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An August Volleyball Matchup And Lots To Look Forward To
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/31/2016 10:57:30 PM

The first day of volleyball practice for Minnesota high school teams was Aug. 15, which wasn’t that long ago when you consider what took place Wednesday evening – it was Aug. 31 -- at Prior Lake High School in Savage. This was an early-season matchup between two teams that 1) played in the Class 3A state tournament last year; 2) were among the final four teams at state in 2015; and 3) are ranked among the top four in 3A this season.

Champlin Park lost to Eagan in the state semifinals last year and Prior Lake was defeated by Eagan in the championship match. So on Wednesday we had the defending state runner-up team (the Lakers) against the third-place team at state (the Rebels). Prior Lake came in bearing the No. 2 spot behind Eagan in the 3A coaches rankings and Champlin Park was No. 4 (Lakeville South is No. 3).

And for good measure, the match featured three players who have committed to play volleyball at Big Ten universities: Champlin Park senior Sydney Hilley (Wisconsin) and Prior Lake juniors C.C. McGraw (Minnesota) and Kayla Bair (Michigan).

The result was maybe a mild surprise, with Champlin Park winning a four-set match 29-31, 25-21, 25-19, 25-21. The opening set laid down a pretty solid tone for the night, with the Lakers racing out to a 10-3 lead, the Rebels storming back into a 24-24 tie, and Prior Lake finally putting it away.

One postgame line of interrogation went like this: Can you put too much stock into a volleyball match being played in August … when the state tournament isn’t until November?

“No, you definitely can’t,” said the 6-foot Hilley, who had 25 kills, 16 digs and three blocks. “We played them in our first match last year and they ended up getting second in the state. Both teams are going to get better and if we see them again I’m excited to play them.”

Champlin Park coach John Yunker wasn’t ready to call Wednesday’s result a seismic shift in the earth’s crust, but he wasn’t about to discount how his Rebels played.

“I think the thing we can take away from it is some confidence that, ‘Hey, we can play pretty much with anybody in the state.’ But it is August. We might see them in Marshall (at the Southwest Minnesota Challenge tournament Sept. 9-10), we might see them at the end of the year if we get that far.

“The main thing is, it’s a nice win. We’re going to have some confidence with it, but it doesn’t get us anything going forward. We still have to show up next week and play our matches. We’ve got a lot of returnees but we also have some new players who saw what this is like, and knowing ‘Hey we can do this’ and this is exciting. It’s a huge steppingstone going into the break for Labor Day weekend.”

The atmosphere felt more like October than August, that’s for certain. There was a good-sized and exuberant crowd inside the Prior Lake gym, including a large contingent of Lakers students wearing white and a smaller cluster of Champlin Park students wearing an assortment of NFL and NBA jerseys.

The match was originally scheduled for Tuesday night, but that got derailed because Prior Lake held orientation that evening for incoming ninth-graders. No matter.

“That first set was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth,” Lakers coach Mike Dean said. “In game one we got out pretty quickly and got a nice lead, and they really fought back. That’s one of those mental edges; going into game two, yes they lost but they put up a good fight. And I think our girls saw that and we kind of played a little safe.

“I thought in game three we started battling a little more and in game four we had opportunities. Kayla went on a really nice run at the service line; she’s done that a few times this year. If she gets going back there, we can have a lot of fun.”

Dean said there was no reason to make the match – or the result, to be more precise – bigger than it needed to be. In fact, in the midst of the action he mentioned that to his players.

“That was something we talked about in the huddle, I think it was in game three,” he said. “I could tell we were really tense as a team and we weren’t playing very well. I said, ‘OK, let’s flesh this out. Let’s say we lose. Then what?’

“One of the things we talk about with our girls is being mentally tough, being able to be resilient. I think they showed that. But that was a really good team we played.”

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 22
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,109

With Great Anticipation, Soccer Returns To The Great Indoors
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/30/2016 10:48:07 AM

To soccer fans in Minnesota, it was fitting that the first event to take place at the new Vikings stadium was a soccer game. The British team Chelsea F.C. and A.C. Milan from Italy played in front of a capacity crowd in early August.

No one is expecting more than 64,000 fans to attend the MSHSL soccer state semifinals and championship games at the new stadium between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, but the return to indoor soccer at the end of the season has helped build a renewed fervor in the sport as teams dream of playing in the big arena.

“The place is unbelievable,” said Anoka boys soccer coach Pete Hayes, whose team is the two-time defending state champ in Class 2A. “This new stadium will be fabulous.”

The state semifinals and finals in girls and boys soccer were played inside the Metrodome until it was torn down two years ago. While the new stadium was being constructed on the same site, the semifinals and championship games were played at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium.

Husky Stadium has plenty of quality amenities, including artificial turf, large locker rooms and top-notch media facilities. In addition, the fans were much closer to the action than at the Metrodome. But the downside, of course, was the weather in late October and early November.

“The weather made for chilly games where everyone was bundled in winter coats and by the heaters,” said Orono senior captain Jenna Rakos, whose team was the Class 1A state champion in 2014 and finished second last season.

“That was definitely a downside to the championship games, and I think that also took away from our fan sections because it was so cold to stand and watch.”

In 2014, high winds in St. Cloud knocked down tents that provided shelter for the teams on the sideline. Rain and snow also made the conditions a challenge.

The Eagan girls team won both Class 2A tournaments contested in St. Cloud. Returning players remember the joy of capturing state titles, as well as the conditions.

“It was brutal,” said current junior Kayle Vrieze. “It was super cold. The worst part for me was at halftime, having to go back outside.”

The return to indoor soccer doesn’t involve section or state quarterfinal games, and fingers are crossed annually that the weather will cooperate for those contests. In late October last year, snow had to be shoveled off the field during a Class 1A boys state quarterfinal doubleheader at Chisago Lakes High School. On the same evening, the conditions were similar for a 1A boys doubleheader at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park. One of the victorious teams there was Breck, which advanced to the state title game before losing to Orono in overtime.

“By the time we played in the semifinals at SCSU it was seasonably pretty nice,” Breck coach George Stuempfig said. “It was our quarterfinal at Benilde-St. Margaret’s that was miserable, weather-wise. We were the late game, and by that time the rain was changing to snow and the wind was ferocious.”

Orono girls coach Erin Murray, the mother of three young children, said her husband had his hands full in keeping the kids warm and comfortable during blisteringly cold games in St. Cloud.

“Watching these game with three young kids was not ideal for my husband,” she said. “I had a brother and sister that didn't come to many of our games in St. Cloud because their children were young. I know of grandparents that would have been at our games if they were indoors.”

One person who has been through games at the Metrodome as well as Husky Stadium over the last five years – and would love to have his team play in the new Vikings stadium – is Eagan girls soccer coach Bulut Ozturk. He was the coach at Lakeville North when the Panthers reached the Metrodome three years in a row, then took over at Eagan before the Wildcats’ two-year championship run.

“I’m pretty pumped,” he said. “I was pretty spoiled, going into the Metrodome every single year. We went to St. Cloud, where the elements, the conditions, were tough. It was cold. It just wasn’t easy. Of course, I’m not complaining, we won back-to-back state championships there. But we’re happy. I think everyone is excited to go back inside.”

MSHSL football state semifinals and Prep Bowl championship games also will return indoors this fall, with those games played between Nov. 17 and 26. For both soccer and football, anticipation is building for crowds of sport-specific diehards as well as other fans who will want to see the new stadium at high school prices rather than pay NFL prices to watch the Vikings; the most expensive single-session ticket will be $14 for football and $12 for soccer.

“(The new stadium) is spectacular,” Breck’s Stuempfig said. “I was there for the Chelsea-A.C. Milan game. My son, who was with me, said ‘Imagine playing a state tournament game in here.’ I looked around and it struck me that it would be a great experience for our guys.

“We mentioned it in passing to our team, but of course a lot has to happen in order to make it that far, and we don't want it to be a distraction. Yet we very much appreciate that the MSHSL has negotiated to play state tournament games there, because it will be an extremely memorable experience for whoever makes it to play in those games.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The current athletes were happy to participate as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a great message from a great athlete.

Olympic Track: Blankenship Advances, Mead Falls (But Advances)
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/17/2016 2:13:31 PM

The first round of Olympic track and field qualifying races was a mixed bag for two former MSHSL track and cross-country stars.

Ben Blankenship, a 2007 graduate of Stillwater High School, advanced through the first round of racing in the 1,500 meters on Tuesday and will run in one of two semifinal races Thursday evening in Rio.

The first race of the Summer Olympics wasn’t so kind (originally) to Hassan Mead, who graduated from Minneapolis South in 2007. Competing in the qualifying rounds of the 5,000 meters, Mead was among the leaders when his legs became tangled with Great Britain’s Mo Farah on the home stretch and he fell (pictured). He got up quickly, but finished 13th in his heat and 29th overall.

Mead filed an appeal to the meet officials on the grounds that he did not initiate the contact, but the appeal was denied. Later in the day, however, the decision was reversed and Mead will run in Saturday's Olympic final.

In high school, Blankenship won Class 2A state championships in the 1,600 meters as a junior and senior, was third in the 3,200 as a junior and finished sixth as a junior at the 2A cross-country state meet. Mead was the 2A cross-country champion in 2006, was state runner-up in the 3,200 meters as a senior and placed third in the 3,200 at state as a junior. He also placed sixth in the 1,600 as both a junior and senior. Both runners competed at the University of Minnesota.

Andy Bisek, who wrestled at Chaska High School and placed third in the 2004 state tournament, wrestled in Rio. He won his opening match in the 75-kilogram Greco-Roman competition, but was knocked out of the tournament with a loss in the second round.

Alise Post was a three-time MSHSL gymnastics champion in the vault for St. Cloud Tech. Now she’s a professional BMX bike rider who made it to the Olympics. She competed in time trials Wednesday in Rio and will take part in the semifinal round Friday.

Earlier in the games, Wayzata boys swimming coach David Plummer won a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke. He also earned a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay, competing in the early rounds.

Hutchinson native Lindsay Whalen, who plays for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, is part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. They will play France in the semifinals on Thursday.

Here’s a rundown of some other Olympic athletes with Minnesota ties…

Kelly Catlin, Cycling
Catlin was raised in Arden Hills and is a 2014 graduate of Mounds View High School. She is currently a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in biomedical engineering and Chinese. Catlin competed in the 2015 Pan American Games. At the 2016 World Championships she won a gold medal as part of the team pursuit competition. This is her first time competing in the Olympics.

Garrett Bender, Rugby
Bender was born and raised in Minneapolis. In high school, Bender helped lead Washburn High School to a state rugby title. He played football at St. Cloud State University, before focusing exclusively on rugby. In 2015, Bender was part of the U.S. squad that won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games. This will be his first time competing in the Olympics.

Kathryn Johnson, Rugby
Johnson is a Hopkins native and a 2010 graduate of Hopkins High School. In 2012, she founded a Minneapolis-based rugby club. Johnson was part of the U.S. squad that won a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championship. In 2015, the team won a silver medal at the Pan American Games. The Rio Games will be Johnson’s Olympic debut.

Belle Plaine Volleyball: New Look, Same Goals
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/15/2016 8:51:10 PM

Returning to action one year after winning a state championship is nothing new. It happens every year in every high school sport. The scenario comes with a twist in 2016 for the Belle Plaine volleyball team, which held its first workout on Monday.

The Tigers captured their first state title by sweeping three state tournament matches by scores of 3-0, 3-1 and 3-0 in Class 2A last November. In March, coach Cassie Koch announced she was stepping down because she was pregnant with her second child.

As a high school player in Belle Plaine from 1999 to 2001, Koch (then Cassie Wolpern) set a national high school record for career kills and was a multiple-year all-state selection. In six years as the Tigers coach, she led them to five conference titles and four trips to state.

So this new seasons begins with new, albeit familiar, co-coaches in Rich Foust and Sara Geller. Foust was the Tigers’ head coach before Koch took over in 2009 and he and Geller have been longtime assistants.

“Any time you win a state championship it’s a phenomenal run,” Foust said before Monday’s practice. “Those kids were good all the way through, in seventh grade, eighth grade and all the way through. You knew that was going to be a good year. You could do different things in practice because they were so skilled. All the pieces were there.”

The Tigers lost four key players to graduation and return a core of four seniors: Mariena Hayden, Elizabeth Johnson, Taylor Kruger and Danielle Taylor (pictured). Hayden, who will play collegiately at Nevada-Las Vegas, is the tallest player at 6 feet. Competing with shorter athletes will be a big test this season.

“One of our concerns is that we’re going to be two to four inches shorter at every position that we’re filling,” Foust said. “We’ve had a nice run here at Belle Plaine of taller-than-average girls. You can do so many things when you have a tall lineup in the front row.”

Geller said with a chuckle, “We could be playing in platform heels.”

Yes, there will be challenges for the Tigers, who are ranked third (behind Kenyon-Wanamingo and Rocori) in the preseason Class 2A coaches poll. But they will be ready.

“I think we still have confidence from last year because we know what it takes to win,” Kruger said. “We still have the drive from last year.”

There’s no discounting the experience gained on the path to a state title. The Tigers’ seniors will bank on that, but there is a gap from the 12th-graders to the rest of the team. The varsity roster currently includes one junior, one sophomore, one freshman and one eighth-grader.

“We’re going to rely on the seniors to transition those younger girls into ‘This is what varsity play looks like,’ ” Geller said.

The season’s first practice was focused on little things: measuring height, arm length and leaping ability, along with speed and quickness drills. Leaping will be important for the undersized Tigers; Hayden is their big thumper at the net but finding others to provide arm-swinging threats is important.

“You know (opponents are) going to probably stick three blockers on Mariena in the front row,” Geller said. “We’re going to have to have other options available.”

That’s where preseason workouts will be vital.

“We have a lot of spots to fill,” said Johnson. “We’ll probably try to mix and move everyone around everywhere. We need some of our younger kids to fight for those spots and fight to be competitive in those spots. I think that’s our biggest challenge right now, bringing us all together and bringing us back to where we were last year.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 2
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 126

White Bear Lake Football: Bears On The Run At 12:01
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/15/2016 2:14:52 AM

Today is a big day. Big Monday. It’s the first day of practice for MSHSL football, volleyball, cross-country, soccer, girls swimming and girls tennis as the 2016-17 year begins.

Everything is new and optimism is everywhere. All across Minnesota, teams are gathering for the first meetings and opening drills as preparation begins for the new season. How much fun is this?

Technically, practices could begin at one second after midnight. And a few teams didn’t waste that one second. One of them was the football team from White Bear Lake High School, which took the field as the clock turned from Sunday night into Monday morning. And what a scene: there was a student section in the stands, 30 cheerleaders in fine midseason form and about as much enthusiasm as you would expect on Day One.

The football players gathered inside the school a little after 9 p.m. to watch a suitable high school football movie, “When the Game Stands Tall.” They were raring to go well before midnight. They were strapped into their black helmets and ready to roll when one of the assistant coaches said, “We’ve got 25 minutes.” To which a player responded, “So we just wait?” Yes, we just wait.

When it was finally time to hit the field, the Bears tore through a large paper sign created and held by the cheerleaders. It read, “Midnight Madness 2016. This Is Our Time.”

The Bears were on the field for nearly an hour. They did position-specific drills and played some seven-on-seven. The offensive players wore white shirts and the defense wore black.

The Bears went 2-7 last season, losing to eventual Class 6A state champion Osseo 48-21 in their postseason opener.

Head coach Ryan Bartlett is a rare combination: A young age coupled with experience. His first job as an assistant coach came when he was a sophomore in college and coaching at Irondale High School, his alma mater. He became the head coach at Armstrong when he was only 25. He’s now 32 and beginning his eighth year as a head coach, having been at White Bear Lake since 2012.

Bartlett (pictured) has learned a few things along the way.

“I think every year things come up that you don’t always plan for,” he said. “The longer you go, you kind of anticipate things more. The other part of it is that you kind of expect the unexpected. When you’re younger, you think, ‘Holy crap, what do I do?’ Something will come up this week that we didn’t expect.”

Expectations are high for the Bears this fall, based on experience gained a year ago. Six sophomores were in the starting lineup in 2015 – “that’s too many,” Bartlett said -- and lots of other youngsters saw action. But the flip side of that equation is that this year’s team has a bundle of experienced athletes. Another positive sign: There are nearly 200 kids playing football in grades nine through 12 at White Bear Lake.

“Our numbers are really good,” Bartlett said. “We have a lot of experience on offense at the skill spots and a couple linemen. Most of our juniors have played. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot.”

The preseason period will focus on hard work during practices, but the Bears also will have fun. On Friday the players will present impersonations of the coaching staff, which is always a hoot.

“They rehearse and they really do a good job with that,” Bartlett said. “It’s probably the funniest thing we do all year.”

During the second week of practice the players will go bowling as a team, which also sounds like more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Like every other fall sports team in our state, the Bears are ready to go. There’s something special about the first official practice of a season, and Monday morning’s proceedings at White Bear Lake was a grand way to kick off the 2016-17 year.

“We’re excited,” Bartlett said.

Indeed we are. For all our teams, all over Minnesota.

Good luck, everybody.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 62

Countdown To A New School Year
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/8/2016 8:11:58 PM

The 2016-17 MSHSL year is right around the corner, with practices for fall sports officially beginning on Monday, Aug. 15. (Note to athletes: make sure you have all the necessary paperwork submitted to your school’s activity office.)

Two football teams started working out a week earlier than the rest of the fall teams in Minnesota. Mountain Iron-Buhl and Northeast Range in Babbitt each lost one regular-season game when Mesabi Academy closed, and they will open the season against each other on Aug. 26 in Babbitt. The rest of the MSHSL football teams will play their first games the following week.

The situation is basically a throwback to what was known as Zero Week; that format officially ended when district football scheduling began last season.

As Mesabi Daily News sports editor Jim Romsaas wrote …

The teams were scrambling to find opponents for their eighth game and to fill an opening in their schedules. (Northeast Range) Nighthawks head coach Mark Fabish asked his seniors if they definitely wanted to play an eighth game, and they were all on board. “I don’t think there was one that said no.’’

MI-B head man Dan Zubich said his coaching staff also talked to the Ranger players about scheduling an eighth game. “They really wanted eight games and so did we,’’ he said. “They wanted eight games so we went with that.’’

The teams will play a full eight-game regular season, and each team will have a bye during the regular season. The Rangers are scheduled for a bye Sept. 23, while the Nighthawks will get one in week two (Sept. 2).

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 0
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 0

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