John's Journal
For Brainerd’s Stolski, Football Season No. 50 Is Underway8/15/2011
BRAINERD -- Ron Stolski had several messages for the 101 members of the Brainerd High School football team as the first day of practice came to a close late Monday afternoon.

He talked about working hard: “I have never doubted that a Brainerd player will work hard. We really have to work on our conditioning.”

He talked about sticking together: “If we’re going to get it done, we’re going to get it done together.”

Stolski, who is in his 50th season as a head football coach and has won more games than any football coach in Minnesota history, also talked about doing good works for others. He reminded the Warriors that an event called “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes” will be held Saturday in town, sponsored by The Women’s Center of Mid-Minnesota and Sexual Assault Services.

“As we’re creating this family for one another,” he said, “we need to be active in our community. We’ll walk in support of this very, very important community function.”

Ron Stolski is known as a football coach, certainly. But as with all fine educators, his teaching goes beyond the subject at hand. Monday was the first day of practice for the 2011 season, but Stolski already knows what the final gathering of the Warriors will be like. Whether they lose in the first round of the postseason or win the Class 5A state championship, the life lessons he teaches will be brought up one final time at season’s end.

“My last message to them is to be good people, be good in your community, care about your family and classmates and do other things,” he said. “I wish them well.”

Numbers as well as deeds define Stolski. His career record is 330-148-5 … his teams have reached the state semifinals in three of the last four seasons … and he celebrated his 72nd birthday last week.

After practice, I asked the Brainerd team captains this questions: How long has Coach Stolski been a head coach? The answers from Jacob Kassulker, Mitch McLain and Logan McAllister went like this: 51, 44 and 52. The correct answer is, of course, 50.

Then I asked the three seniors what words they use to describe Stolski. Their answers were “Awesome,” “Kind-hearted” and “Hardworking.” That’s a pretty strong testament.

Stolski has been in Brainerd since 1975, with previous stops in Kensington, Slayton, Princeton and Park Center. He talked about what has changed and what hasn’t in 50 years.

“I think the kids still pretty much come with their heart in their hands,” he said. “What has changed is that they’re growing up with lots of different pressures. I think the biggest thing, and this was true all those years ago, they want to have fun at the game. Too many experiences that they have don’t always turn out to be fun. What’s also different is the athletes are better.”

No matter what happens this season, the 2012 season will bring a big change to Brainerd. That’s when the new Class 6A will begin play, involving the largest 32 schools in the state. Brainerd is the only non-Twin Cities school that will play 6A football.

“It will be much different,” Stolski said. “Early on there was kind of a surprised reaction, because I was on the task force (that studied football changes) and (32) was not the recommended number. And that’s fine. We’re going to train and coach the best we can, and play the game each Friday night. We’re members of the High School League and we’re team guys, and if that’s what it is, that’s what it is.”

The Warriors will open the season at home against Rocori on Sept. 2, and right now that game is the focus. Stolski doesn’t spend much time worrying about the past, because he’s always focused on helping his players improve and preparing for the next opponent. As for season number 50?

“It feels great,” he said with a smile. “I wish I could say I feel smarter, and certainly I’m not in the physical condition I was in 50 years ago, but it feels great. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than on a football field in August.”

--To see a photo gallery from Monday's practice in Brainerd, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 1
*Miles John has driven: 123

--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 Busy Week Is On Tap As Fall Seasons Begin8/11/2011
We are about to move into one of the most exciting times of the year, when coaches return to blowing whistles and athletes return to action. Monday is the first official day of practice for fall sports teams across Minnesota.

A few football teams started a week early because they will play Zero Week games, but the rest of the state’s football teams will join soccer, cross-country, volleyball and girls tennis and girls swimming and diving teams in beginning workouts Monday.

The first competitions of the fall season will take place on Thursday, Aug. 18, when girls tennis teams can play their first matches. The other sports can start competitions on August 25. Zero Week football games will be played August 25-27 and the remainder of the football teams will play their opening games the first weekend in September.

Off the field of play, the MSHSL Board of Directors will hold its August meeting on Tuesday morning at Ruttger’s Conference Center near Deerwood. More information about the format and playoff structure for Class 6A football (which will begin in 2012) may be announced at the meeting, along with possible dance team rule changes and other items.

After the board meeting, I am planning to drive to the Iron Range and attend a football practice. More details to come …

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven: 0

--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
Let’s Gather In Fulda To Open The Football Season8/8/2011
We all know where the high school football season will come to a close. That will be Prep Bowl time at the Metrodome on Thanksgiving weekend. But do you know where the 2011 Minnesota prep football season will begin?

If you said Fulda, pat yourself on the back. With Zero Week games making their debut this season, seven contests will be played during the first week of the season. Those games will be held over three days, and the first contest on the schedule will be in Fulda in southwestern Minnesota on Aug. 25. The Fulda Raiders will play host to Murray County Central on that Thursday evening. It should be an interesting game, including this sidestory: during the winter kids from the two schools compete together on one wrestling team.

After the Thursday evening lid-lifter, five more games will be played on Friday, Aug. 26 and one game will be held on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27.

Here’s the full schedule of Zero Week games:

Thursday, August 25
Murray County Central at Fulda

Friday, August 26
Two Harbors at Duluth Marshall
Minnewaska at St. Peter
Superior (Wis.) at Duluth East
Lewiston-Altura at Cochrane-Fountain City (Wis.)
Deer River at Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin

Saturday, August 27
Mankato Loyola at MACCRAY, 1 p.m.

Zero Week is an option for teams that have problems filling their eight-game regular-season schedule. Under Zero Week guidelines, teams can start practice one week before the normal start date and play their first game one week earlier than the rest of the teams in the state. Teams that play Zero Week games also must have a bye week later in the season; Fulda’s second game will be held two weeks after its opener, and Murray County Central will have its bye following its second game of the season.

Here's an easy way to explain Zero Week: Team A has an open date in Week 3 but can't find an opponent, and Team B faces the same situation during Week 4. In order to play each other, they can go to Zero Week.

I’ve received several requests for information on the Zero Week schedule. People have asked if any metro teams will play Zero Week games, and the answer is no. The full schedule of games around the state will begin on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 1 and 2.

My plans are still being finalized, but I know I will be in Fulda for the season opener.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven: 0

--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
Welcome Back! Let’s Get Rolling On A Great Year8/7/2011
It’s August and that means the time has come to get started on another fun and memorable year in school activities. I’m returning this week after a summer vacation, and the final hours of that vacation provided a few important reminders that school activities extend far beyond practices and games.

My vacation included a couple of family reunions, some lake time and a few days in Chicago to wrap things up. The final leg of the drive home from Chicago on Sunday took us north on Highway 52 from Rochester to the Twin Cities. Along that stretch of road, three of the very familiar “Adopt A Highway” signs caught my eye.

Those three segments of highway are maintained by the wrestling team and cheerleaders from Kenyon-Wanamingo and the National Honor Society from Cannon Falls. We all know that participating in school acivities helps teach many important lessons, and volunteering their time to keep Highway 52 litter-free is a terrific testament to the students and adults participating at Kenyon-Wanamingo and Cannon Falls. Nice goin’.

PRACTICES FOR THE FALL season normally begin in mid-August, but for a few football teams things are starting extra early this year thanks to Zero Week games.

At least a dozen Minnesota teams are starting the football season a week before the rest of the teams. That means the first day of practice is Monday (as in August 8) and Zero Week games will be played the weekend of August 25-26-27. No football team is starting earlier, though, than the boys from Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, who scheduled a “Midnight Madness” practice at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

August 15 will be the first day of workouts for the non-Zero Week football teams, as well as girls tennis, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross-country, volleyball and girls swimming. In other words, the fun has begun and it won’t end until next June.

THERE WILL BE SOME exciting additions to John’s Journal as things heat up, so keep clicking here as well as on the MSHSL Facebook page and my Twitter feed all year long.

Our “By The Numbers” section includes two big fat zeroes right now, but those digits will rise quickly. During the 2010-11 school year I visited 821 schools/teams while driving more than 11,000 miles. And it’s time to get started again.

This is really going to be fun.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven: 0

--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
Minnesota’s Summer Blockbuster: “For Three” Is A Must-See7/16/2011
PERHAM -- Zach Gabbard walked into the Comet Theater in downtown Perham at 6:25 p.m. Thursday. He was with some of his basketball teammates, and the teenagers were all wisecracks and smiles. The scene was sweet. Everything was perfect. Just like it should be.

The last time the outside world saw Zach walk, it was a mesmerizing, inspirational, tearful moment. On March 26 he got up out of his wheelchair and slapped hands with the rest of the Yellowjackets as the players were introduced before the Class 2A state semifinals at Target Center. A day earlier, Zach had left a St. Paul hospital to be reunited with the team at Williams Arena before the quarterfinal round.

You know the story: Zach, a junior, suffered cardiac arrest during a late-January game at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton … life-saving measures were performed and he was rushed to a hospital in Fargo … after several touch-and-go days he was transferred to a hospital at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and later to a rehabilitation hospital in St. Paul. Progress was slow.

Zach watched from the sidelines as the Yellowjackets won their first two games at state, but he was not at the championship game. His blood pressure was too high that day, and his doctors did not allow him to leave the hospital. Left in the hospital to watch the game on television, Zach cried.

Thursday’s event at the Comet was very special because it opened a door into the 2010-11 Perham season. “For Three,” a documentary film about the Yellowjackets, premiered at the Comet. The movie was produced by Perham assistant coach Brent Hanson.

During the film, Zach (pictured at right with head coach Dave Cresap after the premier) talks about missing the championship game. “I cried,” he said. We learn that when he walked on the court at Target Center, none of his teammates knew it was coming … they didn’t even know he was able to walk.

Hanson, who spent more than 400 hours working on the film, did a remarkable job. The movie intersperses game action throughout the season with interviews with the players and coaches. I was struck by how candid everyone was on camera, which was surely because one of the coaches was asking the questions as opposed to an outsider.

Hanson, who works as an IT technician for Becker County, created a season highlights video after the 2009-10 campaign. “I was kind of planning on doing the same thing this year, with a few interviews here and there,” he told me. “I thought it might be something the kids would really enjoy, not having any idea what path our season would take.”

Hanson spent more than 400 hours working on the film. He shot the interviews, gathered game footage, secured rights to music and did the editing at home on his iMac. “For most of it I worked from 8 o’clock at night until about 1 in the morning, then I’d get four or five hours of sleep and head to work,” he said. “I could do it in my sleep, and I think I did do it in my sleep a couple times.”

DVDs are available by going to www.brenthanson.net/forthree. They cost $20, with all proceeds being split between Zach’s medical bills and the Perham basketball team. As Hanson told the audience at the Comet before the movie began, “We had a budget of zero dollars, and we did pretty well.”

Indeed. “For Three” is a keepsake, and not just for people in Perham. Zach’s story touched people all over Minnesota and around the world; the film points out how a Caring Bridge web site devoted to Zach (he's signing an autograph in the photo at left) garnered more than half a million hits in just a few weeks’ time. The players talk about the night when Zach collapsed, and how they hugged each other and cried and prayed in the locker room.

The story is universal, with themes of heartbreak and survival, community and togetherness, teamwork and success. Every coach, every athlete and every parent -- in Minnesota and beyond -- should see it.

After the premier, Perham head coach Dave Cresap told me: “I just got goosebumps all over my body. This is a special night for everybody to be together and relive it and see what we really had to go through as a team and a community and Zach as a player, and how close-knit we are. We are a family.”

Zach, who was frightfully thin as the basketball season ended, has put on weight and looks more like his old self all the time, although his voice remains raspy. What was his reaction to the movie? “I liked it. I loved it,” he told me. What did he like the most? “(Learning) how much they cared.”

Interviews with the players provide wonderful insight into what the season meant to the Yellowjackets.

--“Heart. We had heart the whole season,” said Jordan Cresap, the coach’s son who stepped into the lineup after Zach went down. “The motivation Zach gave us really put us over the top.”

--“We couldn’t let him down,” said Jordan Bruhn.

--“We were the team that had the most hardship,” said Nick Tobkin. “We had the will, we had the motivation, we had the inspiration, we came back time after time when things were in our way. So why not us?”

Zach is allowed to shoot baskets but has not been given clearance to fully exert himself. He wants nothing more than to be back on the court when practice begins for the 2011-12 season.

During the film Zach looks into the camera and says, “We better win next year because I need another ring … not being there this year, I just want to know what it feels like to be on the court, playing.

“Why would you doubt me? I’m alive still. Why can’t I play next year?”

In Perham -- as the Yellowjackets have taught us -- anything is possible.

--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