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Robotics: From Greenbush-Middle River To The World
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/28/2016 3:15:22 PM

St. Louis, Missouri, is the center of the robotics universe this weekend, with 29,000 students and 800 robots competing in the FIRST Robotics World Championships. The teams come from all over the world, including 24 from Minnesota -- one of the few states where high school robotics is a varsity, letter-awarding activity.

Teams are competing in three days of robotics matches, grouped into divisions. One of the teams carrying a strong tradition and high hopes hails from the tiny town of Greenbush, Minnesota. The Gators of Greenbush-Middle River High School are competing with teams from all over the United States as well as Canada, Australia, Israel, China and elsewhere.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics became an official MSHSL activity in 2012 and has grown like gangbusters. Greenbush-Middle River is in year three of robotics, and its 44 involved students is more than one-third of the entire student body.

The Gators were champions of a recent FIRST regional at the University of Northern Iowa, winning all 16 matches in which they competed. They also competed at a regional in Duluth, where they were knocked out in a late round. Now they’re competing with the best in the world, which is quite a feat for kids from extreme northern Minnesota.

“We’re a rural community, tucked away in northwest Minnesota, and our FIRST Robotics team has really become a leader in the state,” said Greenbush-Middle River superintendent Tom Jerome.

Each year, a different game is used by all FIRST Robotics teams. The 2016 game is called Stronghold. FIRST describes it as “two Alliances of three robots each are on a Quest to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower. Robots score points by breaching opponents’ defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower. During the final 20 seconds of the Quest, robots may surround and scale the opposing tower to capture it.”

Mary Anderson, who teaches science and math, is the Gators robotics “coach.” The students, however, take the lead in all sorts of tasks, from designing the robot to driving the robot to finding sponsors and raising money to publicizing the team’s accomplishments. Robotics is unlike traditional sports in that team members are always willing to assist other teams, whether it be with engineering, repairs, tools or anything else that comes up.

“My favorite part of the competitions is meeting all the different people,” said Greenbush-Middle River student Joe Hlucny. “There are so many people, and getting to communicate and work with them to accomplish a goal is a lot of fun and it’s a great experience. It gets you ready for other times in life when you’ll have to do that, for sure.”

Robotics is not an inexpensive activity. The Gators have dozens of sponsors, including the University of Minnesota, Polaris and Central Boiler, a Greenbush-based company that is one of the largest manufacturers in northwestern Minnesota.

“Central Boiler is a key player for us; they open up their facilities for our kids,” Jerome said. “Farmers and machinists in the area open their shops as work areas. When we qualified to go to the world championships on a Saturday, by Monday night Polaris had committed more than $10,000.”

A key aspect of the program is student development. Instead of staying home and playing video games by themselves, team members work long hours together.

“We require 30 hours from every student in order to go to a competition,” Gators team member Hannah Anderson said. “We had 29 eligible to go to our first competition in Duluth, and if they got their hours, they were able to go to Iowa. It was like 2,500 student hours. The mentors weren’t counted in that, but they put a lot of time in, too. The grand total was probably 5,000 hours-plus. You have people thinking about it in their sleep, and not sleeping because they’re thinking about it.”

Jon Langaas said, “During build season, when we go out to the shop or do anything here we document our hours. At the shop I usually got out there at about 3 and I left most nights around 11; Saturdays and Sundays were like 8 to 11. I spend probably way too much time on the robot, but that’s everything that I do in the winter now.”

It’s not a stretch to say that robotics changes lives in many ways, whether it be making new friends or choosing career paths.

“It’s just made me a better person, overall,” said the Gators’ Brady Kilen. “The teamwork that I’ve put in with everyone; I’ve gotten to know everyone better in working with each other. I’ve become more confident as a person, too.”

Teammate Blake Dallager said, “Over the winter months I’m not in any sports so I would just go to school and then go home after that. Without robotics I never would be speaking in front of you right now. For sponsorships, we go out and talk in front of 10, 20 people. I never would have had the opportunity to do that, or to go to Iowa or St. Louis or anything like that, and meet people from China and Brazil and Australia. It’s basically awesome to get out of the house, meet new people and go new place and try new things.”

Jerome, a former high school hockey coach and longtime hockey official, said he was mesmerized the first time he saw a FIRST Robotics competition, at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

“This might sound corny, but I walked down, I went on the floor and I kind of teared up,” he said. “I thought, ‘We have to replicate what’s going on in FIRST Robotics in every classroom we have.’ I saw kids brainstorming with other kids, kids from Greenbush-Middle River to Edina and Warroad and Roseau. They work together on problem-solving: ‘You and I are on different teams, but hey how can I help you?’

“When kids come together in this program, they’re handed a problem to solve with not enough money, not enough facilities and not enough time. And that’s kind of real life. They’re asked to solve it, and the only way they can do that is by communicating, brainstorming, sharing ideas and growing. It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s demanding, it’s tough, it’s planning, it’s brainstorming.

“When you see kids scratching their heads, and they’re huddled up together, kids from different communities, and they’re trying to fix that person’s problem, you just go, ‘Wow.’ It really is amazing.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 644
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,214

28 Years Apart, Hurdling History From Up North
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/25/2016 6:14:02 PM

THIEF RIVER FALLS – The two fastest female 300-meter hurdlers in Minnesota high school history stood together for a few seconds last week on a bitterly cold day. They were posing for a photo, just as they did last June when the younger hurdler broke a record set nearly three decades earlier by the older hurdler.

Photo No. 2 was snapped during a four-team meet at the football field/track that is shared by Thief River Falls High School and Northland Community and Technical College. Thief River Falls senior Meleah Biermaier and East Grand Forks girls track coach Liesa Hanson smiled and posed, then resumed the day’s business of running, jumping and coaching.

The ties between the two -- concerning hurdling as well as family -- are remarkable.

On a hot day in 1987, Hanson (then Roseau senior Liesa Brateng) set a state record of 42.62 seconds in winning the 300 hurdles in the Class 1A state meet at Osseo High School. She went on to compete in track at the University of North Dakota, where one of the male hurdlers was a guy from Crookston named Mike Biermaier. You can see where this is going.

Fast forward 28 years to last year’s Class 2A state meet at Hamline University in St. Paul. Mike’s daughter Meleah won the 300 hurdles in 42.13, and one of the first people to congratulate her as she stepped off the medal podium was Liesa Hanson.

“I never thought it would have stayed there that long,” Hanson said last week. “It was fun to hold that and I can still claim the title in Class 1A. Records are meant to be broken, that’s what they’re for. They’re something to shoot for.”

During a coaching career that has lasted more than 20 years, Hanson has annually wondered if her record would fall. She also held the University of North Dakota school record in the 400-meter hurdles, and that mark was broken earlier last spring.

“I told Meleah, ‘My UND record went this year, maybe this is the year for my high school record to go and I hope you do it.’ ”

Biermaier, who has signed a letter of intent to compete in track at the University of Minnesota, is one of the most celebrated athletes in the state, and track is only part of the story. She also plays volleyball and basketball; those Prowlers teams have each made two state-tournament appearances with her on the roster.

But track is her marquee sport. She splashed onto the scene as an eighth-grader in 2012, winning the 300 hurdles state title against athletes from the state’s largest schools in Class 2A. She was the 2A state runner-up as a freshman and sophomore before claiming another title – and the state record – last spring.

Biermaier leads the state’s 300 hurdlers this spring with a top time of 45.20 seconds. She is expected to compete in that race at Friday night’s Hamline Elite meet, the top regular-season event on the high school schedule.

Meleah will make no guarantees of winning another state crown, much less breaking her own record.

“I think it will be a little bit harder,” she said. “Not that there’s less motivation, but I don’t have that fire that I did last year, from coming in second in 10th grade. It’s going to be tough to bring that into practice and meets, but it’s always a goal to shoot for.”

The family connections between the Biermaiers and Liesa Hanson has a long history. Mike Biermaier – who is two years younger than Hanson -- remembers watching his big sister Mary run hurdles and sprints against Liesa.

“It goes way back” to when Mary was a Crookston senior and Liesa was a Roseau eighth-grader, Mike said.

“Liesa was an absolute standout. I think she was in eighth grade when she and my sister finished 1-2 in the 200 in the section and both went to state.

“My sister was a bit of an inspiration to me, too,” Mike said. “She went to state from seventh grade on and placed in the 100 hurdles. Mary (who lives in Little Falls) has followed my daughter pretty closely and she knows Liesa, too, so it’s been a big family affair.”

Hanson has a talented young hurdler in her family, too. Her daughter Tiffany, a sophomore at East Grand Forks, qualified for state in the Class 1A 300 hurdles last year. Tiffany finished third in the 300 hurdles (two spots behind Biermaier) at last week’s meet in Thief River Falls.

Meleah first leapt over a hurdle – albeit a kid-sized mini hurdle – when she was very young. She thinks she was in second grade when she hung out at the University of North Dakota track while her dad was a graduate assistant coach.

“I definitely liked it,” she said with a smile.

She tried lots of other sports over the years, including hockey and softball. She was on the junior high track team early in her seventh-grade season but was moved to the varsity to compete in section competition. A year later she was a state champ.

And now, she seeks another state title as part of an historic hurdling duo that looms large even though they hail from the great outstate north, where spring comes late, where the track season can be short and where motivation is not hard to find.

“I think one of the biggest things is our drive,” Meleah said. “Those big schools look at us and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re nothing. You’re from northern Minnesota, what do you have to bring?’ So I think we just have to prove ourselves.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 634
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,192

New Season, New Goals For White Bear Lake Lacrosse
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/20/2016 1:39:55 PM

After a hard-fought 14-10 victory over visiting Holy Angels on Tuesday night, the White Bear Lake boys lacrosse players took a knee as coach Brandon Husak said a few words.

He ended his remarks with this: “You’re a phenomenal team. You’ve got a lot of talent, let’s do something with it. We saw some great things out there, got a great win. That lets me know how hard we can push on the pedal.”

The Bears certainly know how to put the pedal to the metal. They are the defending state champs, a title that culminated a steady climb for a program that takes pride in representing the east side of the Twin Cities in a sport that has been dominated by the western suburbs.

Since boys lacrosse became an MSHSL sport in 2007, White Bear Lake is the only team from east of St. Paul to win a state championship. Previous titles were won by Benilde-St. Margaret’s (located in St. Louis Park), Blake (in Hopkins), Minnetonka, Eastview (in Apple Valley) and Eden Prairie. Until 2015, no team from the east side had even played in a title game.

White Bear Lake is no stranger to the state tournament, however; the Bears advanced in 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Last year they defeated Maple Grove 19-2 in the state quarterfinals, Eden Prairie 14-13 in overtime in the semifinals and Bloomington Jefferson 12-8 in the title game.

Before the championship game, former Bears players formed a tunnel for the current players to run through onto the field, and many people who had coached current players as youth were in the stands.

“That was cool. I liked that a lot,” said senior midfielder Ethan Peterson, who leads the Bears with six assists.

“We’ve made five trips to state, and last year, capping it off, it kind of justified and solidified all those previous years that teams had made it,” Husak said. “And it kind of set them in the books, too. It really honored the years before. It wasn’t a fluke.”

White Bear Lake is 2-0 this season, with a 9-8 win over Wayzata in the opener and Tuesday’s victory over Holy Angels. The Bears lost nine seniors to graduation, including last year’s Mr. Lacrosse award winner, Connar Dehnert.

“We looked at (this season) as a clean slate,” said senior midfielder Shane Olsen, who had five goals Tuesday and leads the Bears with nine on the season. “Start with the basics, work up from there, just the right pace.”

Six Bears players have scored so far, including ninth-grader Casey Cunningham. He had the winning goal against Wayzata and got his second goal Tuesday. Goaltender Michael Boudreau has 37 saves through two games and a save percentage of .673.

Husak, 33, is a 2001 graduate of nearby Roseville High School (“I hopped over to the rival, wearing black and orange,” he said of coaching at White Bear Lake). He was the Bears club coach before the sport became sanctioned by the MSHSL, so he has been on board from the beginning.
Husak said he never uses the phrase “rebuilding year.”

“I’ve told the boys that if I ever say it’s a rebuilding year, I’m done. I don’t believe in that. The season is so short but we preach that it’s so long. We’ve come a long way since Week 1 already. When I talk to the guys, you have to keep looking to move forward and eat up that knowledge and have progression every day.

“They’re proud, they celebrated last year, and it’s a new year. We had a great year, we’re very proud of what we have achieved, but this is a different team and this is a different step.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 630
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,449

22 Schools Form New League: Twin Cities Athletic Conference
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/19/2016 5:21:06 PM

The Twin Cities Independent Schools Conference (TCIS) and the Eastern Minnesota Athletic Conference ( EMAC) have been two conferences that have existed under the MSHSL umbrella, with the TCIS having been formed roughly one year ago and the EMAC being around for the better part of the last two decades. The bulk of the member schools in both conferences are either charter schools or small Christian/Catholic schools. The nine schools of the TCIS and the 13 schools of the EMAC found common mission and goals when they engaged in conversation about scheduling several months ago. From there they worked to forge the alliance between the two conference into one large athletic conference which would be mission-driven and lead to a greater degree of cooperation for scheduling and ease of funding.

As of today (April 19), the 22-program Twin Cities Athletic Conference (TCAC) is a reality.

It is the largest athletic/activities conference in the state of Minnesota, and possibly the largest in state history in terms of membership.

It truly is a representative conference of the greater Twin Cities area, with schools as far north as Forest Lake and as far south as Faribault, as far west as Eden Prairie and Maple Grove and as far east as Woodbury.

The conference will break into divisions based on competitive level in those sports that will need it, based on the number of schools offering those sports (boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, girls volleyball) and have a single conference division for those sports where there are fewer than 12 schools offering the sport (baseball, softball, cross country, and track and field) as well as offer two sports not offered competitively as of yet by the MSHSL (badminton and boys volleyball).

Further, the conference will effectively sponsor non-athletic MSHSL activities including speech and debate as well as fine arts at various conference jamborees scheduled and created specifically for those activities.

The education landscape in Minnesota is changing in terms of the greater number of non-traditional school choices being offered to families. As these schools grow in number and size, the students attending those schools are increasingly voicing their collective desire to have a "normal" high school extracurricular experience. All 22 programs in the new TCAC are committed to giving those students that experience.

The schools signing the initial charter/constitution are:

Academy for Sciences and Agriculture (AFSA)
Calvin Christian School
Chesterton Academy
Christian Life Academy
Community of Peace Academy
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
Groves Academy
Hiawatha Collegiate High School
Hmong College Prep Academy
Hope Academy
(The) International School of Minnesota
Learning for Leadership Charter School
Liberty Classical Academy
Math and Science Academy
Metro Schools College Prep
Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD)
North Lakes Academy
Nova Classical Academy
Prairie Seeds Academy
Saint Paul Prep
Shattuck-St. Mary's
Twin Cities Academy/Great River School (Charter Stars Co-op)

Time To Speak Up: A Rookie Competes At State
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/17/2016 2:08:34 PM

Steven Fyten likes to talk. The junior at Pierz High School isn’t intimidated by standing in front of a room filled with strangers and talking, having fun and putting on a show.

It was a good thing for Steven and several other like-minded Pierz students, then, when the speech team at their school was resurrected this year. It had been five years or so since speech was an activity at Pierz, and Steven took full advantage of its return by qualifying for the Class 1A state speech tournament.

Steven told me he likes speech because “It keeps you busy, it gives you something to do. And I do like talking.”

He competed in Humorous Interpretation, one of 13 categories in MSHSL speech. Steven was the Section 5 champion in Humorous Interpretation, which was his ticket to state as his school’s sole representative.

Steven was one of 24 individuals who competed in three preliminary rounds, followed by a championship round, Friday at Lakeville North (Class 2A state speech was held Saturday at the same site). His performance of “Finishing School” by John C. Havens is a hysterical monologue centering on a prim and proper British headmaster.

So here was Steven, a tall young man wearing a maroon shirt, striped tie and black slacks, speaking in a British accent in a high school photography classroom. A couple dozen adults and students watched his performance, one of six in the third round in this room. A judge and a room manager sat up front, with the others taking every seat while a few people sat on the floor.

Along with a British accent, Steven also needed to speak with Russian and Scottish accents while portraying other characters in “Finishing School.”

He was wonderful.

“He likes to play different characters, so that makes the characters in his speech come out,” said Sheri Menden (pictured with Steven), who coaches the Pierz speech team with Andrew Boman. “He likes to meet people, he likes to talk a lot and he is incredibly, incredibly intelligent.”

After the first three rounds, scores are totaled and the top eight speakers in each category advance to the championship round. Steven didn’t advance to the finals, but he was pleased with how the day went, as well as the entire season.

He didn’t know anything about speech when the school year began. He was the narrator for a school musical ("Into the Woods”) in the fall, and Boman – who was new to Pierz and brought back the speech team – told him he had a good speaking voice and should consider trying speech.

“I went to a meeting and it seemed interesting,” Steven said. “He gave us a little slide show that covered it pretty well.”

Once he selected “Finishing School” as his entry, he worked with Menden or Boman three times a week or so for about an hour. Since he’s also on the golf team, this has been a busy spring.

He and his teammates took part in around 10 competitions this season, and at no point did Steven expect to be going to state.

“Oh no, I definitely didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t think I would get that far. It was a pleasant surprise, though.”

At the section tournament, the top three speakers in each category advanced to state. Before the awards were announced, Steven didn’t figure to hear his name called among the top three.

“I was expecting them to call my name for fourth or something, but they saved it for the end,” he said. “It was a little shocking.”

Steven may have been surprised, but Menden wasn’t.

“He doesn’t know this but I talked to his dad before we left (for sections) and I said, ‘If he performs the way he’s performed the last week, he will do really well.’ ”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 628
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,387

The Greatest Generation Loses Another Of The Greats
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/14/2016 8:04:12 PM

In the late 1930s, a boy in a small town posed for a photo in his football gear. He played on his local high school team, and despite being undersized he was as tough as nails.

His father died before he was born. His athletic career ended when he graduated from high school in the spring of 1938. He was working on the family farm as America went to war a few years later. He joined the Army and served during World War II in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

He returned home after the war, got married, raised six children and continued farming. He was the epitome of the Greatest Generation. He was my wife’s Uncle Laurence and he died this week.

The old guy was 95 when he passed away inside a nursing home in the town where he grew up. His obituary included this passage: “The Great Depression and his military service were lifelong influences on the way he lived. Hard work, sacrifice and sharing with family and neighbors became a part of him.”

My wife’s late father used to tell her about her uncle’s exploits as a young man. He was a guy no one wanted to mess with, on the football field or off. Laurence grew up in a town that was extremely proud of its Irish and Catholic heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was the biggest holiday of the year in his town, but he was neither Irish nor Catholic.

So on St. Patrick’s Day, when most other young fellows wore green, Laurence would put on an orange tie (the color of proud non-Irish Protestants) and go to town. The orange tie sent a wordless message: “Does anyone wanna mess with me?” No one did.

His wife died 15 years ago. He lived for 95 years and he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 75 years. I joked with one of his kids this week that the old guy single-handedly saved the tobacco industry.

One of my favorite Laurence stories: He was 85 years old and putting a new roof on his house. As he and his sons hammered shingles into place on the hottest day of the summer, he lit a fresh smoke and said, “A job like this makes a guy wish he was 70 again.” And he was serious.

It wasn’t rare to see both a cigarette and a toothpick hanging from his lips, and maybe a blade of grass on occasion, too. We joked that if we saw him in his casket, complete with cigarette, toothpick and blade of grass, we would not be surprised.

He rarely talked about his military service, at least to his family. He may have shared stories with his buddies at the local American Legion hall, but about all he told others was that he had seen some terrible things. When Laurence’s oldest son spoke at the funeral, he talked about the nightmares his father endured for most of his life after the war.

Many photos were displayed at his funeral. A small table held photos of Laurence and his wife, along with hats commemorating WWII and John Deere tractors.

I can’t make an argument that Laurence’s high school athletic experience made him into the man he became. Other than my father-in-law’s stories about his brother’s football talents, no one else had talked about that. One of my wife’s cousins was surprised to hear her mention the football hero. The cousin’s response was: “Dad was a good football player? Gee, none of us could walk and chew gum.”

Be that as it may, I can’t help but look at that photo from (I assume) the autumn of 1937 and believe that being a high school athlete helped shape him. A small, scrappy kid, crouched in his football stance wearing a leather helmet and no facemask. Ready to take on the world.

He was an American hero.

May he rest in peace.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 612
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,371

Winning Is Important But It Is Not What We Focus On
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/11/2016 10:33:38 AM

An insightful note from a Minnesota high school coach was posted on that team’s Facebook page this weekend. It offers reminders of what high school sports is all about, and I’m happy to share it on John’s Journal…

Dear Streaks Softball Players, Fans, and Parents

This past weekend has been one of reflection for me, as head of this softball program. My thoughts have run the gamut of directions, first with our program and what we do to the general state of youth sports today. There is much talk today of the "industry" of youth sports. The money generated, the travel, the specialization of the athlete. As my thoughts raced through all aspects of this issue, I kept coming back to what we do in this program, what we offer in this program, and what we value in this program.

First off, let me say that winning is important. It is important for the team to see collective success. It is important for the athlete to see successes and build confidence. It is important for our program to have success to keep the program strong. BUT....Winning is not what we do. It is not what we focus on. We focus on team. We focus on development. We focus on each individuals’ meaning within the team. We focus on the memories we create together. THAT IS WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT!

As a baseball player growing up in this area, I dreamed of playing major league baseball. I was fortunate enough to have caring coaches and great teammates who helped each other succeed and most of us played at the collegiate level of some sort. As I think of it right now, I believe seven of us played college baseball somewhere. We didn't do it through specializing. We didn't do it through paying thousands of dollars and travel all over the country to play the "best competition," and we didn't do it for exposure. We did it by being a team. By collectively improving together. And we share so many great common memories from it.
As a coach today, I am compelled to try to recreate this experience with our players. At the end of their career, the number of medals, trophies, and honors should matter less than the great times they had with teammates. THAT IS WHAT ATHLETICS IS ABOUT! Especially team athletics.

As the head of this program, I want to reassure you of what we are doing with these great young athletes that we get to work with each week. We stress team, goals, hard work, respect, loyalty and commitment to each other, and the concept of family. We want each of these players to realize success, in their own way. We want each of these players to have balance in their lives. That includes time for family, time for friends, time for faith and time for themselves. Too many athletes today are out of balance, and we will not be a part of the problem, we will continue to be a part of the solution.

Myself and the coaches in this program care about these athletes and will continue to keep the best interests of each of them in our minds and hearts. Our commitment to these great young women is strong and will continue to be so. This program has been in existence for 20 years and each year we get stronger in our values and what we believe in. Along the way we have seen increasing success, but what I am most proud of as a head coach is how we approach the sport and athlete. They are not pawns, dollar signs, or wins. They are great young ladies who we are fortunate to coach for a short time period in their lives. Thank you for your continued support of our program!

John Stigman
Head Coach, Osakis Silverstreak Softball

After ‘Devastating’ Ballpark Fire, Waseca Looks To Rebuild
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/7/2016 8:22:36 PM

WASECA – Clinton “Tink” Larson was standing behind the grandstand at Tink Larson Field here Thursday afternoon. To be more precise, he was standing behind the charred ruins of the wooden grandstand, which was engulfed by fire Wednesday night.

Since sunrise people had been slowly driving past the historic ballpark, which was built as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. The fire not only destroyed the grandstand but also turned everything stored under the bleachers into ashes: uniforms, baseballs, all manner of mementos, even the equipment Larson has used to mow the grass and groom the field for decades.

Having just completed an interview with a Twin Cities TV station, Larson, 74, was chatting with me when a pickup pulled up to the curb. The driver leaned over toward the open passenger-side window and had this conversation with Tink…

Driver: “Do you need field equipment? Or a scraper, whatever? To get a game going next week? Let me know, I’ll open the door and you can have it. Whatever you need. Just holler if you need anything.”

Tink: “Thanks, big fella.”

Driver: “This just stinks.”

Tink: “It sure does.”

Driver: “Life’s not fair, my boy.”

Tink: “First Sharon and now this.”

Driver: “You take care of yourself.”

Sharon was Tink’s wife, who died suddenly two years ago. And it’s not a stretch to equate the loss of Tink’s spouse with the loss of his ballpark, where Sharon was a fixture in the concession stand for 44 years and where the Larsons’ children and grandchildren spent countless hours.

Tink looked over the charred wreckage and said, “I had about four sets of jerseys in there, baseballs in there. I had spikes and gloves and everything else in there. You don’t expect it’s going to burn down.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation. A company has been hired to demolish what’s left of the grandstand and haul away the remains; that could happen in the next day or two. Then a temporary backstop fence will be rigged up so the Waseca High School Bluejays can get back to playing on their home field.

The Bluejays were scheduled to open the season Friday at home against Mankato East. That game was moved to Mankato, and a Monday home game with Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton also has been changed to a road game.

“It definitely is devastating,” said Waseca athletic director Joe Hedervare. “With all the history and all the effort Tink put into the facility, it was a beautiful place to play baseball.”

Tink Larson Field and Tink Larson himself are both icons. The graduate of Kasson-Mantorville High School and Minnesota State Mankato was hired as a teacher and baseball coach in Waseca in 1967. During his career with high school, American Legion, VFW and town-team baseball, Larson coached in more than 4,500 games. He’s now a volunteer assistant coach at nearby Minnesota State Mankato.

Larson is a member of 11 Halls of Fame, including the MSHSL and the American Baseball Coaches Association. The Waseca ballpark was named in his honor in 1994.

Tink lives across the street from the ballpark; many foul balls have flown over the third-base fence and landed in his front yard. He was home Wednesday night when the fire broke out.

“My nephew said, ‘Is there something going on at the ballpark? Is there a fire over at the grandstand?’ I looked out the window, and jeepers.”

The ballpark is owned by the City of Waseca, so insurance is expected to cover a portion of the expenses in rebuilding the grandstand. Once temporary fencing is installed behind home plate, a rebuilding project will be put together.

“We’ll have to come up with a permanent plan as to what we’re going to do as far as rebuilding and all that,” Tink said. “That will be a big project.”

Some things simply can’t be replaced, such as several rows of seats that came from Met Stadium, the Twins’ original home in Bloomington.

“The history will be gone and all the memories of all the guys who played here over the years, that will all be gone,” Larson said. “There aren’t many grandstands that have two clubhouses and a locker room and a concession stand and two storage areas. This is a big building.”

The Minnesota State Mankato baseball team will play four games this weekend at University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. That’s a one-way bus ride of nearly eight hours, which Larson said should give him time to start replying to all the emails and text messages he has received in the wake of the fire.

“It’s amazing, all the support that’s coming in,” he said. “Tons of people have said, ‘Let us know how we can help.’ ”

Hedervare said, “It hurts right now. But there’s not a single person in our community who doesn’t believe Tink Larson Field will be back better than ever.”

When Tink walked across the street from his house to the ballfield Thursday morning, one of the local residents was there waiting for him; he had been there since 6:30 a.m.

“He said, ‘You wouldn’t believe the number of cars that were driving by,’ ” Tink said with a quiet chuckle. “The fire chief said, ‘If we would have charged five dollars for every car that drove by, we could rebuild this thing.’ ”

--An account has been set up at Roundbank in Waseca for donations to help rebuild Tink Larson Field. Donations can be sent to Roundbank, 200 2nd St NE, Waseca, MN 56093

--To see photos from Tink Larson Field, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 604
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,315

Lessons From Winona: Why We Play, What We Learn
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/4/2016 2:06:22 PM

Spring sports are upon us as the weather warms and playing fields become green. But I want to go back a bit to something that took place during the girls state basketball tournament. It’s important stuff, offering important lessons.

What I witnessed centers on the team from Winona. The Winhawks played in the state tournament for the first time since 2003 and played in their first state championship game, where they lost to Holy Angels 51-43 for the Class 3A title. The last time a basketball team from Winona played in a state championship game was 1914, so this was history that was 102 years in the making.

My favorite moments came immediately after the Winhawks played, at Mariucci Arena and Williams Arena. Following handshakes between the teams, the Winona players gathered in front of their fans and band, wrapped their arms around each other and swayed back and forth as the band played a song titled “Varsity” (the alma mater of the University of Wisconsin).

That scene says something about a special connection between the athletes, their fellow students, families and fans from the community. The Winhawks’ basketball season epitomized that connection.

“It was just magical,” Winona coach Tim Gleason said to me during a Sunday afternoon telephone chat, two weeks after the tournament ended. “Even now, around town people come up and say hi and offer congratulations on such a great run by the girls. It was so neat to see so many people come together. And I really feel music is so important. We’re always going to need music, we’re always going to need athletics, because they bring people together. That was so much fun to be a part of.

“Winona is no different than any other town in Minnesota or anywhere else in the nation. There are so many things that people look at that divide us. And it’s so much fun to be part of something that brings people together. I told the girls that they were part of something bigger than basketball, and they should always remember that.”

After their loss in the championship game, Gleason and his players were as sad as you might expect. But the Winhawks also were proud. In the locker room, Gleason told me, senior and leading scorer Hallee Hoeppner talked to her teammates about how proud she was, saying she wasn’t going to let one loss cloud how she felt about what they had learned and accomplished together.

Hallee said the same thing in the postgame news conference: “I just had such a fun time playing with these girls. I told them in the locker room not to be hard on themselves. I have so many memories on and off the court and they have become my best friends. Even if we didn’t get a state title, I’m so happy to have been a part of this team.”

This takes us to Why We Play, an MSHSL initiative that is used to assist coaches in creating the best possible experiences for their athletes and themselves. Why We Play is based largely on a book by Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and longtime high school football coach. His book is “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.”

All high school coaches in Minnesota have access to Why We Play training. I can summarize Why We Play with this: Teams and athletes strive to be successful and win, but the true purpose of high school athletics is education. Winning is a goal, but education is the purpose.

Why We Play training talks about two types of coaching: transactional and transformational. Transactional coaches view winning as the bottom line. All practices, drills, strategies and techniques are geared toward that result. The means to achieve the win, however necessary, are secondary to winning.

For transformational coaches, however, individual consideration is given to developing athletes as a whole, while understanding that the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Winona’s Gleason has gone through Why We Play training and has heard Ehrmann speak. After the state title game, he talked about what he has learned.

“(This season has) been full of memories,” he said. “The State High School League has done a lot of work on transformational coaching, the Joe Ehrmann-type mindset. This season with these ladies has typified that and it has probably been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

“Whatever happens in these kinds of events, and this goes back to the transformational things, these are things that change lives. I hope it changed their lives because it changed mine.”

Winona athletic director Casey Indra is in his second year in that job. He has been instrumental in bringing Why We Play training to his school’s coaches. That process began by informing local school board members about Why We Play and what Indra hoped it would bring to Winona.

“I said at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, if we were going to go in front of our school board and show our plan, we weren’t just going to say that and be done with it,” Indra said. “And I made the comment at the welcome home for our basketball team that (the state tournament) was a perfect Why We Play moment.”

As part of the Why We Play curriculum, coaches are asked to create their own individual purpose statements. Here is Gleason’s: “With the cornerstones of empathy and love, collaboratively, I will provide opportunities for young men and women to pursue excellence in all that they do.”

Tim also is Winona’s head coach for boys and girls track, so he impacts a lot of students as a coach. He is a band teacher, too, adding to that number and his impact.

He has been the Winhawks’ head girls basketball coach for 10 years, and he was an assistant for 11 years before that. His father, Jerry Gleason, a Winona graduate who also was a band teacher, passed away during the basketball season.

Tim said Why We Play training has been instrumental in how he coaches.

“It caused me to think about things more intentionally. Friends help you get through so many things. It’s probably something that I revisited in the last month or so of the season, with trials in my personal life. There were many days and many times I had to lean on the people I coach with and also on the team to get through the day and keep me in a position where I was helping them as much as they were helping me.”

Nine school buses filled with band members and other students traveled from Winona to Minneapolis for the state tournament. Winhawks fans displayed great sportsmanship and cheered their team until the final whistle.

“They came out in full force and I felt our kids cheered with respect to the other team,” Indra said. “They held true to what we believe in. I told them I wasn’t going to remember the score of the game, but I will remember everyone who put together this run. It was the community.”

Gleason said, “To see the MSHSL go to those kinds of training for their coaches, and to kind of see it lived out ... it was not only transformational for the girls but also for me.”

Well done, Winhawks.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 604
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 9,195

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