John's Journal
2019-20 Memories: Hopkins' No. 1 Volleyball Family6/22/2020
Earlier this month, Hopkins High School volleyball coach Vicki Swenson announced her retirement from that position after 25 years. During down time during the Covid-19 quarantine, she realized that being a mom was where her focus needed to be.

Today I'm continuing my look back at some of my favorite John's Journal stories from the 2019-20 school year. I'm putting together my list of Top 10 stories, and while I'm working on that project I'm posting some stories that didn't quite make the cut for the Top 10 but remain important to me.

Today, let's go back to Sept. 19 and a story about the Swenson family.

Hopkins Twins Were Born To Play Volleyball

As eighth-graders Olivia and Stella Swenson politely introduced themselves to me during volleyball practice Wednesday at Hopkins High School, I smiled and told them that I had written about them before they were born 14 years ago. It was October 2005 and I was writing about high school sports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Here's how that story began …

Hopkins defeated Edina in a high school volleyball match Tuesday night that lasted 58 minutes. Not that anyone is counting the minutes -- other than Hopkins coach Vicki Swenson. She is ready to give birth to twins. She is more than ready. Just ask her husband, Blake football coach Erik Swenson. "I'll tell you what, she's ready to do anything to have these babies," he said.

It's quite the situation. Two coaches, both in the midst of their seasons, awaiting twins who could arrive any day, any hour. Heck, by the time you read this, 8-year-old Samantha Swenson might no longer be an only child.

The twins were born a few days later. Volleyball fans will recognize Samantha's name. She was an all-state player at Hopkins and a four-time all-American and Big Ten player of the year as a University of Minnesota senior in 2018. She recently left to begin a professional volleyball career in France.

The hometown focus now is shifting to Olivia and Stella, who have – no surprise -- grown up with volleyball. They are varsity starters for the Royals, with Olivia hitting and Stella setting. They attend neighboring North Junior High School and walk to the high school for volleyball practice.

It doesn't seem so long ago that everyone was awaiting their birth, and now the twins are playing for their mom.

"Life is just a blur and I can't believe they're (varsity players), it's gone so quickly," Vicki said. "I'm still in touch with most of the players that were here when I was pregnant, and we're all going through the shock of this."

Vicki and Erik have been very busy parents over the years. In the wake of tragedy, they adopted her sister Teri Lee's four children; their father was killed in a vehicle accident five years before Teri was murdered in 2006 by an ex-boyfriend who was sentenced to life in prison. The oldest of Teri's children is now 25 and the household that once held 10 people is down to five; Vicki, Erik, Olivia, Stella and 11-year-old Eva.

"You just really try to kind of enjoy these last few years," Vicki said. “It goes so quickly. (The twins) have five summers left at home so we're just going to enjoy every minute of it.”

In the meantime, there is lots of volleyball to be played. This is an especially busy week for the Royals, with matches Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and the Apple Valley Eagle Invitational on Friday and Saturday. The Royals went to the Class 3A state tournament in 2015, 2016 and 2017, with hopes of returning this season.

There are always expectations for any successful program, and when the roster includes children of the coach – not to mention especially young children – that can bring more pressure.

“I think there's always pressure, given their age, when you have younger players playing significant roles on a varsity team,” Vicki said. “There's always pressure on them and it's not always fair. Thankfully their talent speaks for itself. And they can hold their own. I'm really proud of them but they definitely are a known commodity; people know who they are and they better not dare mess up, right? Everybody certainly knows their big sister.”

The twins realize there may be a spotlight on them, but they’re OK with that.

“There's lots of pressure,” Stella said. “And it's the pressure of us trying to prove that we're on the team for a reason. Not just because our parent’s the coach, but that we are on the team because we're good players. We deserve to be on the team. And she just wants the best from us.”

Olivia added, “There's a lot of pressure because she expects us to do well and sometimes we aren't doing as well as we hope to. She helps us get better, she expects a lot of us, but we get the pressure of being the coach's kid.”

Samantha has been a great help to the twins, on the court and off. For years she watched Olivia and Stella play, whether in high school or Junior Olympic seasons. And the rest of the family rarely missed watching Samantha play for the Gophers.

“Going to all her games, I've learned a lot from that,” Olivia said. “And I love how we support each other. She's always there for me, and she's one of my biggest role models in life. I have a lot to look forward to with her being my older sister.”

Stella, who plays the same position as Samantha, said, “It's taught me so much just watching her play in practice. Ever since I remember I've been coming to her practices and watching her set and trying to copy what she does. And she's just a huge role model in my life.”

Growing up in a large household with parents who coached and older siblings involved in sports, Stella and Olivia focused on volleyball from an early age. They really had no choice but to concentrate on the sport they have always loved.

“We were raising five older kids that were all in sports, and we simply didn't know how to add anything else,” Vicki said. “Those two never played T-ball, for gosh sakes, they never played soccer, but they turned out OK.

“They also grew up with the neighborhood kids playing twenty-one, playing lightning, playing everything. As much as we talk about kids being on their phones and tablets, my kids were outside playing and playing hard even though they weren't on an organized team. With older brothers and sisters, they were baseball catchers, they were target practice as goalies, you name it.”

Vicki is sometimes known by her maiden name (Vicki Seliger), which can lead to minor confusion. She recently received an email from a member of the media, inquiring about the two youngsters on the roster and not realizing Vicki was their mom.

“The email said, ‘Do you really have two eighth-graders that start, and are their last names Swenson? Are they sisters? Are they related?’

“It was kind of refreshing,” said the mother of twins.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

Nickname Challenge Reaches The Final Four6/20/2020
The MSHSL Nickname Challenge, which began with 64 entries, is down to the Final Four. Voting in the two semifinal matchups will be extended from 24 to 48 hours, with voting in one semifinal beginning Monday and the other beginning Wednesday.

No. 1 seed Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms
No. 1 seed Thief River Falls Prowlers

No. 1 seed Moorhead Spuds
Unseeded Two Harbors Agates

All voting is done on Twitter by following @MSHSLjohn
Two Knees, Two Lost Seasons: Edina’s Ashlen LeVoir6/18/2020
With summer at hand, it's time to look back at some of my favorite John's Journal stories from the 2019-20 school year. I'm putting together my Top 10 stories, and that process is ongoing. In the meantime I'm posting a few stories that didn't quite make the cut for the Top 10 but are meaningful and memorable.

Today, let's go back to Aug. 27 and Ashlen LeVoir. She was in the early stages of her senior soccer season at Edina High School after missing the two previous seasons due to two knee surgeries.

Count your blessings. Be grateful for your opportunities, because they can be taken away. Ashlen LeVoir, a senior midfielder on the Edina High School girls soccer team, knows this well. The scars on her knees tell the story: A torn ACL in her right knee before her sophomore season put her on the shelf, and a partial tear of the same ACL prior to her junior year cost her another full season of soccer.

During the second surgery, a portion of the patellar tendon in her left knee was removed and used to stabilize her right knee. She came home with full-length casts on both legs, nearly immobilized and wondering, after missing two seasons, if she would ever play soccer again.

"I was just so angry, I couldn't leave the house for two weeks, I couldn't bend my legs or anything," she said. "I was strapped in like a mummy. It was not fun."

“I cried with her,” said Hornets coach Katie Aafedt. “It was tough and it came like a gut punch. I can't imagine what it was like for her.”

The ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) helps stabilize the knee joint, connecting the femur to the tibia. Studies have reported that female athletes are two to 10 times more likely to have ACL tears than male athletes. The odds of blowing the same knee twice in two years? Ashlen doesn't want to think about it; she just wants to immerse herself in a senior season that -- fingers crossed -- is memorable because of what happens on the field, not off it.

“I try to keep a positive attitude about things,” she said. “They can seem like the worst thing, but then the best thing can come out of it. I’m so happy to be back. It’s been two years too long.”

The Hornets are 2-0 after victories over Minneapolis Washburn and Chanhassen. Ashlen’s minutes on the field are being expanded each week, and her teammates are thrilled to have her back.

“I just can’t imagine how hard that must have been, but she’s always had a smile on her face and a positive attitude,” said senior Abby Swanda. ‘It’s so cool that she’s back and she looks so good, it’s so much fun to watch her play again. Everybody is really happy about it.”

Ashlen was a starter on Edina’s ninth-grade team and on the cusp of playing with the varsity that year, Aafedt said. Her first injury happened during a club soccer tournament. Surgery was followed by grueling rehab and a sophomore season spent as a team manager. She was cleared to play for the summer club season before her junior year, and the second injury took place during club tryouts.

“Same knee, same everything,” she said. “It didn’t feel exactly like the first time I did it because it was a partial tear. That was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. I couldn’t believe it. I just told myself that after all this, something had to come out of it. I tried to keep my head up.”

Ashlen was listed on the varsity roster last year, which helped her maintain a strong connection with her teammates even though she was unable to play.

“We’ve all been playing with her since a young age and we’ve all been friends for life,” said senior Megan Phillips. “It’s cool to see her story unfold.”

Aafedt said, “She attacked rehab both times. To her credit, mentally she was very strong, but she had two, three days where you could tell it was really tough, and then she kind of flipped her mentality to, ‘Let’s do this.’ She’s a very athletic, strong soccer player, very technical, very quick. She’s one of the most hardworking, sweetest kids I know.”

Several of her teammates have finalized college soccer plans, and Ashlen is hoping that even with two lost seasons she will get a similar opportunity.

“I’m trying to see if maybe any colleges need anybody,” she said. “It’s hard because most people have been looked at. Missing two years, I still want to fulfill my soccer career. I’m just taking it game by game; playing 30 minutes this week and it’ll go up 10 minutes each week. I’m taking it slow, hopefully it will turn around and I’ll have the best season.”

Asked if she has felt trepidation about Ashlen playing at full speed, Aafedt smiled and said, “Oh yeah, very much so. The first couple days of preseason I flinched quite a bit when she went near the ball or she was in a situation where she was going to cut or change directions. It was a lot of fun to put her in that first game.”

Ashlen doesn’t wear a knee brace or anything, other than the scars, that would identify her as an athlete who has had knee injuries.

“I’ve been asked if I want to wear a brace, but I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to have it in my brain, I don’t want it to affect how I play. I’m just going into it like I’m doing whatever I can to help the team win. I want to look up, and that’s all behind me now.

“I have all this great stuff ahead.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
A Decade Later: My Favorite Athlete From 20106/15/2020
I met Trisha Kienitz for the first time in May 2010, more than 10 years ago. I was two months into this job with the MSHSL and Trisha was a senior golfer at MACCRAY High School in Clara City. If you know Minnesota geography, then you know that Clara City is between Willmar and Granite Falls.

I have learned an awful lot about Minnesota geography in traveling all over our great state for more than a decade now. But even as the years pass by, some stories hold long-lasting, special significance. Trisha is one of those stories.

She was born with one leg. Her right leg is a prosthetic, from the hip down. When I first wrote about Trisha in 2010, the story included this passage…

Trisha, 18, tells the story – as she does just about everything else -- with a smile. She walks the school hallways in Clara City with a smile. She smiles as she pulls up the fabric of her jeans to reveal the flesh-toned prosthetic right leg that begins at her hip and is strapped around her waist.

She smiles as she recounts qualifying for the Class A state tournament the past two years, and continues to smile as she talks about her goal of returning this year.

Artificial leg? No big deal.

Her goal in that senior season 10 years ago was to win a medal for the first time at the state tournament. And she did just that, placing eighth. Her mom, Kelli, took a photo of Trisha and I after the awards ceremony; a copy of that photo (seen here) is framed and sitting in my office.

Trisha went on to play golf at Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall, where the farm girl studied Ag Finance, Farm Management and Ag Marketing. Her name now is Trisha Demaris; she and her husband Jake live in Detroit Lakes and Trisha works as a district technician for the East Otter Tail Soil & Water Conservation District. She was all set to help coach girls golf in Detroit Lakes this spring and is as disappointed as anyone that the spring seasons were canceled due to Covid-19.

When we chatted on the phone recently -- 10 years after our first meeting – I asked Trisha about her memories of winning that precious medal as a senior.

"I shot a 39 on the front nine on the first day (breaking 40 for the first time anywhere outside her home course in Raymond)," she said. "I was just playing golf, I was so excited to be there in my senior year. I shot 39 and it was fantastic."

After the two-day tournament ended, she remembers looking at the results almost in disbelief: "Is that really my name there?” (Here's a current photo of Trisha.)

Trisha and I reunited at the state tournament four years ago. She contacted me to say she would be there, watching the sister of one of her Southwest State teammates. We rode around the course at Pebble Creek in Becker in a golf cart and had a grand time.

When I speak to groups or classes about working as a journalist for several decades now, one of the frequent questions is, “What are some of your most memorable stories?”

I often mention Trisha. A few days before I drove to Clara City to meet her in 2010, I had spoken to a gathering of athletic directors in Marshall. I told them that I was always looking for stories to tell, saying. “I'm convinced that there is at least one great story at every school in Minnesota.”

The next day I received an email about Trisha from Mike Dammann, then the athletic director at MACCRAY. The subject line said “Story?”
It was indeed a story, an unforgettable story about an unforgettable person.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea" wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.]

Nickname Challenge Reaches The Elite Eight6/14/2020
The MSHSL Nickname Challenge is down to the Elite Eight. Nicknames advancing to the Final Four will be decided in voting this week (June 15-19). Here are those matchups...

Pretzel & Cheese Region
No. 1 seed Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms
Unseeded East Grand Forks Green Wave

#ThankARef Region
No. 1 seed Moorhead Spuds
No. 2 seed Fergus Falls Otters

Pork Chop Region
No. 1 seed Thief River Falls Prowlers
Unseeded Bemidji-Cloquet Lumberjacks

#BeTheLightMN Region
Unseeded Two Harbors Agates
No.7 seed Hawley Nuggets

So far, 68,336 votes have been cast in the Nickname Challenge. All voting is done on Twitter by following @MSHSLjohn