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Building A Basketball Dynasty At Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/27/2013 5:26:15 PM

BROOTEN -- Sporting statistics can be impressive, and that is surely the case with the boys basketball team from Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa. The Jaguars are the biggest little team in Minnesota, capturing the Class 1A state title last season, carrying the No. 1 ranking this season and creeping up on one of the most revered records in state history.

But as is always the case, there are real people and interesting stories behind the numbers.

First, a numerical summary …

--The Jaguars were unbeaten in 33 games last season and will take a 16-0 record into Tuesday night’s game at Eden Valley-Watkins. That’s 49 in a row; if they should finish this season with another perfect record, their streak would be 66. The longest winning streak in boys state basketball history is 69 by Edina between 1965 and 1968. If not for a loss to Springfield in the 2011 state championship game, their winning streak right now would be 82 in a row.

--Since the start of the 2008-09 season the Jaguars have an overall record of 130-10 and a regular-season record of 113-7. Their regular-season winning streak is 78 games in a row.

This run of success began when former 15-year head coach Dave Montbriand -- who had moved to the girls team as an assistant in order to coach his oldest daughter -- returned as boys head coach for the 2008-09 season. That Montbriand ever came to the school in the first place is a story along the lines of “you never know what might happen…”

The 1979 graduate of Bloomington Jefferson thought he would stay in the Twin Cities after college and work as a teacher and coach. He attended the University of St. Thomas before transferring to Hamline, which offered a major in elementary education. He worked as a substitute teacher in the metro for a couple years. Not knowing a thing about small towns, he began applying at places he had never heard of. Brooten was among them (Brooten and Belgrade-Elrosa were separate districts back then).

“I didn’t know where Brooten was,” Montbriand told me before Friday night’s home game against Holdingford. “I figured I’d be here for two or three years and try to get back to the cities. I’ve been here 28 years.”

He’s had opportunities to leave. One came about five years into his career in Brooten when he was offered a teaching job (but no coaching) in Apple Valley.

“My wife was staying at home, which you could afford to do with a couple kids in a small town,” Dave said. “And I started thinking, ‘Is (the job in Apple Valley) a move up?’ I was happy here and I was just the assistant coach at that time. I pretty much decided at that point that I was going to stay here. And now we have four kids and we live right across the street from the school. It takes me 30 seconds to walk to work.”

The Brooten Buccaneers and Belgrade-Elrosa Redmen came together when the schools merged in 1989. When decisions were being made about a nickname and school colors, it’s safe to say that Montbriand had a hand in the final choices being Jaguars and blue and silver … just like at Bloomington Jefferson, where Dave played for Hall of Fame basketball coach Jack Evens.

As for the Jaguars’ current success, Montbriand said, “We had some real good years but nothing like this. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s happening. Obviously we’ve had a run of really good players.

“It’s every coach’s dream to win the state tournament. I coached for 15 years and we didn’t make the state tournament and then I got out of it (to coach the girls). When we just made it to state one year, it was like, ‘Yes! We made it.’ And to get to the finals, then to win it … sometimes I wonder if it happened. I get that feeling all the time; ‘Is this happening?’ ”

As in most small towns, the surnames in the lineup are a constant over the years; Koehler, Kuefler, Goodwin, Borgerding, Imdieke, etc. The starting five in the 2011 state title game consisted of two Koehlers, two Goodwins and a Kuefler.

Three of the current starters -- Brian Goodwin, James Kuefler and Billy Borgerding -- are juniors who have experience in two state title games, including the first championship in any sport since the school districts merged. The 6-foot-4 Goodwin is the top scorer with a 21-point average, the 6-7 Borgerding averages 15 points and the 6-4 Kuefler averages 11 points and 10 rebounds. The other starters are 6-1 junior Trey Heinsus and 5-10 senior Alex Wosmek.

The Jaguars’ biggest game of the season so far will take place Thursday when they go to Melrose. The Dutchmen are ranked No. 2 in Class 2A and should be No. 1 by than, since top-ranked St. Peter lost to Fairmont on Thursday. There will be pressure, but Montbriand stresses to his team that pressure is a good thing.

“There’s always some pressure, but we’ve learned to welcome it and deal with it,” Kuefler said. “We like the pressure.”

Goodwin said, “Before some games he’ll say, ‘Welcome the pressure. Don’t shy away from it. Because it means you’re doing something right.’ And we know teams are going to come out and give us their best.”

Montbriand said he learned that philosophy from Jack Evens, whose teams won four state championships between 1976 and 1987.

"The more people that came to the games, the more attention we got, it was like, ‘Yeah. These games are more important now. This is what we love. This is more of a challenge. This is what makes it fun.' " Montbriand said.

The Jaguars boys play their games in the gym at Brooten Elementary school (where Montbriand teaches fourth grade) while the girls play at the high school in Belgrade. The fans at the boys games all sit on one side of the gym, with the teams on chairs in front of the stage and the scorer’s table on the stage. Two banners on the walls say a lot about the Jaguars: “We Enjoy Defense” and “Stay Hungry. Stay Humble.”

Thursday’s routine before, during and after a 65-32 win over Holdingford was business as usual. Before the game Montbriand stood at a white board in a classroom and the players sat in chairs. He quietly went through some reminders: Don’t wimp out on taking a charge. No matter what happens, defensive effort is crucial.

With a halftime lead of 38-11, the tone was the same. Montbriand talked calmly about a few mental errors and the players listened without making a peep. “This is what I love about you guys,” he said. “What’s the score, 38-13 or something like that? And I come in here and nitpick. But if we make those mistakes against other teams, that could cost us.”

Before the Jaguars went out for the second half, assistant coach (and former head coach) Brad Goodwin offered a reminder, “Smile and have fun, guys.”

The postgame gathering was in the locker room, with the team sitting silently on one long bench and Montbriand standing in front of them. He told them they had done a great job and played hard the whole game, including the reserves who played much of the second half.

“Another weekend is upon us. You’ve done a wonderful job of staying out of trouble. Keep it up; we have a great thing going. Don’t let the team down. This is something special. You won’t realize how special this is until you reflect back in a couple years.”

He told them to stay healthy, with a reminder to wash their hands often.

There are more games to play.

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

*Schools/teams John has visited: 421
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,982
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Things Are Always Looking Up At Burnsville Ice Center
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/25/2013 2:40:40 PM

The Burnsville Ice Center is one of the iconic hockey arenas in Minnesota, with two Olympic-sized rinks covered by a beautiful wooden domed ceiling. Read Brian Jerzak’s story about the home of the Burnsville Blaze by clicking here.

Basketball Is A Family Game At Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/23/2013 2:29:17 PM

Howard Lake is a basketball town, and the Gagnons are a basketball family. Three generations inhabit the current Lakers of Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School. Hubert Humphrey and a nun also are part of our story … and we’ll get to that in a bit.

Steve Gagnon, 64, coaches the boys ninth-grade basketball team. His son Chad, 40, is the boys varsity coach and grandson/son Cole is a ninth-grader on the junior varsity and varsity squads. The family routine was as usual Tuesday evening when the Lakers played host to the Maple Lake Irish in a Central Minnesota Conference game(s).

Steve coached the ninth-graders in a 6 o’clock game at the middle school in Howard Lake. At the same time, a mile out in the country to the south, Cole played in the JV game at the gleaming, four-year-old high school. All three Gagnons (it’s pronounced “gon-you”) were together when the varsity game tipped off; Chad coaching, Cole on the bench and grandpa sitting in the bleachers behind the team.

Before game time, Steve unwrapped a fresh sleeve of paper cups for the Gatorade jug. He wheeled a giant baskeball storage bin on and off the court for pregame and second-half warm-ups. He also drives the team bus for road games; he has been doing that – and driving a regular school bus route – for 35 years. Oh, he has keys to the gym, too. And that’s of vital importance.

“We’re kind of a basketball family. I was kind of a basketball rat,” said Steve, who some around town still call “Gunner,” a nickname coined during his sharpshooting days at St. Mary’s Catholic school in Waverly. “It’s very rewarding. We spend a lot of time in the gym. And that’s all we do.”

Chad said his father’s influence is one of the main reasons he became a coach.

“It is, it really is,” he said. “He’s been coaching for I don’t know how many years. I’ve grown up around basketball my whole life, and our whole family has.”

The previous boys head basketball coach, Merrill Skinner, is a Hall of Famer who coached the Lakers for more than 30 years and piled up more than 500 victories. Steve was on Skinner’s coaching staff; Chad played for Merrill and was an assistant for a few years before taking over as head coach five years ago. Chad previously was the head coach of the girls team.

“We had a great head coach around here for a long time,” Chad said. “My dad worked under Merrill and I was fortunate enough to play under him, so I was in the gym with my dad all the time. It’s great growing up in this community. Howard Lake is a basketball community. People show up and people care about our high school teams.”

After Tuesday’s game, a 67-60 Lakers victory, the last people in the gym were all Gagnons, including Cole and his three younger siblings. Their proud grandpa helped rebound missed shots.

Gunner nearly never became the Gunner who would score more than 1,400 points in his high school career at St. Mary’s. He was a self-admitted “hothead kid” who quit playing basketball in sixth grade. But then came an intervention by a higher power.

“One of the nuns said to me, ‘You know, you’ve got some ability and you should stick with it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t like it anymore.’ She told me to give it another week and I did. It turned out OK. It was real good advice.”

The late Hubert Humphrey -- mayor of Minneapolis, U.S. senator and vice president -- had a home in Waverly. While Humphrey was vice president under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, Gunner and his buddies liked to sneak onto the Humphrey lawn and take a dip in the swimming pool.

As an adult, Steve operated the municipal liquor store in Waverly for 35 years and played a lot of hoops, often five or six nights a week. His competitive basketball career came to an end just two years ago, after he filled a spot with some younger buddies. The guys said they needed Gunner as their seventh or eighth player, but when he arrived at the gym he was the fifth player.

“I played the whole game and I played pretty well, but I couldn’t tie my shoes for two days. And my wife said, ‘That’s it. I’m not tying your shoes anymore. Give it up.’ ”

Chad -- who finished his high school career in 1990 with more than 1,000 points -- is grateful that his father is there for the Lakers ninth-grade players, but Steve does a lot more than just coach.

“It’s a key grade where you want the fundamentals taught and he does a great job with those kids,” said Chad, who played basketball and baseball at Hamline University and now teaches sixth-grade math. “The other thing is he does a lot behind the scenes; opening the gym, he’s driving the bus, at our summer tournaments he fills in if I can’t be there, he does a lot of little things that people don’t see.”

Steve has thought about spending the winters in a warmer climate, but the lure of grandkids and basketball is keeping him in his favorite place: the gym.

“I just love being in the gym, watching kids grow up,” he said. “I should have been retired many years ago, but they keep you young. You can get old pretty fast if you don’t do anything.”

--See a photo gallery from Tuesday's night game on the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 419
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,821
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Marcus LeVesseur Takes Over Hopkins Wrestling Program
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/19/2013 1:19:29 PM

When the wrestlers at Hopkins High School ask their first-year head coach about his athletic accomplishments, they usually are curious about mixed martial arts. And yes, Marcus LeVesseur has a solid history in that sport, compiling a record of 22-7 since going pro in 2003.

If they want to see some eye-popping numbers, however, the Hopkins wrestlers need to do a little research on their coach’s mat career. The Royals might be too young to remember what LeVesseur did in high school and college, so here’s a short summary…

--LeVesseur was a four-time state champion in high school, winning titles at Minneapolis Roosevelt in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and Bloomington Kennedy in 2001. Four wrestlers have won five state titles and LeVesseur is one of only 12 with four championships. With an overall high school record of 218 wins and 12 losses, he ranks 21st on the state’s all-time victories list.

--He compiled a record of 155-0 at Augsburg College and won four NCAA Division III titles, becoming only the second wrestler in NCAA history to complete a four-year undefeated career. LeVesseur also was a first-team all-MIAC quarterback at Augsburg.

Any further questions?

“Every day, every hour,” LeVesseur said, “one of them is asking me, ‘When’s the next fight?’ The kids ask me about finding a video online and I say, ‘No, I’m not worried about fighting right now. My only focus is coaching wrestling now.’ ”

With his mixed martial arts career on hold during the wrestling season, LeVesseur is in the very early stages of building what he hopes will become one of Minnesota’s premier programs. He had been an assistant coach at Hopkins for five years before former coach Pat Marcy resigned after last season, so he is well aware of the task at hand.

“I knew the team, I knew the structure and really kind of knew what to expect,” he said. “First and foremost, I think the team I have is the perfect challenge for me to build this program. In five or 10 years I would like to see this program represent Hopkins at the state tournament, year after year after year.”

The challenge is getting from here to there. LeVesseur, 30, is working on building feeder programs in the community, but with a twist. In many locales, wrestling starts with preschool and young elementary-age kids. LeVesseur is doing the opposite, starting with high school kids, then going into junior high and older elementary kids.

“It’s a hard challenge,” he said. “We try to see, first and foremost, which kids have relatives who are young and we try to get them in and bring their friends in. Typically, you go from elementary up. We’ve been working in reverse. We’ve been getting into the junior high level; we have a pretty decent junior high program. Now we’ve got to get into that fourth, fifth and sixth grade, then second, third and fourth. Once we get down to those grades, we’ll be rocking and rolling.”

Hopkins has qualified for the state team tournament only twice, in 1989 and 2011. This year’s team is extremely young, but that’s where building a program always starts.

“Our team is very green,” LeVesseur said. “We graduated 14 seniors last year, and they averaged nine or 10 years of experience. What I have this year in average years of wrestling experience is probably about three. We have a lot of first-year, a lot of second-year, a few third-years.”

The task at hand was evidenced in Thursday’s Senior Night home dual against Eden Prairie. The Eagles defeated Hopkins 51-18. Neither team is ranked among the top 10 in Class 3A by The Guillotine and Hopkins has no individuals ranked in the top 10 at any weight class (Eden Prairie has two).

The Royals’ focus, however, is not on things like rankings. It’s on building, working, learning and competing.

“(LeVesseur) keeps us battling, and that’s important, “said Matt Parker, a junior who wrestles at 285 pounds. “Right now wins and losses don’t really matter to us, it matters how hard we fight.”

Hopkins activities director Dan Johnson has been impressed with what he’s seen from the new head coach.

“Every year as an assistant he kept getting a little stronger and a little more invested and he was doing a nice job with the kids. I was pleased that he was interested in becoming a head coach,” Johnson said. “He’s really worked at it, he’s done all the coaching preparation, asked a lot of questions and is trying to figure out what his coaching style is. The kids say they’re in good competitive shape and they’re working hard at becoming better wrestlers. Hopefully all those things will come together.”

LeVesseur, who works as a para-professional at Hopkins High School, has a few credits left to complete his degree in health and physical education. When the wrestling season ends he will resume training for his mixed martial arts career. His most recent competition was in early December.

“Right now there’s not a whole lot of training,” he said. “I’m working full-time and coaching, which is like a second full-time job. There is honestly no time for me to give my all to the sport so MMA is on the back burner right now. When the season’s over I’ll still be working full-time but I’ll have more time to get in competition shape.”

His wrestlers ask him about mixed martial arts, and once in a while one of them will ask about his high school and college wrestling career.

“Some know about it, some don’t,” he said. “It’s hard to really know if they thoroughly understand what it means. If you didn’t know about it prior and no one told you, you’re not going to hear it from me.”

Johnson called LeVesseur “a very sincere young man. I think the kids understand that he’s genuine with them, honest with them, will tell them straight. Obviously he knows wrestling and he wants what’s best for the program and the kids. That makes all the difference in the world.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Eden Prairie-Hopkins match, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 417
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,656
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Uniting Coaches, Community And Athletes At St. Anthony Village
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/16/2013 11:54:04 AM

(Editor's note: St. Anthony Village High School has been named a national "program of excellence" by Coach and Athletic Director magazine. The school was featured in the magazine, and we are reprinting an edited version of the story here.)

--St. Anthony Village High School shares the credit for creating one of the nation’s best sports departments

By Kevin Hoffman, Associate Editor, Coach and Athletic Director magazine

It’s homecoming day at St. Anthony Village High School, and it’s only fitting that the football team’s biggest game comes on an unseasonably frigid fall afternoon. After all, unusual climate is a Minnesota hallmark.

Hundreds of fans scream with excitement as their Huskies trounce a weak conference foe. Their eyes are fixated on the action, but it’s what is taking place off the field that makes St. Anthony Village the distinguished model for athletics it is today.

Parents comprise the “chain gang,” clutching cold beverages as they scurry up and down the sidelines. Other community volunteers take tickets and sell snacks as coaches and administrators greet visitors or oversee the day’s activities.

It’s this support system, partnered with the school’s commitment to student growth, that earned St. Anthony Village recognition in Coach And Athletic Director’s 2012 Interscholastic Sports Program of Excellence. (In this photo, from left: Wayne Terry (principal); Summer Minnich (activities and athletics assistant); Troy Urdahl (activities, athletics and facilities director); and homecoming king and queen Quentin Stille and Mary-Clare Couillard join Coach And Athletic Director associate editor Kevin Hoffman.)

“It’s the people,” says Troy Urdahl, the school’s director of activities, athletics and facilities. He firmly believes that without the staff and community backing, the department’s initiatives would be next to impossible to achieve.

“It’s not because we have more money—it’s certainly not that. It’s because we have great people to work with. They all believe in the same philosophy, and they’re all pulling in the same direction.”

Urdahl’s theory is accepted throughout the department, and the credit is not only awarded to the staff and parent volunteers. It’s also shared with the students who sincerely believe that lessons taught through athletics are the path to a brighter future.

St. Anthony Village’s coaches embrace that dual role. Few of their actions are more telling than the development of a new book club where members of the sports department discuss literature that helps them evolve as coaches and role models for their student-athletes. (Pictured is a tug-of-war during the Homecoming pepfest.)

The first book club meeting was held in October, shortly after sunrise before most students arrive on campus. More than 20 people attended the voluntary session, and Urdahl hopes it grows from there. The group’s first book was Joe Ehrmann’s “Inside-Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.” It sparked discussion about coaching styles and even inspired some to tell personal stories about their role models as student-athletes and how those lessons helped shaped the leaders they are today.

“We hear about all the great things that can come from sports, but you need to be purposeful for that to happen,” Urdahl says. “If you’re not purposeful and you’re not really making an effort to see those good things through to the end, the opposite might happen.
“The book club is just one example of us collectively, purposefully trying to move ourselves forward in that direction.”

Sports captains each summer are treated to a “Captains Clinic,” which includes all teams in the school’s conference. The annual event is designed to educate athletes about the true meaning of being a team captain. Urdahl and school principal Wayne Terry say there is more to team leadership than earning the prestigious captain’s title, and they want to equip students with the confidence to emotionally motivate those around them and handle difficult situations.

Terry adds that there is a mandatory online captain’s certification course that team leaders must complete. The four-hour class has the same purpose—education.

The Captain’s Clinic has become a staple with the school’s athletic conference, but Terry says there eventually came a moment when he questioned whether the opportunity should be extended to other campus leaders—band, student council, speech, etc. The school was determined to create leaders, and it didn’t want to limit that learning opportunity to just those who played sports.

Terry says he brought the idea back to Urdahl, who ran with it. That led to the creation of the Leadership Congress, which pulls together St. Anthony Village’s most influential students and mentors them to become exceptional citizens outside the school.

It’s difficult to determine whether the school’s concept works, but administrators here sincerely believe the evidence shows it has merit. It’s hard to argue, especially considering the record of student-athletes, who boast a GPA of 3.126—significantly higher than the 2.753 carried by the school’s general population. (Pictured is football coach Todd Niklaus.)

Parents and community members are widely pleased with St. Anthony Village’s success. After all, it’s difficult to call for change when your school consistently ranks among Minnesota’s best for GPA and ACT scores. But there are still ways the school can extend a helping hand.

Each sport is required to commit to one community service act each year. The football team hosts a clinic with the Special Olympics, preparing them for an annual flag football game that this year is hosted by the University of Minnesota.

One of the most difficult aspects of working with the community is fostering a healthy relationship with parents—one that’s often distorted by conflicts involving their children’s role in various programs.

Niklaus has a specific method for bridging that gap, and it involves letting parents play “Monday evening quarterback.” Following each game, Niklaus holds a one-hour meeting on Mondays and welcomes parents questions, ranging anywhere from playing time to questioning his in-game calls.

He provides honest feedback and sometimes video evidence to back his decisions. He says that open relationship clears the air and can even lead to special bonds with some of the parents.

St. Anthony Village goes further in encouraging parents to get involved in a responsible way by asking them to take part in a “Role of the Parent in Sports” course offered through the National Federation of High Schools. The online class takes just 30 minutes, and any parent who completes it earns a $5 credit applied toward registration fees.

“Our parents are very involved, and they’re a part of what makes our athletics and activities so great,” Urdahl says. “I don’t know many places where you could rely on volunteers as heavily as we do. It’s just the quality of people that we get to work with every day.”

Support is widespread, but it all comes back to the people under St. Anthony Village’s roof that make it such a special institution. Students say they have a unique trust and bond with teachers and coaches that they’ve come to appreciate. It pays dividends in the classroom and the playing field.

“Coaches bring up the point that homework and school is always more important than practice,” says senior Dan Zeller, a member of the football and golf teams. “Since we’re a small program most of us aren’t going to go on to bigger things in sports, so we’re going to go professional in other things in life. That’s what we’re going to focus on.”

A Dedication To Dance At Prior Lake
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/15/2013 11:57:50 AM

By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal Correspondent

Eleven years ago they didn’t exist. Ten years ago they were funded exclusively by passionate parents. Three years ago they were struggling to place ninth in a 10-team competition. Last year they missed state by one place. Despite being in one of the toughest sections in the state, they have a great chance this year to make their first trip to state. The story of the Prior Lake High School dance team is one of an extremely dedicated group of parents, coaches and athletes.

Parents came to the school board 11 years ago, wanting to start a varsity dance team. The school board OK’d it with one condition – the parents raise all the money for year one.

The parents did it and with the support of athletic director Eric Rodine slowly built the program from the ground up. Although the school is still not able to fund the program one hundred percent, the parents’ financial burden has been reduced over the years.

The program struggled in the early years, but that all started to change when head coach Cristi Falkenberg took over. Falkenberg danced in high school in Lakeville and while still in college started her coaching career. She taught dance at Just for Kicks in St. Cloud, was made director in Mora and coached at Lakeville North – all while in college. After graduation she started her own Just for Kicks studio in Prior Lake and was still a coach at North until becoming the head coach at Prior Lake.

Falkenberg was just what the program needed.

“There was not a whole lot of structure with the program,” said Falkenberg. “There were too many people involved with running the program.”

One of this year’s senior captains – Jenna Gregor – saw the new coaching staff’s impact right away.

“Cristi has been an amazing coach. She shaped me into the dancer and athlete I am now. She has done that for all our dancers. She knows how to talk to each of us, how to get us to work hard and how to set goals. All our coaches are strong dancers and have helped us as a team.”

“(The coaching staff) is really good at telling us ways to improve as individual dancers and as a team,” continued Gregor. “They are good at motivating us and they always know what we need to do to succeed. They are always pushing us at practice.”

The new coaching staff also started to change the mentality of the dancers.

“Many of the girls didn’t realize dance was really a team sport, not just an individual sport,” said Gregor. “Dance is the ultimate team sport, because if you are not all together, then you are not going to succeed.”

Falkenberg’s approach didn’t sit well with everyone right away.

“I am a planner, I am a rule follower,” she said. “I came in with a strict plan and this is how I do things. Prior Lake was a little shocked by that, they had never had that. They had never had someone that said here is the schedule; this is how it is going to be. At first they were a little skeptical of me. Who is this girl who is coming in and changing the rules, the schedule, she’s adding a handbook, practices are mandatory, there is summer stuff going on. I think it was a big shock at first.”

The more she was able to establish herself, the more her approach started to catch on.

“Last year, after our first competition,” said Gregor, “we didn’t do well and right after that it clicked with us. Before our next competition we all worked together and we were able to place third the next week.”

“Going into my second year it was a breeze,” said the third-year head coach. “We were placing at competitions and were doing well so people started to trust me. They could see it was working, the girls were getting stronger, we have a coach that cares about us, that wants to see the girls truly improve and the program improve.”

Falkenberg and her staff made an effort to get the word out about the team. They did a lot of things in the community, were in parades and games. The publicity helped increase the team’s numbers from 24 the fall before she took over to around 50 in two years. Soon the ultimate example that the new coaching staff was making their mark with the athletes took place. The dancers were asking the coaches to give them more to do. Instead of weight training two days a week, the dancers insisted on three days a week.

The organic desire to keep improving launched a summer boot camp. It is a workout that would seem fit more for a football team than a dance team, but one that the dancers wear as a badge of honor and has helped get them even closer to their goal of a state tournament berth.

“The girls were assigned teams and we would do relay races and a whole bunch of different things like going out on the football field flipping the big tractor tires. They loved it,” Falkenberg said. “When I asked the girls what they liked about dance team, it was boot camp. They are basically doing games, but it is conditioning them and they are competitive and want their team to win.”

With powerful Eastview and Burnsville both in the Lakers’ section, third place – and a state berth – has been the goal this year. They know they can do it, especially in the Jazz category. Dance competitions are split into two styles, Jazz and Kick. Kick is usually the style you might see at halftime of a football game and is easy to pick out because of the long kick lines. Jazz is based more off flexibility and effective turns. Both styles competed Saturday at Lakeville South in the “South for the Winter” dance competition.

While I will not claim to be an expert, it was clear to even a novice like me that the Lakers were one of the strongest teams at the competition. It was easy to see the difficulty level of their routine was above most of the teams I was able to watch. Their routine was not only difficult, it also appeared very crisp. With 13 teams competing in Kick and 14 in Jazz, the judges agreed, giving the Lakers a tie for third place in Jazz as well as another third place in Kick.

“I said (to the team) the other day, ‘Do you know how close you are to State? Do you know how close it is? State is sitting in the palm of your hands. You just need to grab it and lock onto it and just take it,” said Falkenberg.

“Our team has our goals set high,” said Gregor. “We work every day to try to accomplish them. Hopefully we will be able to make it to state in February.”

Size (Or Lack Of) Is No Factor For Menahga’s Tarah Cleveland
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/11/2013 11:10:53 PM

Menahga senior Tarah Cleveland doesn't allow a lack of height to stop her from being a basketball star. Read Brian Jerzak's story by clicking here.

Confidence And Speed: Nothing Stops Waconia’s Joe Dertinger
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/11/2013 5:20:44 PM

The conditions for Alpine skiing during Friday’s Buck Hill Invitational in Burnsville were less than perfect: the snow was wet and sloppy and the racers had trouble navigating the course. But Joe Dertinger is used to dealing with – and beating -- adversity.

The junior from Waconia High School is no different than any other athlete on the slopes. He sails downhill, skiing around each gate with precision and powering through the finish line. What he does on the slopes each winter – as well as on the baseball field when the weather turns warm – is pretty astonishing, considering that he walks, runs and skis with a prosthetic right foot and has only two fingers and a thumb on each hand.

“When this all started we were afraid of what he couldn’t do, and he’s shown us that there was nothing to worry about,” said Joe’s father, Mike Dertinger. “We’re very proud of him. He’s taught us a lot, too.”

Joe was born with a disfigured right foot and fingers; his twin sister Johanna was born with no similar issues. After surgery when he was 14 months old, he was fitted with a prosthetic ankle and foot at Shriners Hospital and he hasn’t slowed down since.

As his mother, Sue, explained, “He’s not afraid to try.” She described his activities as occasionally “a little too fast, a little too daredevil, a little too much.”

Waconia is part of a cooperative Alpine ski team with Mound Westonka. Friday’s competition was a long day, with frequent interruptions while crews worked on maintaining the condition of the snow. It was less than perfect, but simply being able to ski makes Joe smile.

“It’s independence, freedom, it’s a lot better than sitting around all day,” he said between runs. “You can go fast.”

Going fast is what Joe really likes. While on a recent ski trip to Colorado, he wore a video camera while racing down the slopes.

“He brought back the video of himself going 65 miles an hour down the hill, and that freaks mom right out,” Joe said with a smile.

Joe began skiing at 5 years old through Courage Center, which has several locations in the Twin Cities and Duluth. His love of the sport has given him opportunities to train and compete with organizations like the Disabled Sports USA Alpine team and the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

After Joe's most recent races at the National Competition Center (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colo., he is in the top 80 in the international paralympic rankings among standup skiers and top 12 among U.S. men's standup skiers in slalom, giant slalom and super g. He won a gold medal in the 18-under giant slalom and may soon be a member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team and possibly compete in the Paralympics.

“With all the skiing I do, racing against able-bodied people and disabled people, it’s just a lot of fun,” he said. “And when you do good, that gives you confidence that you take other places.”

On the slopes, wearing boots and gloves, Joe looks like every other skier. Occasionally, someone will notice a patch on his jacket from the National Sports Center for the Disabled or similar organization and ask, “Do you ski with them? Are you a coach of something?”

When he replies by saying, “No, I’m an amputee,” the response is usually along the lines of, “Oh, cool!”

“That’s a lot of fun, to get that reaction from people,” Joe said.

Mike and Sue say they have never heard their son ask, “Why me?” Joe was the target of what they called “grief” from other kids when he was in elementary school and into middle school, but they knew a corner had been turned when something special happened.

“A kid on the bus asked him where he could buy a prosthetic leg,” Sue said, “because he wanted one like Joe.”

*Schools/teams John has visited: 413
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,542
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Hitting 600: New Prague’s Gunderson On Verge Of Milestone
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/9/2013 3:02:57 PM

First things first: Ron Gunderson doesn’t want anyone making a fuss. But that’s just too bad, because the New Prague High School girls basketball coach – the only coach the Trojans have had since the program began in 1976 – is deserving of a fuss. A great big fuss.

Gunderson doesn’t worry about records or career victory totals or any other mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with today’s team and the next game. As he told me after the Trojans lost at home to Red Wing on Tuesday night, “We’ve got to look forward, not backward.”

There is plenty of reason for people in New Prague to look ahead with glee. Gunderson is on the cusp of his 600th career victory, which would make him only the fourth girls basketball coach in Minnesota history to reach that mark (five boys basketball coaches have done so). Gunderson’s record is 599-285.

Shortly after the start of Tuesday’s Missota Conference game, it became pretty obvious that victory No. 600 would not come easy. While New Prague’s shots rolled off the rim with tremendous consistency, Red Wing shot the lights out, constructed a 14-point halftime lead and took home a 61-51 victory. The Wingers’ star was senior Tesha Buck, who made eight of 12 three-pointers and scored 31 points. New Prague’s Annie Dittberner had 15 and Lexi Ruehling 14.

“They did what they do and they did it well,” Gunderson, 59, said of the Wingers (11-2), who are ranked fifth in Class 3A and certain to jump ahead of the third-ranked Trojans (9-3) when the next rankings are released by Minnesota Basketball News. The next opportunity for Gunderson’s 600th win will come Friday night at Chanhassen.

When it happens, Gunderson is likely to simply shrug his shoulders and pay tribute to all the players he has coached through the decades, as well as the support his teams have received from the community. And New Prague fans have had plenty to cheer about: The Trojans have won 12 conference championships and played at state tournaments in 1992, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. They were 3A state champs in 2000.

The state’s all-time leader in girls basketball coaching victories is New London-Spicer’s Mike Dreier with 778, followed by Myron Glass of Rochester Lourdes with 700, Randy Myhre of Barnum with 626 and Gunderson. Myhre retired after last season and the other three are still piling up victories.

Gunderson is a graduate of Minnetonka High School and Mankato State University. He was hired out of college at New Prague, where he teaches seventh-grade science at New Prague Middle School. The principal there, Tim Dittberner (Annie’s father) is a former coach who has seen Gunderson in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.

“He would never be a coach without teaching,” Dittberner said. “He’s a teacher first and he’s one of our best teachers, he’s a leader on our staff. He says teaching middle school is the fountain of youth. And he just loves working with the kids.”

One of those kids, in fact, was the person who informed Gunderson that he was one victory away from 600. A student walked up to him Tuesday morning and said, “Coach, I’m going to be at your game tonight and see if you can get your 600th.” Mr. Gunderson’s response: “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t know,” he said. “Maybe our kids knew and that was a little added pressure, and Red Wing knew and they weren’t going to let it happen.”

Like Gunderson, Tim Dittberner has coached a state championship team; his LeSuer boys won the 1986 Class A title and also went to state in 1985 and 1988. More recently, Dittberner filled in as boys coach in New Prague when coach Jeff Gravon was undergoing cancer treatments. After Gravon died in January 2009, Dittberner remained as coach and led the Trojans to state in 2009 and 2011.

One of the reasons the fans are anxious to celebrate Gunderson’s milestone is because of the sadness everyone went through when Gravon passed away. Those feelings returned in December when longtime Trojans gymnastics and golf coach Matt Shetka – who won state titles in both sports – died of an apparent heart attack while shoveling snow.

If a few tears are shed when No. 600 is achieved, they will be tears of happiness for another beloved coach.

“He’s got great rapport and very high expectations, and the kids love him,” Dittberner said. “He’s very demanding but he’s got a great sense of humor. I’m so happy to have him.

“He can adapt to the kids that he has so well. This team is not loaded with talent but they play so well as a team. He’s made the adjustments that needed to be made to be successful. He’s so darn competitive, and the kids make that commitment and success breeds success. My daughter loves playing for him.”

By the time Annie Dittberner was born in 1995, Gunderson was nearing 20 years on the job.

“He’s one of the most intense people I know,” Annie said. “He really gets after it in practice and it really shows on the court. He really stresses defense, that’s kind of what we’re all about.”

The first MSHSL state girls basketball tournament was held in the fall of 1974, with the first winter season a year later. Gunderson has seen the sport develop from the beginning.

“The game has changed, the athletes have changed, it’s an entertaining game now,” he said. “The kids are bigger and stronger. When I started, if there was a 6-foot kid on a team, and there might have been one in the conference, that was a post and she didn’t move so well. Now that’s a point guard. So many things have changed for the better and it’s been really fun to see this thing evolve.”

I asked Gunderson what his career might have been if not education. In a pretty good sign that he landed in the right profession, he could not come up with an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t. This is just something I think I always wanted to do. To this day, I don’t know what else I would do. My two older brothers became life science teachers. I don’t know if that made a difference, maybe it was in the genes.”

As with all longtime successful coaches, consistency is important to Gunderson. For example, his top assistant coach, Mike Tschimperle, began coaching eighth-graders in New Prague in 1980 and joined the varsity staff a few years later.

“Ron was probably a little more intense back then,” Tschimperle said. “He’s still intense but I think he’s learned to control his intensity. He’s always been a believer in working hard, the blue-collar type athlete. He’s a team person. Off the court Ron is pretty quiet. He doesn’t like the limelight.”

No he doesn’t, but he’s going to have to put up with some celebrating after the Trojans’ next victory.

The storyline will be different when Gunderson retires from teaching and coaching (which he has no plans to do, he said). He will go out with no fanfare.

“He’s told me when he’s done there’ll be a note in the box and there’s no goodbye,” Dittberner said. “That will be a sad day. And I’m not talking coaching, I’m talking teaching; it will be a sad day.”

For now, however, a big celebration awaits.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 393
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,500
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Braemar Arena: The Heart of Edina Hockey
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/6/2013 6:18:40 PM

Since 1965, Braemar Arena has been the home of Edina hockey. To read Brian Jerzak's story about one of Minnesota's legendary arenas, click here.

Let’s Celebrate A Great Example Of Two-State Sportsmanship
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/6/2013 6:06:42 PM

I was sitting courtside at Target Center on Saturday, watching the four boys high school basketball games in the Timberwolves Shootout. The games were well-played and the competition intense, but in the midst of all that I received an email that needed to be shared.

The email, from Marshall High School activities director Bruce Remme, describes a great example of sportsmanship by a team from Sioux Falls, S.D., that played in Marshall on Friday night. I posted the letter on the MSHSL Facebook page a few minutes after reading it, and the response from our Facebook friends was tremendous.

The letter is below, followed by the Facebook comments. These are the kinds of positive stories that need to be shared, enjoyed and celebrated …


We had a great experience last night that I thought you would appreciate.

Last night (Friday 1/4/13) we hosted Sioux Falls Lincoln in a border battle boys basketball game. It was a well-played, physical high school basketball game that ended in a 81-65 victory for the home team. However, it was what happened after the game that made the night memorable.

Immediately following the game, we began cleaning up the gym so we could get set up for our annual gymnastics invitational Saturday morning. As we were busy working, the players from Lincoln began filing out of their locker room and into the hallway where they were gathering while waiting for the rest of their teammates to finish up. As the Lincoln players began noticing our gymnasts, parents, custodial staff start the parade of mats and equipment across the hall from gymnastics practice facility into the main gym, something wonderful happened. The Lincoln players pitched in.

After just having lost a hard-fought game, the players from Sioux Falls Lincoln set down their bags, shed their coats, and helped move all of our gymnastics equipment into the gym. They did so unsolicited and with smiles on their faces. It was one of the classiest gestures I’ve had the pleasure to witness by any high school team.

The team from Sioux Falls Lincoln left Marshall with their first loss of the season and a couple cases of PowerAde as a thank you for their muscle. But what they left here was far greater. They left an outstanding impression of kindness and a great display of sportsmanship. They helped remind us all that high school sports provide more opportunities than competition alone. Hats of to the Lincoln Patriot players and coaches for being first class on and off the court.

Thanks for the opportunity to share. Have a great weekend.


Here are the Facebook comments ...

Very cool. Thanks for sharing these stories John.

No stat sheet will reflect this kind of assist.... kudos to those young men (coaches and parents too) from Sioux Falls.

Well done! Thanks for sharing

Pure. Awesome.

That is really awesome! Good for them!

Hats off to Sioux Falls Lincoln!!! Losing isn't easy, but they saw what was most important which is helping others. They are to be commended for being great players and more importantly great human beings.

Those are the stories that should make the news! Kudos to the coach and parents for doing a good job raising great kids!

Thanks for sharing, we need to hear more of these kind of stories

Thanks for sharing this. Class act all the way.. Talk about winners!

Those young men have certainly been parented and coached "right." We are all winners for having this shared with us! Thanks for sharing....that is a wonderful story.

Hats off to the parents, coaches and players, you are a class act and so very impressive. It's not all about winning and losing, it's about the life lessons learned along the way.. Way to go, well done.

How impressive! Kudos...these young men obviously have had some great role models and their community and school should be VERY proud.

Talking about spreading the love! Nice!

Great story!!

What great sportsmanship! These are the stories that the media needs to share and broadcast.

Thanks for sharing. Seems like we only hear bad things. This made my day

Awesome!!! I wish more kids were like this

This is wonderful! True sportsmanship and most important character, the coaches, parents, and most importantly the players from SF Lincoln can be proud of themselves, this is what it is all about~ total class act!

That's my alma mater! So proud!!!

Love it! I graduated from there too. Good people in Sioux Falls. It was a great place to grow up!

Very cool!

Now that sounds like a community I want to live in! Oh wait, I will be!


*Schools/teams John has visited: 391
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,402
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Zach Gabbard: The Inside Story As Only A Mom Can Write It
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/3/2013 1:29:57 PM

Every high school sports fan in Minnesota knows the Zach Gabbard story … or at least we think we do. The Perham basketball player collapsed on the court nearly two years ago, and his recovery and emotional return to his team provided memories that none of us will forget.

But there is much more to Zach’s story, especially from the first frightening days after his cardiac episode at the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton gym and hospitalization in Fargo. Several times, doctors told Zach’s family that he would not surivive. They were asked if they wanted to see Zach one last time before he died.

But he did survive, and Zach’s story is told in a book written and self-published by his mother, Meridee Gabbard. The title is fitting: “You’re Never Promised Another Day.”

Writing the book and reliving those times was emotional for Meridee, who told me, “I cried the whole time I was writing. I was reliving it and crying.”

She wrote most of the book during the summer of 2011 but waited for the 2012 state tournament before finishing it. Perham won the Class 2A state championship in 2011 and finished third in 2012. In 2011 Zach surprised everyone by leaving a rehabilitation facility in St. Paul and joining his team for state tourney games at Williams Arena and Target Center. In 2012 he was back in uniform at state, watching the action from the bench.

Zach is now attending Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls and is a student manager for the men’s basketball team.

“He has some short-term memory problems and we’re working on that with him,” Meridee said. “Basketball has always been a passion for him.”

The book is a day-to-day diary of sorts, based largely on a journal that Meridee began keeping during the ordeal and postings on Zach’s CaringBridge website. The details are sometimes frightening …

“During the late afternoon hours Zach underwent his first open heart surgery to have the VAD inserted – this would allow his heart to rest. Some sort of cold thermal blanket, which reminded me of a silver air mattress, was placed on top of Zach’s body to keep his vitals cold; he remained in critical condition. Sometime after the surgery we were told that his vitals had weakened and he wasn’t going to make it. The doctor asked us if we wanted to go see him one last time. Preparing ourselves for the worst, Steve, Courtney and I went to talk to Zach and told him how much we loved him and that now was not his time. The three of us left the room sobbing beyond belief. Within minutes after talking to Zach the doctor came and told us that his vitals had improved and he was doing better!”

Meridee survived a brain tumor in 1982 and she leaned on her own experience when her son’s life was in danger.

“During those first few days when the doctors kept saying, ‘He’s not going to make it,’ for me, it was my brain tumor; ‘He IS going to make it.’ I knew he could hear us.”

Meridee told me that writing a book was something she never thought she would do, but the process was therapeutic for her.

“There were a lot of people during this experience who said, “You’ve got to write a book. This is too miraculous.’ I thought they were nuts. … It was never on my bucket list, but it’s off there now. I wrote it for people who follow Zach but also I wanted to write it for Zach when he’s ready.”

A Facebook page for the book has been created; search for “Zach Gabbard Book” on Facebook. Meridee has already sold several hundred books. The cost is $14.99 plus shipping and they can be ordered by sending an email to Meridee at mgabbardzg3@hotmail.com.

It’s well worth it.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 383
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,357
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn

Hey Students! Who Wants To Attend A T-Wolves Game As A Media Member?
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/2/2013 2:08:12 PM

This exciting announcement was posted today on the MSHSL Student Media Facebook page...

The second annual MSHSL Student Media Day with the Timberwolves has been scheduled for Sunday, February 24. The Timberwolves will play the Golden State Warriors at 2:30 p.m. that day, and a small group of Student Media members will be there with John Millea from the MSHSL. We will attend the game as credentialed media, watch the action from media seats and get a great look at what goes on behind the scenes at a professional sporting event

If you would like to be considered for this opportunity, you need to be an active member of the Student Media program. This means you are writing stories about your school's activities and posting them on your school's page on the MSHSL website. If you are not yet doing so and would like to get started, click on this link for Student Media information: http://www.mshsl.org/mshsl/SIDInfo.asp

John Millea will make the decisions on who will attend the game. If you would like to be considered, you need to do two things: 1) Make sure you are writing as mentioned above; 2) Send an email to John (jmillea@mshsl.org) and express your desire to be considered. First preference will be given to students who have not yet attended a Student Media day with the Timberwolves or Twins.

Good luck!

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