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Way Up North, The 2016 Football Season Begins
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/27/2016 9:45:33 PM

BABBITT – The weekend after Thanksgiving will be huge in Minnesota high school football circles. State championship games will be played under the brightest lights possible in front of cheering crowds inside the new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis and televised live around the state.

Those games will mark the end of the 2016 football season, which is sure to provide memories that will last for years. The season began officially -- and admittedly quietly -- on Friday afternoon 234 miles away from the big shiny stadium, on a little grass field behind a little school in a little town way up north. From Babbitt you can drive 17 miles north and be in Ely. If you want to go much farther than that, you might as well jump into a canoe and paddle.

This whole thing was a quirk, a small speck of peculiarity that pegged the first football game of 2016 in this spot, as if someone threw a dart at a map and it stuck right into Babbitt. The story began last spring when Mesabi Academy in Buhl closed. Mesabi Academy was supposed to play Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range (in Babbitt) among others during the regular season, but the disappearance of Mesabi Academy and its football team drove things right into the ditch.

So the coaches from Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range put their heads together. They realized that the only way they could fill their eight-game regular-season schedule was by playing each other on Aug. 26 … one week earlier than every other team in the state will play.

The game was approved by the MSHSL so the two Nine-Man teams started practicing a week ahead of schedule and what do you know here they were Friday afternoon kicking off the whole shebang. The game was played at 3:15 p.m. because the lights at Joe Boffa Field do not work.

The Rangers of Mountain Iron-Buhl came equipped with 18 players in uniform to 15 for the Northeast Range Nighthawks (go figure: the Nighthawks play all their home games during the day).

It wasn’t the finest exhibition of American football ever seen. There were fumbles and bumbles and missed tackles and penalty flags. The officials called regular breaks for water on a warm afternoon and the game ended at 5:32 p.m. with Mountain Iron-Buhl on top 22-18. The score was 8-8 at halftime after Nighthawks senior Jon Wenzel put his head down and battering-rammed his way into the end zone from 12 yards out and Mountain Iron-Buhl sophomore Jericho Peterson scored on a 13-yard burst.

At halftime the officials reminded each other of the procedure for overtime, and for most of the second half extra time looked like a real possibility. The Nighthawks went ahead 16-8 when Wenzel ran eight yards for a touchdown, but the Rangers tied it 16-16 early in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard scoring jaunt by Peterson.

For the record (and personal pride), Wenzel and Peterson currently lead the state with two touchdowns apiece. But the biggest play of the game came at the hands and feet of MIB ninth-grader Dillion Drake, who zipped 15 yards for his first career touchdown and the winning points with 2:13 left in regulation.

Northeast Range lost fumbles on its final two possessions, one before Drake’s TD and one after. The game’s last two plays ended with MIB sophomore quarterback Joe Buffetta’s right knee touching the ground. Game, set, season-opening win.

“It was really great,” Peterson said afterwards. “We all wanted to start the season off 1-0. It was a team effort.”

This game and atmosphere was wildly, spectacularly, unbelievably different from what will take place on November 25 and 26 in downtown Minneapolis. Half an hour or so before kickoff, a dozen fans patiently waited in front of a little ticket booth that was as yet unoccupied. They eventually wandered through the gate and took their gratis seats on the single set of bleachers. Ticket takers arrived a little later and enough paying fans came through to almost fill the stands.

The football field, tucked in behind Ron Castellano Ice Arena, is surrounded by a very Shawshanksian metal fence topped with barbed wire ... as if there is something worth stealing inside. There once was a running track around the field, but all the lanes are grass-covered now. A thin concrete curb remains in place inside where Lane 1 used to be, presenting just enough of a lip to trip up those who aren’t paying attention.

The bleacher accommodates fans from both teams, and they can see an old scoreboard directly across the field. I don’t know the age of the scoreboard, but the thing makes a “click” sound with each second that ticks off. It is pure analog glory.

Both times Wenzel scored, a hometown car horn was honked in the parking lot on the other side of the fence. Behind the scoreboard and barbed wire, a kid drove past on a four-wheeler with football to his right and forest to his left. Down the street, someone was attacking lumber with a power saw. The return of the football season brought the return of teenage boys yelling with mouthguard in place: “Letth Go Rangerth!”

After the Nighthawks’ penultimate fumble, the boys from Mountain Iron-Buhl gathered in the offensive huddle. They were on their own 38-yard line. Someone in the pack hollered (without his mouthguard in place), “C'mon! This is what we’ve been practicing three weeks for!”

Then came a 15-yard facemask on the Nighthawks, followed soon after by Drake’s winning touchdown run around left end, two knees to the ground, a handshake line between sweaty boys and a happy bunch of undefeated Rangers.

“It feels great,” Drake said. “It takes hard work and dedication.”

Plus some real grass, a little barbed wire, a scoreboard that clicks and a honking car horn.

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 20
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,083

ACGC Falcons: Lessons That Go Far Beyond Football
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/25/2016 11:04:15 PM

GROVE CITY – David Blom lives in Atwater, works at an adult foster care home in Willmar and is the head coach of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City football team. The school and athletic facilities are in Grove City, so Blom spends a fair amount of time on Highway 12.

One afternoon last fall he was in the car and the song “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction came on the radio. He wanted his football team to create a comical skit or something similar for homecoming week, and when he heard the song wheels began to turn.

The end result went beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Blom (pictured), who was a senior on Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City’s 2001 Class 2A state championship football team, listened to the song’s lyrics (“You don't know you're beautiful, oh oh/ That's what makes you beautiful”) and it hit him: A lip-synch video starring brawny, tough football players raising awareness for respecting females.

“The message,” Blom told me this week, “was that we respect women and everyone should.”

The video was shot inside the gym, locker room and on the practice field. It’s sweet, entertaining and comical, especially when six coaches attempt to high kick like the Rockettes. (You can find it on YouTube.com by searching for “ACGC Falcon Football - What Makes You Beautiful.”)

The video exploded and now, 11 months after it was posted, it has been viewed nearly 25,000 times.

“I was surprised at the reaction, the number of views we got. It was huge,” said senior football player Adam Johnson. “We just expected it to be a community thing, nothing bigger than that.

“That video kind of opened all of our eyes. Girls get judged every day on their appearance and everything. Every girl is beautiful in every way and there’s no reason to judge or anything.”

The video also resulted in a surprise that arrived in the mail. Vice President Joe Biden wrote a letter to Blom in recognition for the message the football team was helping to spread. The Falcons’ video sparked similar videos around Minnesota; one of them was produced by athletes from Hibbing High School.

In February Blom received a mysterious phone call, asking if he could be in the Twin Cities the next day to meet someone. He wasn’t specifically told who “someone” was, but he quickly realized it was Biden. Blom – who wasn’t allowed to tell anyone other than his wife Sarah where he was going or what was taking place -- went to the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center in St. Paul, and in walked Biden.

“Meeting the vice president was pretty exciting,” he said. “It was one of those things where you think, ‘I better start recording now because it’s probably not going to happen again.’ ” (In this photo with Biden, Blom is on the right along with Hibbing students Michael Sullivan and Leslie Law.)

Blom, who is now in his third year as the Falcons’ head coach, has a well-earned reputation for teaching lessons that go far beyond football. For example, last season he required all the players to write (not type, text or email) letters to their parents, saying they loved them and appreciated all they did.

“The parents love the letters, when big tough high school kids do that,” Blom said. “One of the moms framed both of her letters from her kids. It’s exciting to get the positive feedback.”

In Blom’s first year as head coach, he had the players watch a video about a drunk-driving incident in which a young girl was killed. Then he told the boys, “Pretend this was my daughter. And that you were the person who was drinking, got in an accident and she was killed.”

He had each player write a letter of apology and read it aloud. That was very emotional for everybody.

“We had to write a letter, each and every one of us, to Blom and read it in front of everybody,” Johnson said. “It was nuts, because everyone’s voice was trembling.”

The Falcons had records of 4-6 in each of Blom’s first two seasons. Expectations are high for 2016, with 53 players on the roster and some solid returnees. Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City plays in Class 2A.

“We have a lot of guys at certain spots coming back,” Blom said. “We have to move a few around and make it work. We have experienced linemen, but we need to find a running back. We have two or three guys chomping at the bit to get their name called on Friday night.”

The Falcons’ season will open Sept. 2 at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa.

Blom said he wasn’t sure what off-the-field project might be in store this season.

He laughed and said, “You know how many people ask me that? Last year it kind of blew up, and that was awesome.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 12
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 513

W-E-M Hosts Female Athlete Empowerment Symposium
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/24/2016 2:52:04 PM

The story below appeared in Wednesday's Faribault Daily News, authored by sports editor Adam J.S. Holt. It is an important story and is published here with permission of the Faribault Daily News.

Sometimes, if you can’t wait for an opportunity, you go ahead and make one.

Many times Crystal Lamont left coaching conferences feeling like there was a lot she wanted to share. The Waterville-Elysian-Morristown head volleyball and softball coach always wished she could have her girls there at those events. So if she couldn’t bring her athletes to the conferences, she’d bring a conference to her athletes.

Lamont organized a first-ever Female Athlete Empowerment Symposium, an event with speakers, small-group breakout sessions and a panel of former Gopher Conference athletes who went on to play in college. The symposium ran Tuesday, from early afternoon into mid-evening at WEM, and with the help of sponsors, volunteers and speakers, gave about 120 local female athletes a chance to hear a lot of ideas and information that can help make them successful in sports and life.

“I just always went away so inspired and I felt empowered by the other ladies that were there,” Lamont said. “There was always so much information I wanted to take back and give to my girls. They can only process so much at one time and they get tired sometimes of hearing the same old voice.”

The conference started with presentations from Marian Bemis-Johnson on the history of female athletics, and from WEM teacher and coach Dixie Houser on Title IX. There were also breakout sessions with topics ranging from mental health to social media and internet awareness.

After a dinner break, there was a Q&A session with a panel of four former Gopher Conference standouts (pictured): Alison Anderson, a New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva graduate who played basketball and ran track and cross country at South Dakota State University; Amanda Barton, a WEM graduate and the girls basketball program’s leading scorer and rebounder, who played at the University of Northern Iowa and Concordia University in St. Paul; Carlie Wagner, a NRHEG graduate who won two basketball state titles and is entering her junior season on the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team; and Tricia DeBoer, a Blooming Prairie graduate who played softball at St. Cloud State.

“I thought it was awesome,” Barton said. “I’ve known Crystal for a while. I think it’s great that she’s getting groups of schools together to empower women athletes.”

“I think it’s an honor in the sense of being invited back,” Anderson added. “We’re no longer invited back because of our skills, but for our experience and how we can give back in that way.”

Wagner is the most recent graduate of the bunch, and was mobbed by some attendees during a break to pose for pictures.

“Especially just coming back home to southern Minnesota is great for me,” she said. “It’s just familiar, it’s home. There’s a lot of younger girls I know that love sports and it’s fun to see them, tell them everything. It’s just very touching for me to come back here because this community and this part of the state gave me so much in high school, so I like to come back and give back to them.”

The closing speaker was Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, a performance psychologist, author and professor. Her message was centered on the theme of confidence and included steps about recognizing past accomplishments and having goals to work toward. She also had the entire auditorium face off in a rock-paper-scissors competition to teach the importance of moving on quickly from mistakes.

Building and maintaining confidence is something Wagner said is huge for the girls.

“Some girls just doubt themselves,” Wagner said. “I don’t like when girls do that, because they don’t know how capable they are of doing things. I think just to see girls that have gone through the process and experienced everything and coming back and saying, ‘You can do this. You have more power than you think you have,’ is what they need to hear. Because you know, women sometimes are like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do it.’ And I’m just like, ‘No. You can do it.’ So it’s just fun to motivate them and share your experience so they know they’re very capable of doing it too.”

The panel members were able to share the lessons they learned and struggles they went through in college and each closed by giving their best piece of advice to the group. All agreed that just being able to give back and be a role model was rewarding.

“It’s not like we’re all making millions and we can donate a stadium,” Barton said. “For us to be able to come out and be here for the community and the girls that saw us playing when they were little, it’s awesome.”

“I always remember looking up to older girls and girls who went off to college to play basketball, softball or whatever it was,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to give back and be that role model.”

Lamont said she was happy with all the support the event got. Sponsors donated enough money to feed the group and send each girl home with a T-shirt. Lamont said there were a number of other schools that had scheduling conflicts but wanted to be a part of future events — Blooming Prairie and Tri-City United had contingents there Tuesday in addition to WEM.

The current athletes were happy to participate as well.

“I think I’ll be able to take a lot out of it,” WEM sophomore Paige Pittmann said. “The speakers were very inspiring and coach Lamont did a good job putting it together for everybody.”

Lamont hopes this can become an annual event, and the themes of empowerment and building life skills are something she continuously preaches as a coach. While the immediate focus for the girls is their current athletic careers, the hope is the lessons stay with them for a lifetime.

“So oftentimes we get caught up in the playing time of sports and things, and it’s so much more than that,” Lamont said. “Sometimes we can’t build the skills we want to by playing everyone. It has to come out of the competition and the challenge of pushing yourself. But that builds so many character traits that are going to help you when times are tough in life, and that’s the whole point of this conference, is to build up tools that are going to help them in sports now, but more importantly help them as they go down the road in life.”

Faribault Daily News: http://www.southernminn.com/faribault_daily_news/

Reach Sports Editor Adam Holt at aholt@faribault.com. Find him on Twitter @FDNAdamJSHolt.

Eagan High School: Where Girls Sports Rule The Autumn
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/22/2016 3:09:18 PM

Eagan High School has been a haven for girls athletic success in recent fall seasons, and there are certainly lots of reasons for that. Committed coaches, talented and hard-working athletes, and a supportive community are always important in such matters.

Here’s a quick summary of what has taken place at Eagan…

--The volleyball team has long been one of the state’s strongest programs, winning six big-school state titles since 1997. The Wildcats won Class 3A state championships in 2013 and last season; the 2015 roster included no seniors so Eagan is ranked No. 1 and is a strong favorite to win another title this season.

--In girls soccer, Eagan is the two-time defending state champion in Class 2A, compiling a record of 37-2 over those two seasons.

--The girls tennis team finished fourth at the 2A state tournament last fall and Samantha Nichols, who is now a junior, placed fifth in singles. The team is ranked fourth as the 2016 season begins and Nichols is ranked seventh among 2A individuals.

--In girls swimming, Eagan finished 10th at the 2A state meet a year ago, with the 200 freestyle relay team placing fifth at state.

Eagan’s recent success hasn’t been exclusively a girls domain. The boys swimming and diving team, for example, won its first state championship in 2015, and the 2015 boys track team won two relay titles and Sam Zenner (who anchored both relays) was the 100-meter state champ.

Here are some other points that may be important in trying to assess the climate for girls sports at Eagan: The activities director (Sandra Setter Larsen) is female, as is the principal (Polly Reikowski). Heck, even the superintendent (Jane Berenz) fits the bill.

“Four years ago our head custodian was female, too,” said Setter Larson with a laugh. “We’ve just had a lot of success recently in some of our sports. Soccer and volleyball, for sure. Our boys track team has had success, girls track. We’ve just been very blessed lately. We’ve had a good few years, that’s for sure.”

Girls soccer coach Bulut Ozturk led Lakeville North to three consecutive state tournament appearances before coming to Eagan in 2014. During a break at a recent practice, he said a top-down model is part of the school’s athletic success.

“I think it really comes from the leadership, from our athletic department. Sandy has done an amazing job, and it also comes from our principal, our vice principals, everyone in that office. The entire building is completely supportive and they back the coaches, they give us the freedom, the flexibility and they’re here to support us in whatever we need, whatever it takes for the program to be successful.

“For the coaches who work in this kind of environment, it makes our jobs so much easier. It’s stress-free, and I think that’s one reason you see so much success.”

Eagan also has a tradition of strong support from the student body. The student section known as “The Pit” is a vocal, entertaining presence at many sporting events.

“Our fans in the building had such a fun fall going to all these events,” Setter Larson said. “With tennis, our swimmers, soccer and volleyball there was just so much to do. It was crazy. It was probably a little more of a down year in cross-country in terms of the scoreboard, but they’ve had five years of state tournament entrants. It’s very, very fun for an A.D. to have that experience. That’s a lot of bonus stuff in our jobs. That’s not why we do what we do but it is exciting when it happens.”

Volleyball coach Kathy Gillen, who was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014 and was named the Class 3A coach of the year in 2015, said a family atmosphere is important.

“We had a lot of really good chemistry last year and it’s nice to have that back,” she said. “You can already feel that family feeling. It’s a fun group to be around. They work hard, they have fun. It’s a great atmosphere.”

There’s a similar feeling on the 2016 girls soccer team, even though last year’s roster was laden with seniors and there are many holes to fill this year.

“It’s definitely creating a culture right now,” said sophomore Megan Plaschko. “All of our girls sports are being successful and I think it’s making people excited and wanting to come out and see what it’s all about.”

Senior Carly Czaplewski said, “I think the success we’ve had is bringing more girls out here. They want to be part of Eagan sports. It’s a fun thing to be in, it’s a great way to meet people. We have a good time out here.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 10
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 202

Carrie Tollefson: “If You Set The Bar High, You Can Reach It”
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/18/2016 3:08:31 PM

Whenever the Summer Olympics roll around, Minnesota track and field fans think of Carrie Tollefson. She was part of Team USA at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, running the 1,500 meters.

Prior to that, Carrie was a star athlete at Dawson-Boyd High School in western Minnesota. Before graduating in 1995, she set a national high school record with five state titles in cross-country along with eight track state titles. She went on to become a five-time NCAA champion at Villanova.

Carrie was the opening speaker Thursday at the Independent Metro Athletic Conference leadership meeting at Breck. The other IMAC schools are Blake, Minnehaha Academy, Mounds Park Academy, Providence Academy, and St. Paul Academy and Summit School. After Carrie spoke to the team captains and other athletes from the six schools, I was honored to be among the presenters at several small-group sessions (I talked about using social media responsibly.)

Carrie, who lives in the Twin Cities with her husband Charlie and their three children, was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame last year. She is a nationally known advocate for running and fitness (www.carrietollefson.com).

As she began her presentation to approximately 200 student-athletes Thursday, a large video screen behind her displayed the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials in the 1,500. Carrie, going against her coach’s instructions, ran ahead of the pack, was challenged in the final strides but gave a final push to win the race and earn an Olympic berth.

“Dreams do come true,” she said. “If you set the bar high, you can reach it.”

Carrie talked about today’s students being in the same shoes as she was at their age, how team captains need to set a positive example not only for their teammates but for younger kids watching them.

“You are leaders,” she said. “As athletes you deal with the circumstances. These things you learn in athletics will pay off in the future. … One big thing I learned is how to keep coming back. We need to constantly reinvent ourselves, set our goals and get after it.”

She also talked about working with coaches and remaining a positive teammate.

“If you’re not coachable, you won’t be the athlete you can be. Make sure you’re coachable.”

It was a great message from a great athlete.

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