John's Journal
Conference Call In Class 3A Volleyball 11/10/2017
One of the great many great things about volleyball is that there is no clock. The game is decided by points without constraints over how long it takes. That fact makes two sets of numbers from Friday’s Class 3A state semifinals quite remarkable.

The numbers are 56 and 63. As in minutes. When top-seeded and defending state champion Eagan defeated Prior Lake 3-0 in the semifinals at Xcel Energy Center, the match was over in 56 minutes. And when Lakeville North defeated Moorhead 3-0 in the second semifinal, it took 63 minutes.

The speed of those matches is in direct correlation to the level of play and the league in which the two winners compete. Eagan and Lakeville North come from the South Suburban Conference, as does Prior Lake, meaning three teams from that league were among the four state semifinalists. This is not a new thing.

On Saturday, Eagan will play in its fifth consecutive state championship match. The Wildcats won titles in 2013, 2015 and 2016, finishing second to Chaska in 2014.

In the 12 state tournaments since 2006, teams that are now in the South Suburban have filled 14 of the 24 championship-match slots. Two South Suburban teams have met in the finals three previous times since 2006: Eden Prairie beat Lakeville North in 2011, Lakeville North beat Eden Prairie in 2012, Eagan beat Prior Lake in 2015.

And there’s this: With the exception of Chaska’s championship in 2014, South Suburban teams have won every 3A title since 2010.

“I believe that grinding out so many of our conference matches really prepares you for postseason,” said Lakeville North coach Jackie Richter, whose team lost to Eagan twice during the regular season. Eagan beat the Panthers 3-0 during conference play and 2-0 in a tournament. Lakeville North’s record is 31-2.

Eagan is 30-1, with the loss coming against Lakeville South in conference play. The Wildcats’ semifinal victory over Prior Lake – which has seniors who will play volleyball at Minnesota (CC McGraw) and Michigan (Kayla Bair) – was something to see.

“Overall I think this is about as well as we can pass and play defense,” said Eagan coach Kathy Gillen. “I think they executed the game plan about as well as they can.”

Prior Lake coach Mike Dean said, “We knew we had a heck of a team on the other side of the net that we were going against. I think what we saw is that Eagan is really, really strong. Hats off to them. They’re a fantastic team.

“They don’t give you anything and they go back and rattle off three, four, five in the blink of an eye.”

Cheering For Their Neighbors

The North Branch volleyball team was inside the Xcel Energy Center for Friday’s first match at 9 a.m., even though the Vikings didn’t play until the last semifinal match of the day at 7 p.m. They sat together in the stands to watch their friends from nearby Forest Lake face Hopkins in Class 3A consolation play; the Vikings even led some of the cheers for the Rangers. In the evening’s Class 2A semifinals, North Branch defeated Marshall 3-0. While that match was taking place, guess which team was in the stands, cheering for the Vikings? You got it, the Forest Lake Rangers.

Tournament Tidbits

--In the Class 1A semifinals, defending state champion Mayer Lutheran (31-2) defeated Wadena-Deer Creek 3-0. Mayer Lutheran’s two losses this year came against Maple Lake and Eagan, which will also play for state championships today.

--Minneota owns one Class 1A volleyball state title and the Vikings will play for another one Saturday against Mayer Lutheran. Their championship came in 2006, when one of the players was named Hayley Hennen. She’s now Hayley Fruin (pictured) and she’s the first-year head coach of the Vikings. Minneota defeated Bethlehem Academy 3-0 in Friday’s semifinals.

--Maple Lake enters the final day of the volleyball season as the only undefeated team in the state. The Irish (35-0) will meet North Branch in the Class 2A championship and try to win their second consecutive title. Their overall winning streak is 43 in a row.

--Quote of the Day: “The game is about a ball and it has to stay off the floor. And that’s unpredictable” … Maple Lake coach Marty Kiebel.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

State Volleyball Tournament
At Xcel Energy Center

Class 3A Semifinals

Eagan defeated Prior Lake 3-0
Lakeville North defeated Moorhead 3-0

Class 1A Semifinals
Mayer Lutheran defeated Wadena-Deer Creek 3-0
Minneota defeated Bethlehem Academy 3-0

Class 2A Semifinals
Maple Lake defeated Holy Angels 3-0
North Branch defeated Marshall 3-0

Saturday’s Schedule
(Times are approximate, based on length of earlier matches)

Class 1A

Fifth place: Cook County vs. New Life Academy, 9 a.m.
Third place: Wadena-Deer Creek vs. Bethlehem Academy, 11 a.m.
Championship: Mayer Lutheran vs. Minneota, 1 p.m.

Class 2A
Fifth place: Kasson-Mantorville vs. Roseau, 11 a.m.
Third place: Holy Angels vs. Marshall, 1 p.m.
Championship: Maple Lake vs. North Branch, 3 p.m.

Class 3A
Fifth place: Hopkins vs. Champlin Park, 9 a.m.
Third place: Prior Lake vs. Moorhead, 3 p.m.
Championship: Eagan vs. Lakeville North, 5 p.m.
Trip To State And A Bright Future For Ada-Borup/NCW 11/9/2017
Jim Lee wasn’t fully expecting his volleyball team from Ada-Borup/Norman County West to reach the Class 1A state tournament this year. After all, the Cougars were a No. 5 seed in the Section 8 tournament, and that makes for a tough road to the Xcel Energy Center. But here they were Thursday, competing in the big show.

This is Lee’s second year at the helm, and good things sometimes come to those who don’t have to wait very long.

“Usually you can’t get to state this fast,” Lee (pictured) said after his team fell to Wadena-Deer Creek in the quarterfinals. “The girls played so well in that section tournament; they believed.”

Lee is no rookie coach. He was the head coach at Waconia, a Class 3A team, for 20 years before taking over in Ada last season. His Wildcats made it to state once (2010) while competing in section tournaments against some of the top big-school teams in Minnesota. He knows how to build a program, and that process is on the ground floor with the Cougars.

“I would say the difference is that I have not had these girls for as long a time period,” he said. “I think it’s very important in any program when you can develop the young kids, and they get up to the varsity level and they’ve had you in the classroom, they’ve had you on the courts, they know what to expect. Now I’m kind of trying to train them in the middle of the process. There have been some seasons in the past when I’m just sitting there and it’s like I don’t have to say anything; they know what to say and they know what to do.

“I’m thinking if I had them when they were younger they would be doing these things by now. That’s the big difference. It’s not the caliber of the girl, it’s not the height or anything like that; I just haven’t had them in the program enough right now, that’s the biggest thing.”

One of the downsides of being far from the Twin Cities and its many schools is spending evenings scouting other teams in outstate Minnesota. Ada is 45 minutes from Moorhead, and Lee makes lots of long drives to see other games. “So I’m getting home at midnight, one o’clock sometimes. It’s well worth it, but it makes for longer nights.”

One of the advantages of being in a small school (the building in Ada houses kindergarten through 12th grade) is getting to know young students. Lee teaches business classes, and he likes seeing elementary students in the cafeteria and other spots around school.

“And that’s fun,” he said. “I can talk to them and they get to know me even before they get to ninth grade. Which is incredible. When you think about it, I’m where I want to be. The question is how many years is it going to take before these young girls, the third-, fourth-graders, get up there? Because when they get to the varsity level, it’s going to be ‘zing.’ ”

Cook County Coach Says Goodbye

Pam Taylor has been the volleyball coach at Cook County in Grand Marais for 35 years, and she is ending her career with a trip to state. The Vikings fell to top-seeded Mayer Lutheran 3-0 in Thursday’s Class 1A quarterfinals and will have at least one more consolation-round match before the season ends.

The Vikings rode a 17-match winning streak into the state tournament, and Taylor (pictured) has reveled in it.

“I just enjoy being with the kids,” she said. “It’s just a sport that I love. I’m going to miss it but my arm’s wearing out, my knees are wearing out. It’s time to let somebody younger take over.”

Assistant coach Marlene Webster will become the head coach next season.

Famine Is Over For Spuds

Moorhead played in the very first state volleyball tournament in 1974 and the Spuds have been a regular participant ever since. The 2017 event is their 23rd appearance, but getting past the quarterfinals has been an obstacle.

That made Thursday’s 3-2 victory over Champlin Park in the Class 3A quarterfinals important, because it put Moorhead in the semifinals for the first time since 1996 and ended an 0-7 streak of quarterfinal defeats.

Moorhead won a state title in 1988 and placed second in 1981, 1985, 1986 and 1996.

Forest Lake Makes Most Of Return To State

When the Forest Lake Rangers defeated Grand Rapids in the Class 3A Section 7 championship match, it was big news. The Rangers have only been to state once before, in 2002.

Junior Ava Schmoll said, “Everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’ We’ve been talking about going to state, we’re all so close and super good friends, and we’re like family to each other. We’re kind of in awe that we’re here.”

The Rangers had a tough draw in the quarterfinals, where they lost to top-seeded and defending state champion Eagan 3-0. That didn’t do much to dampen the team’s enthusiasm.

“We put that in perspective,” said 21-year veteran coach Sherri Alm. “We’re one of eight schools and somebody’s got to play them.”

Best Band Moments

--The Eagan band played The Imperial March (also known as Darth Vader’s theme) during a timeout while the Wildcats defeated Forest Lake.

--The Bethlehem Academy band played Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (from 1970!) during the Cardinals’ Class 1A victory over Pine River-Backus.

Best Mascot

--Ronnie the Ranger from Forest Lake (see Twitter for a photo).

Most Well-Rounded Team

The Roseau volleyball team is filled with multi-sport athletes. Three members of the squad were on the hockey team that went to state last year, four were on the Rams’ state championship basketball team, three have competed in the state track meet and one has been to state in golf.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn

State Volleyball Tournament
At Xcel Energy Center

Class 1A Quarterfinals

Mayer Lutheran defeated Cook County 3-0
Wadena-Deer Creek defeated Ada Borup/Norman County West 3-0
Minneota defeated New Life Academy 3-0
Bethlehem Academy defeated Pine River-Backus 3-1

Class 3A Quarterfinals
Eagan defeated Forest Lake 3-0
Prior Lake defeated Hopkins 3-0
Lakeville North defeated Stillwater 3-0
Moorhead defeated Champlin Park 3-2

Class 2A Quarterfinals
Maple Lake defeated Kenyon-Wanamingo 3-0
Holy Angels defeated Kasson-Mantorville 3-2
Marshall defeated Roseau 3-0
North Branch defeated Watertown-Mayer 3-0
From Two Schools, ‘Band Of Brothers’ Ran For Each Other 11/6/2017
When the 2017 cross-country season started with the first practice on Aug. 14, some introductions were in order for the team from Mountain Lake Area. Along with the usual array of returning athletes were three boys who don’t attend Mountain Lake High School and had never competed in cross-country.

After some handshakes and “Hi, how ya doin’?” greetings, the boys got to work. Coach Kyle Blomgren directed their training as the Wolverines hit the country roads of southwest Minnesota, putting in miles as the season approached.

The season ended Saturday with an astonishing result: The Wolverines qualified for the Class 1A state championship meet in Northfield.

This was not a typical situation. The three newcomers – to the team as well as the sport – are students at Red Rock Central in Lamberton, which is a 45-minute drive from Mountain Lake. Driving distance was much less of a factor, however, than the boys’ driving desire to run as members of a team.

Early last summer, inquiries were made between Red Rock Central and Mountain Lake: Would it be possible to form a cooperative team so the Red Rock Central boys interested in cross-country could get an opportunity? Blomgren works as a starter during track season and he had seen the RRC boys compete during the spring. And Blomgren, who didn’t get the chance to compete in high school cross-country because his school didn’t have a team, didn’t want the same thing to happen to the boys.

“I wanted to see what these kids could do as runners,” Blomgren said. “Our administrators got tougher, the boards approved it, and we worked out an agreement. I’ll tell you, it’s been nothing but a blessing to all involved.”

It’s definitely been a unique situation. Because of the distance between the schools, the Red Rock Central runners didn’t make the long journey for every practice. The entire team was together for hard, long workouts, while the RRC trio stayed home on days when the runners had shorter recovery runs.

The three runners from Red Rock Central – Logan Pankonin, Nathan Runck and Dalton Piotter – were excited when the cooperative agreement was approved.

“When we got the news that we were going to have cross-country, I was really excited about it,” Pankonin said. “Going into the season I thought we’d be OK but I didn’t really think we were going to go to state. The state meet is a big thing, it’s been a great season, getting to know new people and have a connection. I can call these people my family. It was complete strangers getting together for the first time and being able to bond.”

That was the beauty of the whole thing: Making new friends, training with them, competing with them while wearing the same uniform and making memories that will last a lifetime.

Qualifying for the team state championships is not a regular occurrence for the Wolverines. That had happened only four times in Mountain Lake history prior to this fall; in 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1991.

The Wolverines finished 14th among the 16 teams that ran Saturday. Piotter led the seven-man contingent with a 50th-place finish among 176 runners, Runck was 53rd, and Ryan Blomgren (the coach’s son) was 100th. Other competitors for the team were Emilio Garcia Dela Cruz, Josiah Gardiner, Emmanuel Fentanez and Pankonin.

“I told them late last July that the beauty of cross-country isn’t racing, it’s spending time with your teammates,” Kyle Blomgren said. “If my son had to list his best friends, some of them would be from Red Rock.”

Pankonin said all the miles – the miles driving between the schools as well as all those training miles on foot – were part of the process, as well as the team’s success.

“The first few weeks we had to drive to Mountain Lake every day,” he said. “Once the school year got started it was once or twice a week, and we had meets every week. We just wanted to have a team, we didn’t really care about the distance.”

Before leaving for the state meet, the Wolverines were honored at a pep fest. The unique nature of the team was mentioned there.

“We talked at our pep fest about how these nine guys started out as strangers and molded themselves into a band of brothers,” Kyle Blomgren said.

Pankonin said, “The state meet is a big thing, and it’s been a great season to get to know new people and have a connection. I can call these people my family. It was complete strangers getting together for the first time and being able to bond as a team. It’s been pretty great.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
No Matter The Conditions, Washburn’s Covert Wins11/5/2017
NORTHFIELD – On the warmest day of the cross-country season as well as the biggest day of the country season, Minneapolis Washburn junior Emily Covert proved herself to be the best in Minnesota.

Covert, who placed eighth at state last year, captured the Class 2A title Saturday on a gloomy, chilly damp day. That provided a nice bookend to her previous 2017 signature victory at the late-September Roy Griak Invitational, where she won against a field of runners from across the country.

The Griak was held in sunny, hot and humid conditions, making for a rugged race. Covert wasn’t deterred, winning with a seven-second margin over 2015 Class 1A state champ Grace Ping of Winona Cotter; Farmington’s Anna Fenske, the 2016 Class 2A state champion, was third at the Griak.

Covert was the strongest runner again Saturday at St. Olaf College, finishing more than four seconds ahead of Fenske, now a freshman. Sophomore Emma Atkinson of Wayzata was third, followed by Edina senior Emily Kompelien and Lakeville South sophomore Brianne Brewster.

“I was feeling really good,” Covert said. “I knew we were set up for a good time because those runners are so strong. I just wanted to stick with them and hold throughout the race. It felt like my race. I felt like I was running my own race.

“Griak was a lot warmer. I feel like I have to prepare myself for these conditions with my warmup and everything. It did give me confidence, but I knew that Anna Fenske would be right there with me, and everyone else.”

Fenske’s time of 17 minutes, 34.8 seconds was faster than her winning time from a year earlier (17:41.5), but she couldn’t push past Covert.

“One of my goals was to defend the title, which didn’t happen, but Emily’s a really great runner so I’m happy with getting second,” Fenske said.

This is the third year that girls have run 5,000 meters (moving from 4,000 in 2015), and Covert’s time of 17 minutes, 30.1 seconds was the fastest over that distance in those three years at state.

In the team competition, Atkinson’s finish helped Wayzata end Edina’s two-year reign as state champions. The Trojans had a team score of 51 and Edina was second at 72, followed by St. Michael-Albertville (102), Willmar (144) and Forest Lake (150) in the top five.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
One More Step: Wayzata’s Hussein Reaches The Top11/5/2017
NORTHFIELD -- Wayzata senior Khalid Hussein took the biggest single stride of his cross-country career Saturday, running to the Class 2A boys state championship one year after placing second on the 5,000-meter course at St. Olaf College.

Hussein’s time of 15 minutes, 22.6 seconds was nearly 20 seconds faster than his time in 2016, and it gave him a nine-second cushion over Roseville junior Acer Iverson, who was second. Rosemount junior Luke Labbatt burst free from a pack at the finish to claim third with a half-second margin over Andover senior Tom Brueckman.

“My legs felt good, my body felt good,” Hussein said, shivering just a bit. “The cold doesn’t affect me in races, just after the races.”

He said he struggled with a knee injury during the spring track season, which made winning a state title one year after placing second even sweeter.

“It’s been a great journey,” he said. “I was kind of injured in track season but I managed to get healthy for this cross-country season. I was trying to get my knee right. It’s all thanks to my coaches and my family.”

Iverson made an even bigger leap from 2016, when he finished 20th at state. He stayed with Hussein most of the race.

“I carried the speed out as long as I could as we wrapped around back to the finish, but somewhere in there he found that chase energy, I guess, and got me,” Iverson said. “I definitely wanted to finish first, but I’m happy to be second.”

Wayzata also took home the boys team title for the second year in a row. The Trojans had a score of 37, with Stillwater second at 79, followed by Edina (107), White Bear Lake (136) and Mounds View (193) in the top five.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn