I witnessed two major accomplishments on Saturday … well, truthfully one of them was much more important than the other.
The first – and least important -- accomplishment was reaching the 7,000-mile mark. Since the 2010-11 school year began, I have driven 7,343 miles in writing about, talking about and learning about high school activities in Minnesota. Lately it seems like most of the miles have been driven through snow, and that was the case Saturday when I traveled to Ellsworth, the site of the day’s truly astounding accomplishment
Ellsworth is in southwestern Minnesota, and the school is exactly one mile from the Iowa border. Snow rolled through that part of the world Saturday afternoon, making it a less-than-delighful drive. But once I walked into the school, everything was beyond delightful.
Ellsworth is in my personal wheelhouse: a town of about 500 citizens, a high school with an enrollment of 61 students ... very similar to my own upbringing. Small towns are places where everybody knows everybody and they know how to get things done. And they did some very special things in Ellsworth on Saturday.
The Panthers boys’ basketball teams played Westbrook-Walnut Grove in a C-B-varsity tripleheader, and it was Ellsworth’s second annual Coaches vs. Cancer day. Last year the event raised more than $1,500, and Saturday’s tally was more than $2,200. That’s an amazing amount of money for such a small town and school. But it’s no surprise in Ellsworth, where more than $27,000 was raised last summer to replace the basketball court in the gym.The old court was there since the 1950s and the new court is as first-rate as they come.
“It speaks for all the people willing to help and chip in,” said Ellsworth boys’ basketball coach Tyler Morris, who is the driving force behind the Coaches vs. Center efforts in Ellsworth. He takes no credit, but he works year-round to plan the event and gather donations for raffles, a silent auction and basketball bingo.
The hallway outside the gym was filled with tables that carried all kinds of prizes: t-shirts, banners, backpacks, fruit, candy, CDs, hats, power tools, Timberwolves and Twins tickets and autographed items from the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, the Wild’s Niklas Backstrom, the Twins’ Tony Oliva, the 1954 Milan, Indiana, basketball team (which inspired the movie “Hoosiers”) and former University of Minnesota football coach Tim Brewstar (donated while Brewster was still with the Gophers). There also were coupons for free subs, free golf, beef jerky from Ellsworth Locker and a one-year family membership at the nearby Luverne pool and fitness center (a $499 value).
People bought tickets for the raffle items, they filled out silent auction forms and everybody played basketball bingo. That entailed buying a bingo card that instead of numbers contained events that happen during basketball games. It was interesting to see something happen on the court – a traveling call, an over-and-back, a ball bouncing off the rim and behind the glass, etc. – and then seeing a couple people scurry out of the gym with their now-filled card to select a prize.
“We’re trying to raise awareness and have fun,” Morris said. “It’s easy to pass a bucket in the stands and get donations, but it’s a lot more fun to get people involved.”
The Westbrook-Walnut Grove players wore pink Coaches vs. Cancer t-shirts during warm-ups, coaches from both teams dressed in pink shirts and/or ties, the Ellsworth players wore pink socks, the Ellsworth cheerleaders wore pink sashes around their waists and a majority of the fans wore pink shirts, hats, headbands, socks, etc.
Ellsworth won Class 1A boys’ basketball titles in 2007 and 2008 and finished second at state in 2003, 2006 and 2009. The current Panthers, ranked ninth in 1A, beat Westbrook-Walnut Grove 73-27 Saturday to improve to 13-2.
The Ellsworth gym is one of those places that is brimming with history and character. Most of the fans sit on one side of the court, with a few more on metal bleachers on the stage across the floor. The teams sit on chairs in front of the stage, and the scorers table is up on the stage. A small stepladder is placed right in front of the scorers table, allowing the officials to climb up and sign the official scorebook.
My first trip to Ellsworth came a few years ago, when an assignment for the Minneapolis Star Tribune took me and photographer David Joles to town for a couple days. At the time, the Panthers’ Cody Schilling was closing in on the state’s all-time career scoring record. David and I saw two games in Ellsworth, Cody drove us around on a tour of the town (which didn’t take long) and we visited the Schilling family farm.
I was able to reunite with Cody’s parents, Clayton and Carla, on my latest trip. Their youngest son, Casey, is a 6-foot-5 junior for the Panthers, Cody is a junior on the basketball team at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and oldest son Curt is the athletic director, a teacher and coach at George-Little Rock, Iowa, a few miles south of Ellsworth.
Clayton had a great trivia question for me: Who holds their school’s career scoring record, which will never be broken, but ranks fourth in scoring in their own family? The answer is Carla Schilling. She is the all-time girls’ basketball scoring leader at George High School, and her mark will never fall because George is now consolidated with Little Rock. And her three sons all have passed her career points mark.
Old friends, a small town and a tremendous amount of money raised for a terrific cause. Could anything be better than that?
How about this: Saturday was Tyler Morris’ 31st birthday.
Like I said, it was a very special day.
--For photo galleries and a video clip from Ellsworth, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 329
*Miles John has driven: 7,343
--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