John's Journal
Visiting New London-Spicer on a Beautiful Day8/25/2010
Today’s weather was easily the finest we have experienced since fall sports practices began last week. It was a wonderful day to get in the car, drive a hundred miles or so and hang out with the New London-Spicer football team. The Wildcats were the latest stop on my Champions Tour, and as you can see by these photos (as well as the photo gallery posted on the MSHSL Facebook page), the conditions were perfect for working out the kinks on the practice field.

The Wildcats were one of the surprises of the 2009 season, rolling to a 14-0 record and winning the Class 3A state title with a 28-21 victory over Glencoe-Silver Lake in the Prep Bowl. Glencoe-Silver Lake, which had won the previous three 3A crowns, was the team to beat and New London-Spicer got the job done.

One of my favorite memories from last season came after the Wildcats’ Prep Bowl victory at the Metrodome. Coach Dan Essler, completing a lengthy series of postgame sideline interviews with the media, looked at me as he finally ran off the field to join his team in the victorious locker room. He grinned and said, “Hey John, this is kinda fun!”

Essler, now in his 11th season as the New London-Spicer head coach, knows that getting back to the Metrodome will be a challenge in 2010. The Wildcats have a grand total of five returning starters.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces,” he said. “So the first couple games we’ll be a little green but I expect us to be really good by the end of the season.”

Of course, nothing breeds success like success. And an awful lot of young players experienced the long playoff run of 2009.

“A lot of these guys saw what it’s like to be on the Dome turf and the excitement that surrounds the state semifinals and the state finals,” Essler said. “It really made them work harder so they could try to be varsity players. We have quite a few juniors out here playing this year, based on how hard they worked in the offseason.”

Among the returning starters is wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, who caught five passes for 56 yards in the Prep Bowl; he will also play linebacker in 2010. Shawn Hatlestad returns at strong safety and he’ll also play some at wing back. And quick-footed quarterback Jayme Moten, who completed 14 of 17 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the Prep Bowl, returns.

“It’s a team that is starting to jell a little bit,” Essler said. “Our offensive line has a little bit of work to do, but they could be very good as a group. It depends on how hard they want to work.”

The Wildcats will open the season against the three M’s: Morris, Mora and Melrose. Then comes an always-big game against Albany.

“I think our big rival right now is Albany,” Essler said. “We were like 0-15 against them when we started playing them and now we’ve beat them three out of the last four times. I’m sure they’re looking forward to getting back at us a little bit, and their coaching staff is very fun to play against.”

The word at New London-Spicer is that they may have been the first “hyphenated” school district in the state. Spicer joined New London in 1963. Does anybody know of any earlier hyphenated school districts? Send me an email at the above address and I’ll spread the word.

Thursday will be a doubleheader day, with two soccer games on my agenda for the first day of competition for soccer, volleyball, cross-country and girls’ swimming and diving. I’m planning to watch a 4 p.m. boys’ soccer game between St. Paul Harding and defending Class 1A champion Mahtomedi at Mahtomedi, followed by a 7 p.m. girls’ soccer game with Minneapolis South at defending Class 2A Wayzata.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 11
*Miles John has driven: 993

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter at

Former Twin Al Newman Named Apple Valley Baseball Coach8/24/2010
Apple Valley High School is pleased to announce that Al Newman has been hired as the head baseball coach. He replaces Al Iversen, who resigned in June to become the head baseball coach at Lakeville South High School.

Newman has a long and distinguished career in baseball. After attending San Diego State University, he was drafted by the Montreal Expos. He broke into the big leagues with the Expos in 1985. In 1987, Newman joined the Minnesota Twins and was a key member of the World Series championship team, playing in 110 games. He continued with the Twins for the next four seasons and again played a key role in the 1991 championship run. Newman finished his playing career in 1992 with the Texas Rangers.

Newman then moved into coaching, beginning in the Arizona Fall League and then moving into the Minnesota Twins system. After working his way through the minor league coaching ranks, Newman was the third base coach for the Minnesota Twins from 2002-2005. During this time, the Twins won three division titles. He also worked as a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks. For the past two summers, Newman has been a coach for the Apple Valley American Legion baseball team. He also hosts a sports-themed radio show and does baseball commentary for WFTC 29 broadcasts of the Minnesota Twins games.
Lakeville North, Marshall, Minneota Top Preseason Volleyball Polls8/24/2010
Here are the first polls of the volleyball season. The rankings are conducted by the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association.

1. Lakeville North (4) 74
2. Wayzata (4) 67
3. Eastview 61
4. Eden Prairie 52
5. Stillwater 42
6. Apple Valley 35
7. Bloomington Jefferson 30
8. Hopkins 26
9. Lakeville South 17
10. Chaska 12
Others receiving votes: Blaine (8), Shakopee (6), Centennial (4), Waconia (3), Farmington (2), Alexandria (1)

1. Marshall (2) 32
2. Hutchinson (1) 24
3. Jackson County Central (1) 23
4. Wadena-Deer Creek 17
5. Stewartville 16
6. Jordan 14
Hibbing 14
8 Belle Plaine 11
Delano 11
10 Byron 10

Others receiving votes: Sauk Center (9), Lesuer-Henderson (9), Concordia Academy (8), Kasson-Mantorville (7), Pierz (6), Visitation (4), Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (2), Watertown-Mayer (1)


1. Minneota (4) 49
2. Bethlehem Academy (1) 43
3. Canby 41
4. Mayer Lutheran 32
5. Wabasha-Kellogg 25
6. Windom 23
7. Martin County West 16
8. Mabel-Canton 12
9. Northern Freeze 9
Win-E-Mac 9

Others receiving votes: Nevis (8), BBE (4), Heritage Christian (10, MACCRAY (1)
Old Friends, New Friends And A Little Surprise8/23/2010
The Champions Tour continued Monday as I visited the ninth and 10th schools on my quest to see as many defending state champions as possible. This was a southwestern Minnesota leg, taking the John’s Journal staff to Marshall and Minneota for 10 hours of road time.

I have known Marshall volleyball coach Dan Westby for a long time, and I met Minneota football coach Chad Johnston for the first time. I made another new acquaintance on the drive home … a very cordial officer from the Renville Police Department. He even gave me a souvenir to take home: a speeding ticket.

I was driving through Renville when I was distracted by the sight of the Renville County West football team practicing. I almost pulled over to check out the Jaguars, but decided to keep going. I was on the western edge of town when I saw the police cruiser parked at the side of the highway. I saw the car, I saw the “Speed Limit 30” sign and then saw that my speed was around 40. Oh heck, or words to that effect.

The officer said his radar had me going 49. He knocked it down to 45 on the ticket, which carries a price tag of $150. I’m glad to make a contribution to the wonderful and lovely community of Renville, which I look forward to visiting again while driving within the speed limit.

And now, we turn the channel away from “Law & Order: Renville” and return to our regularly scheduled programming…

MARSHALL HAS BEEN a frequent visitor to the state volleyball tournament, going to the big show 21 times since 1977. The Tigers won Class 3A state titles in 2004 and 2007 before moving to Class 2A, where they won the championship last season. That team was loaded with seniors, meaning 2010 is a rebuilding year for the Tigers.

“The players we’ve had the last few years, a number of them had started for three and four years. And those kids are gone,” Westby said. “What we lost with those kids was not only good leadership but we lost a lot of ball-handling. That’s going to have to be replaced. We’ve always felt that we would ball-handle with anybody in the state, and we lost a lot of that. We’ve got an interesting mix of kids. We’ll probably start a couple of freshmen. And we’re going to play some juniors and some seniors.”

Senior middle hitter Amy Full and senior libero Alyssa Netzke return from the starting lineup, and there is ongoing competition for the test of the spots. Practice began last week with some questions, but things changed for the better in a hurry.

“One of the things we felt good about last week was how fast our kids came together, which was a concern,” Westby said. “We thought we looked a little shaky on Monday and Tuesday, but Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we looked pretty crisp, which was maybe even better than we expected at that point.”

The Tigers will be tested early with road trips to Alexandria on Aug. 31 and defending 1A champion Bethlehem Academy on Sept. 2. They will play in tournaments at Apple Valley and Lakeville North, adding more mileage. But taking those long trips can pay off, said Full.

“It’s fun because you get to bond with your teammates, and we all have fun bonding on the bus rides and in the hotels,” she said.

The Tigers know their school’s volleyball tradition is strong, and that’s all the more reason to work hard.

“We’ve just kind of talked about what we need to do as a team,” Netzke said. “We don’t have those players anymore and we can’t do anything about that. We need to work with what we’ve got and work hard as a team.”

MINNEOTA IS HOME to Boxelder Bug Days, which is coming up in September. I didn’t know about the local civic celebration, but I knew all about the town’s football tradition.

Minneota’s Class A state football title last season, capping a 14-0 campaign, was a return to glory for the Vikings. Minneota won Class C crowns in 1986, 1987 and 1988 and was the Class C runner-up in 1993.

As the Vikings practiced Monday afternoon, I chatted with Johnston about the new season. Minneota lost a dozen seniors, most of whom played large roles. But there is plenty of experience returning (although not as much depth as last year), including running back Brandon Anderson (who had 17 carries for 86 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s 42-21 Prep Bowl victory over Adrian) and wing back Jacob Cheadle.

“Our expectations are pretty high, after our successful season last year,” Johnston said. “We definitely want to build on that. We have a large senior class again this year with a good junior class to go with it, so we’re feeling pretty good. We don’t have the depth we had last year, but we’re back to typical small-town football, and the kids are motivated.”

Johnston, a native of Flandreau, S.D., is in his ninth season as head coach. His coaching staff includes several assistants who are Minneota natives.

“Football goes back a long ways in Minneota,” Johnston said. “We still run the same offense that they ran years ago, and some of my assistants are Minneota graduates. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to keep that tradition and our kids know what it means to have ‘Minneota’ on their chest. The community loves it and stands behind us.”

The Vikings will open the season against a familiar foe, because they go to Adrian on Thursday, Sept. 2, for a Prep Bowl rematch. John’s Journal will be there to kick off the season in style.

Other notes from Monday’s jaunt…

--The visit to Marshall completes the volleyball portion of the Champions Tour, since I previously had been to Shakopee (the defending 3A champ) and Bethlehem Academy (1A).

--It was a media circus every time I turned around. Joining me in the Marshall gym was sports writer Joe Brown from the Marshall Independent, and on the Minneota practice field I met Byron Higgin, publisher of the wonderfully named Minneota Mascot.

--Whenever I’m in Marshall I try to spend time with a guy named Jon Millea. He’s my nephew (my brother didn’t bestow an ‘H’ on him) and a graduate assistant coach with the Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team. We didn’t get together this time … turns out Jon Millea had a class to attend. Commitment like that might ruin the family name.

--That’s enough journalism for one day; 12 hours is about my limit. The Champions Tour will resume on Wednesday with a trip to football practice at New London-Spicer. I will follow all the rules of the road. I promise.

*Schools John has visited: 10
*Miles John has driven: 793

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter at

Football Season is Underway … South of the Border8/22/2010
I hadn’t intended to be sitting here on Sunday afternoon writing about my weekend. After all, the weekend was family time as my wife and I moved our daughter into the dorm for her sophomore year at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Don’t get me wrong; Drake is an outstanding school (it even bestowed a journalism degree on me many years ago). The move-in was smooth as silk, so what’s to write about?

The answer: football. After arriving in Des Moines I learned that the prep football season was beginning Friday night. The big game in town was between West Des Moines Valley (the largest school in Iowa with slightly more than 2,000 students) and Dowling Catholic, also in West Des Moines. Dowling has an enrollment about half that of Valley, but their football rivalry might be the best in Iowa.

Putting the rivalry in Minnesota terms, imagine if Cretin-Derham Hall were located in Eden Prairie, a couple miles from Eden Prairie High School. When Valley and Dowling meet, it’s very much like a Cretin-Eden Prairie game.

Friday’s contest was a “zero week” game. Because of scheduling difficulties, some Iowa teams are allowed to begin practicing a week early and play their season opener a week earlier than normal (a similar proposal is being discussed on very preliminary terms in Minnesota) . They play nine regular-season games in Iowa and not all teams reach the postseason.

The setting was spectacular. Valley Stadium, owned by the West Des Moines school district, was built in 2002 and has 8,500 seats, with 6,000 on the home side of the field. The Des Moines Register estimated Friday’s crowd at 10,000. How big is the stadium? There is an elevator to the press box, that’s how big. If Valley Stadium were in Minnesota, it would probably rank as the second-finest outdoor stadium in the state behind TCF Bank Stadium at the U of M.

Dowling, which is ranked No. 1 in Iowa’s largest class, rolled to a 34-7 victory. Behind one end zone, three flags flapped in the breeze: the U.S. flag, the Iowa flag and a flag carrying the logo of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (nice touch).

Game time was 7:30 instead of the Minnesota standard time of 7 p.m. That’s tough on reporters facing deadlines but nice for families who don’t need to rush quite as much.

Another interesting twist: the P.A. announcer informed the crowd of “tonight’s game sponsors.” A car dealer, a doctor, other businesses and several individuals had apparently made donations in order to be labeled as sponsors for the night.

I sat with my brother-in-law Phil; he’s a Dowling grad whose kids attended both Dowling and Valley (he cheered for Dowling). The weather was ideal, the place was packed and football was back.

In two weeks, Minnesota will join the fun.

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter at