John's Journal
After 43 Years, Brainerd Tennis Team Returns To State 6/5/2018
The Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota must have seemed like the Taj Mahal of tennis to the Brainerd boys team as the Class 2A state tournament began Tuesday. The facility is world-class, with 10 indoor courts, 12 outdoor courts, 30-foot ceilings, ample seating for spectators and other amenities. That’s a far cry from what the Warriors experienced in getting there.

With the worst spring weather that longtime Brainerd coach Bruce Thompson (pictured) could remember, coupled with no indoor courts for the team to use, it seemed only fair that the Warriors earned the right to play in the team state tournament for the first time in 43 years. Thompson was a first-year teacher in Brainerd and an assistant coach on that team in 1975, and now he’s a retiree who spends winters in Arizona.

Thompson’s memory from that 1975 state tourney is sketchy. He remembers it was held on outdoor courts at a Twin Cities high school, but he doesn’t recall the name of that school.

Playing at state is a grand payoff for the Warriors. The cold and snowy spring weather forced them to compress nearly their entire regular-season schedule into three and a half weeks.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tougher spring,” Thompson said.

The closest thing to indoor courts available to the team was banquet rooms – yes, banquet rooms – at Cragun’s Resort outside of Brainerd.

“It’s a convention center but it’s carpeted so it’s not the same thing,” Thompson said. “And the walls are a pale yellow and the lights are dim. Try and see the ball with those conditions. But we spent a lot of time out there.”

The unseeded Warriors lost to third-seeded Rochester Century 6-1 in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. It was Brainerd’s first loss after 24 victories this season. The Warriors’ victory came at No. 3 doubles, where Matt Hintz and Camden Cooper defeated Century’s Sanjiv Ramana and Arhan Mehta, 6-7(4), 6-4, 10-7. Brainerd fell to Eastview 6-1 later Tuesday in the consolation bracket, ending the Warriors' season with a record of 24-2.

Tanner Lundberg is Brainerd’s only representative in the state singles and doubles tournament, which will be held Thursday and Friday. He will meet Elk River sophomore Stewart Morrell in the first round of singles play.

Brainerd’s path to the team state tournament wound through the highly competitive Section 8 playoffs. The Warriors defeated Bemidji 5-2 and Willmar 5-2 before holding off St. Cloud Tech 4-3 in the section finals.

“We really felt all along, looking at our rivals in our section, that if we played well and we improved and we did some things we had to do, we could be in it,” Thompson said. “It was so tight with Tech and Willmar both, maybe we were fortunate but we earned it. We earned our trip back.”

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The Importance Of Educators, Past And Future 5/30/2018
Kelsi Olson, a young band teacher at Brainerd High School, was standing on the stage in the performing arts center at Rosemount High School, where a large alumni concert band was assembled. Kelsi was talking about the reason for the gathering: a man named Steve Olsen was being honored as he retired after a lengthy career as a music educator.

Two days earlier a quieter but no less important gathering was held at Burnsville High School, where graduating seniors who plan to become teachers were honored at a signing ceremony in the school’s career center.

The events provided valuable bookends on the importance of educators by saying “thank you” to someone closing out a wonderful career and “welcome” to 14 young people embarking on a similar path.

In the old days of newspapers there was a joke about people who were responsible for compiling each day’s lists of deaths and births. The process was lovingly known as “shipping and receiving.” Time, of course, marches on, and it was inspiring to be in attendance at the Rosemount and Burnsville events. And on a personal note, there was a family interest in each gathering because my daughter Allison, a teacher at Burnsville, helped plan the future educator signing ceremony there, and she and her two older brothers were band kids under the tutelage of Steve Olsen.

The Burnsville event was brief, lasting no more than 20 minutes. Our daughter and her colleague Dave McDevitt spoke before the students signed letters of intent.

“It’s been a joy to get young people interested in this amazing field of changing lives,” McDevitt said. Ms. Millea added, “Do not lose the spark you have right now. You’re here right now because you are excited about teaching. That’s what we love. You are committing to a brighter future for everyone. You are dedicated to improving lives. … You are literal superheroes for making the choice to teach. If you want to make the world a better place, start with education.”

Steve Olsen, like so many educators in our state and beyond, always made the world a much better place. His 37-year teaching career began at Rosemount in 1981, took him to Bloomington Kennedy and then Eden Prairie before he returned to Rosemount in 1998. He taught elementary music, which he loved, during the last four years of his career.

My wife and I attended every concert in which our kids participated, as well as countless marching band performances at football games, parades and competitions. Those were special days; we think of them often and we miss them.

Steve – whom just about everyone calls “Mr. Olsen” – always went the extra mile. As Mother’s Day rolled around each year, during rehearsals he would ask his students to use their cell phones to call their moms, who would then listen to their children’s band play a song dedicated to them. How sweet is that?

The band assembled for the celebration at Rosemount consisted of former band students under Steve from both Eden Prairie and Rosemount. There was some gray hair and a few bald heads, along with fuller heads of hair on more recent graduates. Steve’s family had sent out the word (and the music) and the group got in a rehearsal before the event began. The musicians included Steve’s wife Natalie (a band teacher in Farmington), their daughter Kaylee and her husband Brad.

Between songs, different individuals stood at the microphone to speak about Steve and how important he has been to them.

The words of Kelsi Olson, a 2011 Rosemount graduate, were especially poignant. She began by saying, “I’m not sure I could adequately describe in words the impact Mr. Olsen has had on my life or the lives of his students in general, because it extends far beyond the many things he taught us.”

She talked about being a high school senior and telling Steve she was thinking of becoming a music educator.

“Instead of simply giving me advice about all the directions that I could possibly take, Mr. Olsen invited me to work as a student aide during his first-hour ninth-grade band,” she said. “I was able to see some of the behind-the-scenes work that Mr. Olsen did as a band director, which would have been helpful enough for a high school senior looking at this as a career. But like he did in so many aspects of his teaching, Mr. Olsen went above and beyond and invited me to lead the band for a rehearsal cycle on a piece and then conduct them at their concert. This was hands-down the best possible real-world experience I could have gotten at that point in my life. It ignited something in me that made me realize that this was a direction I was meant to take.

“I don’t think there’s an adequate enough way to say thank you besides doing everything I possibly can to pass on what I learned from you to my own students. I think I can speak for a lot of us on stage that we didn’t quite realize how lucky we were to have Mr. Olsen (pictured in the pink tie) as our band director while we were in school. It wasn’t until after we left that we could truly appreciate one of the biggest reasons why Mr. Olsen was a great teacher; the fact that he made extraordinary experiences the norm for us. He would always tell us that what we did, our work ethic, our dedication, our level of performance, was not normal because it was done at such a high level. But the thing was, we didn’t believe him. To us, these things were totally normal. Mr. Olsen instilled in us a desire to pursue greatness, to commit to what we were doing with everything we had, and to never settle for mediocrity.

“Looking back at it now from a different perspective, he was right. Our work ethic and level of dedication was definitely not normal. But because we had Mr. Olsen as a teacher, what was truly extraordinary became our normal. I believe this is one of the marks of a great teacher, and I believe I can speak for all of your former students when I say that we are so appreciative of this. As a band teacher myself, I understand that what we hope for our students is that they leave our classes not only as better musicians, but as better human beings.”

The alumni band performed the Eden Prairie and Rosemount school songs as people in the auditorium stood and clapped along. Before the final song of the night, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, Steve spoke briefly. He talked about knowing in fifth grade that he wanted to be a band teacher, about being paid $14,000 a year as a rookie teacher, about his goal of helping students love music.

He gave thanks for all the students, colleagues, administrators and families he has known over all these years.

“I feel very grateful, very blessed,” he said. “I’m so thrilled to have had this wonderful career.”

One more personal note: Our middle child, who lives in Phoenix, was frustrated that he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and join the band at Rosemount. But he had a good excuse. He’s a music educator, just like Mr. Olsen, and he was teaching that day.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Won 800: New Ulm Cathedral Coach Reaches Big Milestone5/27/2018
NORTH MANKATO – Saturday was special for Bob Mertz. There were cupcakes, balloons and congratulations here at Caswell Park after the New Ulm Cathedral softball team won two playoff games in a quest to reach the state tournament, which will be played at Caswell June 7-8.

The balloons included a big silver “8” and a big silver “0” and another big silver “0” … in recognition of Mertz’s 800th career victory, more than any other softball coach in Minnesota. The cupcakes were covered in yellow frosting, with red frosting used to create stitches across the top of each one. They resembled real softballs and they were delicious.

Mertz, a Cathedral graduate and retired math teacher, was all smiles. He posed for photos with his wife Linda as well as with the Greyhounds. He told the players, “Let’s do this again on Thursday!”

He was referring to the postgame celebration. With victories over Cleveland and Sleepy Eye on Saturday in the Class 1A Section 2 tournament, the sixth-ranked Greyhounds (18-2) advanced to the section championship round. They will play again on Thursday against the winner of the loser’s bracket, which will be decided Tuesday among Sleepy Eye, Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s and Cleveland.

“I’m so fortunate,” said Mertz, who has been the head coach at Cathedral since 1979. His 39-year record of 800-139 translates to an astounding .851 winning percentage and an average of more than 20 victories per season.

The Greyhounds have won seven state championships, beginning with a threepeat in 1993, 1994 and 1995. The others came in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.

“They’re all real special, they really are,” Mertz said of the milestone wins during his career. “The year we won a state championship for the third time in a row, in 1995, that was our 300th one and it happened at the end of the state tournament. That was really special.”

Mertz thought he might retire from coaching when he ended his teaching career a few years back, but he just couldn’t walk away. Beginning last season, he made 2007 Cathedral grad (and former softball player) Jamie Portner his co-head coach.

“I finally figured it out and started inviting former players of mine to help coach,” he said. “So for the last 16 years I’ve always had assistant coaches who were former players. It really makes it so much easier, the kids identify with them.”

Portner, who joined the coaching staff in 2012, said, “I don’t know if there’s anybody in the state of Minnesota who knows more about softball than Bob Mertz. And he’s just kind of a comfort; if you ask him to do something that you’re not comfortable with he’ll go out and do it. It’s kind of a confidence thing, too. If you’ve got him on your side you’ve got a good chance of winning. He’s such a creative thinker. It’s nice to have him on our side instead of playing against him.”

Mertz was not an athlete in high school, and he was somewhat hesitant when he was asked to become an assistant softball coach at Cathedral in the 1970s. He filled that role for three years before taking over as head coach.

“I’m a real novice,” he said. “I was a little worried about coaching when they asked me. But the smartest thing I did was say yes. I’ve never gotten to a point where I said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I’ve always wanted to come back.”

Bob and Linda spend winters in Arizona, and this year they planned their return to Minnesota for April 1. “I was thinking I’d miss all the practices in the gym,” Bob said. “Then we had another three weeks of practices in the gym, so I didn’t miss anything.”

Mertz's presence during games is strong. During Saturday’s game against Sleepy Eye, he made one trip to the pitchers circle to speak with the infielders. He calls pitches, something senior catcher Rose Hazuka appreciates.

“He is so intelligent, it is absolutely amazing,” said Rose, the fourth daughter in her family to play softball for Mertz. “He knows the game of softball like the back of his hand and he can call pitches left and right and it’ll be spot on.”

Senior infielder Jenna Helget said, “He knows what he’s talking about and all of us have improved as softball players. We really appreciate all he does and all the time he puts in.”

The coach has no plans to retire. Once he does make that decision, he will probably make it very, very clear. That wasn’t the case after the 2016 season, when Linda took him at his word.

“I make goofy statements sometimes,” Mertz said. “My wife heard me say, ‘I’m going to retire.’ ”

That triggered surreptitious contact with all of his former players who could be reached, followed by a surprise retirement party. He was thrilled to see so many of his players, including four members of the first team he coached. But he actually was not planning to retire. He told Linda, “You can’t take me seriously when I say these things.”

Portner said Mertz often talks of someday stepping down, but the players keep him coming back.

“He always talks about it, and then he finds a group of girls that he wants to see through. He said 2007 was going to be his last year, then 2009. He just finds more players to be excited about and it carries him through.”

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

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Cristo Rey Jesuit Students Make A Robot … And History 5/24/2018
The robotics team from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School does not have a fancy banner to hang in the pit area where teams tweak their robots, and the team also doesn’t have a big flag to be waved, as is the custom, before rounds of competition begin. But the Los Clasicos have something else: a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Cristo Rey Jesuit is a small Catholic school in Minneapolis. The school’s accomplishments are many, including this: since the school was founded eight years ago, every graduating senior has been accepted to college.

Cristo Rey’s robotics program is in its fifth year, and the team has taken big leaps since Schuyler Troy became the main advisor three years ago. At that point the team was barely a blip on the robotics screen. Their rise was topped by a 21st-place finish among 36 teams at the recent MSHSL FIRST Robotics state championships at the University of Minnesota’s 3A Arena at Mariucci.

It was the first appearance for any team from Cristo Rey at a state tournament. Sophomore Kya Phillips became the school’s first individual state champion when she won the Class 1A 400 meters at last year’s state track and field meet. Jericho Sims, a 2017 graduate, started 11 games and played in all 34 games as a freshman on the University of Texas men’s basketball team.

And now, the robotics team has made history.

“I thought today was pretty amazing because I didn’t think we would get to where we were,” said junior Alexis Constantino Lopez. “My expectations? Honestly, I set them kind of low because I thought these teams are pretty much better than us. I’m happy where we finished.”

Troy teaches Advanced Placement computer science principals and physics at Cristo Rey Jesuit, where the student population is 84 percent Latino/Hispanic and 11 percent African-American/African immigrant. He graduated from high school in 2004 in Fayetteville, Tennessee, where he was a member of his school’s robotics team.

“I had a lot of really good experiences with robotics in high school,” he said. “When I got to (Cristo Rey) and heard we had robotics I was excited and offered to help. That kind of morphed into taking leadership with the team. Two years ago was my first year with the group and it was kind of a rough go; the team was still young and I had not been involved with FIRST Robotics since I was in high school. And when you’re a student you don’t necessarily see how the sausage is made, with all the logistical things behind the scenes.”

In Troy’s first year the team finished near the bottom in a regional competition. Everyone was disappointed, but it was part of a growth process. Last season provided what Troy called a big leap.

“I had a better idea of what I was doing, the volunteers had a better idea of what we needed to do,” he said. “We finished the robot on time, which is always a nice accomplishment. We came to the regional and finished 27th out of 60 teams, I believe. For us, coming off the previous year that was a huge leap. It made the kids feel good, it made it really good for recruiting because we could say in school, ‘Hey, look at the improvement we’re making.’ ”

This season was strong from the start, with the team completing its robot early and having time for testing and modifications. As an added bonus, many of the current team members are in their third year with the program.

“We have a really solid group of juniors who have been with us since they were freshmen,” Troy said. “We’ve developed a really strong relationship and the nice thing about them having that experience of finishing last and then climbing forward is that they’re really, really incredibly humble about how good they can be.”

When the team competed at a regional this year, hoping to advance to state, they were confident but not cocky. Part of their philosophy was to have fun, do the best they could and walk away feeling good about it.

“And we won, a lot. We kept winning matches,” Troy said. “We kept looking at our number go up and up and up in the ranks.

“It was such a huge leap forward. Thinking back to two years ago, it was such a great experience, it was really moving for me. It was a really fun experience for me to get to see them have the kind of fun that I had when I was in robotics. It’s always fun anyway, but it’s more fun when you’re winning.”

After the MSHSL tournament ended, the Los Clasicos gathered for team photos. Everyone smiled as they received congratulations from members of other teams.

“It’s been exciting, a cool experience,” said junior Consuelo Contreras. “It’s my first year in robotics and it’s the first year we came to the championships, so it was kind of interesting and cool and unique.”

Alan Flores, one of the third-year team members, said, “Me and Alex (Lopez) came to robotics in our freshman year. Right off the bat we started off pretty low, getting the lowest ranking in our first year. The second year we did a little better, made more progress, we climbed up like 10 more ranks. This year we came up to like seventh place in the rankings. The way we progressed and the way we learned from those past years really led us to show more leadership towards the new people, and it helped us a lot to improve and learn. To us, it just feels amazing to be here and see how much we’ve grown.”

During the state tournament, Cristo Rey Jesuit activities director Rob Carpentier was inundated with texts and emails from staff members and students seeking updates on the team’s progress. The team’s success has raised its profile,

“Now I’m thinking about how do I buy a trailer for this team? How do I make the accoutrements and aesthetics look like the rest of the teams that are here,” Carpentier said, talking about things like a team banner and flag. “I don’t ever want them to feel like they’re doing without. They’re a great bunch of kids.”

Upwards of 40 Cristo Rey students took part in the robotics program this year, and that number is sure to rise in the future.

“It’s inspirational,” said junior Henry Perez. “We don’t give up. At the very beginning we don’t always get it perfect, but we take the things we learn and we grow from it.”

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A Major Car Accident, But The Umpire Still Did Her Job 5/21/2018
M.J. Wagenson was in such a hurry to get from one softball game to another that she was still wearing her chest protector and shin guards while driving. After working behind the plate at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III tournament in Rochester, the veteran umpire was driving 13 miles to a high school game in Stewartville last Thursday. And everything was going fine until another driver pulled out in front of her.

The result? Two vehicles that were total losses, but amazingly no injuries other than very minor burns on Wagenson’s hands from the air-bag deployment.

“With all the miles we put on as officials, I’m just thankful everybody was OK,” said Wagenson, a Pine Island resident who began working as an MSHSL softball and basketball official in 1986. She has worked many state tournaments in both sports and in 2016 she became the first female official at the boys state basketball tournament (where she also worked in 2017 and 2018). And after 32 years as a basketball and softball official, she has registered as a football official for the 2018-19 season.

Wagenson and Marshall Behrens had each umpired three junior college games in Rochester before driving separately to the game in Stewartville; it’s a testament to the shortage of officials in Minnesota that they were scheduled for four games in one day. (Wagenson's vehicle is the top one in this photo, with the other car on the bottom.)

As they departed for Stewartville, Behrens was driving a few minutes ahead of Wagenson. After he arrived at the field, she called and said she had been in a car accident.

He told her, “ ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ But then I could tell in her voice it was real. I said, ‘Are you OK? Do you need me to come get you?’ ”

The wreck happened on the north end of Stewartville. The other driver pulled out from a convenience store, right into Wagenson’s path. She had a split second to turn her wheel before the left front of her 2011 Honda CRV struck the other vehicle in the left rear.

“The gentleman was exiting the Kwik Trip, turning left to go north,” she said. “I was southbound on the divided highway there. I was in the left lane, there was a pickup in the right lane, the guy tried to scoot in front of the pickup and didn’t see me.”

Behrens, who was planning to work the bases, asked a parent to tell the coaches from Hayfield and Stewartville that the game would start a little late. He began changing into his home-plate gear.

“The coaches were great,” he said. “All they cared about was M.J.”

At this point, Wagenson was standing on the side of the highway. Passersby had stopped and someone called 911 while she called Behrens.

Wagenson teaches sport management at Rochester Community and Technical College. One of the two tow-truck drivers who arrived was one of her former students, and she climbed aboard the truck for a ride to the softball game.

“I said, ‘Could one of you give me a ride to the field?’ ” Already wearing her chest protector and shin guards, she grabbed her mask, field shoes, wallet and phone from the now-wrecked car. After the game in Stewartville ended, she called to arrange for a rental car, Behrens gave her a ride to pick it up, then she went to the tow yard and emptied everything else out of her car.

Her Honda, which had around 38,000 miles when she bought it in 2013, finished its driving days with 185,000 miles on the odometer.

Wagenson said she feels very grateful to be able to walk away from such a serious accident.

“My family’s lost a few family members and some close friends in the last year,” she said. “Standing on the side of the road, I was thanking all my angels. My sister texted me later and said, ‘I hope you thanked them all.’

“One of my friends said, ‘You went to the game?’ Missing the game never crossed my mind. I thought, ‘Marshall’s down there working the game and I’ve got to get there.’ ”

As the the game in Stewartville began with Behrens working solo, he never doubted that Wagenson would appear. And she did.

“In the bottom of the third inning, she strolled up like nothing had happened,” he said. “She got a nice ovation from everybody.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn