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
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