The continuing saga of the Champions Tour had a metro-centric bent on Thursday, even though the two stops on the itinerary were separated by miles and miles of highway – and one extremely bothersome freeway detour (thanks for nothing, 94/694) -- as well as two distinctly different athletic endeavors.
One visit was with an individual athlete who competes in a sport that is as simple as they come: running harder and faster than the competition over a long distance. The second stop involved the ultimate team sport: 11 people on each side of the ball and committee meetings before each play.
Although the time and the miles didn’t stack up to Tuesday’s three-stop outstate mega-journey, the latest jaunt was another pleasant day spent chatting with kids and coaches and realizing once again how important school activities are to the people and communities involved.
Now, on to the day’s highlights …
SHAKOPEE’S MARIA HAUGER is only a sophomore, but she carries a title that thousands of others would love to bear: defending state champion. After finishing ninth at the Class 2A state cross-country meet as an eighth-grader, Hauger ran to gold last year. She was challenged down the stretch by Elk River senior Emma Bates, who finished less than a second behind Hauger.
That’s kind of the theme this season: Hauger is the runner to beat and lots of other girls will try to challenge her.
I learned something fairly amazing as I chatted with the 5-foot-4, 105-pound Maria this morning: She won the state title in only her second year of cross-country. She played fall soccer in seventh grade, but her running talents were evident when she tried track the following spring.
“I saw her running track and she set the school mile record in her first race,” said Shakopee girls’ cross-country coach Mark Neu. As any smart coach might do, Neu began inquiring as to whether the young athlete may want to consider joining the cross-country squad.
“I talked to her parents and they said it was up to her. She has great parents, they didn’t push her either way. She plays hockey, she does track. Luckily, she decided to come out.
“Her parents keep everything low-key, they’re super people,” Neu added. “She’s a humble kid and that helps a lot. If I need somebody to clean the bus, she asks. ‘Should I clean the bus, coach?’ She wins a meet and she cleans the bus. She’s an amazing kid.”
The Sabers finished eighth in the 2A team competition at state last year, and the only runner on that squad who graduated was Kate Bendel. The other six returnees are Hauger, sophomores Winona Rachel and Alli Lynch, junior Anna Neu and seniors Catherine Whitcomb and Ashley Walker.
When I asked Maria what she enjoys about cross-country, she smiled as she talked about her teammates.
“The team is so awesome and everyone’s always pushing each other,” she said. “You can always push yourself to the hardest.”
Cross-country has its special moments away from competition, and the Sabers will end this week in just such a fashion. On Thursday night’s schedule was a picnic for the runners and their families at a local park, followed by Freaky Friday (in which the kids dress as oddly as possible for practice) and Saturday’s Garage Sale Run (groups of athletes are assigned different parts of town in which to do their training run, and they must bring back the most interesting garage sale item they can find for three dollars or less).
What’s more fun than that?
TOTINO-GRACE WON back-to-back Class A state football championships in 1977 and 1978, and the Eagles’ biggest run to glory came after the new century began, with 4A titles in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
Last season was one to remember, with the Eagles running roughshod over nearly every opponent. Their closest postseason win was a 42-28 decision over Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the Section 6 championship game, followed by state tournament wins over Rogers (56-14), Mankato West (35-0) and Sartell-St. Stephen (45-7).
Last year’s team was led by some talented seniors, including Mr. Football finalist John Crockett, who rushed 17 times for 145 yards and four touchdowns against Sartell-St. Stephen in the Prep Bowl. His four scores tied a Prep Bowl record for most rushing touchdowns by an individual. Also gone is 1,000-yard passer J.D. Pride.
Coach Jeff Ferguson said the 2009 team might have been as good a team as he’s had, especially when you consider the stretch run.
“The way we finished it, if you look at the scores in the playoffs,” he said. “It requires luck, you know that. We were fortunate in that when the playoffs started, we were healthy. We were healthy all the way through the state playoffs, and those were the only games all year we were healthy.
“Last year we had more ‘name’ guys, I guess. Football’s a cool sport because you can not have any ‘name’ guys and be a better team than some.”
There are some holes to fill in 2010, with five returning starters on offense and the same number on defense. But the Eagles have plenty of experience in one important area: the coaching staff. Ten members of the staff are former Totino-Grace football players, including the father/son duo of Bernie and Brian Litecky.
Totino-Grace should be tested right off the bat, going to Class 5A Minnetonka for the season opener. One special angle to that matchup is the friendship between Ferguson and Minnetonka coach Dave Nelson. They coached together for 16 years at Blaine, and their relationship extends far beyond the football field. The Sept. 2 game will be the first time the two coaches have squared off with each other.
“I talked to Nellie last night,” Ferguson said. “It’s really surreal. We’re very close friends and our families have grown up together, we’ve gone on family vacations together, he’s my daughter Jenna’s godfather.
“I told him about a dream I had. It’s before the game and Nellie’s coming across the field with his dad, Stan. Nellie has a traffic cone on his head and as he got close I saw he was crying. I said, ‘Nellie, what’s wrong?’ And he couldn’t talk for a while. Finally he said, ‘We’ll still be friends, right?’
“And then my wife, who reads dream books, says, ‘Well, you know what that means? Whenever you dream, the person in your dream is actually you. So you’re the clown with the cone on your head and you’re the guy who’s crying.’ Well, thanks for that interpretation. I feel a heck of a lot better about it now."
PROGRAMMING NOTE: John’s Journal will be taking Friday off to so Mr. and Mrs. John’s Journal can return one of their offspring to her university. Safe travels to all.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools John has visited: 8
*Miles John has driven: 435
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