John's Journal
No. 5 from 2017-18: Eastview Coach Is A Multisport Female Role Model7/13/2018
We're down to the top five on my list of favorite stories from 2017-18, and here is No. 5. Posted on April 19, this story is about Eastview High School's Molly Kasper, a rarity as a two-sport head coach at a large suburban school, as well as a wonderful role model for young female student-athletes.

Molly's Game: Eastview Coach Is A Multisport Female Role Model

Molly Kasper is a young coach with an impressive resume. In her three years as the head girls basketball coach at Eastview High School, the Lightning have an overall record of 84-12 with back-to-back third-place finishes at the Class 4A state tournament before going 32-0 and winning the state title this year.

Kasper is in her second season as Eastview’s softball coach, making her a rarity among coaches at the state’s biggest schools: the head coach of two vastly different sports in back-to-back seasons. The 31-year-old and her husband Derek also have a two-year-old daughter and another daughter due in July.

Two coaching positions, full-time teaching, a young family and a pregnancy in the middle of it all? Molly’s life is a swirl of school and practice and daycare and family time, but one of her most important roles is quieter, more behind the scenes and crucial to the young athletes in her care.

Kasper is a role model not only as a multisport coach, but as a female who encourages her athletes to maximize their potential on and off the court and the field, to know their full worth and to support each other.

“It is pretty important to me,” said the native of Eau Claire, Wis., who played three sports in high school and basketball at Winona State. “I got to grow up being a multisport athlete, and it helped me with the mental health of being an athlete and being able to play different sports. It also helped me as a competitor and helped me as a teammate. It helped me so much.”

In basketball and softball, Kasper followed Eastview head coaches who stepped down to watch their kids play in college. Melissa Guebert (basketball) and Trevor Monroe (softball) both led their teams to recent state championships. If Kasper was intimidated by following in their footsteps, it never showed.

“When we did the first interviews about basketball, literally within five minutes you knew this is a person who gets it on every level,” said Eastview athletic director Matt Percival (who also has coached the Lightning to a state softball title). “The thing about her is that she has always, always, always been about the kids first and whatever she can do to help develop them as people. She wants to be such a strong role model as a female, as a mom, as a teacher, as a multisport person. That’s been important to her from the get-go.”

Kasper likes to direct her athletes to reading materials that focus on female empowerment, and she has created a Female Leadership Program at Eastview. The program, held one day each year, gives female athletes from all Lightning sports a chance to gather for interaction, instruction, hear speakers and more. Similar programs have been started at Apple Valley, Farmington and other schools.

“She’s definitely the best female role model that I’ve had. I look up to her,” said Megan Walstad, a senior who was named Minnesota’s Miss Basketball this year. “She’s so inspiring and she wants to encourage female athletes to keep doing things and keep getting out there.”

Kasper, who was inducted into the Eau Claire North High School Hall of Fame in 2017, lettered four times each in tennis, basketball and softball and was an all-state selection in basketball and softball. She played at state tournaments in tennis and softball but not in basketball despite playing on teams with a four-year regular-season record of 60-3.

She was a four-year basketball starter and two-year team captain at Winona State (she was Molly Anderson before getting married), where she was a graduate assistant women’s basketball coach for two years. She worked as an assistant girls basketball coach at Rosemount for three years before taking over as head coach at Eastview.

Coaching in back-to-back seasons means little or no down time between sports. This year, softball practice began the week of the girls state basketball tournament. Molly attended softball tryouts on Monday and stopped in briefly on Tuesday and Wednesday. Softball was called off Thursday so the players could go to the basketball tournament.

“I had all of Sunday to technically rest and softball started Monday,” she said with a laugh. “The transition’s been a lot easier probably than in the past, because we’re stuck inside.”

Yes, the weather. Like most other spring sports teams across Minnesota, Eastview softball practices have been held in the gym, with a few games played in domes and a team outing to a bowling alley to mix things up.

Whether the sport is basketball or softball, Kasper wants to make sure her athletes have a positive experience and support each other. Both teams watch other girls sports as a group, with basketball players cheering for the softball team, softball players cheering at track meets, etc. She said that’s important for all her athletes, whether they participate in one sport or more.

“There is so much specialization,” she said. “I’m a big believer that it increases injuries, especially for female athletes.

“I was able to get the other side of athletics, which was the fun part. My mom says I was always the one on the bench with traveling teams, wondering where we would be going to dinner later. I always felt it was part of being a family. I think it’s really hard for some of the teams, where they are, with single-sport athletes. I don’t want them honed in on just one aspect of their life.

“I get it, as you get older you want to specialize. But you need to also be in the weight room and take time off from your sport. I hear girls say they lost the passion, and that’s not why we play sports. We play to keep the passion and have good experiences.”

When Eastview was looking for a new softball coach, Kasper told Percival that she had a strong background in that sport. He was initially worried that she would be overworked by coaching two sports.

“We talked a lot about it because my biggest fear was burning her out,” he said. “She just said, ‘I want to show people that I can be a mom and be a coach. If I’m going to preach to these basketball kids all the time to be a multisport kid, then I can do it, too. We’re going to promote this idea of being a multisport athlete because I can do it as a coach.’ That means something.”

Andrea Abrams, a senior basketball player, said “She’s really good at encouraging everything that we do. And if we’re having a tough time she either talks to us or she knows somebody else who we should talk to. She always knows everything. She’s an amazing person to be around.”

Senior softball player Abby Lien, who will play at Iowa and plans to become a teacher and a coach, said, “She’s really good. She sends me articles and books, talking about being a good female role model. She’s a great coach and I love her so much.”

Percival added, “How does someone that young have that much wisdom? But she clearly does. She came in with a clear vision of what she wanted all this to be about.

“She’ll talk about how much she learns from these kids that has nothing to do with the sport. It has everything to do with how you develop a relationship. She is amazing. It’s been an absolute blessing to have her in our building.”

Postscript: Molly and Derek welcomed Khloe Marlene Kasper to the world on Friday (the day this story was posted). Congrats!

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
No. 6 from 2017-18: The Inspiration Of Montevideo Dancer Kristin DeJong7/12/2018
The countdown continues with No. 6 from my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories during the 2017-18 school year. This one, posted on Feb. 11, involves a remarkable young athlete who is immensely inspiring.

Montevideo Dancer Kristin DeJong: Pure Inspiration

MONTEVIDEO – Kristin DeJong is no different than any other teenager in this southwest Minnesota town. She’s a sophomore in high school who plays volleyball in the fall and is a member of the Montevideo Gold Dusters dance team in the winter.

The fact that she has a partially prosthetic left leg is an absolute afterthought. Absolutely. “We’ve never doubted anything that she could do,” said her mother, Andrea.

The Gold Dusters did not quality for this weekend’s state dance tournament at Target Center. They made it to state last year and Kristin and the other non-seniors will have more chances to return. The Gold Dusters put on a great show in both categories – jazz and kick – at Saturday’s Class 1A Section 3 championships in the Montevideo gym, but it wasn’t enough to advance from an extremely strong section. Teams from Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd, Yellow Medicine East and BOLD will represent Section 3 in both categories at state.

Kristin was 4 years old when she lost her leg below the knee in a lawn mower accident. She was involved in dance before the accident, and it didn’t take very long for her to resume a very normal and active childhood

The accident took place on August 20, 2006, and she began going to Shriners Hospital for Children in Minneapolis in late September. Shriners does amazing work in prosthetics, and Kristin was walking with a prosthesis by late October. She has been routinely fitted with new prosthetics as she has grown.

“No one usually notices,” she said. “I walk normal, like everyone else. Usually people are surprised when I tell them about it.”

For unknowing people watching the Gold Dusters, it would be next to impossible to notice that one of the dancers was unlike the others.

“She does everything that the other dancers do,” said Montevideo coach Amanda Macziewski. “If we come across a move that she struggles with a little bit, she’s open to telling us and we adjust as needed. She’s an amazing dancer, amazing kicks.”

Kristin, who became a varsity dancer last season, isn’t afraid to have a little fun with her friends when the subject is her prosthetic leg.

“One time during softball I got hit (in the prosthetic) with a pitch and the (pitcher) was like, ‘Oooooh.’ But my team was laughing because I walking just fine. As a joke, one of my friends printed the word ‘bruise’ and taped it on my leg. It’s an ongoing joke.”

She has lost a prosthetic leg while tubing, watching it pop off and sink to the bottom of the lake. She has broken them, another sign of how active she is.

“When they’re more stiff on the ankle they don’t bend as much,” she said. “I wear them out pretty fast, jumping up and down and just running. My doctor tells me I wear them out faster than other people because I’m so active.”

Andrea said that after the accident it was difficult for her and her husband, Doug, to imagine what the future would hold. But Kristin can’t be kept down.

“We had no idea what was in store and what she’d be able to do,” Andrea said. “She handles things quite well and she’s a very good communicator. She lets us know how things are going and if anything is changing.” (Pictured are the Gold Dusters; Kristin is in the front row, fourth from right.)

Kristin gets fitted for a new prosthesis every six months to a year, depending on her growth rate. As a member of the Montevideo kick team, she and her teammates wear matching black shoes and leggings while performing. It’s possible to see the upper cuff of the prosthetic leg sticking out ever so slightly just under Kristin’s knee, but she has to be in the right position for it to be visible.

“People don’t notice it and they’re amazed when they do,” Andrea said. “Being from small communities, word of mouth gets around, and we have friends in other towns. People come up to us and say she’s an inspiration.”

Kristin looks exactly like everyone else on the floor because she is exactly like everyone else on the floor.

“She’s definitely given the girls something to push forward to,” said Macziewski. “She’s never used it as an excuse for not being able to do anything. The girls treat her just like anybody else.”

Which is exactly how Kristin wants it.

“I love going to competitions and competing,” she said. “And I like the family part, being part of the team.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
No. 7 from 2017-18: From Ethiopia To Pipestone7/11/2018
This story is No. 7 on my list of Top 10 favorites from the 2017-18 school year. It profiles Michael Suda, a young man with a remarkable story of moving from Ethiopia with his sister to Pipestone, unable to speak English, but finding wrestling and other sports. It originally appeared on March 2 during the state wrestling tournament. I interviewed Michael over the phone before he traveled to state, and caught up with him person at the tournament. I really enjoyed talking with him.

From Ethiopia To Pipestone: Michael Suda Wrestles To Win

Xcel Energy Center has become Michael Suda’s home away from home in the wrestling postseason. The senior from Pipestone High School is seeking his third state championship this weekend, making the 200-mile drive from southwest Minnesota to St. Paul with three teammates who also qualified for state.

That distance is nothing, considering how far Suda has come. As a child in Ethiopia his name was Muluken. He came to America as an 8-yard-old who couldn’t speak English, became Michael, and his journey of more than 7,000 miles, nine time zones and two vastly different worlds is a remarkable story.

His parents -- father Abebe and mother Zewdenesh – wanted a better life for their son and his little sister Hermella. They made a difficult choice and put them up for adoption. A couple in Pipestone, Marcia and Todd Suda, saw a photo of the two kids and the adoption process began. When Michael and Hermella arrived in Minnesota, it wasn’t exactly what they had envisioned.

“I guess when I was in Africa I thought of America as being big cities, big buildings,” Michael said. “I came here and it was kind of a shock; they didn’t have fences around their houses, everything was out in the open. It was a little different.”

He laughs about being so homesick at first that he packed a bag and began walking back to Ethiopia. But as he settled into his new life, especially sports with other kids in the town of 4,000, everything began to change.

Michael has twice qualified for the state cross-country championships, finishing as high as ninth in Class 1A. He’s also a distance runner on the Arrows track and field team. Wrestling, however, became his thing. He went to a youth camp after being in Pipestone for about a year and liked it, but needed to convince his adoptive parents to let him continue.

“I didn’t even really know much English at the time and I was home-schooled,” he said. “They didn’t want me to get bullied or anything, they were a little protective.”

With help from what he called “a lot of people,” including kids and adults, he became a wrestler.

“Back in Africa I used to grapple with friends, just kind of fighting,” he said. “I thought it was cool as a sport, I just enjoyed it.”

He first qualified for the Class 1A state tournament as an eighth-grader and finished fifth at 113 pounds. He lost in the championship round as a ninth-grader and has won two state titles since then at 120 and 126 pounds. He’s in the 126-pound division this weekend, as is another defending state champion, Blake Legred of United South Central, who won at 106 as a junior last year.

Michael defeated Crosby-Ironton’s Nate Williams 17-6 in the opening round of competition Thursday, then beat Cole Rasmussen of Triton 20-10 in the quarterfinals.

Suda’s title-round loss as a freshman provided a sense of purpose.

“He wasn’t very satisfied with that, he expected more out of himself,” said Pipestone coach Brian Bos. “He’s always been highly motivated and driven.”

That defeat not only provided motivation in wrestling, but in Suda’s other sports, as well.

“That lit a fire in me,” he said. “I just worked really hard in all my sports. I think that actually is what drove me in track and cross-country. I came into the next wrestling season, cleaned up my technique, became a smarter wrestler, got stronger. There were a lot of things that went into it. It was the process that made it worthwhile. When I got my hand raised (as a state champion), it was an amazing feeling to better myself and make it happen.”

Suda is joined at this week’s tournament by classmates Hunter Burnett (also a two-time state champ) and Garrett Ploeger (at state for the third time) and sophomore Grant Budden (second time at state).

Suda and Burnett, who is competing at 132 pounds, have worked out with each other for years now, and if all goes well both will conclude their Pipestone careers as three-time state champs. They will continue wrestling together at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“He and Hunter have worked together and been creative, working on techniques,” Bos said. “They kind of feed off each other and keep each other grounded. They know what their job is and they take care of business.”

Burnett also won his first match Thursday with a technical fall over Nolan Rommel of Wabasha-Kellogg and then pinned Shawn Rue of Paynesville in the third period to reach Saturday's semifinals. Ploeger also won twice Friday to reach the semifinals at 170 pounds. He pinned Thomas Battcher of Sibley East and recorded an 11-5 decision over Michael Nelson of Dover-Eyota.

Michael is part of a big family in Pipestone. Along with Michael and Hermella, Marcia and Todd Suba have six other children: David, James, Rachel, Jonathan, Grace and Anna. “It’s pretty crazy,” Michael said, laughing.

Michael has not returned to Ethiopia since coming to America, and his biological parents have not been able to travel here to see Michael and Hermella. They talk on the telephone with their family in Africa, but Michael and Hermella – who came to the U.S. unable to speak English – now speak only English so a translator is needed to help them communicate with their family in Africa.

One thing is certain: The boy who came to America as Muluken before becoming Michael considers himself to be very lucky.

“For sure,” he said. “I could be in a totally different place. My family that adopted me, the coaches who took me in, there are a lot of great people in Pipestone, a lot of families that took me in and put me on the right path.”

Postscript: Michael won another state title, as did Burnett.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
No. 8 from 2017-18: Honoring A Soldier's Memory In Waseca7/10/2018
Story No. 8 from my list of favorites from 2017-18 is about Waseca High School's one-act play performance honoring a Waseca native who was killed in Afghanistan. It was my great honor to be the author of this story.

Waseca One-Act Play Honors Hometown Soldier’s Memory

Barry Erickson wants his son Caleb, who died way too young, to be remembered. Caleb Erickson, a 20-year-old Marine who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2014, was a graduate of Waseca High School, and the school’s theater department has been paying tribute to Caleb in a special and very personal way.

The one-act play “Booby Trap,” which Waseca students have been performing this winter, is a work of fiction in which a soldier accidentally sits on a landmine and cannot move.

The play “kind of shows him reliving his past, and his future, which he hasn’t seen yet. And him having to cope with maybe giving his own life up,” said Waseca senior Garrett Natysin, who plays the soldier in the school production.

“Booby Trap” also was performed this spring by Springfield and Jordan high schools in Minnesota, and has been performed by hundreds of other schools around the country since 2001. It was written by Ed Monk, a longtime high school theater teacher and playwright in Virginia.

After rehearsals had begun, Waseca theater director Karen Pfarr Anderson had an idea. One of her friends is Rue Erickson, Caleb’s older sister. Karen contacted Rue with an idea: “We should do this for Caleb. I talked to Rue first and said I didn’t want to do it without their blessing. We talked about raising money and we thought we might get a couple hundred bucks because not many people come to the play.”

What happened was amazing. People heard about the play and the efforts to raise money, and they came to see the play in droves. There is normally no fee for one-act plays at school, but donations were accepted and the dollar figure has reached nearly $2,000.

“Besides Caleb being a humble guy, we are not, as a family, going to let his memory disappear,” said his father after the play was performed at Lakeville South in the Class 2A Section 1 finals. “We may be a little arrogant about that once in a while, but that kid deserves to be remembered. When I heard about this play and that they were doing it in honor of Caleb and his memory, and to raise a few bucks to help out other Marines, it just wound me up completely.”

Natysin and Allison Dufault, who portrays the soldier’s wife in “Booby Trap,” are Waseca seniors who were in junior high when Caleb was killed. (Caleb is pictured.)

“We have received so much support from our community,” Allison said. “It’s been incredible to be able to do something for people who give so much to us. And it’s really opened our eyes to what being in the military means.”

The donations have gone to the Caleb Erickson Memorial Fund, which is dedicated to helping veterans in need. Veterans from Waseca and beyond have seen the play, and the high school students are aware of the impact they have had on the wider community.

“We’re usually doing comedies and slapstick,” Allison said. “So it’s really amazing to be able to do something that has a lot of substance and means a lot to people. It’s been an incredible experience.”

Most of the students involved in the play didn’t know Caleb personally and some were not fully aware of the sacrifices made by members of the military and their families.

“This is a great opportunity for them to learn about this hometown hero,” Pfarr Anderson said. “To not only understand the sacrifice that he gave, but that all military men and women give. Whether they come home or not, that’s the price they put on the line.”

When Barry Erickson attended rehearsal and saw the performance for the first time, it was emotional for everybody. He spoke to the students, telling them, “I see Caleb in each one of your faces.”

“That touched my heart,” Pfarr Anderson said, “it touched the kids’ hearts, and that made them want to do the best they possibly could. They would do that anyway, but it added something that you almost can’t describe. It added a different element.”

One-act play is an MSHSL activity, and this year’s season will culminate with the state festival Thursday and Friday at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium on the campus of St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Waseca did not advance to state, but the competitive side of the activity was almost an afterthought to them.

“When we started talking about competing, they were like, ‘I haven’t thought about that,’ ” Pfarr Anderson said. “They were so focused on ‘This is for Caleb. This is for his family.’ Because this story is not just about the man, the soldier, it’s about the people they leave behind. That really meant a lot to the kids.”

Garrett and other actors wear military uniforms on stage, with the uniforms and patches donated by Waseca area veterans. Among the service members who have seen the play is the soldier who delivered Caleb’s dog tags to his family. (Pictured are the cast and crew with Caleb's family.)

Before the play was performed in Waseca, Caleb’s dad spoke to the audience.

“I explained the anger I felt that he is not with us anymore and he deserves to be,” Barry said. “He deserved to see this play. He deserved to have babies. It wasn’t meant to be. He was not scared of dying. He was a Marine and that’s the Marine spirit.

“These kids do this with all their heart. You can tell they’re determined to do a good job, whether they knew him or not.”

Pfarr Anderson said, “While we are saddened that this show is ending, we know that what we've done with it will last. I know and every one of my cast and crew members know that we accomplished infinitely more than we ever dreamed with this show. We put together a wonderful show that was powerful, purposeful, and performed with attention to detail and reality.

“We made new friends in the Erickson family and the contingent of veterans and supporters that came to see us and our show. Most importantly, we learned about, remembered, and honored a wonderful young man, Caleb Erickson, and raised almost $2,000 for his memorial fund. That gift and the lessons about bravery and service these kids learned will go on to do far more than winning a trophy.”

For more information and to donate, go to https://www.calebericksonmemorial.com
No. 9 from 2017-18: The Bobs And Brenda7/9/2018
Here's story No. 9 on my list of favorites from the 2017-18 school year. This entry, originally posted on Sept. 15, is a profile of three people who have played important roles in Albany High School volleyball for many years.

Bob St. Marie and Bob Havard (also known as the Bobs) and Brenda Utsch are known to everyone who watches volleyball in the Albany gym. With an assist by Albany activities director Scott Buntje, I had dinner with the Bobs and Brenda before a match. And it was a real treat. Here's the story...


The Bobs And Brenda: Committed To Volleyball In Albany

ALBANY – Whenever high school volleyball is played, there are things you can count on. There will be two teams, a net, a ball and two officials positioned at either end of the net.

At Albany High School, three other people are just as reliable as the net, the ball and the court. They are lovingly known as The Bobs and Brenda, and they have worked at nearly every Huskies home volleyball competition for a combined total of 82 years.

Bob St. Marie and Bob Havard (pictured) are retired Albany teachers who serve as line judges, standing in rear corners on opposite ends of the court and waving red flags to signify whether the ball landed inside or outside the lines. Brenda Utsch, a pioneering athlete in the early days of girls sports in Albany, is the official scorekeeper.

They are legends in this Stearns County town, 22 miles west of St. Cloud on Interstate 94.

Brian Hines has been on the Huskies volleyball coaching staff for 20 years (16 as an assistant and now head coach) and he has never known anyone other than The Bobs and Brenda filling those roles.

“The Bobs and Brenda have been so phenomenal and always reliable for us,” he said. “Talk about volunteerism at its highest; giving of themselves for a school district and a community. You can’t ask for any more.”

The three were in their usual spots Thursday night when Albany hosted Little Falls in a Granite Ridge Conference match. On a warm September night, the gym – which is next door to the school’s swimming pool – was a somewhat sticky place. Towels were used frequently to wipe sweat from the court. But that didn’t deter the line judges or the official scorekeeper, who did their jobs as they have always done as the Huskies recorded a 25-10, 25-17, 25-20 victory.

St. Marie has been in his volleyball role since 1987, and Havard and Utsch since 1991. Brenda, a three-sport athlete in the 1970s who is a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, also is the scorekeeper for home girls and boys basketball games and handles offensive statistics on game nights for the Huskies football team.

Asked what she enjoys the most, Utsch immediately replied, “The kids!”

Brenda (pictured) works as a volunteer and the Bobs are each paid $30 per match. But they are not in it for the money. The Bobs are former athletes and coaches; Havard graduated from high school in Salem, South Dakota, in 1960 and St. Marie from Mounds View in 1957. Havard was an industrial arts teacher and St. Marie taught math.

“It’s the best place in the house to watch the match,” St. Marie said of standing in the corner of the volleyball court.

The three have rarely missed a match in all these years. It’s not rare for officials to arrive at the school and ask, “Where are the Bobs? Are the Bobs working tonight?”

“We talk a lot about Purple Pride in Albany and those three are Purple Pride,” said Huskies athletics/activities director Scott Buntje. “It’s those type of people who really make high school athletics and high school events happen. We just couldn’t be more fortunate than to have people like that in our community.”

The three are sometimes reminded of their longevity.

Havard said, “One parent asked me, ‘How long have you been doing this? It must be a long time because I remember you doing this when I was in school.’ ”

For the record, The Bobs and Brenda have no plans to step aside.

Before Thursday’s match, Havard put a hand on St. Marie’s shoulder and said with a smile, “If he goes, I’ll quit, too.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn