I had quite a big travel stretch in the middle of this week, spending six and a half hours behind the wheel in driving 352 miles, watching two far-flung sporting events and having more fun than should be allowed by law.
The settings were very different: an ultra-modern gymnasium and an old-school football field that before this season was only a practice field. Both sites shed a lot of light on Minnesotans’ proud commitment to high school activities and the community spirit that adds so much to the experience.
My Tuesday stop was at Kasson-Mantorville High School for one of the biggest volleyball matches of the regular season. The KoMets, ranked No. 2 in Class 2A, played host to top-ranked Stewartville at Home Federal Arena, which, yes, carries the name of a corporate sponsor. Home Federal Arena is roomy and bright, and the fantastic Kasson-Mantorville band only added to the atmosphere. Individual statistics were posted on the scoreboard, and the K-M robotics team sent a robot rolling around the court between sets, shooting T-shirts into the crowd.
The KoMets came away with a 3-1 victory over the Stewartville Tigers, and the teams are likely to meet again in the Section 1 playoffs. Kasson-Mantorville is led by 6-foot-2 senior Peyton Suess , who brings thunder at the net and will take her volleyball skills to Wake Forest University next year. The younger end of the KoMet spectrum was ninth-grader Cate Wanous, a 5-foot-5 dynamo who defied gravity in serving a couple killer kills from the left side and served six consecutive KoMets points during the fourth and final set.
After the match, the home team and fans gathered on the court to celebrate the big win. I headed home, arriving a little after 11 p.m., and was back in the John’s Journal Toyota Camry at 10 a.m. Thursday, bound for another great trip.
My first stop was New Ulm, where I had been invited to a lunch meeting of the New Ulm Club, a civic organization that is a big booster of the local sports scene. The meeting was held at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff, the most famous restaurant in New Ulm and beyond. Football coaches Denny Lux of New Ulm Cathedral, Corey Kneeshaw of New Ulm High and Jim Buboltz of Minnesota Valley Lutheran spoke about their seasons, the future of their programs and were great representatives of their schools.
Lux spoke first, because, as he explained, “I’ve gotta start taping ankles at 12:30” before the Greyhounds played a 3 o’clock game 30 miles away in Springfield. It was an important game, too, on the final day of the eight-week regular season. Murray County Central was 6-1 and had wrapped up the top seed in Class 1A Section 3, and Cathedral and Springfield were both 4-3.
“The winner’s going to get the two seed,” Lux said. “This is my 24th year of coaching, and I can tell you that the kids are working as hard as they did 24 years ago. Our kids work hard; they work hard on the practice field, they work hard in the weight room, they have a lot of enthusiasm for football.”
The scene in Springfield was special. The Tigers’ home field was washed out by summer flooding so they went to an emergency backup: Sticker Field, a plot of thick green grass tucked in between a neighborhood and a gravel pit on the south side of town. Sticker has been used mainly as a junior high baseball and softball field. This season it has been the home field of the Tigers varsity football team.
There are no lights, so the home games have been daytime affairs. A lack of electricity was solved by long orange cords. A small wheeled scoreboard was acquired (clock, score, quarter and that’s all the info you really need), industrial-grade scissor lifts are used as a press box and platforms for video cameras and assistant coaches wearing headsets. One corner of the south end zone had a pretty severe dropoff, but the sod was peeled back and more earth was moved in to level it off. There’s still a very slight uphill climb in the back of both end zones, and the back of the north end zone is about a foot from a sidewalk. But it’s a tremendous setting, thanks to hard work, ingenuity and community volunteers.
Several small sets of metal bleachers were moved to Sticker, and lots of fans sit on lawn chairs, benches, picnic tables and blankets. Tom Wheeler of KNUJ radio in New Ulm sat at a folding table on the sidewalk behind the south end zone, admitting that when he described scoring plays he was only guessing at the yardage. From Springfield’s KARZ radio, play-by-play guy Dale “Lumber” Lindmeier sat on the scissor lift that served as a press box.
Once the big game began, it turned into a surprising runaway with New Ulm Cathedral winning 43-15.
The Greyhounds run an old-old-very-old-fashioned straight T offense, which seems to be in vogue. Elk River, which also runs the straight T, has played in the last two Class 5A Prep Bowls and Lux says he got the idea from the Elks. The Greyhounds began using the offense last year; it is a confusing thing to defend, with the quarterback slipping the ball to any one of the three running backs as they dart and dash.
“I watched Elk River in the state finals and I thought, you know for a school that’s small, where you don’t have a steady stream of athletes, that deception might keep you in the game all the time,” Lux said.
Cathedral’s defense was strong against Springfield’s high-powered spread offense. In Week 7, the Tigers beat Sleepy Eye 45-42 with the teams combining for 1,061 total yards, 13 touchdowns and 87 points. But this time was different. Cathedral’s Alex Hillesheim and Jaydan Hotovec picked off first-half passes and the Springfield offense never found its groove.
At halftime, the Greyhounds walked across West Walnut Street – where their bus was parked -- and sat on a neighbor’s lawn. The Tigers gathered beside a storage shed.
Like the Kasson-Mantorville volleyball team, Cathedral’s footballers have a mix of veterans and youngsters. The talented senior class includes fullback Zach Helget, a former offensive lineman who ran for three touchdowns Wednesday, Hillesheim (caught a touchdown pass) and Josh Seidl (who scored a touchdown and does the kicking). All that offense began with a ninth-grader at quarterback, Sam Knowles. He ran for two scores and threw for one.
Maybe the Greyhounds played so well because the setting in Springfield wasn’t much different from what they see every day. Cathedral has neither a game field nor practice field at the school, so the football players walk about 10 minutes to Harman Park, where there’s enough open space to work out.
“This is a lot like that,” Lux said. “It’s in the afternoon, it almost felt like we were at a practice. Our guys adjusted to it real well. Being a running team makes a difference. We’re not so concerned about boundaries. When you’re a throwing team you’re looking for landmarks on the field and you can’t really get that feel here. It didn’t affect our offense at all.”
When the game ended, the radio guys signed off and the motors of the scissor lifts rattled to life as the humans aboard returned to earth. Lawn chairs and blankets were folded and returned to car trunks.
And just like the night before in Kasson’s modern gymnasium, athletes and families and friends gathered together on the old grass field near the edge of town, sharing congratulations, hugs and smiles.Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn