While Brett Favre finally descended on Minnesota and Rod Blagojevich finally heard from a jury, I spent Tuesday roaming southern Minnesota in journalistic pursuit of what has now been officially dubbed the Champions Tour. While I was on the road, a coach who is a reader of John’s Journal called to chat; during our conversation he asked, “How’s the Champions Tour going?”
So just like that we have an official title for my visits with as many defending state champions as I can get to. Now, if we could only come up with a logo, licensed merchandise and a steady revenue stream, I might be touring in a fancier vehicle than my little car and its 188,000 miles. But that little car takes me where I want to go, and that’s all you can ask.
(To see photo galleries from each stop on the Champions Tour, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.)
The miles I covered today were nothing but pleasant. As mentioned in my mid-day post from Rochester, the highways were busy with trucks hauling sweet corn. From football practice at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown to volleyball practice at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault to a cross-country pseudo-workout at Plainville-Elgin-Millville, the day was filled with highlights …
W-E-M FOOTBALL COACH Jon Bakken has a voice that can best be described as booming. Shortly after I arrived on the practice field in Waterville, Bakken hollered, “Somebody bring me a big dummy!” I walked up to the coach, stuck out my hand and declared, “Hi coach, I’m a big dummy.” No, he wanted a tackling dummy … and I was not volunteering for that duty.
The football pedigree runs deep at W-E-M. Morristown High won state championships in 1987 and 1988, Waterville-Elysian did so in 1989 and the W-E-M Bucs brought home gold in 1999 and 2009. Only seven starters are gone from last year’s team, so hopes are high again.
“We didn’t lose much at all,” Bakken said. “We’ve got a lot of guys back and a lot of talented kids. I think the biggest thing is we don’t have a lot of depth, so with injuries we’d drop off far. We wouldn’t just drop off, we’d drop off far.”
The practice field is well-worn grass with some black earth peeking out; it is wedged between the school, a playground, tennis courts and a softball infield. Some little kids rode their bikes to watch practice. A young boy named Bubba helped the long-snappers work on their craft, setting balls in position and receiving the snaps.
The Bucs offense ran plays against four turned-over trash cans and two human linebackers. Quarterback Conrad Masberg threw several times to wide receiver Jordan Gregor, reminiscent of the duo’s 68- and 42-yard touchdown connections in last year’s Prep Bowl victory over Moose Lake/Willow River.
“The kids are working hard and believing that it’s not going to be given to them just because they won it last year,” Bakken said. “The kids are really working hard, which I’m happy with.”
THERE’S SOMETHING ODD when it comes to volleyball at Bethlehem Academy. The Cardinals won small-school state titles in the last four odd-numbered years: 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. What’s more, they were state runners-up in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008. Go figure.
“We never talk about that,” said coach Franz Boelter. “But we get asked about it a lot. I’ve said it before, but if it’s our fate to finish first or second in alternate years, that’s a pretty nice fate to have.”
Bethlehem Academy – which like W-E-M is a member of the Gopher Conference -- didn’t become a dynasty by chance. The Cardinals work hard, have fun and play what might be the toughest schedule in the state regardless of class. They will open the season at Class 3A power Lakeville North, followed by a meeting with defending 2A state champ Marshall. That’s all part of the plan.
“We understand that we’re going to take some losses, but with the schedule that we play it has the inherent ability to make you more competitive as the year goes on,” said Boelter. “Hopefully by the time you get to tournament time, you don’t have to see anything that you haven’t already experienced during the season.”
The Cardinals’ home court, Van Orsow Auditorium, is a throwback to the great gyms of yesteryear. Tuesday’s scene almost screamed, “Get ready for what’s to come.” As the volleyball team practiced, school staffers vacuumed the black curtains that surround the stage on one side of the court. It was a familiar scene as the best little volleyball program in Minnesota geared up for a new season.
“The tradition includes a lot of fun,” the coach said. “Our kids have fun and they have fun in and out of the season. I think they’ve understood that the time they spend together and the time they commit to each other has been extremely valuable in terms of what happens on the court.”
PLAINVIEW IS A LOVELY community, and I saw most of it as I searched for the cross-country team. Coach Mike Andring and I had communicated via email, but I neglected to get a handle on where the Bulldogs would be positioned for their afternoon workout.
Mike had mentioned Wedgewood Park; I found the park and it was empty. I found the football team practicing, I found the swimming pool, I found the school, I even took a peaceful drive through Greenwood Cemetery. As I slowly drove through a neighborhood, I allowed a meandering cat to cross the street in front of me.
Then I thought, “Hey dummy … isn’t Mike’s cell phone number on one of his emails?” So I parked in a shady spot downtown, grabbed my Droid, got online and found an email that indeed included Mike’s number. Just as he answered, I saw a stream of runners cross the main drag a few blocks away. Got ‘em!
The kids were running a loop through town before beginning a workout that consisted of some bare feet, a Frisbee and plenty of fun. The drill was Ultimate Frisbee, or as Andring said, “They’re getting a workout here without really knowing they’re getting a workout.”
The full team, consisting of 33 boys and 18 girls, had completed an official workout in the morning. The afternoon drills are optional, but who would want miss out on this kind of fun?
The Bulldogs boys won last year’s Class 1A state championship with a two-point margin over Perham. Four of the top five runners from the state meet (Aaron Haley, Grant Timm, Pat Reinschmidt and Andrew LeBeau) are back, so P-E-M has a chance to win its second state cross-country title.
“We had a great year and there were some very good teams,” Andring said. “We went into the state meet knowing we had a chance to win if everything went well. We snuck it out by a couple points.”
AS I LEFT PLAINVIEW late in the day, the radio chatter was all Brett Favre all the time. But I hit the scan button on the FM dial, found “No Sugar Tonight” by The Guess Who (circa 1970), had the sun on my left shoulder and whistled a happy tune all the way home.
It was another great day on The Champions Tour .
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools John has visited: 6
*Miles John has driven: 347
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