John's Journal
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
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
No. 10 from 2017-18: The Minnesota Coach Who Lives in Omaha7/8/2018
Here we go, kicking off the countdown of my Top 10 favorite stories from the 2017-18 school year. No. 10, which was originally posted on Dec. 13, profiles Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball coach Justin Morris, who had moved to Omaha for love and career but remained as coach during the season.

The story has a great postscript, with the Athletics finishing the season as Class 1A state champions. Morris resigned after the season ended, and -- as you will read below -- he will be married later this summer in Minnesota.

The Team Is In Minnesota, The Coach Lives In Nebraska

The Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball team is interesting in lots of ways. The Athletics are ranked No. 1 in Class 1A, for example, and ran their season record to 6-0 Tuesday night with a 71-43 victory at Randolph. The team is a cooperative effort with players from Lyle (a public school in a community of 500 within a mile of the Iowa border) and Pacelli, a small Catholic school in nearby Austin.

It’s rare to have a top-ranked team and it’s rare when public and private schools work together to form teams, as Lyle and Pacelli do in lots of sports.

But here’s the most interesting thing about the Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball team: The head coach lives in Omaha. Which is in Nebraska. Which is not in Minnesota.

Austin native Justin Morris has been the Athletics head coach for several years now, and the highlight of his tenure was the team’s first trip to the state tournament in 2015. The three seniors on this year’s roster – Kristi Fett, Brooke Walter and Kendal Truckenmiller – are hoping for a return visit to state. To get there, the team will need to keep working and improving … even when their head coach isn’t around.

Morris was absent for Tuesday’s game, the first one he has missed this season. He will be back for games Friday at home vs. Glenville-Emmons and Saturday in Decorah, Iowa, vs. Crestwood High School from Cresco, Iowa. Omaha is 300 miles from Austin, a drive of four hours-plus.

“It’s a unique situation. It’s crazy, it really is,” Morris said during a phone interview from Omaha on Wednesday. “I get a little uncomfortable about it, because it’s not about me and what I do. This group of kids is where the story is.”

That’s a fair point. Morris’ coaching and working lives are 300 miles apart because he feels so strongly about his players. He has been coaching since the current seniors were in seventh grade, and he didn’t want to end his tenure until the Class of 2018 played its final season. Thus the occasional absences and the many drives back and forth from Omaha. And when this season ends, so will his coaching career at Lyle-Pacelli. (In this photo, taken as the final horn sounded on the Athletics' state championship at Target Center, Morris is seen leaping into the air on the far left.)

But why? And how? Those are the obvious questions. The answers start back in 2015 when the Athletics went to state. The team beat Mountain Iron-Buhl in the quarterfinals before losing to Ada-Borup in the semifinals and Minneota in the third-place game. At a welcome home rally for the team, Morris was interviewed by a reporter from KAAL TV in Rochester. Her name is Megan Stewart and they ended up dating.

Fast forward a bit. Morris and Stewart are now engaged. When she took a job at KMTV in Omaha earlier this year, Justin also made the move and found employment in his chosen field as a senior vice president of a banking company. They will be married next Labor Day weekend in Megan’s hometown of Lakeville.

Brad Walter (Brooke’s dad and Morris’ uncle) is a former head coach of the basketball team and the current top assistant, taking over when Justin isn’t on hand. Walter directed things Tuesday at Randolph, and Morris is very grateful to have such a seasoned pro on the coaching staff.

“Brad’s really the story,” Morris said, handing off another assist. “He started the youth program. … We’re approaching this collaboratively, Brad and I, we’re really co-coaching. I’ll be back as much as I can, but Brad’s got the reins when I’m not there.

“Brad has got all the ability in the world to run things. We run the same plays, the same defenses and have the same philosophy since I took over in 2012. We have a known commodity in terms of what our philosophy is, our offense, our defense, what our culture is.”

The Athletics are highly entertaining to watch. Fett is a 6-foot-5 center who averages 27 points and has signed with Minnesota State Mankato. The remaining starters -- Walter, Truckenmiller, Olivia Christianson and Abby Bollingberg, as well as the players off the bench – are quick with the ball and always hustling. Fett scored 25 points at Randolph, Bollinger had 19, Walter 13 and Christianson nine.

The players sometimes start practice without any coaches in the gym, but having grown up playing with each other they have built a strong bond.

“We talked about it at the beginning of the season,” Brooke Walter said. “We have to trust each other and everybody has to lead. We have to step up and we know no matter what happens, if (Morris is) there or not, we have each other and we know what to do.”

Fett said, “There are times at practice when we have to get things rolling and keep our standards up. We know we have to be responsible. It’s unique but it makes us really close, too.”

Lyle athletic director Jamie Goebel said Morris came to him earlier this year and explained that he was moving to Omaha but still wanted to coach one more season.

“As an educator you always think about ethical things, the community effect,” Goebel said. “Ultimately it came down to what’s in the best interests of the students. I was confident in what he and Brad and (volunteer coach) Terry Nelsen will be able to do this year, and it seemed like the right decision for Lyle and Pacelli. He’s been very forthcoming, very transparent with me and the girls and we worked through some of the details.”

Lyle-Pacelli lost to Goodhue in the Section 1 playoffs the last two years (with Goodhue going on to win the state title each time). In the latest Class 1A rankings by Minnesota Basketball News, Lyle-Pacelli is No. 1, Goodhue is No. 2 and Hayfield (another Section 1 team) is No. 5.

Lyle-Pacelli, which hasn’t lost a Southeast Conference game since 2012, has built its reputation by giving young players opportunities to play and grow. Of the team’s current veterans, Morris said, “We started moving them up when they were in seventh, eighth, ninth grade. They started having success and it built on itself.”

Morris travels in several states for his job, so driving between Omaha and southeast Minnesota on Interstates 80, 35 and 90 is no big deal. The basketball team’s schedule has been set up to make it easier for him to be in the gym, especially for the biggest games.

“We’re a family,” he said. “From day one when I took over we talked about creating a family culture. It’s about all of us together. We’re in this thing together and we’re going to make it work together. We talk every day about how life is about choices. I made a choice that I was going to get engaged and get married to the love of my life, and she decided she’s going to move to Omaha.

“I’m thankful they still want me involved, I’m thankful Brad is as good a coach as there is anywhere. Because it’s all about the kids.”

All those miles, all those practices, all those games. All that work will, hopefully, take the Athletics back to the state tournament.

“I met the love of my life the last time we went to state,” the coach said, his smile obvious through the phone line all the way from Omaha. “If we get back, maybe I can win the lottery or something.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best of John’s Journal: Honorable Mention Stories7/5/2018
This is the point each year when I take time to reflect on what has taken place during the past school year. I have taken a look at everything that’s been posted on John’s Journal from the start of practice for fall sports in August through state tournaments in June. The goal is to come up with a Top 10 list of my favorite stories. This is a difficult chore.

Looking back at 2017-18 was a delightful mission, enabling me to re-live some wonderful road trips and fun stories. I sifted through 425 total entries that were posted between August and June, jotting down notes on several pages of a yellow legal pad and beginning with a very long list in the course of finalizing a Top 10.

Several rounds of winnowing brought the number down from 425 to 57. And then the real work began. As I went through those 57 posts I realized that we’ll need an Honorable Mention category, as well. Five stories belong to that group, and they are summarized here today (including a few paragraphs from each story). You can find these stories by going to John’s Journal and clicking “More of John’s Journal” at the bottom of the page; a month-by-month list of stories is on the right side of the page.

In the days ahead I will re-post each of the Top 10 stories individually, counting down from No. 10 to No. 1.

Thanks to everyone for reading these posts throughout the year(s).

Honorable Mention Stories (in calendar order)

Aug. 26/ Football trip to International Falls and Ada

On Thursday night in International Falls, a grandfather who played in the NFL long ago watched his grandson catch a touchdown pass while another old-time footballer returned to the field where he had coached for four decades. The next night in Ada, young boys from schools that have been longtime rivals took the field together for the first time as teammates.

Such is football, and all high school activities. They are family, ritual, old soldiers and young pups, forming and renewing the fabric of community, spirit and pride.

I hit the road as the fall season began, driving to the Canadian border to see the International Falls Broncos host the Virginia Blue Devils on Thursday in the very first football game of the year, and then angling southwest to Ada where the Polk County West Thunder met the Ada-Borup/Norman County West Cougars on Friday.

It was glorious, to say the least. I drove 902 miles, listened to fans laugh and cheer, and walked the sidelines during two splendid evenings of season-opening football. Here’s what I saw…

Oct. 24/ Bemidji’s Linaes Whiting

Linaes Whiting was not in uniform for the Bemidji High School boys soccer team in Tuesday’s Class 1A state quarterfinals. And that just doesn’t happen, especially during the fall sports season. Here’s why: the senior is a member of the Lumberjacks’ soccer, football and cross-country teams.

He also plays basketball in the winter and runs track in the spring; it must be easy to play only one sport at a time compared to three at once, right?

“I hear a lot of people say that,” said Linaes, whose team fell to Austin 3-2 in overtime Tuesday. “But I don’t think it’s that much tougher than playing one sport. I have more games but I wouldn’t say I’m that much busier. I do my homework, I have a social life, and there are days when there are no games. I find time.”

Dec. 7/ Dasovich family

For any television producers interested in creating a reality show centered on family, school and sports, take a look at Tom and Leah Dasovich and their daughters, Emma and Evelyn.

Their life is a wild ride of girls basketball practices and games at Minnetonka High School, where Leah is the head coach and teaches English … all manner of events at Lakeville South, where Tom is the activities director … and plenty of things that keep Emma, 11, and Evelyn, 5, busy. Thanks to a nanny, help from grandparents and friends, and a family schedule that is often frantic, everything clicks.

The Dasoviches live in Minnetonka, a short drive to school for Leah, Emma and Evelyn; Tom’s commute is about 35 minutes to Lakeville South. In a rare scheduling blessing for which all are grateful, Leah’s team played at Tom’s school on Tuesday evening. The girls rode the team bus to the game and hung out with their dad while mom coached. Minnetonka won the game 63-38, after which the girls helped Tom stack chairs from the team benches on a cart and put them in a back room before heading to the bus with their mom and her players.

Life used to be a little simpler. “Oh gosh, we talk about that a lot,” Leah said with a smile. She looked at her husband and said, “Remember when we used to go to movies? When we used to sleep in?”

Dec. 20/ Gymnastics in the barn on the farm

HENDRICKS – In this small town near the South Dakota border, gymnastics is a family affair. Before the Hendricks/Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Grizzlies and their state-line neighbors from Brookings (S.D.) High School competed in a dual meet one evening this week, the Johnson cousins -- Greta, Sophie and Kaylee -- sang the national anthem beautifully. Grizzlies coach Sherri Johnson – mom to Greta and Sophie and aunt to Kaylee – then took the microphone to introduce the athletes and coaches.

Gymnastics is close to the hearts of Sherri and her husband Gary, along with Greta, 18, Sophie, 16, Sadie, 11, and their extended family and friends. It’s so close, in fact, that the Johnsons can exit their house in the country and take a short walk across the farm yard to the home of the Grizzlies.

It’s called The Barn and it might be the most unique sporting venue in Minnesota and beyond.
To unknowing motorists driving past the Johnson place, the building looks like any other large, modern farm shed. It has several giant garage doors, large enough for tractors and combines to be stored inside. The inside, however, is a gymnast’s dream: top-notch vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercise equipment, bleachers and chairs for spectators, a fully stocked concession stand, killer sound system, bright lighting, restrooms, drinking fountain, heated concrete flooring, wifi and more … all surrounded by sheet-metal walls and plenty of windows. It is an absolute showplace.

Jan. 8/ Detroit Lakes gymnast Kennedy Hegg

Saturday was big for the Detroit Lakes High School gymnastics team. The Lakers are the three-time defending Class 1A state champions, and Saturday they proved to be the top team in the state regardless of school size by winning the Minnsota Girls Gymnastics Officials Association Classic.

In the meet at Park Center, Detroit Lakes finished ahead of the top two teams in Class 2A, Lakeville North and Lakeville South. The all-around champion was Detroit Lakes sophomore Jackson Hegg.

Most people may not have noticed one member of the Lakers team who didn’t really stand out unless you looked closely. Kennedy Hegg, Jackson’s twin sister, did not compete Saturday because she had been fighting an illness, but she was in uniform as she stood with her teammates and cheered.
Her right arm was different, however. Kennedy wore a large apparatus that extended from her wrist to her upper arm. It affected her mobility somewhat, but nothing can limit her desire to be with her teammates and compete … not even two broken arms.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Pride Of The Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks: Carrie Tollefson Is A Hall of Famer 7/2/2018
CHICAGO – When a video crew from the National Federation of State High School Associations arrived in Dawson, Minnesota, in March, Carrie Tollefson met them wearing a jacket that said “Blackjacks” across the front.

The Olympian and NCAA champion could have worn any number of things, including some or all of the 13 MSHSL state championship medals she won in track and cross-country during the 1990s. But she wanted to simply be known as a proud Blackjack from Dawson-Boyd High School.

The video aired Monday evening during the 2018 National High School Hall of Fame induction dinner, where Carrie and 11 others were honored as the 36th annual induction class. The event was held at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile in conjuction with the 99th annual summer meeting of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

During the video, Carrie walked the halls of her high school, stood in front of the house where she grew up and pointed out the large sign on Highway 212 that carries a photo of her, the Olympic rings, a list of her accomplishments in high school and at Villanova University, and the words “Dawson, Proud Home of Carrie Tollefson.”

The pride works both ways.

After the video aired and Carrie, 41, received a Hall of Fame plaque and medal, she spoke on behalf of all 12 inductees. Among them was former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, who was one of Nebraska’s top high school athletes during his days at Hastings High School from 1951 to 1955, and Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized the high jump by creating the “Fosbury Flop” as an Oregon prep athlete in the 1960s. (Watch video from the ceremony, including the video from Dawson and Carrie's speech, by visiting the MSHSL Facebook page).

During her remarks, Carrie thanked her mom and dad, Ginger and John, who were in attendance along with Carrie’s husband Charlie and their daughter Ruby. She thanked her high school coaches, her teammates, the people of Dawson and others.

She smiled and said, “I love that I represent Minnesota.”

Carrie mentioned each of the other 11 inductees by name, offering insight into their careers as athletes, coaches, officials, administrators and performing arts teachers.

“They are living examples of passion,” she said. “Passion for their gifts, passion for their teams, passion for their communities, passion to deliver, passion for life.”

As she talked about her days growing up in Dawson, she said, “I can shut my eyes and go back like it was yesterday.”

Tollefson won five MSHSL cross-country championships at Dawson-Boyd High School from 1990 to 1994, including the first as an eighth-grader. She also won eight individual track and field titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, and she set a state record in the 3,200 in 1994 with a time of 10:30.28. Tollefson’s 13 individual titles in cross-country and track are the most ever in Minnesota and her five consecutive cross-country championships is a national record that has never been matched.

She won five NCAA titles at Villanova, was a 10-time All-American and the 1998 NCAA Indoor Track Athlete of the Year. Tollefson was a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and participated in the 1,500 meters in Athens, Greece.

Tollefson is the 14th Minnesotan inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. The others are John Mayasich (1986), Janet Karvonen (1987), Bronko Nagurski (1989), Willard Ikola (1992), Jerry Seeman (1992), Paul Giel (1998), Kevin McHale (2000), Dorothy McIntyre (2003), Terry Steinbach (2007), Barbara Seng (2008), Billy Bye (2009), Bob McDonald (2014) and Eugene “Lefty” Wright (2016).

--To see video and photos from the Hall of Fame ceremony, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn