During the first week of practice for fall sports last August, I filled my car with gas and hit the road to begin what would become a memorable school year. That first week, I traveled to St. Paul, Plainview, Shakopee, Faribault and Fridley. A week later I was in Marshall, Minneota, New London-Spicer, Wayzata and Mahtomedi.
By the time the 2010-11 school year ended, I had driven 11,029 miles in pursuit of great stories, great events and great friends, new and old. I traveled all over Minnesota, from football in Adrian to hockey in Duluth to wrestling in Rochester. I saw basketball and soccer and wrestlers and runners and swimmers and debaters and actors and everything in between.
The memories are vivid. Let’s look back …
Story of the Year: Zach Gabbard (right) and the Perham boys basketball team. This was the ultimate Hollywood script, with Zach collapsing during a game because of a life-threatening heart condition and weeks later leaving the hospital to join his team at the state tournament, where they won a championship.
Best Rivalry Game: Football teams from Luverne and Pipestone have been playing for the Battle Axe trophy longer than I have been alive. Last fall I went to Pipestone for the 53rd annual game, and it was a ball. Very fun fact: The freshmen and sophomore teams also play for trophies. The sophomores play for the Hatchet and the freshmen have the Butter Knife.
Best Celebrity Sighting: Having written about Kris Humphries when he was playing basketball at Hopkins, I recognized him immediately while shopping in a mall. The female with him? Kim Kardashian (they since announced their engagement). As I chatted with Kris, I said something like "How are you, young lady?" to the young lady.
Best Individual Effort: Eden Prairie junior Rachel Bootsma, one of the top swimmers in the country, set a national high school record in the 100-yard backstroke at the Class AA state meet.
Biggest Rally: The Burnsville baseball team trailed Maple Grove 5-0 with three outs left in the Class 3A state championship game at Target Field. Watching the Blaze score six runs in the bottom of the seventh was an astonishing thing.
Friend of Media Award: Home plate umpire Larry Anderson hesitated before yelling “Play ball” at a baseball game in Heron Lake. He noticed that Windom radio play-by-play man Dirk Abraham was scrambling a bit at his folding table and chair on the other side of the fence. The game was starting a few minutes ahead of schedule due to threatening weather, and the ump said, “Dirk? You ready?” The radio pro’s reply: “Go ahead. I’ll get on the air when I get on the air.”
Comeback of the Year: The Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball team (left). After a tornado destroyed their school and parts of their town, the Wolverines gave the community a place to gather and rally. Like Perham, the story ended with a state title.
The Night the Lights Went Out: Mahtomedi was playing at South St. Paul in one of the biggest football games of the season. South St. Paul’s Ettinger Field is an old showplace and the Packers have one of the best pep bands around. When the electricity went out before kickoff and the sky grew ever darker as the sun set, the band kept everyone upbeat until the power was restored.
Most Inspirational Athlete: Ben Cunningham, Southwestern United baseball. The senior from Round Lake-Brewster was critically injured in an auto accident, leading to multiple surgeries and the loss of vision in one eye. But he returned to the basketball court and baseball field, to the astonishment of all.
Winter Wonderland: A December trip to Breckenridge and Hawley, on the heels of a major snowfall, was the perfect precursor to a white Christmas.
Biggest Shiver: After a day in Duluth spent holding a Student Sports Information Directors workshop and watching the first high school hockey games at the new Amsoil Arena, walking to the car and waiting for the heater to crank was pure Arctic agony.
Best Community Spirit: Coaches vs. Cancer Night in Ellsworth is very special, with nearly everyone in the tiny town coming to the school for basketball, bidding on prizes and many other wonderful things.
Most Informative Game Program: When the Owatonna boys hockey team hosted Rochester Mayo in early February, the program included a small section called “Recommended Reading.” The six suggested books included “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s examination of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, “Superfreakonomics” and “The Big Short,” described in the program as “an account of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.” More proof that learning can happen anywhere.
Most Enjoyable Photo Shoot: For the girls state hockey tournament program, I wrote a story about former high school stars and Gophers teammates Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell. They were working with tiny tots during a hockey camp in Woodbury when my camera and I walked into the rink. Major fun.
Best Tribute: Art Downey, longtime Edina boys swimming and diving coach, was recognized at the state meet for his 55 years of service. Downey is known for the black eyeglasses he has worn forever, and more than 150 replica glasses were distributed and worn by those in attendance.
Favorite Forward-Looking Meetings: I sat down with with officials from the Twins and Timberwolves, planning for days next season when participants in the MSHSL Student Sports Information Directors program will get an inside look at both teams. This is going to be a blast.
Most Memorable Morning: The MSHSL staff volunteered at Feed My Starving Children one December day, packing meals to be sent to the needy around the world.
Best Speaker: Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker, a former football player at Stanford, gave an inspiring speech during the Martin Luther King Day breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Roadkill Trophy: On a dark night, I was driving from Ivanhoe to Marshall after a volleyball game when two great big raccoons decided to stroll across the road. I came over the crest of a hill and thought briefly that a couple hogs were on the loose. The thump under my car was world-class. This award is given posthumously.
--To see a photo gallery with more memorable scenes from 2010-11, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 821
*Miles John has driven: 11,029
--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