John's Journal
A Quick Wednesday Update From World Headquarters8/18/2010
The road is safe from John’s Journal today. The JJ staff is spending the day at MSHSL World Headquarters, employing compasses, sextants, wet fingers to the wind and a laminated Minnesota highway map; it’s all part of the pinpoint execution that goes into the continuing saga of the world-famous Champions Tour.

The staff will be back behind the wheel on Thursday with a couple of visits to schools in the Twin Cities. Rumors are swirling about a John’s Journal road trip to Marshall and Minneota early next week, but we can neither confirm nor deny that rumor, nor another rumor that the JJ staff may visit as many as five defending state championship teams next week.

In the meantime, check out the MSHSL Facebook page for photo galleries from half a dozen already-completed stops on the Champions Tour, plus other good stuff.

Now, the planning and plotting continues …

--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 Short Lunch Break in Rochester8/17/2010
Good afternoon from MSHSL World Headquarters’ Southeastern Command Post, aka Panera Bread in Rochester. Thanks to Panera’s wi-fi access and fine fare, this is my usual lunch/writing spot when I’m in Rochester or passing through.

Today I’m passing through. I spent the morning at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, home of the defending champions of 1A volleyball. That was followed by a stop at football practice in Waterville, home of the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown Bucs, who won last year’s Class 2A state title. My third stop today will be Plainview-Elgin-Millville for cross country practice; the P-E-M boys are the reigning 1A champs.

It’s a fine day for a Minnesota drive. The sun is shining, the humidity is down and the corn and soybeans are in fine fettle. I lost count of the number of trucks I saw that were loaded to the gills with sweet corn. That’s good eatin’ headed for someone’s dinner table.

I’ll be writing about what I encountered once I get home tonight. In the meantime, photo galleries from Bethlehem Academy and W-E-M have been posted on the MSHSL Facebook page. In addition, the Facebook page includes links to several interesting stories from around the state.

That’s it from the Southeastern Command Post. Time to get back behind the wheel…

--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 Big Dummy, a Smart Phone and a Sweet (Corn) Day8/17/2010
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

--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


Photos From Day One … Now on Facebook8/16/2010
I’m taking a lunch break during the opening day of practices for fall sports, and I just finished posting two photo galleries on the MSHSL Facebook page.

This morning I visited the boys’ cross-country team at Eden Prairie, which is the defending Class 2A champ; Eagles senior Aaron Bartnik is the defending individual champ. Then I zipped over to Shakopee to spend some time with the three-time Class 3A volleyball champion Sabers.

This afternoon I will attend football practice at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul; the Raiders won last year’s Class 5A state title. (Tomorrow I’ll hit the road to visit the volleyball team at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault as well as the boys’ cross-country team at Plainville-Elgin-Millville... and another team just added to Tuesday's itinerary: the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown football team, defending 2A champs.)

Later today I’ll write a report from my Day One travels. Every team has a story, and today’s three teams all have distinct storylines for the 2010 season.

--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
Day One: New Faces, New Challenges8/16/2010
As I walked into the gymnasium at Shakopee High School on Monday -- the first day of practice for fall sports -- I saw a sign that was taped to the gym door. It was titled “Shakopee Volleyball Essentials.”

Several rules were listed, including: “Be on time and in uniform. Give 100% effort. Respect yourself, teammates and coaches.”

By golly, if everyone in the world lived by those rules, wouldn’t this be one heck of a planet? Thankfully, those of us who live in the world of school activities are not surprised when we encounter traits like timeliness, effort and respect. How fortunate we are.

My trip to Shakopee helped kick off a tour of defending state championship teams and individuals. One of my goals during the opening two weeks of practice is to visit as many defending champs as possible, writing about what I encounter and posting photo galleries on the MSHSL Facebook page. If you go there now, you will see photos from the following:

*Volleyball practice at Shakopee, home of the three-time defending Class 3A champions.

*Boys’ cross-country practice at Eden Prairie, home of last year’s 2A team champs as well as individual medalist Aaron Bartnik.

*Football practice at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul; the Raiders are the defending champions of 5A football.

It was a lively, entertaining little road trip around the metro. I drove 111 miles in getting to the three schools, and it was worth every chunk of concrete and asphalt.

The storylines vary with each team. Shakopee lost the nation’s top volleyball player to graduation, Eden Prairie has some veteran runners back but has holes to fill, and Cretin-Derham Hall is coming off a year in which the recruiting saga of one of the top players in the nation grabbed more headlines than the Raiders’ state title.

Here’s what I found…

SHAKOPEE/ Ashley Wittman, now a freshman volleyball player at the University of Minnesota, led the Sabers to three state titles and last season was named the Gatorade national player of the year. Three other 2010 graduates are now playing at Wisconsin-River Falls, Ohio University and North Dakota, so the general consensus outside Shakopee is that the Sabers’ cupboard is bare.

The feeling is a bit different on the inside. After all, there’s something to be said for tradition and hunger.

“There’s a tradition that’s been set,” said coach Matt Busch. “And even though we had a large turnover, these girls feel that. It’s just as much a positive, excitable thing as it is pressure. The pressure itself is going to be different because (Ashley) is gone and people assume that’s the only reason why we won.

“What we are expecting is just sheer excitement. With this group, they have nothing but motivation to prove anybody wrong who thinks that it’s over, it’s done. This group of seniors is loving the opportunity to step forward and lead.”

Among the returning players are setter Megan Westlund, defensive specialist Emily Schroers (both are seniors) and junior outside hitter Kari Monnens

“It just makes us work that much harder to prove that we’re still here, even though Ashley’s gone,” said Schroers. Added senior Mackensie Menke, “We like being the underdogs.”

EDEN PRAIRIE/ More than 120 runners registered for cross-country at Eden Prairie, but an even more impressive number is the Eagles’ offseason mileage. Fifty individuals ran 400 miles this summer, and that’s a nice way to prepare for the season.

“That’s kind of a big thing, having kids dedicated to running over the summer,” said coach Jeff Lindlief.

Leading the way are defending state champ Aaron Bartnik, Kyle Bratrud and Mohamed Mohamed. The three seniors are the holdovers from the seven-man squad that won state in 2009.

“Obviously with Aaron, Kyle and Mohamed coming back, I think most teams in the state would take our position,” Lindlief said. “But we certainly have some work to do to fill the rest of those spots.”

The obvious question has to do with the pressure of defending a state title.

“There’s definitely a little more pressure on the team, just seeing your name as No. 1 in the rankings,” Bartnik said. “It kind of affects your training and gets in your mind. We have expectations. Sometimes it can be a little easier to be No. 2 and people maybe aren’t expecting so much out of you.”

CRETIN-DERHAM HALL/ Gone are two key members of the 2009 Raiders: offensive lineman and No. 1 national recruit Seantrel Henderson, now at Miami (Florida), and quarterback Mark Alt, now playing hockey at the University of Minnesota.

So, other than losing the top lineman in the nation and a quarterback who was key to a Prep Bowl victory over Eden Prairie, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The Raiders are looking at last season as a springboard to 2010, according to coach Mike Scanlan, who looked out over the practice field Monday and said, “It’s kind of like, ‘That was last year. Where do you guys want to be?’

“The kids started making a statement back in January, with lifting and running,” he said. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in June and July, we had 60 kids out here.”

The recruiting spotlight is elsewhere this fall; Scanlan said there are probably no Division I players among the seniors. Junior Kevin Miley is seen as the probable starting quarterback, but like many of the Raiders he is untested on the big stage.

But that’s what preseason practice, no matter the sport, is all about. Fill the holes, improve as a team and find out what you can do.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools John has visited: 3
*Miles John has driven: 111

--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