John's Journal
Hutchinson Honors Its Humble Hometown Hero 11/28/2018
Back in the day, a young girl in Hutchinson rode her bike to the gym for organized workouts and team practices, but she also spent a lot of time there all by herself, working on her basketball skills. Some people jokingly wondered if she had keys to the gym.

She doesn’t need any keys now, because her name is above the gym doors.

Whalen Gymnasium, named after Hutchinson’s most famous graduate, was inaugurated Tuesday evening in a ceremony before the Tigers hosted Annandale in a season-opening girls basketball game. Lindsay Whalen, Class of 2000, was honored in the same space where she signed a letter of intent with the University of Minnesota 19 years ago and where her No. 13 Tigers jersey was retired during her senior season with the Gophers.

The Tigers varsity players, sitting at center court during the ceremony, honored the legend by wearing gold warm-up shirts with large 13s on the front and back.

“You never think someday that this gym is going to be named after you,” Whalen told the capacity crowd in the 1,200-seat gym, which has been renovated as part of a $45 million project at the high school. More than 80 percent of voters approved the bond referendum that funded the project.

Before she led the Gophers to the Final Four, before she helped the Lynx win four WNBA championships, before she won two Olympic gold medals, before she became coach of the Gophers, Whalen was a somewhat unheralded high school player outside of her hometown. But her skills were apparent from an early age.

As a seventh-grader she played on the ninth-grade team. She joined the varsity as an eighth-grader and was a starter from the beginning of her ninth-grade year. She was a four-year all-conference selection but on a statewide level never was chosen higher than honorable mention all-state. Whalen’s senior season was marred by an ankle sprain, causing her to miss about half the games. That didn’t stop then-Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn from offering a scholarship, which Whalen immediately accepted.

The rest, as they say, is history. And Hutchinson celebrated Tuesday night.

Whalen called it “an amazing, humbling honor.”

“Looking back, there are so many good memories in this gym,” she said.

Andy Rostberg, her high school basketball coach (who now coaches football), was unable to attend the ceremony because of a long-planned hunting trip to New Mexico. But he recorded a video message that was played on two large digital video boards in the gym.

In the video, Rostberg talked about his decision to insert Whalen into a prominent role at an early age.

“Someone grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Coach, I hope you know what you’re doing with this experiment with this little Whalen kid. If you don’t, there will be a storm that rains down on you.’ Little did they know. And you were the storm that was raining down on everybody. You did it with grace and grit and courage.’’

As fans entered the gym, black cloths covered the signs above the two main doors. Whalen, accompanied by seventh-grade basketball players, used a scissors to cut a string that caused the cloth to fall above one of the doors. Whalen Gymnasium was officially open for business, even though the hometown hero’s duties were not finished.

After the ceremony, Lindsay signed autographs and posed for photos in the lobby. At this point, the varsity teams were warming up in the gym that bears her name.

A few minutes earlier, when Whalen ended her remarks to the crowd, she thanked her husband, Ben Greve, for being there. Ben, who played golf at the University of Minnesota, is an Annandale alum.

“We play Annandale tonight,” Whalen said. “So go Hutch, right?”

The crowd roared.

To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Ending The Season With Past And Future Gophers 11/26/2018
There was an interesting twist to the last game of the 2018 high school season Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, related to football – past and future -- at the University of Minnesota. The final score in the final game, for the Class 5A state title, was Owatonna 14, St. Thomas Academy 3. The hero for the Huskies was senior Jason Williamson, who ran for second-half touchdowns of 71 and 44 yards.

Williamson will graduate early and enroll at Minnesota for the spring semester, getting a jump start on his Big Ten football career. At 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, he is strong, fast and tough to tackle, as evidenced by his first touchdown Saturday; the video ranked among that day’s Top 10 plays on ESPN’s SportsCenter and received another national television airing Sunday night at halftime of the Vikings-Packers game on the same field.

The Cadets held a 3-0 lead after the second quarter. During a quick television interview at halftime, St. Thomas Academy coach Dan O’Brien offered a warning about what Williamson was capable of.

“I said, ‘He only needs one, he gets a seam and he’s gonna be gone,’ ” O’Brien said after the game. “And sure enough, in the third quarter …”

He was speaking of the 71-yard burst in which Williamson was hit by several tacklers, somehow spun out of their grasp, put a hand on the ground, regained his footing and raced to the end zone.

“I thought we did a nice job on that play, but he made a great play,” O’Brien said

O’Brien knows big-time players, because he coached in the Big Ten as an assistant coach with the Gophers. The native of Winthrop was a team captain and all-MIAC defensive back at the University of St. Thomas before working as an assistant football coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Lakeville and head coach at Bemidji from 1993 to 1995.

He became an assistant coach at Concordia University in St. Paul in 1995, was promoted to head coach and athletic director there and was athletic director at Hamline University from 2002-2007. From 2008 to 2016 he worked with the football program at the University of Minnesota in a variety of positions, including defensive backs coach, director of football operations, assistant to the head coach and senior associate athletic director.

He left the U of M in 2017 to work as an executive at Sun Country Airlines and also returned to high school football last season as an assistant coach at St. Agnes in St. Paul. That experience brought him full circle before he was named head football coach and director of community outreach and partnerships at St. Thomas Academy earlier this year.

It’s not much a stretch to imagine O’Brien, had he remained with the Gophers, helping recruit Williamson.

“I’ve had an absolute blast,” O’Brien said of his first season back in the high school game. “I get to coach kids like these (he was sitting next to seniors Luke Herzog and Brendan McFadden during the postgame media session) every single day. I see them in the hallways, I see them after school, I see them on the weekend. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I hate to use the word magical because our kids worked extremely hard to get where they are now, but it almost is a little bit of a magical season.

“It’s been fabulous. It’s been a wonderful year. The hard part about it is how do you do it again? We’ll take a couple weeks to enjoy this season and not focus on the last three hours of it. I talked to the kids a little bit about, ‘You need to think about how our season basically started with practices and workouts in June. And all the hours that we put in. You can’t let the last three hours of your season, particularly if you’re a senior, let that define you.’ ”

Owatonna’s season was capped by a repeat state championship. The Huskies began the season ranked No. 1 in 5A and never wavered, leaning on a strong defense and an offense led by Williamson, who had career totals of 7,011 yards and 110 touchdowns.

Williamson’s 44-yard score Saturday, putting him over 7,000 yards, came with 1:27 left in the game. In the end zone, he pointed to his fingers and then held up two fingers, signifying a pair of state championship rings. Before the final kneel-down of the game, Owatonna coach Jeff Williams sent in a substitute for Williamson, something that the senior didn’t always care for.

“He’s irritated when we take him off the field,” the coach said after a Week 2 victory at Rochester Mayo. There was no irritation in Week 13. Williamson walked slowly off the field as the Huskies fans cheered, and he and his coach embraced. Williams had tears in his eyes.

“He’s kind of the entire reason I’m in the position I’m in right now,” Williamson said of the coach. “Giving me a shot to practice with him as a freshman, having the confidence in me to play as a sophomore. I just kind of owe everything to him.”

Williams immediately laughed, saying, “Quite the contrary. Absolutely the opposite is true.”

Something most people weren’t aware of was the fact that Williamson feared last summer that he would miss his senior season and never play college football. He suffered a knee injury during a summer camp at Notre Dame, requiring surgery. He was unable to walk for two months.

He was in uniform when the season began but carried the ball only twice for two yards in the first game of the year against Faribault.

“We just wanted to ease him back in,” Williams said after the Week 2 win over Mayo. “When we’ve got a decent football team, we want to be playing in November, that section championship and state first round. That’s always our goal, and we need him around.”

Any doubts about Williamson’s condition disappeared against Mayo. He ran the ball on the first three plays of the game and finished with 34 carries, 270 yards and two touchdowns.

After the Prep Bowl on Saturday, the coach said, “It was important to have Jason be able to walk off the field one last time, victorious, in front of I don’t know how many thousand people. … For what he’s meant to this team, I just thought that was an appropriate way for him to end his career. No, we’re not going to do that for most kids, but this kid … the kid deserved to walk off to the ovation that he got.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
New, Old, Large, Small: A Great Day At Prep Bowl XXXVII 11/24/2018
There was quite a mix of new and old, along with big and small, Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium when Mahnomen/Waubun and BOLD met to decide the state championship in Class 1A football.

Mahnomen and Waubun -- towns separated by 12 miles of Highway 59 in northwest Minnesota -- completed season No. 1 as a cooperative team with a 22-21 win over BOLD and a record of 13-0. Mahnomen went to state 26 times between 1974 and 2017, winning eight state titles (most recently in 2013). Waubun made four state appearances, including 2015 and 2016.

That was the new. The old was BOLD coach Steve Solem, who has led the Warriors for 33 years. Saturday’s game was his last before retirement; his teams won two state titles and this year’s runner-up finish was the Warriors’ fourth under Solem.

“I’ve got grandkids,” Solem said. “I’ve got two sons who coach football (Grant Solem is the head coach at Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial and Trevor Solem is an assistant at Minnewaska Area) and a daughter who raises cows. So I might go out and help her when I’m not watching the other two play games.”

A group of BOLD fans showed their admiration for the coach during the awards ceremony by holding up 17 sheets of white paper, each bearing one letter. The message was clear and from the heart: THANK YOU COACH SOLEM.

The big was BOLD senior Riley Weis, 6-foot-1, 300-pound lineman who left the game with an injury in the second quarter. Riley is usually double-teamed when he’s on defense, and his loss loomed large.

“You took a kid who’s going to play in the all-star game and is probably one of the best linemen in the state, and you put him on the sideline,” Solem said. “The kid that goes in there does a great job but it isn’t him.”

Nobody argued that the loss of Weis changed the outcome of the game, but still…

“With Riley, a big, strong 300-pound super-strong tackle, you can’t really single-team him,” said BOLD linebacker Hayden Tersteeg. “Having him in there drawing double-teams, he doesn’t get enough credit because he doesn’t make all the tackles. But he draws double-teams and triple-teams all the time, and that kind of lets the rest of us flow free. The guys that came in, they did what they could. Like coach said, they’re not Riley but they worked their tails off.”

The small was someone who made the biggest play of the game. Mahnomen/Waubun’s Jayden Heisler is listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but Clark said he might be closer to 150.

BOLD was driving for what the Warriors hoped would be a game-winning field goal, and they had reached the Thunderbirds' 10-yard line. A running play went up the middle, where Heisler met the ballcarrier, stripped the ball and fell on it with 96 seconds to play. Ballgame.

Asked to explain the play, Jayden said simply, “I kinda blitzed.”

Clark followed up: “He’s an aggressive player. Like he said, he kinda blitzes and he blitzes a lot on his own. He’s going to make plays. He weighs 150 pounds and he takes on big kids head on and does a great job. He read the formation and he shot.”

Clark was choked up briefly when asked what the state championship means. He comes from a coaching family; his father John Sr. (better known as “Bomber”) coached for more than four decades and was the head coach at Waubun for 20 years, and John Jr.’s brother Paul was Waubun’s head coach for 10 years. All three are now coaching together. They have a combined head-coaching record of 362-154 over a total of 48 seasons.

“My father’s been coaching football for 44-plus years and he’s never won one,” Clark said. “And I wanted it a lot for him. Nobody knows that but myself, now I’m getting emotional thinking about that.”

Rochester Lourdes 24, Fairmont 7

Lourdes won its fifth state championship behind the running of Zach Jungels, who carried 27 times for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his scores came in the fourth quarter, on runs of 50 and 22 yards.

Fairmont had one more total yard than the Eagles (339-338) but the Cardinals’ only points came on a 56-yard pass from Garrett Myren to Thomas Johnson in the third quarter. Myren completed 15 of 28 passes for 219 yards and teammate Jordan Wolter ran 22 times for 110 yards.

Owatonna 14, St. Thomas Academy 3

Jason Williamson ran for touchdowns of 71 and 44 yards to boost the Huskies to their second consecutive Class 5A championship and third overall. Williamson ran 23 times for 184 yards while St. Thomas Academy’s Brendan McFadden rushed 30 times for 105 yards.

Prep Bowl XXXVII

Friday, November 23

Nine-Man: Spring Grove 40, Mountain Lake Area 18
Class 2A: Caledonia 21, Barnesville 0
Class 4A: SMB 44, Willmar 18
Class 6A: Lakeville North 28, Eden Prairie 20

Saturday, Nov. 24
Class 1A: Mahnomen/Waubun 22, BOLD 21
Class 3A: Rochester Lourdes 24, Fairmont 7
Class 5A: Owatonna 14, St. Thomas Academy 3

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Pride In The Team, Pride In The Coach 11/23/2018
Bryan Strand saw the script unfolding. It would be one of the great cliffhangers of all time, with the underdog pulling off the upset and a wild celebration ensuing all the way from U.S. Bank Stadium back to Barnesville, 210 miles up Interstate 94.

The coach could see it. His Barnesville Trojans were going to come out on top in Friday’s Class 2A Prep Bowl matchup with Caledonia, the team that had won the last three state titles and came in with a 53-game winning streak.

The halftime score was Caledonia 7, Barnesville 0. The score after three quarters? Caledonia 7, Barnesville 0. Strand could see the finish in his mind.

“It felt like a movie,” he said. “It felt like it was meant to be. It was going to happen, we were going to find a way to win it. I figured we were gonna win that sucker 8-7.”

Caledonia, however, flipped the script by scoring 14 points in a 61-second span of the fourth quarter. The knockout punch came when the Warriors’ Payton Schott returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown to seal Caledonia’s 21-0 victory.

The Warriors are the most dominant football program in Minnesota right now, and the folks from Barnesville knew their boys were not favored to win. The Trojans, in the school’s sixth trip to state, almost cleared the final hurdle before taking home their third runner-up finish (the others were in 1978 and 2010).

“I thought our kids just had a ton of grit today,” Strand said. “They didn’t let up. We made some mistakes. They’re kids, they’re going to make mistakes. But they made this coach pretty dang proud.”

The boys, as well as the community, are just as proud of their coach. He has lived a whirlwind life since suffering a stroke last March. A hospital stay was followed by rehab, using a cane to get around, not being allowed to drive, etc. But he was ready when football practice started, even if his health situation isn’t yet resolved.

Next week, Strand, 45, will undergo heart surgery. After the stroke, tests revealed a hole in his heart that led to the stroke. He feels very fortunate.

He tried to hug as many of his players (pictured above) as possible Friday. They were understandably downcast after falling short of their goal, but their coach reminded them of what they had accomplished together.

“It’s the journey with these kids that you’re going to remember,” he said. “It’s not so much the end result. … our kids prepared for this game as well as they could have.

“The end result isn’t what we wanted but the journey, I think, is the most important part of it.”

Strand has been wearing a red hat during games, which doesn’t fit with the school colors of purple, gold and white. But he has a good reason for wearing a hat that bears the words “Carlin Railroaders.”

Carlin High School is in Nevada. The Railroaders football coach is Myron Branning, who was Strand’s college teammate at Mayville State in North Dakota. Branning is dealing with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

If this is a movie, it’s quite a script.

Spring Grove 40, Mountain Lake Area 18


The Lions captured their second consecutive Nine-Man championship, stretching their unbeaten streak to 28 games over two years. Spring Grove’s last loss was to Grand Meadow in the 2016 Section 1 playoff finals.

Spring Grove quarterback Alex Folz (pictured) finished his high school football career in style, carrying the ball 30 times for 257 yards and four touchdowns, including scores of 88 and 50 yards. He also completed 10 of 19 passes for 90 yards while being intercepted three times (he was picked off only five times in the previous 13 games this season).

Mountain Lake quarterback Abraham Stoesz ran 21 times for 241 yards and two touchdowns while completing 12 of 27 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.

SMB 44, Willmar 18

SMB, a Twin Cities cooperative team with players from St. Paul Academy and Summit School, Minnehaha Academy and Blake, led 24-12 at halftime and held off the Cardinals. SMB’s Jalen Suggs completed nine of 11 passes for 216 yards and three scores, rushed 23 yards for a TD and returned an interception 97 yards for another touchdown. Willmar’s Drey Dirksen completed 10 of 19 passes for 149 yards and two scores.

Lakeville North 28, Eden Prairie 21

The Panthers defeated Eden Prairie for the second time in 2018, the first coming in a 14-0 decision in the second week of the regular season. Raja Nelson scored touchdowns for Lakeville North on runs of 5, 1 and 10 yards. It was the first state football title for North; when the school was Lakeville High (before Lakeville South opened in 2005), it won three championships.

Tournament Tidbits

--The Mountain Lake Area team includes a second and third generation of football coaches and players. Dan Brinkman was a longtime assistant coach at Hutchinson who retired a couple of years ago to watch the Mountain Lake Wolverines. His son Nate Brinkman is the team’s defensive coordinator and his grandson Mace Herrig is a two-way player.

--Mountain Lake Area senior Regan Syverson has been busy. Following last Friday’s state semifinal, he returned home to play the lead role in the school play, “High School Musical,” on Saturday and Sunday. His character, Troy, is the star of the basketball team who ends up trying out for, and getting, the lead role in the school play, scheduled for the same day as the championship basketball game.

--Eden Prairie senior lineman Josh Rahman, who has epilepsy, advocates for others with epilepsy and helps create epilepsy awareness through a campaign he has created called EPforEpilepsy. He raised has more than $1,000 for the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.

Prep Bowl XXXVII

Friday, November 23

Nine-Man: Spring Grove 40, Mountain Lake Area 18
Class 2A: Caledonia 21, Barnesville 0
Class 4A: SMB 44, Willmar 18
Class 6A: Lakeville North 28, Eden Prairie 21

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
How To Watch Prep Bowl XXXVII On TV, Online11/22/2018
How to watch Prep Bowl XXXVII if you can't make it to U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday or Saturday...

TV: KSTC Channel 45

Webcast: prep45.com

Schedule
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)