John's Journal
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
New London-Spicer’s Spectacular Field: “It’s The Passion, It’s The Pride”8/25/2011
We see wonderful acts of community pride and community spirit on a regular basis in our world of high school activities. People at New London-Spicer High School know all about those qualities, thanks to a band of volunteers who have transformed the Wildcats football facility into what might be the finest in Minnesota.

Beginning in 2005 with about a dozen fathers of football players, the NLS Wildcats Grounds Crew has grown to more than 50 members. They do everything from mowing the grass and painting the yard lines (on the practice fields, as well) to improving the sound system, upgrading plumbing systems, laying concrete and everything else that makes Pederson Field so special.

And believe me, it is special. I visit athletic facilities all over the state, and Pederson Field is an absolute showplace. The grass is equal to Target Field, the end zones are painted with the school colors of black and gold in a checkerboard pattern, large NFL-quality numbers mark the 10, 20, 30, etc. … and all the work is done by volunteers.

Not only do the dads not receive any compensation, they all pay dues of $40 to belong to the group. They wear matching black t-shirts when they gather to improve the field, as they did Wednesday evening. They all had already put in a full day’s work on their own jobs, but they spent several hours preparing Pederson Field for the season ahead.

“Last week we had 36 guys here working,” New London-Spicer football coach Dan Essler said on Wednesday. “And this is the third night in a row they’ve been out here.”

One of the big jobs Wednesday was improving the entry into the stadium. When fans come out on Sept. 2 for the opener against Paynesville, they will walk across a giant concrete football – colored brown and decorated with a Wildcats logo – as part of the latest in many improvements. As the concrete was setting Wednesday, Grounds Crew leader Tom Tengwall wrote “GROUNDS CREW ‘11” in the surface.

“It’s the passion, it’s the pride,” said Tengwall (pictured at left directing the crew), one of the original members of the Grounds Crew. From that small group of original volunteers, the membership has grown steadily. “We try to get four or five new guys each year, people with kids in seventh or eighth grade,” Tengwall said. “We have a few dads who don’t even have sons.”

When I asked New London-Spicer athletic director John Vraa how much money is saved through all the volunteer work, he just smiled and shook his head. “Oh, we’re talking thousands of dollars a year,” he said. In addition, much of the equipment used and installed is owned by the volunteers or purchased through funds from the Wildcat Booster Club or 50-50 raffles on game nights.

“And this is such a diverse group of guys,” Vraa said. “There are a lot of guys in the trades; masons, electricians, there’s just so much knowledge out here. And I think they get a pretty good kick out of Friday nights, watching the kids compete.”

The volunteers – whose ranks include a professional agronomist -- don’t score touchdowns or make tackles, but their work certainly has helped play a role in the success of the Wildcats football program. The team was a Class 3A state semifinalist in 2008 and won the state championship in 2009. They finished with a 9-2 record last season, with both losses to state runner-up Albany. Hopes are high for another great season in 2011.

The scene Wednesday evening at Pederson Field looked like this: A concrete truck dumped part of its load at the new stadium entryway before being driven to the practice field to create mud-free footing at the players’ water station … a boom was raised up to the one of the speakers attached to a light pole for wiring work … new speakers were attached to shorter wooden posts and the posts were secured to the back of the bleachers …. a crew member sprayed vegetation killer underneath the bleachers to make the area look sharp … 80 gallons of paint were mixed and sprayed onto the stadium and practice fields as separate crews made sure the ropes that set the lines were straight, and painted the hash marks as well as the numbers every 10 yards. It was a volunteer beehive.

In the middle of it all, New London-Spicer sophomore Mac Johnson was manning a video camera. The Grounds Crew’s work has been noticed by people from other communities, who often ask, “How can we do that, too?” Tengwall acted as film director during part of Wednesday’s work session, in the efforts to create a video that will explain how everything gets done.

All that work makes game nights something special. Fans who don’t want to sit are allowed to follow the action closely by walking on the track that surrounds the field, a 10-gauge cannon is fired when the Wildcats score and sound expert Keith Bangasser makes selections from his 40,000-song electronic music catalogue to play on the sound system.

It’s a very special place, tuned to perfection by some very special people.

--To see a photo gallery from New London-Spicer, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD …

--Wednesday was a beautiful day for a drive, one of those days we will dream about during the cold winter months. One good thing about winter, though: there’s no road construction. I took I-94 north past St. Cloud before turning west on Highway 23. There was a darn good backup on I-94 with one lane closed, and Highway 23 had a detour that included some really fun driving on gravel. Coming home, I droves south through the little village of Kandiyohi, then turned east on Highway 12 through Atwater, Grove City, Litchfield, Dassel, Cokato, Waverly, Delano and back into the Twin Cities. All told, a 255-mile round-tripper.

--Ah summer: I saw a great big truck loaded down with sweet corn in Monticello. I can taste it now.

--Dinner? Papa Burger combo at the A&W in New London before heading home.

--Thursday night I'll be in Fulda for the season-opening Zero Week football game between Murray County Central and Fulda. On Friday I'll head to St. Peter to see the Saints take on Minnewaska in another Zero Week game. Photos will be posted on Facebook and I'll post a Zero Week wrapup story here on Saturday.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 3
*Miles John has driven: 684

--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
St. Clair Drops Varsity Football For 2011 8/24/2011
Football is a numbers game, and the numbers this fall at St. Clair High School were deemed too low to field a varsity football team. As Mankato Free Press sports editor Jim Rueda reports below, school officials have decided that the Cyclones wiill play only junior varsity games this season and hope for enough numbers in 2012 to return to varsity play. St. Clair plays Class 1A football in Section 2.

This season there is only one senior with any football experience on the roster, seven juniors and only six players who weigh more than 170 pounds. Safety is paramount.

The decision means St. Clair's varsity opponents will lose one game from their schedules. Those teams are West Lutheran, Bethlehem Academy, Medford, Randolph, Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity, Le Center, Blooming Prairie and Mankato Loyola. Administrators from those schools were informed of St. Clair's decision last week. Details are being worked out, but it's expected that some of the JV games will be played on Friday nights.

Here's the story ...

By Jim Rueda
Sports Editor
The Mankato Free Press

ST. CLAIR — The St. Clair school district had to make a hard decision late last week but it is confident it will pay dividends in the future.

After looking at the number of players out for this year’s St. Clair team, and even closer at how those numbers break down by class, officials have decided to drop varsity football for at least one season. The hope is that, after a year of junior varsity play, the numbers will grow enough to enable the Cyclones to reinstate the varsity program for 2012-13.

“It was a difficult decision but we felt it was in the best interests of our kids to make this move,” St. Clair athletic director Brad O’Donnell said Tuesday. “Looking at the number of seniors and juniors we had to play at the varsity level, we began to realize we’d have to use a lot of freshman and sophomores throughout the season.”

At that point, O’Donnell, head coach Chris Harvey and some St. Clair administrators talked with the seniors and, “from a safety point of view, concluded that eliminating the varsity schedule was the right decision to make.”

The Cyclones were looking at a team with just two seniors — one of whom was a foreign-exchange student who has never played football — and seven juniors. As a squad, they had just six athletes who weighed more than 170 pounds and only two of those weighed more than 200.

Seventy percent of the team would have been freshmen and sophomores who had not played varsity football before.

“We felt that with the prospect of injuries throughout the season, we would have had to move too many players into positions that would be a disadvantage to them both mentally and physically,” O’Donnell said. “Sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to take a step back.

“We told the parents we’re playing beyond the scoreboard, beyond the wins and losses.

“We want to make this (a junior varsity) season of some significance that will enable us to play football in a much more safe environment in the future.”
A Big Week Ahead As Fall Sports (And The State Fair) Kick Into Gear8/22/2011
Thanks to Zero Week football scheduling, this week is even more hectic than normal. Volleyball, soccer, cross-country and girls swimming and diving teams can hold competitions beginning Thursday, which is also the day when the football season will begin.

I try to plan my schedule two or three weeks ahead, so I spent time today looking at the first two weeks of September. I have a pretty good idea of where my travels will take me in early September, but nothing is definite. What is locked in like concrete are my plans for this week.

The gridiron season will begin with one game on Thursday. The team from Murray County Central in Slayton will journey13 miles south on Highway 59 to Fulda, and I will also make the trip for the game between the Rebels and Raiders … although my drive will be about 158 miles each way.

On Friday I will be in St. Peter for another Zero Week game, this one between the Minnewaska Area Lakers and St. Peter Saints. And before those two games are played, I will take a Wednesday trip to visit one of the finest high school football facilities in the state and spend time with the volunteer grounds crew that makes it all happen.

My Friday schedule also includes a visit to the University of St. Thomas, where I will lend a hand at a sports journalism camp for high school students directed by ThreeSixty Journalism. And that’s not all that’s happening this week …

THE STATE FAIR WILL begin Thursday, and the MSHSL will have a presence. A major announcement concerning a new MSHSL program will be made at a news conference Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Main Stage in Carousel Park in front of the grandstand. And Saturday, the MSHSL and Prep 45 – the TV partner of the MSHSL – will sponsor a day of fun activities and information at the fair.

A section of Dan Patch Avenue will be filled with interactive activities, including six bowling lanes, baseball speed pitch, basketball toss, live music and more. There also will be cool stuff to win:Twins tickets, oil changes for a year, M11 hockey helmets for your entire team, etc., as well as seminars directed toward healthy lifestyles and sports.

Let’s all have a great week!

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 2
*Miles John has driven: 429

--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
No. 1 In Volleyball Rankings: Lakeville North, Jackson County Central, Nevis8/20/2011
The first state volleyball rankings, compiled by the coaches association, have been released. Defending state champion Lakeville North leads the Class 3A rankings, Jackson County Central is No. 1 in Class 2A and Nevis leads the Class 1A field.

Wadena-Deer Creek, last year’s 2A state champion, is ranked No. 10. Defending 1A champion Wabasha-Kellogg is ranked No. 2.

The first date for volleyball matches to begin is Thursday. Here are the rankings (first-place votes in parathenses, total points)…

CLASS 3A
1. Lakeville North (2) 86
2. Bloomington Jefferson (3) 85
3. Wayzata (1) 74
4. Shakopee 57
5. Lakeville South 54
6. Blaine 47
Centennial 47
Eden Prairie 47
9. Hopkins 20
10. Andover 19
Others: Hutchinson (16), Totino-Grace (16), Apple Valley (15), Hill-Murray (14), East Ridge (11), Chanhassen (10), Eastview (6), Waconia (6)

CLASS 2A
1. Jackson County Central (1) 42
2. Lesuer-Henderson 39
3. Stewartville (1) 37
4. Belle Plaine 36
5. Kasson-Mantorville (1) 35
6. Maple Lake 30
7. Visitation 26
8. Jordan 25
Marshall 25
10. Wadena-Deer Creek 20

CLASS 1A
1. Nevis (3) 59
2. Wabasha-Kellogg (1) 57
3. Bethlehem Academy 49
4. Mayer Lutheran 46
5. Win-E-Mac 45
6. Minneota 41
7. BBE 35
8. Canby 33
9. Southwest Christian 31
10. Ada-Borup 12
Others: Goodhue (6), MACCRAY (6)