John's Journal
Despite Injury, State Tourney Is A Blast For Orono Senior3/7/2018
There is a standard format for player introductions before quarterfinal games at the boys state hockey tournament. The players, helmets off, line up at an end line and skate to the blue line as their names are announced to the crowd at Xcel Energy Center and the KSTC Channel 45 audience. Some smile, some say “Hi Mom” and the process continues until all the players have been identified.

There was a change in the process Wednesday before Orono and Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato squared off in the Class 1A tournament. When stadium announcer Dave Wright got to No. 18 for the Orono Spartans, a TV camera panned to the bench. Will Larson, wearing a suit and tie, helmet and facemask (the latter two are required of students on the bench), smiled as he saw himself on the mammoth scoreboard hanging above center ice. What the fans could not see was a medical boot on Larson’s left leg.

Will (pictured) is a senior center for the Spartans and this has not been a typical season. Playing in a no-contact hockey league last fall, he lost an edge and slid into the boards. The result was a fractured tibia and fibula. He missed the first 13 games and finally made his on-ice debut on Jan. 12, playing in three games before more trouble arose.

“I had a plate put in my leg, and with the rubbing from the plate on my skate the plate broke through my ankle so I had to have surgery,” Will said after the Spartans defeated Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato 6-1. “I got cleared, and the day I got cleared the scar broke open again. I had the plate removed last week.”

You’d think this would be a season to forget for Larson. You would be wrong. He was all smiles Wednesday, on the TV screen before the game and outside the locker room after the game.

“I’m not playing in the tournament right now, but it’s been a blast,” he said.

The most important thing is that he’s with his friends.

“It’s too bad that I can’t play but it really didn’t matter to me, as long as we made it here and I can be with the guys I’ve grown up with,” Will said. “We’re having an absolute blast and we’re just trying to take it all in right now.”

Orono coach Will Scholz is not surprised at all that Larson is smiling rather than sulking. The senior is a team leader who leads even when he’s not in uniform.

“He’s a great kid,” said Scholz, the Spartans’ first-year head coach and previous junior varsity coach who has worked with Will for three years. “He hasn’t missed a practice or a game, unless he had therapy or something. He was one of the main reasons we came back and beat Minneapolis (in the Section 2 semifinals), because he was jumping around on the bench and willing the kids to go.”

Will also plays lacrosse (although he will miss his senior season in that sport because of his injury) and is very involved in Special Olympics Unified Sports, which join people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

The day he was injured, Larson had planned to give a Unified sports friend a ride to the Homecoming dance that evening. While being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, the first phone call he made was to his friend’s parents, assuring them that he would find someone else to provide transportation and spend time with their son at the dance.

“He’s a great leader, a great student,” Scholz said. “I don’t have kids, but if I had one I’d wish it was him. He’s a joy to coach. His parents are lucky. They got a good one there.”

Tournament Tidbits

--The first goal of the state tournament was scored by the grandson of one of the game’s giants. Mahtomedi’s Joe Paradise scored at 7:39 of the opening period; he and twin brother Tom – juniors on the hockey team – are grandsons of the late Herb Brooks. On Saturday one player from Class 1A and one from 2A will receive the Herb Brooks Award, which goes to players who represent the values, characteristics, and traits that defined Herb Brooks. Joe Paradise scored two goals in the Zephyrs’ 4-2 victory over Mankato East/Loyola.

--Scholz became Orono’s head coach when former NHL player Mark Parrish stepped down after two years to take a broadcast job with the New York Islanders. Parrish was at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday, but not with the Spartans; he was working as an analyst on the tournament’s TV broadcast.

--The tournament’s first hat trick was scored by Hermantown sophomore Blake Biondi in the Hawks’ 4-2 victory over Monticello. The game was a rematch of last year’s state championship game, won by Hermantown 4-3 in two overtimes.

--Thursday's first-session attendance was 6,590 and the second session drew a crowd of 6,036 for a total of 12,626.

--A limited number of Class 2A tickets are available for Thursday’s quarterfinal sessions at Xcel Energy Center; approximately 360 tickets for the 11 a.m. session and 800 for the 6 p.m. session. Standing-room tickets will be made available if reserved seats are sold out. Tickets will go on sale at the Xcel Enery Center box office one hour prior to the start of each session.

Boys State Hockey Tournament
At Xcel Energy Center

Wednesday’s Class 1A games

Mahtomedi 4, Mankato East 2
Orono 6, Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato 1
Hermantown 4, Monticello 2
Alexandria 1, Thief River Falls 0

Thursday’s Class 2A games
Lakeville North vs. Edina
St. Michael-Albertville vs. Duluth East
Hill-Murray vs. Minnetonka
Centennial vs. St. Thomas Academy

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Boys State Hockey Tournament Pairings3/5/2018
At Xcel Energy Center
Wednesday’s Class 1A games

11 a.m.
Mankato East (16-10-2) vs. #2 seed Mahtomedi (21-6-1)

30 minutes after first game
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (16-11-1) vs. #3 seed Orono (20-7-1)

6 p.m.
Monticello (19-7-2) vs. #1 seed Hermantown (20-6-2)

30 minutes after 6 p.m. game
#5 seed Thief River Falls (16-10-2) vs. #4 seed Alexandria (17-10-1)

Thursday’s Class 2A games
11 a.m.
Lakeville North (16-10-2) vs. #2 seed Edina (26-2)

30 minutes after first game
St. Michael-Albertville (23-5) vs. #3 seed Duluth East (23-2-3)

6 p.m.
Hill-Murray (13-11-4) vs. #1 seed Minnetonka (24-2-2)

30 minutes after 6 p.m. game
#5 seed Centennial (19-6-3) vs. #4 seed St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1)

Four On The Floor: Gable Steveson Pins Another State Title3/3/2018
Gable Steveson is a young man with few surprises. The most dominant Minnesota high school wrestler of his generation, the Apple Valley senior capped a splendid career by winning his fourth Class 3A state championship Saturday night as a packed house at Xcel Energy Center rained down applause on the heavyweight.

Steveson is the 18th wrestler in state history to win at least four titles and the 13th from Apple Valley to win at least three. At the top of the mountain is the Eagles’ Mark Hall, who two years ago became the first Minnesotan to claim six state championships. Destin McCauley won his fifth state crown as an Eagle in 2011, while Steveson joined Apple Valley grads Chad Erickson (1997), Charlie Falck (2004) and Brandon Kingsley (2012) in owning four titles.

The future Minnesota Golden Gopher thundered his way through the tournament with pins in 25 seconds, 22 seconds and 67 seconds before closing his prep career with a 17-second pin of Anoka senior Brandon Frankfurth in the championship match. He followed with a back flip, much to the delight of the fans.

The final victory meant Steveson finished with 171 consecutive victories since his last defeat -- which came when he was an eighth-grader -- against Alexandria’s Justin Cumberbatch in a 2014 state championship match. Steveson’s overall high school record is 210-3.

Several wrestlers claimed their third state championships Saturday. In a Class 3A matchup of past champions, Alex Lloyd of Shakopee won his third title by defeating Tyler Eischens of Anoka 6-4 at 145 pounds. At 126 pounds, Patrick McKee of St. Michael-Albertville won a third title with an injury-default win against Zach Smith of Prior Lake. Another three-time winner was Peyton Robb of Owatonna, who defeated Austin Brenner of St. Cloud Tech 8-2.

In Class 2A, Jake Gliva of Simley became a three-time state champ with an 11-5 win over Lorenzo Diaz of South St. Paul at 132 pounds and Daniel Kirkvliet of Simley also won his third title with a 20-4 decision over Steven Hajas of Delano at 195 pounds.

In Class 1A, the Pipestone duo of Michael Suda and Hunter Burnett each won their third championship. Suda beat Blake Legred of United South Central 13-9 in the finals at 126 and Burnett won 12-6 over Mark Buringa of St. Charles at 132.

Wrestlers winning their second state championships included …

--Class 3A: Reid Ballantyne of Stillwater.

--Class 2A: Tyler Wagener of Waconia and Patrick Kennedy of Kasson-Mantorville.

--Class 1A: Caden Steffen of Zumbrota-Mazeppa.

Total attendance for the state wrestling tournament was 54,528, which was an increase from last year’s total of 52,620. The all-time record for total attendance is 64,001 in 2003.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
From Ethiopia To Pipestone: Michael Suda Wrestles To Win 3/2/2018
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. (Pictured are Pipestone state qualifiers Grant Budden, Garrett Ploeger, Hunter Burnett, Suda and coach Brian Bos.)

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. (The Suda family is pictured from several years ago.)

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.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Final Class 4A Girls Basketball Rankings3/1/2018
From Minnesota Basketball News (regular-season records).

1. Eastview 25-0
2. Hopkins 23-3
3. Centennial 23-3
4. Lakeville North 21-5
5. St. Michael-Albertville 23-3
6. Wayzata 24-2
7. Maple Grove 21-5
8. Champlin Park 22-4
9. Roseville 19-7
10. Cretin-Derham Hall 18-6
11. Moorhead 17-9
12. Minnetonka 16-10
13. Park Center 17-9
14. Park-Cottage Grove 18-8
15. Eden Prairie 15-11
16. Apple Valley 15-11
17. Anoka 17-9
18. Farmington 17-9
19. Minneapolis South 21-5
20. Stillwater 16-10