John's Journal
The Best Of John’s Journal No. 6: Homecoming In Montevideo7/14/2017
This story, which is No. 6 on the Top 10 list of my favorite stories from the 2016-17 school year, came out of a picture-perfect autumn day in Montevideo. It was more than a five-hour round-trip drive for me on that Friday, and it was well worth every mile. Homecoming is always a big event in schools all over Minnesota, and the happenings in Montevideo shine a great light on all the fun, positive things that are possible.

Here’s the story that was posted on Sept. 26 …

Montevideo: Where Homecoming Is King

MONTEVIDEO – Let’s start this essay with the final act of wonderfulness I witnessed during Homecoming Day in Montevideo, home of the Thunder Hawks and some of the nicest people you will ever come across. Friday was big, filled with special events. However, the final moment for me was not a big thing but a little thing, a little thing that exemplifies what makes high school activities so special.

The Thunder Hawks football team had just lost the Homecoming game to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City. The visiting Falcons led 3-0 at halftime in a game dominated by defense, ACGC’s Jeremy Nelson ran for two short touchdowns in the second half and the Falcons won 24-0.

As the boys of Montevideo left the field to exit the stadium and make the short hike across 17th Street to their school, they walked through a tunnel of humanity. Parents, grandparents, family, friends, little kids and old timers, their fans slapped them on their big shoulder pads, patted the top of their helmets, said “Good game” and “Good job” and wished them luck next week.

I was standing with Montevideo activities director Bob Grey, watching this all take place. I said to Bob what came to mind after spending the day in town: “Bob, these kids are so lucky to grow up here.”

Montevideo is the county seat of Chippewa County, pretty much equidistant between the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, S.D.; two and a half hours due west of the Twin Cities and two and a half hours northeast of Sioux Falls. It is home to 5,300-some proud souls and has a sister city in Montevideo, Uruguay; a statue of José Artigas, the father of Uruguayan independence, stands proudly in downtown Montevideo, Minnesota.

I see a lot of great things everywhere I go in Minnesota. This trip to Montevideo was a day-long affair, though, making it a very enjoyable deep dive. There was a pep rally featuring a live cow, a wonderful small-town Homecoming parade, free hot dogs before the football game, and a lovely autumn evening to cap it off.

The afternoon pep rally was for everybody, and I mean everybody. Every kid who attends public school in Montevideo crammed into the high school gym, a feat that involved bus rides and other high-wire logistics in herding tiny little tots, classroom by classroom, to their proper seating locations. When all were in place, 1,450 humans – plus teachers and staff – were soon on their feet screaming and clapping for the Thunder Hawk teams.

Football, volleyball, cross-country, girls swimming, girls tennis teams; all were highlighted under the direction of Kyle Goslee, who teaches physical education and coaches softball when he isn’t masterfully ceremony-ing pep rallies with all the screaming gusto of a combination drill sergeant and professional wrestler. (Here’s a brief excerpt from Kyle’s repertoire: “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”)

The cheerleaders scripted many of the activities, including a round-the-gym flurry of cheers from each class, all 13 of ‘em. The kindergarteners kicked it off, following the cheerleaders’ chants and finishing with a very high-pitched “We are the Class of 2029!” And so it went right up to the seniors in the Class of 2017. There were sleeping-bag races, blindfolds and other tomfoolery, and much anticipation for Sammy the cow.

Sammy is not much of a cow, really. She was small enough to be carried into the gym in the arms of a young man and little Sammy stood still while a selectee squatted down and gave her a smooch on the snout. Sammy was returned to her home on the range at that point, and the tarp that had been placed on the gym floor came away unscathed.

The parade. Oh my, the parade. Those little kids sat on the curbs along 17th Street – also known as Thunder Hawk Drive – and waited until it was time to spring into action and scramble for pieces of candy as if they were hundred-dollar bills. The parade was led by the Montevideo Volunteer Fire Department’s largest firetruck, a slow-rolling mastodon of a thing carrying several humans on top … although they were so high in the air it was hard to be specific about details.

There were pickup trucks carrying Homecoming royalty, flatbed trailers carrying teams and clubs, a cute contingent on foot representing Montevideo Elementary School, the great Thunder Hawk marching band, and a float featuring a giant inflatable Minnesota Viking and a large fake can of soup bearing the label “Cream of Falcon Soup” (the ACGC Falcons disrupted that prediction).

As the parade ended, folks lined up for freshly grilled, free hot dogs. Before long the Thunder Hawks and Falcons were on the football field, preparing for the ballgame. Montevideo head coach David Vik took a swig of Diet Squirt, placing the can on the track behind the bench as kickoff came.

For much of the evening, the punters – ACGC’s Adam Johnson and Montevideo’s Reece Kuhlmann – were the busiest guys in town. Another leg specialist, Frederick Hansen, kicked a 24-yard field goal for the Falcons late in the first quarter. The offensive dam didn’t exactly bust after that; the next scoring came midway through the third quarter.

The band members, still in uniform, sat in the stands and entertained everyone in grand style, just as they had done several hours earlier at the pep rally and again during the parade. High school students chatted and cheered, adults handed over cash to little kids bent on attacking the concession stand, the coaches coached and the players played.

The football uniforms displayed some mud by game’s end and the hometown Thunder Hawks came out on the short end of the scoreboard. But as the boys walked off the field, they were met by all those other people who live in their town.

All those lucky people.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John’s Journal No. 7: Coaches, Competitors And Friends7/12/2017
The countdown of my Top 10 favorite John’s Journal stories from 2016-17 continues with No. 7, a tale of close friends who have been boys basketball coaching colleagues for decades. I spent time with Steve Philion of Red Lake County and Vern Johnson of Win-E-Mac when their teams met at Win-E-Mac in Erskine.

I always enjoy spending time with people who have devoted their lives to teaching and coaching, and I never come away from these encounters without having learned something. Steve and Vern have had a positive impact on countless numbers of students and athletes, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company.

Here’s the story that was posted on Jan. 25 …

Career Coaches, Hall of Fame Members, Longtime Friends

ERSKINE – Steve Philion and Vern Johnson have known each other for about 40 years. Now in their 60s, the men are high school boys basketball coaches who have seen a lot, learned a lot and taught countless numbers of students and athletes.

Philion is the coach at Red Lake County and Johnson is at Win-E-Mac. When their teams met on a frigid January evening here at Win-E-Mac, it was part homecoming, part family reunion, part elbow in the ribs.

“I tease Steve every time I see him,” said Johnson with a smile. “I tell him, ‘You can’t quit. I don’t want to be the only old guy.’ ”

While their junior varsity teams were on the court, Johnson and his son/assistant coach Bret saw Philion in a hallway. In a voice loud enough for his longtime coaching counterpart to hear, Vern said to Bret, “Look! There’s an old coach over there.”

All jokes aside, Johnson and Philion are among the top coaches in Minnesota history. Both are members of the Minnesota High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame; Johnson was inducted in 2013 and Philion in 2016.

Their successes, however, extend far beyond the basketball court. Philion is retired from a career teaching high school math and Johnson is a retired elementary teacher who currently is working as a long-term elementary substitute teacher at Red Lake Falls (the Red Lake County boys basketball team is a cooperative team with students from Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County Central).

Philion, a graduate of Red Lake Falls High School and Bemidji State, began his coaching career in 1975 as coach of the boys and girls basketball teams at Gonvick-Trail (which became Clearbrook-Gonvick). In 1998 he returned to his hometown to coach the Red Lake Falls boys. He also is a longtime official, working football, baseball, softball and volleyball on the high school and college level for more than four decades, and works as an MSHSL Rules Clinician. (Pictured are Johnson, left, and Philion, right.)

Johnson, a graduate of Erskine High School and the University of North Dakota, began his coaching career as an assistant at Erskine in the 1970s and became the head coach at Grygla-Gatzke in 1980, where he remained for 33 years (also coaching football) until retiring in 2013. A year later, he returned to coaching when he was hired at Win-E-Mac to replace a young coach who moved to Colorado.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would coach again,” Vern said. “I was satisfied. I took a year off with the intention to take a lot more years off. But the kids keep you young. It is refreshing.”

Memories can be foggy, but Philion and Johnson recollect that they first crossed paths playing softball when they were in their 20s.

“Vern’s a pretty passionate guy,” Philion said. “He’s into the game and he’s pretty lively on the sideline. They always play good defense and they always have good fundamentals; typically he’s had pretty decent teams over the years. Small schools usually have ups and downs but he’s had more ups than downs.”

Johnson said, “Oh, we’ve battled against each other. We still compete and we’re still friends.”

The Win-E-Mac Patriots defeated Red Lake County 64-42 in their first meeting earlier this month; they will meet again at Red Lake County in the regular-season finale on Feb. 27.

Like Johnson, Philion has a son (Kevin) who serves an assistant coach. Kevin also drives the team bus.

“This is his fourth year with me,” Steve said. “It’s pretty special. It’s fun having him there, he’s very sharp.”

Bret Johnson has been coaching with his father for three years, and Vern calls their relationship “kind of a special bond.”

“The other night I know he wasn’t real happy with me, and he thought I should have made a change earlier. Later I said, ‘Are you mad at me?’ He said, ‘Yup. You should have gotten out of that zone earlier.’

“You don’t always get to spend a lot of time with your kids. I have a feeling I won’t be the best coach in the family. He’ll be a lot better than I am.”

Both coaches are taking it a year at a time, enjoying the days with their teams and the competition with friends.

“I hate playing his teams,” Johnson said of Philion. “They just work hard and they’re fundamentally sound. It doesn’t matter how much talent they have or don’t have. You better be ready or you’re going to be taught a lesson.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John's Journal No. 8: 600 Miles Of Football7/11/2017
One of my favorite memories of the 2016-17 school year came from a football game at Brooklyn Center High School. This was an interesting Homecoming matchup because the opponent was from International Falls, a 600-mile round-trip to Brooklyn Center and back. As I wrote, “International Falls is, of course, way way up there where you can spit out your gum and watch it land in Canada.”

Here you go: No. 8 on the John’s Journal Top 10 from 2016-17…

From International Falls to Brooklyn Center: A Friday To Remember

“GOOGLE IT, REF!!!”

A football spectator – in this case an adult of the male variety – was kindly requesting via high-volume, full-throated screamage that a football official go to Google to check a rule in the midst of a game. The officials working Friday’s contest at Brooklyn Center High School didn’t pull out a smart phone and do so, but they got the call correct.

The situation: Brooklyn Center’s offense had been flagged for delay of game late in the fourth quarter. Before the next snap, the clock was running. This was incorrect. The officials gathered, discussed and sent word to the clock operator to put 1:57 on the clock instead of the 1:33 that was displayed.

This was a pivotal, high-pressure spot for both teams. The Broncos of International Falls were fully aware that the 300-mile drive home (reversing the journey they had made earlier in the day with a 7:30 a.m. departure) would seem much shorter if they could somehow pull out their first victory of the season.

The Centaurs of Brooklyn Center, hoping to end a two-game losing streak and improve their record to 3-4 with a Homecoming win, were in front 26-24 in these final two minutes of one of the most intriguing matchups of 2016. The margin was thanks to a two-point conversion run by fleet-footed, strong-armed Centaurs quarterback Dayvia Gbor; his dash to the end zone in the third quarter was the only successful conversion in an eight-touchdown game that was not on either team’s schedule initially.

If you Google the words “Minnesota teams that dropped varsity football 2016” you may find references to St. Paul Humboldt and Duluth Marshall. Because those two schools did so, Brooklyn Centaur and International Falls each had a Week 7 blank spot on their schedules. After a few phone calls and emails, Friday’s game was set.

International Falls is, of course, way way up there where you can spit out your gum and watch it land in Canada. Brooklyn Center, if you didn’t know, is a first-ring suburb perched on the northwest shoulder of Minneapolis. Earlier in the week, Brooklyn Center activities director Nate Gautsch asked the Centaurs if any of them knew where International Falls was. “I got a lot of blank looks,” he said.

After Friday’s game, I asked a group of Broncos if they knew anything about Brooklyn Center before this week. “No, not really,” said senior quarterback Tyler Coffield. “We knew it was in the Cities, I guess.”

Once the scoreboard clock was corrected, the Broncos stopped the Centaurs on fourth down. International Falls took over with 61 seconds and 68 yards standing between them and victory. Their challenge was finding a way to move downfield briskly, score and win the game. This was not an easy thing for an offense that had not scored in the three previous weeks, but their four-touchdown production in Friday’s game was something to lean on. Were they confident?

“Absolutely,” senior lineman Kjell Fogelberg said after the final whistle. “A minute in a football game is a long time and we used all that time with nothing but positive attitude and confidence, which helped with our drive.”

The Broncos are built on a ground attack, not downfield missiles. Coffield – whose breakaway ability was seen on an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter – was sacked on first down during the final drive and ran for 14 yards on the next snap. A pass to Simon Palm gained 11 but a holding penalty brought it back. A throw to Armandio Barrios put the ball on the Centaurs’ 38 with 26 seconds left, all timeouts extinguished and the clock running.

After another sack, Coffield spiked the ball with 4.5 seconds to go. There was not much drama in the final play of the night, which began with an all-out stampede by the Brooklyn Center defensive line, continued with a fumble and a scramble for the ball, and ended with the night’s final whistle.

The Broncos and their supporters were downcast at being 0-7. The Centaurs and their fans were thrilled to see their losing streak end.

“They didn’t drive six hours down here for nothing,” Brooklyn Center coach Anthony Satchel said. “I told our team it was another dogfight. We were in dogfights the past two weeks and we finally got one.”

Football can be a game of inches, to be sure. Had the Broncos made a two-point conversion, the outcome may have been different. Had they made two of those, they may be 1-6.

Broncos senior running back Nick Hedtke, who scored on three short touchdown runs, said, “We played one heck of a game. A few mistakes is what really killed us.”

“We absolutely had chances,” said International Falls coach Tony Casareto. “I’m proud of the kids and how they played tonight. We hadn’t scored in three games; we moved the ball well and I thought we moved the ball with power. The kids maintained some blocks to the second level. I’m pleased with that. It was a great experience and a great day.”

The great experience and great day included an off-the-field memory that will be a lasting one. The Broncos arrived at Brooklyn Center in time to attend the Centaurs’ Homecoming pepfest. And they were treated right: A large sign in the gym read “Welcome, International Falls.”

The pepfest opened with a thunderous cheer for the Broncos from the Brooklyn Center students who filled every seat in the gym. Among the activities was a tug-of-war, with boys from the two football teams joining together to defeat the coaches from both teams. High fives all around.

After the football game, 30 pizzas were delivered for the Broncos to devour on the long bus ride home. The boys from way way up north would get some sleep and return to the practice field at 4 p.m. Saturday in preparation for Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Crosby-Ironton.

“We can take a lot of positive things out of this,” Casareto said.

Fogelberg agreed with his coach. “We couldn’t finish it but we didn’t give up,” Kjell said. “That was the big thing.”

It sure was. And there’s no need to Google that.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Honoring A Coaching Legend In Wabasso7/9/2017
WABASSO – We interrupt the countdown of the Top 10 John’s Journal stories from 2016-17 for a very good reason: To honor a special man from a special place.

A gathering was held here Saturday night to celebrate the 49-year career of Wabasso High School wrestling coach Gary Hindt. He announced his retirement in April and the community – along with others from far and wide – got together at the Wabasso Community Center in what was called “Roast, Boast and a Toast to Gary Hindt.” It was a spectacularly fun time. (In this photo, Hindt, left, greets friends.)

Gary started the Wabasso Rabbits wrestling program when he was hired as a young teacher right out of college in 1968. In recent years Wabasso and Red Rock Central formed a cooperative team known as the Wabasso/Red Rock Central Bobcats. Hindt’s record of 807-214-6 puts him second on Minnesota’s career victory list. He coached six individual state champions and was inducted into the state wrestling coaches Hall of Fame in 1994.

But what he really accomplished had very little to do with winning and losing. One of his well-known quotes is this: “Wins, losses, I don't care ... It's all about the kids and how they turn out in life.”

Throughout the evening, one thought came to my mind: Never underestimate the impact of a coach or a teacher. I think about my own high school coaches and teachers, and all the coaches and teachers that I have the fortune to spend time with in my job. Gary Hindt is the epitome of his profession; he offered encouragement to his athletes, he knew how to motivate them but he never made winning the most important factor.

He was a basketball player in his hometown of Fulda, but he switched to the school’s new wrestling team when he was in 11th grade. “I thought it sure beats getting slivers on my butt, being about the 10th guy on the basketball team,” he told me when I wrote a profile of him in 2013.

Hindt also coached football at Wabasso for many years but gave that up when his daughter Heather was playing college volleyball at Southwest State in Marshall and his daughter Erika was in high school. (“I got to watch my girls grow up,” he said.) Hindt and his wife Jenni have been married for 47 years.

Erika, Heather and Jenni were the masterminds behind Saturday’s gathering. Erika contacted me in April to tell me what they were planning and offering an invitation. I don’t know how many people were on hand Saturday, but the Community Center is a big place and it was standing-room only. And here’s something amazing: Gary had no idea about the gathering until his family convinced him to go with them to the Community Center for some mysterious reason on Saturday. That was one great big secret to keep.

As people poured in, Gary greeted every one of them with a handshake, a hug, a smile … and in many cases all three.

A pre-arranged lineup of people went to a podium and microphone at the front of the room to talk about the coach. Some were former wrestlers, including Ron Rasmussen, a co-captain on Hindt’s first two teams in the 1960s, and Dan Zimmer, the Rabbits’ first state champion in 1976. Zimmer’s family moved from Wabasso to Litchfield before his senior year, so the Hindts took him into their home for the school year. He called it “the best year of my life.”

Johnny Frank, a state champ in 2000 who went on to become a teacher and a coach (currently in Faribault), said, “He made you feel special. I wanted to be Gary Hindt.” He smiled, looked with appreciation at his coach and said, “I wanted to be you.”

Hindt is the youngest of 14 kids. His brothers and sisters, their spouses, kids and others came from all over the country. Zimmer, who lives in Georgia, said there was no way he was going to miss it.

Coaches whose teams tangled with the Rabbits were asked to stand and well more than a dozen did. Female student managers, wives and sisters of wrestlers were asked to stand and half the people in the room stood. Men and boys who wrestled for Hindt were asked to stand and the place went nuts with cheers and applause for them and their hero/coach.

Late in the evening, all those wrestlers posed for a photograph with their coach. The Community Center wasn’t big enough to get them all in one photo, so they went outside.

“You coached for 49 years,” Zimmer said to Hindt. “That’s one heck of a big team.”

That’s one big, proud, very lucky team.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John's Journal No. 9: Roseau Girls Basketball7/6/2017
The countdown continues through my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2016-17 school year. This story, which was posted on Jan. 10, is No. 9 ...

Roseau: Where Girls Basketball Stands Tall

ROSEAU – Yes, of course, hockey is big in this little town near the Canadian border. Roseau boys hockey teams have gone to the state tournament a record 34 times and own seven titles, while the Rams girls have skated at state four times.

This winter, however, the hottest team in town wears sneakers instead of skates. These are the glory days for girls basketball in Roseau; the Rams have been to state in Class 2A the last two years, placing fourth in 2015 and third last season. They are currently ranked No. 1 in 2A and ran their record to 12-0 with an 86-61 home victory Monday night over Thief River Falls, which played at state in Class 3A the last two seasons.

The Rams wear warmup shirts that have the word “UNITED” on the back. They hustle, they dive for loose balls, shoot threes, drive to the hoop and use in-your-face, quick-handed defense to spark fast breaks. In other words, they play basketball the right way, the entertaining way. They have a deep bench and lots of experience in big games on big courts.

In other words, they would very much like to finally win their school’s first basketball state championship. And this could be the year.

“They have so many weapons, including girls coming off the bench,” said Thief River Falls coach Jeff Loe. “They have that outside-inside, that balance that teams love to have, and they’re so athletic and aggressive. This is probably the best team they’ve had.”

The marquee players for the Rams are the Borowicz sisters. Kiley is a senior, Kacie is a sophomore and Katie is an eighth-grader. Kiley and Kacie have played at state twice and Katie made her debut on the big stage last year (pictured, left to right, are Kacie, Katie and Kiley). Roseau coach Kelsey Didrikson calls the trio “the horses for us.” But the Borowicz sisters (their name is pronounced “BRAH-vitch”) are complete and utter team players.

“We’re deep and the supporting cast is strong and knows their roles so well,” Didrikson said. “I don’t have to put pressure on (the sisters). We don’t run a single thing for any of them. There are plays that work because we have them, and if the game is on the line everybody knows they’ll probably have the ball in their hands.

“They make their teammates better and their teammates make them better. They all own their roles and execute their roles so well.”

The Borowicz sisters do know how to skate, thank you very much. But they have been hoop-heads for life. Their mom, Tracy, is a former head coach of the Rams girls basketball team and their dad, David, is heavily involved in the game. There are a couple of Borowicz brothers, too: Jake is 10, Jordan is 8 and they also know how the basketball bounces.

Kiley Borowicz leads the Rams with a 26.4-point scoring average. Kacie is next at 18.8, followed by 6-foot-2 senior Victoria Johnson at 12.2, senior Ivy Braaten at 10 and junior Mya Hough at six points per game. Kiley Borowicz and Johnson are the top rebounders, averaging eight boards per game.

The Borowicz sisters get much of the acclaim, but they know how valuable their teammates are.

“It’s more than just us,” Kacie said, to which Kiley added, “Vic really does a lot, Katie (Hulst), Ivy, Morgan (Groenhoff), Mya, one of them will have double figures in a game. This year people are more confident. Our juniors are way more confident to shoot and drive.”

The Rams are undefeated despite dealing with some injuries. They have outscored their opponents by an average score of 81-58. Their narrowest victory came against Barnesville by a score of 74-68 in a holiday tournament. Roseau and Barnesville (11-2) may end up as the top two teams in the Section 8 postseason playoffs.

Among the big regular-season contests remaining on the Rams’ schedule is a Feb. 3 game in Roseau against Mountain Iron-Buhl, which is currently 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 1A. Facing motivated competition is part of the formula for Roseau.

“In every game we have to play harder than we should have to because everyone brings their best game,” Katie Borowicz said.

Kiley said, “You just can’t think you’re the best. I know we are probably the best team but I never think that. I get nervous before every game, I don’t get cocky.”

The Rams were certainly not cocky in Monday’s game against Thief River Falls. They came out flying fast and working hard, running the court and taking control in leading 52-21 at halftime. At game’s end, Kiley Borowicz had 34 points, Braaten had 14 and Kacie Borowicz 13, while Tiahna Nicholson led the Prowlers with 20 and Alexa Rogalla scored 17.

“I thought the first half was probably our best half, or one of our est halves, of basketball all season,” Didrikson said. “They played solid. It was a really good start for us, doing the little things we’re always talking about; playing better defense, ball movement. Our goal was 20 assists tonight and we had 13 at halftime, and I know they were excited about that. It’s fun to see them own that and understand how important ball movement is. They made some beautiful passes.”

Like most of their teammates the Borowicz sisters are involved in multiple sports, playing volleyball in the fall and participating in track during the spring. Kiley and Kacie have been members of relay teams that have qualified for the state championship meet, with Kiley laughing and saying, “That made me more nervous than (state) basketball, especially since track isn’t my best sport.”

After losing in the state basketball semifinals the last two years, the Rams are aiming higher this year. The first goal is to get to state, and if that happens they won’t be satisfied with another spot in the third-place game.

“It would be really upsetting,” said Kiley Borowicz. “Since elementary school everyone has been saying, ‘You guys will go to state when you’re seniors, this is your year.’ The third-place game is good I guess but not what we know we can do.”

“People in school and around town expect a lot from us,” Katie said.

Their coach agreed, laughing when asked if there was pressure on the team.

“It’s not wanting to let anybody down,” Didrikson said. “In a small town this is not just about our coaching staff and the girls on the varsity. It’s something the community is excited about and looking forward to.

“Going to state is special. It is a privilege and an honor. We wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on an opportunity they’ve been working so long for.”

Postscript: The Rams went to win the 2017 state championship