John's Journal
As Fall Season Ends, Lots Of Reminders About What’s Important 11/20/2018
The 2018 Minnesota high school fall sports season will come to an end this weekend with Prep Bowl XXXVII football games at U.S. Bank Stadium. There will be seven state championship contests, capping months of competitions in many sports in which athletes and teams give their all, coaches do everything they can to prepare, and fans follow along with pride and enthusiasm.

It’s not all about winning and losing, as we know. This isn’t professional or college sports, and nobody is involved in high school sports and activities for the money. There are always lessons to be learned, and this fall’s sporting calendar has provided, as prep sports always do, strong reminders of what’s truly important.

Let’s revisit some of the special moments from this fall’s championship calendar, starting with the top cross-country athlete in Minnesota. Minneapolis Washburn senior Emily Covert capped her cross-country career by winning a second consecutive Class 2A championship on Nov. 3 at St. Olaf College in Northfield, and her words afterwards were just as strong as her performance.

“Honestly, I feel so blessed to be able to be here and compete among all these amazing and talented women,” she said. “It’s so humbling to know that there are so many people cheering me on and cheering everyone on. It makes the experience so much more amazing.

“I love Minneapolis. When I was in seventh grade my parents asked if I wanted to transfer to a really strong running school. And I said, ‘No, I want to go to Washburn and I want to help the team at Washburn.’ I know if you talk about it and you get young girls out there, they’re just going to keep on having fun and keep on wanting to do more.”

Pride in your school and your community is special, whether you live in a tiny village in rural Minnesota or the largest city in the state. And that feeling extends way beyond what we consider the prime time activities.

Last weekend inside Stillwater High School, the adapted soccer state tournament was held over two days. In the division for physically impaired athletes, the team from St. Paul Humboldt captured the state title with a 5-4 win over Dakota United. Any championship is a great accomplishment, but how many teams can look back with pride on an entire season in which they played shorthanded?

Adapted soccer rules allow teams to have a maximum of seven players in action at a time. But Humboldt had just five players throughout the season, yet they finished with a record of 11-1, closing with three victories at state.

“We tried and tried and tried to get more players,” coach Mary Bohland told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It was either we didn't play or we played with five, and we played with five. It was hard. We got tired. We had a lot of close games. These guys have been playing together for five years. They know each other and what they can do. We worked. We kept going and going and going.”

At the state volleyball tournament, emotions and tears were a theme on Championship Saturday. After unseeded Medford advanced all the way to the title match before losing, coach Missy Underdahl wiped away tears.

“These aren't tears of sadness,” she said. “These are tears of our season has come to an end, and you’re going to miss these girls so much because it’s just been an incredible season. I’m not having tears of sadness here, it’s tears of the reality that I won’t get to see these girls.”

Last week, the Pierz football team saw its season end with a narrow loss to Rochester Lourdes in the Class 3A state semifinals. After the game, Pioneers senior Reese Kapsner was asked about the memories he will take from high school football.

“Just having fun with your friends and being teammates and having a good team and enjoying the time playing football with your friends,” he said.

On Tuesday, 33-year Pierz coach Leo Pohlkamp (pictured with Kapsner and Alex Gross) announced that Saturday’s game was his last as he transitions into retirement. His career record of 276-84 ranks among the top 15 all-time in state history, but he also knows that winning wasn’t the only thing that mattered. In what became a routine at state semifinals and Prep Bowl games, when the postgame press conferences ended the coach would personally thank every media member in the room for their devotion to high school activities.

After the other Class 3A semifinal last weekend, in which Fairmont beat the Perham Yellowjackets, Perham coach Kyle Knutson was asked about his talented quarterback, senior Jenson Beachy. (They are pictured here.)

“I love him,” the coach said. “A kid like Jenson comes along not too often. I feel blessed to be able to work with him over the past few years and he’s a great example for younger kids and the type of athlete we want on our team. He’s very coachable, he’s a great poised leader. It’s just been a privilege to work with him.”

Asked about the team’s seniors, Knutson said, “This senior class is a bunch of tremendous young men and they’re going to go off and do great things beyond high school, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. I’m indebted to them and I wish them all the best. It’s going to be pretty emotional saying goodbye to those guys. They’re a great group of men and I’m going to miss them.”

Another team that saw a stellar football season end in the state semifinals was Blooming Prairie in Class 1A. Coach Chad Gimbel talked about what made the season special.

“The guys,” he said. “Honestly, practice was fun every single day. Leadership was great, underclassmen leadership was great. I’ve been doing this for 24, 25 years and the No. 1 thing that it takes is chemistry on the team. That’s the most important thing, that’s what these guys had this year.”

Win or lose, year after year, there are always important themes. School pride, community spirit, working hard, fun with your friends, setting an example for others.

The fall season was outstanding.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Lumberyard’s Loss Is BOLD Football’s Gain 11/17/2018
Following a late-October win over Ortonville in the Section 5 playoffs, BOLD football coach Steve Solem told his players that he was retiring at the end of the season, whenever the end arrived.

It hasn’t arrived yet. The Warriors advanced to the Class 1A Prep Bowl with a 37-7 victory over Blooming Prairie on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, and that means the season will go the distance. And to think, if Solem had used the college degree he earned in lumberyard management from Huron College in South Dakota instead of becoming a teacher and coach, well, that would have been different.

“I could see myself being a lumberyard manager, just sitting there passing out two by fours,” a smiling Solem said after Saturday’s game. BOLD (Bird Island, Olivia, Lake Lillian District) will take a record of 13-0 into Saturday’s 10 a.m. game against Mahnomen-Waubun (12-0).

Solem has spent his entire 33-year high school coaching career at BOLD. He was there when the school district was formed and he helped design the football uniforms. He also has coached boys and girls basketball and softball. His football record of 291-77 ranks among the top 10 in state history; he was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015.

The Warriors are pursuing their third state championship. BOLD won it all in 1990 and 1991 and finished second in 1992, 1998 and 2014. Another championship would be a great way to close his career, but Solem knows this is about more than winning and losing.

“I don’t think there’s a better way to go out than have these young men lead you to a state finals game,” he said. “Win, lose or draw, we lay it on the line every game. And when we’re done, we look at the scoreboard. If it’s in our favor we like it. If it isn’t we’re not as happy but we know we played as hard as we could.”

A 1978 graduate of Windom High School, Solem played football at Worthington Community College before transferring to study and play football at Huron. He was a graduate assistant coach there for two years before taking a job teaching physical education in Bird Island. He was an assistant football coach for one year before taking over the team.

This year’s team returned nine offensive starters and eight on defense from last season’s 10-1 squad. “We knew we were going to have a decent team,” the coach said.

Some of Solem’s early players are now the parents of current players. He was asked about senior Riley Weis, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound senior lineman who will play in the Minnesota High School All-Star Game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 15.

“I coached his dad the first year I was there, and his mom was a basketball player who was tougher than a nail. I said, ‘You two should get married.’ And they came up with a 290-pound tackle.”

--Mahnomen/Waubun defeated Springfield 38-0 Saturday. The Thunderbirds and BOLD have been dominant all season long, scoring seemingly at will and rarely giving up points. BOLD, which has trailed only once in 2018, has held all but two opponents to zero points or single digits. The Mahnomen/Waubun Thunderbirds have given up double digits only three times.

--Rochester Lourdes and Pierz have dominated Class 3A, with each winning two state titles in the last four years. Lourdes came out on top Saturday, defeating the Pioneers 25-20 in a game that went down to the wire. Pierz won it all in 2015 and 2017, and the Eagles were champions in 2014 and 2016.

--Fairmont defeated Perham 29-14, moving the Cardinals into a matchup with Rochester Lourdes in Prep Bowl XXXVII at 1 p.m. Saturday. Fairmont’s last Prep Bowl appearance was a runner-up finish in 2011.

--St. Thomas Academy advanced to its fourth Prep Bowl with a 33-21 victory over Bemidji in Class 5A. The Cadets, who won a state title in 1975 and finished second in 2000, 2006 and 2015, will meet defending state champion Owatonna at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Football State Semifinals

Thursday, Nov. 15

Nine-Man: Spring Grove 48, Cromwell-Wright 12
Class 2A: Caledonia 40, Paynesville 6
Class 4A: SMB 23, Waseca 15
Class 6A: Eden Prairie 34, Blaine 14

Friday, Nov. 16
Nine-Man: Mountain Lake Area 42, Mountain Iron-Buhl 8
Class 2A: Barnesville 34, Minneapolis North 20
Class 5A: Owatonna 39, Elk River 8
Class 4A: Willmar 62, St. Paul Johnson 20
Class 6A: Lakeville North 35, Lakeville South 13

Saturday, Nov. 17
Class 1A: BOLD 37, Blooming Prairie 7
Class 1A: Mahnomen/Waubun 38, Springfield 0
Class 3A: Rochester Lourdes 25, Pierz 20
Class 3A: Fairmont 29, Perham 14
Class 5A: St. Thomas Academy 33, Bemidji 21

Prep Bowl XXXVII

Friday, November 23

10 a.m. Nine-Man: Spring Grove (13-0) vs. Mountain Lake (12-0)
1 p.m. Class 2A: Caledonia (12-0) vs. Barnesville (11-2)
4 p.m. Class 4A: SMB (12-0) vs. Willmar (11-1)
7 p.m. Class 6A: Eden Prairie (10-1) vs. Lakeville North 12-0)

Saturday, Nov. 24
10 a.m. Class 1A: BOLD (13-0) vs. Mahnomen/Waubun (12-0)
1 p.m. Class 3A: Rochester Lourdes (13-0) vs. Fairmont (11-1)
4 p.m. Class 5A: Owatonna (12-0) vs. St. Thomas Academy (12-0)

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Old-School Offense That Fits Minnesota To A T 11/16/2018
The T formation is often said to be the oldest offensive formation in American football and is claimed to have been invented by Walter Camp in 1882. – Wikipedia.

The hottest offense in Minnesota high school football is 136 years old, and Elk River coach Steve Hamilton has become a guru of the T formation. The Elks won the Class 5A state championship two years ago, lost to Owatonna in the 2017 title game and fell to the Huskies 39-8 in Friday’s semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.

And to think, Hamilton began his career as a head coach running a spread offense. But he has long been running the T formation with the Elks and said Friday he has heard from 16 other coaches in Minnesota who wanted to learn about it.

“Some have taken pieces, some are all in,” he said. “That’s why I went to it; we needed something to level the playing field and compete with the teams we had to play with. It’s certainly helped me in my career. I’m sure it’s made my career last longer than I ever thought it would. Twenty-one years as a head coach and I don’t know if I ever thought I would still be coaching at this point.”

Barnesville, which beat Minneapolis North 34-20 in Friday’s Class 2A semifinals, uses the T, as does Lakeville South, which met Lakeville North in the 6A semis in Friday’s last game. The basic T formation is very simple: seven linemen bunched in tight, quarterback under the center and three running backs lined up a row behind the quarterback. (Photo: Elk River on offense.)

“I watched Elk River run theirs and it’s very similar to what we want in our wing T,” said Barnesville coach Bryan Strand. “Misdirection, angle blocks, you don’t have to have gigantic linemen. I emailed (Hamilton) and he was fantastic.

“We went down there and met with him over the summer and he gave me all of their film, he answered questions, he’s been the go-to guy even during the season. He’s just there to help us out. He was smiling really big when we walked through at halftime (leading 28-8) because we run their offense.”

Hamilton said, “Did I ever think I was going to come to Minnesota and suddenly people would come to me about the offense I’m running? It’s been pretty cool.”

Owatonna clearly was prepared for the Elks on Friday. Elk River averaged 44 points and more than 400 rushing yards per game this season; the Elks rushed 45 times for 125 yards in scoring eight points against Owatonna.

“To be able to hold those guys to eight points and actually force them to throw to get their touchdown, we felt like that was a major accomplishment,” said Huskies coach Jeff Williams.

“It’s not really a secret,” Hamilton said. “If you’re really disciplined and you’re better than us up front, and that’s what they’ve been the last two years.”

Elk River’s record over the past three years is 34-4.

“If you would have said 34-4 and a state title, we would all have jumped on that,” Hamilton said. “It’s been an incredible run and this group of kids has been awesome. And it’s really them, the kids do this. This isn’t about the coaches, it isn’t about the families, it’s about the kids. The game’s for the kids and they’ve been incredible kids to coach.”

Hamilton taught and coached in Michigan and Georgia before coming to Elk River in 2011. He used a spread offense in Michigan but ran into issues.

“We found out real quick that if guys can’t get open, they can just pin their ears back and it’s a long night for the quarterback,” he said. He contacted a longtime successful coach there who ran the T and learned about it.

“He’s still the guy I call every week,” Hamilton said, “and every year I show him the Owatonna film and he says, ‘You guys are in trouble.’ ”

Tournament Tidbits

--Mountain Lake Area
junior quarterback Abraham Stoesz had a big day, completing 10 of 16 passes for 134 yards and one touchdown, and rushing 15 times for 102 yards and another score in the Warriors’ 42-8 nine-man win over Mountain Iron-Buhl. The Wolverines advanced to next Friday’s Prep Bowl XXXVII, where they will face defending champion Spring Grove for the nine-man state title.

Mountain Lake Area is a cooperative team with students from Mountain Lake High and Mountain Lake Christian. It’s the third version of Mountain Lake to go to state in football. Mountain Lake High was the Class C state runner-up in 1980, Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin went to state three times between 1991 and 2003 (finishing as 1A runner-up in 2002) and the current Mountain Lake Area program is at state for the fourth time since 2012.

Friday’s game was the Wolverines’ first at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Stoesz was asked about pregame jitters.

“We come out, we’re on the field and we had a little bit of nerves,” he said. “But when the game starts, stick your chest out and turn your nerves into pride.”

--Mountain Iron and Buhl have a tournament history similar to Mountain Lake’s. Mountain Iron High was the Class B state champ in 1972 (the first year of football playoffs) and also went to state in 1973 and 1982. Mountain Iron-Buhl made its sixth state appearance since 1983.

--Barnesville’s victory put the Trojans into the Class 2A Prep Bowl game against three-time defending state champion Caledonia at 1 p.m. Nov. 23.

--Willmar rolled past St. Paul Johnson 62-20 in Class 4A. The Cardinals will face SMB in the Prep Bowl at 4 p.m. Nov. 23.

--In Friday night’s final game, Lakeville North beat Lakeville South 35-13 in Class 6A. North will face Eden Prairie in the Prep Bowl at 7 p.m. Nov. 23.

Football State Semifinal Schedule
At U.S. Bank Stadium

Thursday, Nov. 15

Nine-Man: Spring Grove 48, Cromwell-Wright 12
Class 2A: Caledonia 40, Paynesville 6
Class 4A: SMB 23, Waseca 15
Class 6A: Eden Prairie 34, Blaine 14

Friday, Nov. 16
Nine-Man: Mountain Lake Area 42, Mountain Iron-Buhl 8
Class 2A: Barnesville 34, Minneapolis North 20
Class 5A: Owatonna 39, Elk River 8
Class 4A: Willmar 62, St. Paul Johnson 20
Class 6A: Lakeville North 35, Lakeville South 13

Saturday, Nov. 17
9 a.m. Class 1A: BOLD vs. Blooming Prairie
11:30 a.m. Class 1A: Mahnomen/Waubun vs. Springfield
2 p.m. Class 3A: Pierz vs. Rochester Lourdes
4:30 p.m. Class 3A: Perham vs. Fairmont
7 p.m. Class 5A: Bemidji vs. St. Thomas Academy

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
IMPORTANT TRAFFIC REMINDER11/16/2018
Football fans coming to U.S. Bank Stadium please take note and tell others...

Interstate 35W will be closed south of downtown Minneapolis from 10 p.m. Friday through Monday morning.

If you plan to attend Saturday's state semifinal football games at U.S. Bank Stadium, please plan ahead. Light rail is a great option.
Ill-Timed Injuries Strike Cromwell-Wright, Paynesville11/15/2018
The story of two teams that played in the state football semifinals Thursday at U.S. Bank Stadium could be told through the medical devices that were seen: One wheelchair, four crutches. The teams from Cromwell-Wright and Paynesville were each missing a key player who happened to be their starting quarterback as well as an important defensive component.

Cromwell-Wright senior Drew Libbon navigated the big stadium on crutches. Paynesville senior Max Weidner came on and off the field in a wheelchair, then used crutches on the sideline. Both teams came up short, with Cromwell-Wright losing to Spring Grove 48-12 in a Nine-Man game and Paynesville falling to Caledonia 40-6 in Class 2A.

Libbon was injured in the Section 5 championship game, a 26-8 win over South Ridge. He suffered a dislocated hip when two tacklers brought him down and fell on him. Weidner’s injury, a broken ankle, happened in last week’s 52-14 state quarterfinal win over Pillager. His incident was similar to Lisbon; Weidner’s left foot was caught underneath a tackler when they both went to the ground.

Both were two-way players who saw their seasons -- and high school football careers -- end while all they could do was watch and cheer.

“The hard part is to see a kid who invested so much not be able to go out on his own terms,” said Paynesville coach Max Meagher. “I have four kids at home, and my third-oldest kind of put it in perspective when she said, “Well, at least it didn’t happen in the first game.’ It’s just hard to get right on the brink of his dream of playing in U.S. Bank for the second time and just like that it was gone.”

Both players knew exactly what they were missing because they had played in the big stadium before. Weidner was the quarterback last season when Paynesville lost to Caledonia in the semifinals, and Libbon saw some action as a reserve two years ago when the Cardinals lost to Cleveland in the semifinals.

“I guess it is better that it didn’t happen in the first game of the season and I don’t have to sit out the whole time,” Weidner said. “But it’s not exactly what I wanted.”

When Max was injured, some of his teammates thought his shoe was coming loose, but it was his foot that was coming loose. It was a severe injury, which will keep him sidelined during basketball season. He’s hoping he will be cleared to play baseball in the spring.

When the Dragons left the locker room before kickoff, Max’s wheelchair was pushed out to lead the team onto the field.

“I would have rather been running, but it was kind of nice to be in the front of the pack and leading the dogs out there,” he said.

Libbon, who is hoping to be on the basketball court in January, was maintaining a positive attitude despite his inability to be in uniform. Cardinals coach Jeff Gronner said, “He’s a two-year captain, and I haven’t had a lot of two-year captains. He’s a phenomenal kid, tough kid, intense kid, our vocal leader. So those are all the things that we lost.”

In both cases, roles were shuffled when the No. 1 quarterbacks were lost. Cromwell-Wright senior wide receiver Isaac Shelton became the Cardinals quarterback, and Paynesville junior running back Grady Fuchs made the same position change,

“I’m always telling him to stay confident,” Weidner said. “Grady is one heck of an athlete and I know if he keeps his mind right he can do amazing things. And I know he’s going to be a great quarterback for this team next year.”

Caledonia coach Carl Fruechte sought out Weidner before and after Thursday’s game.

“He stopped me and said he wished I could be out there,” Max said. “He was super thoughtful about it. After the game he said, ‘I know you would have made a huge difference.’ It was super nice.”

Tournament Tidbits

--In Spring Grove’s win over Cromwell-Wright, Lions senior Alex Folz completed 25 of 34 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns while rushing 19 times for 85 yards and three scores. He also kicked off eight times, punted once and made 5.5 tackles. The Lions will face Mountain Iron-Buhl or Mountain Lake Area (who play Friday) in Prep Bowl XXXVII at 10 a.m. on Nov. 23.

--Caledonia advanced to the Prep Bowl, where the Warriors will meet Barnesville or Minneapolis North at 1 p.m. on Nov. 23. Those teams will meet Friday.

--In an exciting Class 4A semifinal, SMB defeated Waseca 23-15. SMB, a cooperative team with players from St. Paul Academy and Summit School, Minnehaha Academy, Hope Academy and Blake, will meet Willmar or St. Paul Johnson in the Prep Bowl at 4 p.m. om Nov. 23. Those teams face off Friday.

--Eden Prairie’s 34-14 victory over Blaine in Friday night’s Class 6A semifinals put the Eagles into the Prep Bowl against the winner of Friday night’s game between Lakeville South and Lakeville North.

--All of this week’s action from the state football semifinals and girls swimming and diving state championships can be viewed online at no charge. Go to prepspotlight.tv/MSHSL

--TRAFFIC REMINDER: Interstate 35W will be closed south of downtown Minneapolis from 10 p.m. Friday through Monday morning. If you are coming to girls state swimming and diving at the University of Minnesota or football at U.S. Bank Stadium, please plan ahead. Light rail is a good option.

Football State Semifinal Schedule
At U.S. Bank Stadium

Thursday, Nov. 15

Nine-Man: Spring Grove 48, Cromwell-Wright 12
Class 2A: Caledonia 40, Paynesville 6
Class 4A: SMB 23, Waseca 15
Class 6A: Eden Prairie 34, Blaine 14

Friday, Nov. 16
9 a.m. Nine-Man: Mountain Lake Area vs. Mountain Iron-Buhl
11:30 a.m. Class 2A: Barnesville vs. Minneapolis North
2 p.m. Class 5A: Elk River vs. Owatonna
4:30 p.m. Class 4A: Willmar vs. St. Paul Johnson
7 p.m. Class 6A: Lakeville North vs. Lakeville South

Saturday, Nov. 17
9 a.m. Class 1A: BOLD vs. Blooming Prairie
11:30 a.m. Class 1A: Mahnomen/Waubun vs. Springfield
2 p.m. Class 3A: Pierz vs. Rochester Lourdes
4:30 p.m. Class 3A: Perham vs. Fairmont
7 p.m. Class 5A: Bemidji vs. St. Thomas Academy

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn