John's Journal
Washburn’s Covert Operation: Be True To Your School11/4/2018
NORTHFIELD -- Emily Covert was smiling, which is nothing new. The Minneapolis Washburn senior is known for her smile, whether she’s preparing to run, running or post-race. This time, Saturday at St. Olaf College, the smile came on the heels of a second consecutive Class 2A cross-country state championship and was grounded in a grateful attitude.

“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.”

Emily’s winning margin was 25 seconds. The Farmington duo of senior Lauren Peterson and sophomore Anna Fenske (the 2016 champion) were second and third.

Two girls state cross-country titles have been won by runners from Minneapolis public high schools, and both belong to Covert (pictured). On the boys side, which has held state championships since 1943 (girls have been running at state since 1975), runners from Minneapolis public schools have won 16 state titles. The first was Clarence Johnson of Minneapolis Southwest in 1946 and the most recent was Hassan Mead of Minneapolis South in 2006.

Representing her neighborhood school means a lot to Covert, who ran training mile after training mile with her teammates around the Minneapolis chain of lakes.

“I love Minneapolis,” she said. “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.”

The state championship meet capped a busy period for Emily, who had announced six days earlier her intention to study and run at the University of Colorado. She’s also an accomplished track athlete, winning a big-school state title at 3,200 meters and finishing second at 1,600 last spring.

“The mindset was just to have fun and have a smile on my face throughout this race, knowing that it’s my last cross-country race on Minnesota soil,” she said. “I just wanted to kind of cap off my high school career with a bang, I guess. It was just fun to be out here and have fun.”

Covert is the kind of athlete who inspires other athletes, whether it’s congratulating fellow finishers, working with younger runners or encouraging girls to give cross-country a try.

“I just want young girls to know that the sport is so much fun,” she said. “If you’re not having fun, then there’s no point in doing it. And honestly, the cross-country running community is so great. I have never been in a sport with this much hype and so many positive vibes around it. It’s just awesome.”

Roseville senior Acer Iverson, who will attend Harvard, won the Class 2A boys championship in a tight finish. His time of 15 minutes, 14.8 seconds was less than a second ahead of runner-up Andrew Brandt of Wayzata, and Edina’s Max Manley was third.

Sophomores won titles in Class 1A. Winona Cotter’s Grace Ping, who won the event as a seventh-grader, added another gold medal, with her eighth-grade sister Lauren placing second (22 seconds back) and Murray County Central-Fulda sophomore Morgan Gehl third. Two-time defending champion Tierney Wolfgram, a sophomore from Math & Science Academy in Woodbury who had placed sixth among females in the Oct. 7 Twin Cities Marathon, did not finish Saturday’s race.

On the 1A boys side, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin’s Geno Uhrbom was the champion with an 18-second margin over second-place Cooper Lenox, a junior from Mora. Third was Staples-Motley sophomore Emmet Anderson.

Perham became the first school in Class 1A history to win the girls and boys team titles in back-to-back years. The Yellowjackets boys had 64 points to easily outdistance second-place West Central Area (140), and the Perham girls had a 94-99 edge over runner-up Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted.

St. Michael-Albertville won its first girls Class 2A team title with 70 points, five ahead of Wayzata. In the 2A boys team race, Edina’s score of 88 was enough to hold off Mounds View at 99.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Miracle Shot And A Miraculous Response 11/2/2018
Some remarkable things happened Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium, site of the MSHSL soccer state championship games. In the Class 1A boys contest between Bemidji and Blake, the first remarkable thing took place in the opening second of the second overtime.

Blake sophomore James Keegan stood near midfield, on the eyeball of the Vikings logo. As a whistle blast from the official started the clock, Keegan took four quick steps toward the ball, which was motionless on the 50-yard line. In most cases, a game or the second half or an overtime period begins with a player gently nudging the ball from the midfield stripe to a teammate as an offensive attack begins forming.

Not this time. Keegan struck the ball perfectly. It sailed high, slowly losing its battle with the forces of gravity and arcing over the head of Bemidji senior goalkeeper Joe Fletcher. Final score: Top-seeded Bears 1, non-seeded Lumberjacks 0.

On the official statistical sheet, the play was described like this: “shot from kick off flew over the goalkeepers head and into the goal.” Time of the goal: Ninety minutes, four seconds.

The second remarkable thing happened in a much quieter spot, the Vikings postgame media room. With no more than four or five reporters present, Bemidji coach Rick Toward and players Ben Hess and Aspen Galdamez talked about the loss and the team and the season and the memories. It was golden.

“Obviously we’re very proud of what we accomplished this year,” the coach said. “Disappointed in the way the final game turned out, but we couldn’t be more proud to watch this team grow from where we were at the beginning of the season to a legitimate threat to basically anybody in the state.

“What can I say? Proud, proud, proud as a coach.”

If Minnesota geography isn’t your thing, you should know that the Lumberjacks do not hail from a metro school unless you consider Beltrami County a metropolitan area. Bemidji High School is a four-hour drive from U.S. Bank Stadium, and finding soccer opponents often means traveling two and a half hours one way. Blake, located in Hopkins, is 11 miles from the stadium.

“Living where we live, playing the schedule we play, we don’t get the opportunities that Blake would get,” Toward said. “It’s so hard for us to play quality, high-level opponents. So when we get the opportunity to go over to Duluth and play East, we’re playing one or two or three games like that a year. We have to balance burning our kids out with travel, late nights, with prepping them for this type of environment. That’s been a challenge for us geographically and I don’t know how to fix that.

“We’ve been fortunate that we have activity directors around the state who recognize that (he mentioned St. Cloud Cathedral, Moorhead and Duluth East). It’s very hard to get people to travel. We do as well as we can. But I think if we play the level of competition that you see Blake get to play all year long, we might have a different result today.”

This was Bemidji’s third consecutive trip to state and the first time the Lumberjacks advanced past the opening round. They defeated third-seeded Mahtomedi 1-0 in last week’s quarterfinals at St. Cloud State and got past second-seeded Holy Angels 3-1 Tuesday at U.S. Bank Stadium. So all they accomplished was beating the second and third seeds and taking the top seed to overtime before getting beat on a miracle shot.

“Five years ago we were saying we just want to get through the section,” Toward said. “Two years ago we were saying we want to get to the Bank.”

As soon as the ball sailed into the goal and the Bears began a delirious celebration, the Bemidji players went directly to their goalkeeper. Fletcher didn’t even play soccer until this season, and he had seen action in only a handful of games. He came onto the field Friday when starter Jedidiah Bitter was injured at the 69-minute mark.

“Immediately upon that goal going in, my kids went to the keeper. That was their number one concern,” the coach said. “They didn’t drop their heads, they didn’t feel sorry for themselves, they went to their teammate.”

Galdamez said, “It was obviously a really good shot, probably a once-in-a-lifetime shot for him. Joe had nothing to be ashamed of. It’s been a good season and I’m proud of what we accomplished.”

Hess added, “When someone scores from 60 yards out you’re kind of in shock. You don’t expect that to happen. But he hit it well. It was a really good season, I loved every second of it and Joe’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had. He gives us pep talks before every game, he keeps us pumped on the bench, his first year out. I can’t say enough about him.”

And then there’s this fact, which Toward pointed out as the postgame media session wound down:

“We’ve never cut a kid. Every kid who comes out for soccer in Bemidji plays. So for me, that’s kind of a testament to what high school sports is supposed to be all about. I had a couple kids on the bench this year that didn’t get a ton of minutes but they got to enjoy the ride. We as a community are super proud of that. We are inclusive. We want everybody to have an opportunity.”

State Soccer Semifinals and Championship Games
At U.S. Bank Stadium

Tuesday, Oct. 30

Class 2A girls: Minnetonka 1, Eagan 0 (4-3 shootout)
Class 2A girls: Wayzata 2, Stillwater 1 (7-6 shootout)
Class 1A girls: Mahtomed 2, Holy Angels 1
Class 1A girls: Orono 2, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1
Class 1A boys: Blake 3, Austin 1
Class 1A boys: Bemidji 3, Holy Angels

Wednesday, Oct. 31
Class 1A girls third-place game: Holy Angels 0, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 0
Class 1A boys third-place game: Austin 1, Holy Angels 0
Class 2A boys: Duluth East 2, Minnetonka 0
Class 2A boys: Stillwater 2, St. Paul Central 1
Class 2A girls third-place game: Eagan 4, Stillwater 2

Friday, Nov. 2
Class 2A boys third-place game: Minnetonka 1, St. Paul Central 1
Class 1A girls championship game: Mahtomedi 1, Orono 0 (overtime)
Class 1A boys championship game: Blake 1, Bemidji 0 (overtime)
Class 2A girls championship game: Minnetonka 1, Wayzata 0
Class 2A boys championship game: Stillwater 2, Duluth East 1 (overtime)

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
10/31/2018
State Soccer Semifinals and Championship Games
At U.S. Bank Stadium

Tuesday, Oct. 30

Class 2A girls: Minnetonka 1, Eagan 0 (4-3 shootout)
Class 2A girls: Wayzata 2, Stillwater 1 (7-6 shootout)
Class 1A girls: Mahtomed 2, Holy Angels 1
Class 1A girls: Orono 2, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1
Class 1A boys: Blake 3, Austin 1
Class 1A boys: Bemidji 3, Holy Angels

Wednesday, Oct. 31
Class 1A girls third-place game: Holy Angels 0, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 0
Class 1A boys third-place game: Austin 1, Holy Angels 0
Class 2A boys: Duluth East 2, Minnetonka 0
Class 2A boys: Stillwater 2, St. Paul Central 1
Class 2A girls third-place game: Eagan 4, Stillwater 2

Friday, Nov. 2
8 a.m. Class 2A boys third-place game: Minnetonka vs. St. Paul Central
10 a.m. Class 1A girls championship game: Mahtomedi vs. Orono
12:30 p.m. Class 1A boys championship game: Blake vs. Bemidji
3 p.m. Class 2A girls championship game: Minnetonka vs. Wayzata
5:30 p.m. Class 2A boys championship game: Duluth East vs. Stillwater

Championship games will be streamed online for free here: http://prepspotlight.tv/MSHSL
Duluth East Soccer Family Goes The Distance 10/30/2018
Chris Francis was on his cell phone, talking with a reporter. The reporter was in Minnesota and Francis was 12 hours away. Appropriately, he was in his car at a soccer field.

Francis’ son Eddie, 11, was on the field in the Cincinnati area. That’s where the Francis family lives, with one exception. High school senior William Francis lives in Duluth and will be on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium for Wednesday’s Class 2A state semifinals between Duluth East and Minnetonka.

It’s a pretty wild story involving a family that moved from Duluth to Cincinnati when Chris took a new job, with one of their children staying behind to finish his senior soccer season back in Minnesota.

The Ohio portion of the family (they actually live across the Ohio River in Union, Kentucky) will be at the stadium on Wednesday. Should the Greyhounds win, they will meet either Stillwater or St. Paul Central in Friday’s state championship game. If not, they will play in Friday’s third-place game.

Chris, wife Stephanie and sons Eddie, 11, and Sam, 15, along with daughter Cabrilla, 19, will end an odyssey that began when Chris left his job with the Duluth YMCA to become chief operating officer at YMCA of Greater Cincinnati. That happened in September of 2017 and the rest of the family moved when the school year ended last spring. Cabrilla is taking a gap year in Colorado before starting college.

That means Chris has made dozens of trips – some flying, some driving – to see William (pictured) play soccer back in Minnesota. Other family members have sometimes joined him, but school has been a roadblock for Sam and Eddie.

For years Eddie was a ball boy for the Greyhounds. “He knows those boys so well, he knows what balls they use and what shoes they wear,” Chris said. “When I leave and don’t take him, he’s really upset.”

Chris flew to Minneapolis for last Thursday’s state quarterfinals where Duluth East defeated Minnetonka 4-2 at Chisago Lakes. He landed at 2 p.m. and was back on an outbound flight at 6 a.m. the next day; he has been at all four of the Greyhounds’ postseason games.

“He’s been to a lot of games,” William said. “A lot more than you would expect.”

William, who will graduate at the end of the fall semester and rejoin his family, has been living with the family of teammates and twins Sean and Ryan Breuninghaus. “They’re great friends, good guys, and it’s been a great experience,” he said. “I had to stay here, I wanted to go off with a state championship.”

Chris said, “They came to us and said, ‘We’d really like to have him stay and he’s welcome to stay at our house.’ ”

William leads the Greyhounds (who finished third at state last year) with 27 goals in 20 games; he also has eight assists for 35 points. Teammate Seth Hoffman has 14 goals, 23 assists and 37 points. Duluth East comes to U.S. Bank Stadium as the top-seeded team with a record of 18-0-2; the ties came against Minnetonka and Duluth Denfeld. The game with Minnetonka (14-2-4) was played in Duluth on Sept. 1.

After Friday’s season-ending game, the family will spend the rest of the weekend in Duluth before driving back to Ohio/Kentucky. Chris, for one, will be very happy to have no more long trips scheduled.

“It’s a 12-hour drive and it gets long and boring,” he said. “I listen to a lot of books on tape, sports on satellite radio.

“It’s kind of funny; I’m in the hole on vacation days and I haven’t taken a vacation. It will be good on vacation days and the pocketbook when it’s over.”

State Soccer Tournament
At U.S. Bank Stadium

Tuesday, Oct. 30

Class 2A girls: Minnetonka 1, Eagan 0 (4-3 shootout)
Class 2A girls: Wayzata 2, Stillwater 1 (7-6 shootout)
Class 1A girls: Mahtomedi 2, Holy Angels 1
Class 1A girls: Orono 2, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1
Class 1A boys: Blake 3, Austin 1
Class 1A boys: Bemidji 3, Holy Angels 1

Wednesday, Oct. 31
8 a.m. Class 1A girls third-place game: Holy Angels vs. Benilde-St. Margaret's
10 a.m. Class 1A boys third-place game: Austin vs. Holy Angels
Noon Class 2A boys: Duluth East vs. Minnetonka
2 p.m. Class 2A boys: Stillwater vs. St. Paul Central
4 p.m. Class 2A girls third-place game: Eagan vs. Stillwater

Friday, Nov. 2
8 a.m. Class 2A boys third-place game
10 a.m. Class 1A girls championship game: Mahtomedi vs. Orono
12:30 p.m. Class 1A boys championship game: Blake vs. Bemidji
3 p.m. Class 2A girls championship game: Minnetonka vs. Wayzata
5:30 p.m. Class 2A boys championship game

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Spartans For Life: Lessons Learned On The Football Field 10/27/2018
WATERVILLE -- Spending time on the sideline at sporting events – and on the field of play after contests come to an end -- you see and hear different things. Some are fantastic, some are troubling. I witnessed something Saturday that was extremely inspirational and says a lot about what high school activities can mean to our kids and communities.

Before I go into details on what took place Saturday, we need some important perspective, because everything isn’t always peaches and cream at high school games. This fall I saw two things that made me sick to my stomach: 1) An adult, upset with the officials, yelled something so vile I won’t repeat it here; 2) In the final seconds of a soccer game, two opposing players got tangled up in pursuit of the ball. As they went down to the turf, one of them wrapped the other in a headlock and pulled it tight, then punched the other kid in the stomach. He got up as the final horn blew on his team’s victory, looked at the person he had just punched and waved “bye-bye.” It was despicable.

I don’t know how those things can be stopped, but what transpired Saturday afternoon after a football game was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The setting was the football field in Waterville, home of the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown Buccaneers. They hosted the Spartans of St. Clair/Mankato Loyola in a Class 2A Section 2 semifinal playoff game.

Both teams came in with 8-1 records, but this was expected to be a tough lift for the Spartans. The kids from St. Clair and Mankato Loyola almost didn’t get to play football at all this season. Neither school had enough available boys to field a team, so they formed a cooperative team for the first time.

Had each school fielded a team, they both would have been assigned to Class 1A. But the coop system means the two schools had to use their combined enrollment, and that number bumped them up into Class 2A for the postseason. During the regular season, six of the Spartans’ eight opponents were 1A teams.

Waterville-Elysian-Morristown opened the season with a four-point loss to Redwood Valley and hasn’t been beaten since. Saturday’s result was a 35-13 victory over St. Clair/Mankato Loyola, moving the Buccaneers into next Friday’s section championship game against New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva.

W-E-M is an impressive team. Grant McBroom ran for a touchdown and threw to Tanner Ranslow for two scores. The Buccaneers defense made things tough for the Spartans, but the visiting team had some highlights. The biggest came on the Spartans’ third possession, when senior Noah Schruin sprinted 97 yards for a touchdown to forge a 7-7 tie. That pushed Noah past 3,000 career yards.

And to think … he and his teammates almost didn’t have a season at all.

After the game ended at 4:08 p.m., the teams shook hands; players, coaches, managers, cheerleaders in a long, snaking line across the middle of the field. The coaches from St. Clair/Mankato Loyola congratulated the kids and coaches from W-E-M, saying, “Good luck,” “Keep winning, boys” and “Keep it going.”

The Spartans then walked slowly to the north end zone, where they kneeled as head coach Dustin Bosshart spoke to them. Before practice began in August, some of the now-teammates didn’t know each other. And here they were, at the end of the season, brothers, kneeling, some of them in tears and all of them emotional that the end had come.

Bosshart, who is the principal at St. Clair and represents the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals on the MSHSL board of directors, talked to the boys about togetherness, memories, pride and the future.

He thanked them for working so hard and giving everything they had to the team. He talked about the bonds they had formed not only with each other but with their coaches, who come from both schools.

“The coaches who coached you will be there for you for the rest of your lives,” Bosshart said.

“You will remember the lifetime memories you created,” he said as sniffles were heard. “You did it the right way.

“You are a great group and you will accomplish incredible things in your life. Spartan family for life, that’s what you guys are.”

Think about that. Spartans for life. For sports in which the schools don’t have cooperative teams, kids from St. Clair are Cyclones and Mankato Loyola teams are the Crusaders. But during football season, everyone is a Spartan.

With the coach’s remarks complete, the players broke it down for the final time. The boys stood, gathered in a tight bunch, raised their hands together in the middle and said, “One, two three! Brothers!”

Bosshart walked to his wife Cheryl and gave her a kiss. The players’ families and friends stood 20 or so yards away, waiting for the team’s private moment to end. And then another incredible thing happened: It didn’t end.

The players remained together, some hugging, some finding one or more of the coaches to say thank you and share an embrace. Coaches patted boys on the helmet, returned the thank you and told them they loved them. The boys then gathered together once more – not wanting the moment to end -- each of them kneeling, for a few private words. Helmets removed and heads bowed, they prayed.

And then, only then, did the boys begin reuniting with their families. A strapping teenager hugged his grandpa and wept on his shoulder. Moms, dads, friends offered congratulations and condolences on the end of a great season.

“We’ve talked about it all year,” Bosshart said quietly, standing in the end zone. “This is about more than football.”

Good job, Spartans. Well done.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn