a few faces illuminated by cell phones. Someone turned up music on his phone, which caused the head coach to stand and say, “Hey guys, turn the music off.” Celebratory music may come following a victory. As the bus pulled into Windom, a loud burp emanated from the back of the bus.

In a darkened school hallway, Nolt and fellow senior Alex Borsgard talked about the flooded field, the season and the weekly bus rides.

“I saw it coming,” Alex said. “I was disappointed, obviously, but it is what it is. You’ve just got to deal with it. I guess it is kind of hard to get used to the thought that you won’t play another home game in your hometown on your home field in front of the home crowd.”

Nick said, “Obviously I was pretty upset. I had a little bit of anger about it. But there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

Martin told the team to get some rest; they would gather again in the morning to officiate middle-school football games. The coach would be at school for another hour or more into the night, going through video of the game and posting it online for the players to view.

Martin said he wasn’t worried that the road-only schedule, coupled with the losses, would sap the spirit of his players.

“Early on in the year, that was a concern for me. Jackson is the second really good team we’ve played this year. We had a tough one with Pipestone and our kids don’t quit. That’s what every coach has told me, ‘Your kids keep fighting to the end.’ In this day and age, that’s good to see.”

Go Eagles go.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 7/ Great Kate: ‘She’s Just Like Any Other Teenager’7/12/2019
Here is No. 7 on the list of my favorite John's Journal stories from 2018-19. Kate Jorgenson from Westbrook-Walnut Grove is one of the most inspirational people I have ever known as well as being one of the most down-to-earth. This story was originally posted on December 13.

WESTBROOK – Kate Jorgenson stood a couple steps behind the three-point line and she was ready when the basketball came to her. She took aim at the basket, fired quickly and the ball hit nothing but net as fans of the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Chargers cheered. It was a remarkable shot by a remarkable athlete.

I first wrote about Kate when she was a ninth-grader on her school's golf team. She's now a 16-year-old junior, and the fact that her left arm was amputated above the elbow after an ATV accident in 2013 has never slowed her down.

"She’s just like any other teenager," Chargers coach Adam Kletscher said before Westbrook-Walnut Grove dropped a 45-42 decision to the Adrian Dragons in a Red Rock Conference game Tuesday night. “She likes to joke around, she likes to have fun.”

Tuesday was a long day for Kate. She was awake at 4:45 a.m. and on a school bus bound for the state Capitol in St. Paul – three hours away from her home in southwest Minnesota -- by 6:15 with other American Government students who are involved in a program called “We the People.” They toured the Capitol, made a We the People presentation to a panel of judges as part of the program’s competitive process, then headed back home in the afternoon.

Kate played the first half of that evening’s B squad game and came off the bench throughout the varsity game. “I’m tired,” she said with a smile afterwards.

Her parents, Nikki and Jim, watched the games from the stands. Nikki teaches fifth grade in the district and Jim runs the family farm two miles outside of Westbrook. They, like everyone else, love their daughter’s positive attitude and are amazed by what she continues to accomplish.

“The only thing she gave up was playing the violin,” Jim said, adding that Kate continues to practice the piano and perform at recitals. She plays volleyball in the fall, golfs in the spring, is a lifeguard and certified swimming instructor.

When she came off the bench in Tuesday’s varsity game for the first time, four minutes in, she wiped the soles of both shoes with her right hand and went to work. On defense she was positioned in the lane, displaying quick footwork in the Chargers’ zone, blocking out would-be rebounders and inbounding the ball after Adrian scored.

She brought the ball upcourt at one point, passing to point guard Grace Woelber once she reached the center line.

Imagine trying to catch the ball, shoot the ball or rebound the ball with one hand. It’s not an easy proposition.

Asked if he does anything differently in coaching a player who doesn’t have two hands, Kletscher said, “Right away I wondered, I debated but then I said no. She doesn’t want to be treated any differently. She’s a normal teenage girl on my basketball team. You might talk with her about how to curl a rebound or things like that. I’ll tell her, ‘Keep your arm straight up’ (to avoid fouls) and you’re doing the same things for every other girl on the team, too.”

Kate said, “It’s really hard for me to catch the ball in the post and go for a layup, so I usually try to stay on the outside and shoot my outside shot. I can just like feel it when I let it go. I’ve spent a lot of time catching the ball and releasing it.”

In Kate’s first basketball season after the accident, Jim coached her sixth-grade team. At one of the first practices he asked for volunteers to dribble the ball upcourt. Everyone was quiet until Kate said, “I’ll do it.” That was an early example of her fearlessness.

In the wake of Kate’s accident, people in Westbrook, Walnut Grove and surrounding communities rallied around her and her family. A 2014 benefit concert in Westbrook was a great success, which inspired the Jorgenson family to create the Keeping Up The Kourage Foundation. The foundation awards college scholarships to youth from the area who have faced medial challenges and also assists families with medical expenses.

Kate headed home Tuesday night looking forward to some much-needed sleep. But the next day – like most days -- would be another busy one, starting when she drove 43 miles to Marshall early in the morning. She’s interested in becoming an anesthesiologist, and she had an appointment to job-shadow someone in that profession, beginning at 7 a.m.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 8/ Sack Hunger: A Night Of Celebration In Spring Grove7/10/2019
Here is entry No. 8 on the list of my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. The focus here is on Spring Grove High School and the entire Spring Grove community, which went to great lengths to gather donations of food and cash to support the Houston County Food Bank as part of the inaugural #mshslSackHunger food drive involving the MSHSL and Second Harvest Heartland. The story was originally posted on January 14.

SPRING GROVE – The school colors at Spring Grove High School are red and black, and the Lions girls basketball players wore their colors with pride during Friday night's Southeast Conference game against Lanesboro. The visiting Burros' colors are orange and black.

And yet, an intriguing shade of light blue was seen everywhere inside the gym. Both teams wore light-blue t-shirts during warmups. The Spring Grove pep band wore the same shirts. Little kids, moms and dads; it seemed like there must have been a hundred of those same light-blue t-shirts in the gym.

That's because there were 100 shirts in the gym. Along with the basketball game – and the familiar tradition of a community gathering for a ballgame – the evening was designated as a celebration of Spring Grove’s community commitment to serving others. And it was my great pleasure to bring those 100 t-shirts to town as part of the celebration. The shirts carried the logo of a collaboration between the MSHSL and Second Harvest Heartland, which provides millions of meals every year in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

I was honored to use the @MSHSLjohn Twitter account to help publicize what we called the #mshslSackHunger campaign during the football playoffs in November. All 28 schools that had teams play in the state semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium were invited to collect food donations and feed the hungry. Spring Grove did a phenomenal job, collecting more than three and a half tons of food to help their neighbors in Houston County.

During a pregame ceremony, Spring Grove Student Council president Rhiannon Skauge told the crowd, "Students, staff and the community have donated cash and food items. Together we are feeding people and changing lives. Let’s give ourselves a big round of applause for coming together as a community to support this cause."

The numbers are remarkable. For a community of 1,330 people and a K-12 school of 350 students to gather so much food – plus thousands of dollars in cash donations to purchase more food – is a real testament to the people who inhabit a southeast Minnesota community known as the first Norwegian settlement in the state.

Traveling with me to Spring Grove was Marcus Schmit, the director of advocacy at Second Harvest Heartland. Marcus was a fine athlete at Red Wing High School not too many years ago, and he and I loved spending a few hours with the great folks in Spring Grove.

During the pregame ceremony, Marcus presented a framed certificate of recognition from Second Harvest Heartland to Spring Grove High School. It read: "In recognition of their heroic dedication to hunger relief and achievement as the 2018 Sack Hunger champion, on behalf of Second Harvest Heartland and those we serve, thank you for your support and commitment in providing 11,466 meals for the one in 11 neighbors facing hunger.”

This was a true community effort. Rhiannon (pictured) mentioned many of the leading contributors during her remarks.

“We have a lot of community support during the food drive,” she said. “Bekah Leafblad and the Trinity Youth worked with student council to canvas the town collecting canned goods and cash. Teresa Fegyak and Merchants Bank hosted a two-day bake sale with student council members and bank employees donating baked goods for the sale. Patrick and Red Longmire from Red’s IGA (grocery store) are huge supporters of the school and community. They had a turkey takeout dinner with proceeds going toward the food shelf and also provided a spot in the store for us to have a bake sale. Ellingson Elevator weighs all the food items before they are taken over to the food shelf. Renee Eiken, past student council advisor, has laid the groundwork for the success of this standing tradition.”

If you click on a website called you’ll see a wonderful slogan: “Pretty. Neat. Small town.”

Indeed. Congratulations to everyone in Spring Grove.

---Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 9/ The Pride Of Marshall: Four Sports, Ten Trips To State7/8/2019
Here is No. 9 on the list of my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. This story is about Kaia Sueker of Marshall High School, who made a tremendous impression on her teammates and coaches during her career.

The question was very straightforward, as was the answer from Marshall High School girls basketball coach Dan Westby: "No, no, no."

The question: Have you had any other athletes like Kaia Sueker in your coaching career?

No, no, no.

Kaia, a 5-foot-5 senior, is a rarity for several reasons. She's a four-sport athlete, competing in both volleyball and cross-country in the fall, basketball in the winter and track and field in the spring. She plays marimba in the school band and violin in the school orchestra. She's been involved in so many other school clubs and events that it's hard to keep track.

And then there’s this: She has now competed in 10 state tournaments … or 11 if you count her stint as a basketball team manager when she was in eighth grade. And that number is likely to reach 11 (or 12) when her final track season rolls around this spring. That’s how it all began, when she qualified for the state track meet as an eighth-grader.

"I don’t know where she gets the energy,” said Westby – also the Tigers volleyball coach -- after Marshall lost to Becker 68-67 in Wednesday’s Class 3A state quarterfinals at Maturi Pavilion. “She’s a pretty amazing kid.”

Kaia had 14 points, three assists and three steals in the game. It was a heartbreaking loss, coming in the final seconds, but she was all smiles afterwards.

“I think it’s really cool to be up here,” she said. “It’s such a great experience and I’ve enjoyed it with all my teammates. I’m really proud of everyone.”

Kaia is the only player who was also a member of Marshall’s last trip to the state basketball tournament in 2016. In the fall she’ll be a freshman on the cross-country and track teams at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. The end of her high school days will certainly be felt back in her hometown.

“There just aren’t kids like that anymore,” Westby said. “She’s quite a kid. It’ll be different in all sports, not having her. She’s been a part of it for so long.”

I asked Kaia to look ahead 10 years or so and predict what she will remember most about her high school career. Her answer said a lot about herself, her family, Marshall High School and how important school activities are everywhere.

“I think I’ll remember these moments with my team and how special they are,” she said with that big smile. “I’m never going to forget them. I’m going to miss it a lot, I know that, and I’m going to miss my teammates for sure. It’s just been a great experience.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to “Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 10/ From 1983 To 2019, Two Ballplayers And A State Record7/5/2019
Today we begin counting down my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. No. 10, which was originally posted on May 5, features two baseball players, one who set a state record in 1983 and another who broke that record in 2019.

Tim Gullickson, who was a record-setting high school baseball player in 1983, has never felt more like a celebrity than he has over the last week. That's because of a young man from Litchfield who topped Gullickson's record streak of 33 consecutive games with a hit.

After Owen Boerema stretched his hitting streak to 34 games a week ago and the news came out, Gullickson started getting calls and texts.

"I'm more famous now that I don’t have the record anymore," said the 53-year-old who lives in Bemidji.

Thirty-six years is a long time for a record to stand. Among the top 10 hitting streaks in Minnesota high school baseball history, all but Gullickson’s 33 were set in the last six years.

Boerema is a senior who throws and hits lefthanded and plays center field when not pitching. In a 4-0 win over Rockford on Thursday, he went hitless to end the streak but pitched a two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts for the Dragons (8-1).

"I’d rather get a win than anything else,” he said. “I wasn’t too frustrated because I was pitching well. And at that point I already had the record. If I had been at 32, then I would have been pretty frustrated.”

Owen had hits in every one of the 26 games he played last season. After the season he learned from coach Jeff Wollin that his 26-game streak put him in the top 10 all-time. His teammates, knowing this fact as the 2019 season began, loudly updated the number each time he extended it.

Wollin said, “Every game when he got a hit, usually in the first inning, you heard somebody in the dugout, ‘That’s 29! 31!’ It doesn’t seem like it weighed on him. I just think he wants to get on base. And if you walk him, he’s probably on second.”

That’s because Boerema, a long and lanky kid with wheels, stole 13 bases in the first eight games this season.

His speed was on display early in Friday’s home game against Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (which was halted by rain in the third inning with Litchfield leading 6-0). On the game’s first pitch, Howard Lake’s Noah Bush hit a looping liner into center field that looked for all the world like a hit until Boerema raced in and made a diving catch. In the bottom of the first inning, Owen hit the first pitch deep and it banged off the left fielder’s glove. Boerema ran to second for what everyone assumed would be a two-base error, but he kept motoring and ended up on third.

“You couldn’t find a finer young man to break this record,” Wollin said. “He’s a great kid, very humble, great student, from a very nice family. He’s got it all in the right perspective. He helps coach summer rec with the little kids, helps with the field in the summertime.”

Owen has been on the Dragons cross-country team in the fall and plays basketball in the winter. He plans to attend the University of Northwestern in St. Paul and play basketball and baseball.

Owen’s batting average this spring is .677. Gullickson, a righthanded pitcher and hitter, still holds the Deer River school record for batting average, hitting .589 in his senior year of 1983. Gullickson said he wasn’t aware of his state record until about 10 years after he graduated.

His coach at Deer River, Jim Erzar, informed him of the news after scouring scorebooks. Erzar was the head coach there for 37 years before retiring after the 2017 season. He was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2013; he’s still involved with the game, now as an umpire.

The person who handled statistics for Erzar in Deer River all those years ago was a young girl named Robin Edgeton … who married Tim Gullickson. “She was a good student,” Erzar said, “someone I could rely on.”

The 1983 season was Erzar’s second as head coach. He recalls a game early that spring when Gullickson was at the plate with the score tied and a runner on second base in the bottom of the seventh inning. He gave Tim the green light to swing away with a 3-0 count, and the senior drove in the winning run.

“That’s how he was,” Erzar said, “kind of clutch.”

Sounds like a young man, 36 years later, from Litchfield.

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