John's Journal
A Special Night In Annandale: Hope For Henry 2/8/2017
ANNANDALE – Two comments overheard during a grand Tuesday evening of basketball in a packed gymnasium do a pretty good job of telling the story.

Quote No. 1: “This is just a game. There’s a little kid fighting for his life.”

Quote No. 2: “Those were two dang good teams going at it.”

Both quotes are accurate. These were just games, with the girls and boys basketball teams from Hopkins heading to Annandale for a varsity doubleheader. The overall focus was on a little boy who is in the minds and hearts and prayers of everyone who attended.

Henry Dolan is the grandson of Annandale boys basketball coach Skip Dolan. Henry was born with heart defects and given a two percent chance to survive for a week after birth. That was nine months ago. Henry, who has undergone a heart transplant, remains hospitalized and hopes are high for his long-term health. But the road will be long for Henry, his parents, Sam and Mollie Dolan, and his two big sisters.

There were signs on the gym walls proclaiming it a “Night of Hope.” Hope For Henry t-shirts, hats and bracelets were sold. The teams wore Hope For Henry shirts during warmups.

The girls game was, well, one-sided. The Hopkins girls are the top-ranked team in Class 4A and ran their record to 22-0 with a 79-35 victory over the Class 2A Cardinals. The boys game was not like that at all. Here were the mighty Hopkins Royals, longtime power in Class 4A and currently ranked No. 6 in that class with a pregame record of 14-5, and the Annandale Cardinals, unranked in Class 2A and holding a record of 15-3.

Between warmups and tipoff of the boys game, Skip Dolan and Cardinals senior guard Connor Magrum each spoke to the crowd.

Magrum and his teammates have made Henry part of the team. He is an honorary Cardinal, with a number 13 jersey dedicated to him (that’s the number Henry’s dad wore). The players all wear Hope For Henry wristbands, which they hang on a makeshift wooden tree during games. The Hopkins players did something special, too, writing personal notes to the Dolans and hanging them on the tree before warmups.

“Tonight we would like to draw attention to a special little boy who has been in our hearts since long before the season began,” Connor said. He stressed the importance of organ donation, saying, “One way we can all be heroes in our community and beyond is by considering becoming an organ donor.”

Coach Dolan thanked the Hopkins teams for coming to Annandale, and thanked all the people behind Tuesday’s events. It was clear that Skip and his family have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. (Skip is pictured here with the Hopkins girls team.)

“We are truly, truly thankful to this community, to this student body, to this school district,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of a community and what you’ve done.”

The longest ovation of the night came when Skip introduced Sam and Mollie, who were in the stands while grandma was with Henry for a few hours.

“Imagine being told that there’s a two percent chance at birth that your child will live the first week,” Skip said. He ended his comments with this: “Let’s play basketball!”

And oh did they play basketball. The Royals shot the lights out early and led 29-11 midway through the first half. The Cardinals began finding the range and were only behind by five at halftime, 45-40.

The halftime entertainment included a free throw contest. The hopefuls paid a dollar for the chance to sink a shot and win a two-liter jug of pop. The 50-50 raffle winner also was announced. The pot was north of a thousand dollars and the winner would take home more than $500. But, as expected, the holder of the lucky ticket simply said, “keep it all” and the money went toward Henry’s care. Huge round of applause.

The boys from Annandale did not waver in the second half. The score was 50-50 with 14 minutes to go and the atmosphere was electric. After that? Bedlam.

A three-point play by Trent Pepper and a three-point field goal by Jarod Wilken gave Annandale a 61-57 lead with 8:56 left. The crowd was screaming and that never changed. Joe Hedstrom, Hopkins’ 6-foot-11 junior center, powered to the hoop to give the Royals a two-point edge and Wilken tied it with a layup. There were missed shots and turnovers in the final minutes, and the verdict was finally sealed with Hopkins senior Ishmael El-Amin making two free throws to give the Royals a 72-71 win that they will long remember.

The postgame scene was just as special. There were handshakes and hugs, “thanks for coming” and “wow, what a game!” Skip Dolan posed for photos with Hopkins players and coaches, big smiles on every face. It was truly a night to remember.

Someday, Henry will hear all about it.

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 349
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 7,815
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Everybody Wins During Wrestling Night In Perham 2/4/2017
PERHAM – Friday was big here in Perham, which if you aren’t familiar with Minnesota geography is on U.S. Highway 10 between Frazee and New York Mills. And if that doesn’t help then you need to look at a map. Because Perham is a special place.

Here’s a fact that tells you how special this community is: Last November the voters approved the construction of a new high school. So in a couple years there will be a major celebration when those brand-new doors swing open.

Friday night’s focus was wrestling and the festivities were held in the gymnasium at the eloquently named Prairie Wind Middle School, a modern structure where the Yellowjackets basketball teams also play. On Friday the girls team had the night off and the boys hoopsters made the 80-minute drive to Breckenridge to meet the Cowboys in a game between the top two teams in Section 8AA. In that game, Perham sophomore Jenson Beachy became the first boys player in school history to score 1,000 points as the Yellowjackets defeated Breckenridge 64-48.

Among the Perham basketball players is senior Reid Moser. His father, Robb, and sophomore brother Ty couldn’t make it to Breckenridge because Robb is the head coach of the wrestling team and Ty is the varsity 195-pounder. What an exciting household that must be.

Wrestling Night in Perham was spectacular. The Yellowjackets, who are ranked sixth in Class 2A, hosted Frazee (No. 2 in 1A) and St. Michael-Albertville (No. 5 in 3A). At last season’s state tournament, St. Michael-Albertville and Frazee were team runners-up while Perham placed fifth. What all that means is there is a very thin sliver of daylight between these teams and the very tip-top of their sport.

During the triangulated festivities, Perham defeated Frazee 34-21 in the lid-lifter and St. Michael-Albertville beat Frazee 61-18. Those matches were held on one mat while junior-varsity wrestlers battled on a second mat. The finale came after one mat was removed, the other mat was yanked to the center of the gym and the lights over the bleachers were dimmed. The focus was on Perham vs. St. Michael-Albertville, towns that are separated by 147 miles and linked by a love of high school activities.

The Knights won at seven of the first eight weight classes and led 29-6 before the Yellowjackets triumphed in four of the final six (three by fall) for a final count of St. Michael-Albertville 39, Perham 27.

The competition closed with Perham senior Jonathan Staebler getting a pin at 285 pounds. Shortly after, the house lights were raised and the mat was razed (meaning it was rolled up into sections until next time).

What a night it was. There were walking tacos and walking mascots; the Perham Yellowjacket and Wiley the Wallaby representing KLN Family Brands, the legendary civic-minded Perham employer that makes candy and pet food. On behalf of KLN, little kids handed out box after box of sweet goodies to the fans between matches.

Someone from nearby Wadena won the 50-50 raffle, and that fine citizen donated the winnings back to the cause. If you aren’t familiar with this concept, a 50-50 raffle means fans buy tickets (usually for a dollar each), and at a certain point in the proceedings a drawing is held, with half the dough going to the winner and the other half going to whatever that night’s cause is; it can be a wrestling program, a school project, etc. There were several cash drawings, as well, with folks taking home prizes of $50, $100 and one lucky lady winning one thousand American dollars.

Candy or cash or thrills on the mat. During Wrestling Night in Perham, everybody went home a winner.

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

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 347
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 7,730
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
She’s Out Of The Lineup But Still A Big Part Of The Team2/1/2017
Lindsay Czech was preparing for hockey practice with her Wayzata High School teammates the other day, but she needed a little help in getting her equipment on. Oh, she had no trouble with things like skates and pads, but assistance was required as she attempted to put on the finishing touches: a grass skirt and, uh, a coconut bra.

The occasion was the first annual Trojan Games for the team, a workout devoted to fun drills and challenges, with the players in costume. There were princesses and cows and NBA jerseys and, yes, Hawaiian outfits.

The most important thing, however, was that Lindsay was on the ice with her teammates. Light skating at practice is as far as she will get this season; a knee injury suffered shortly before practice began in October put a stake through her senior year. She was cleared to skate again last week, but what a rotten break for one of the top players in the state.

“It’s definitely been really difficult,” she said. “It’s been a test of mental toughness and just keeping the faith a little bit.”

A sense of humor never hurts, either, and Lindsay is well-equipped in that area. As she was describing what she’s been through she added with a giggle (and a slight cough), “Oh, I had influenza A last week, too. I have really good luck.”

She can laugh about it now, but things weren’t quite so comical at the time of her injury. She was playing powder puff football at Wayzata, carrying the ball and running. Attempting to change directions, she planted her left leg and the knee went kaboom. Torn ACL. “It hurt right away,” she said.

It took a few days for MRI results to confirm the worst: No senior hockey season for Lindsay Czech. Phone calls followed, the first one to Wayzata coach Jess Christopherson. Then one to Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell. Czech had already accepted a scholarship to UMD, and Crowell immediately put to rest any fears that the star defensive player’s scholarship might evaporate.

“In terms of how it affects our program and things like that, I didn’t worry about that at all,” Crowell said. “I was concerned about her. As a captain and a senior leader on her team, it was a pretty devastating blow to her. Timing-wise, it was early in her senior year. By the time she gets here, she’ll be healthy.”

Lindsay is a well-decorated hockey player. She was invited to the Under-18 Women’s National Festival as one of the top players in the nation, is a two-time Under-18 Select Camp attendee and was part of the Under-18 National Development Camp. She is a four-year letterwinner at Wayzata and earned all-Lake Conference honors as a sophomore and junior. She committed to UMD before her junior season.

Crowell is in her second season as the head coach at UMD after serving as associate head coach at Harvard. She coached Czech at a Under-16 national camp and got to know her.

“She stands out as such a fun, goofy kid to have in the locker room. Then when I came here she was in the recruiting pipeline. She was my first scholarship recruit here and that means something to me. She signed on with us well before we were ranked No. 2 in the country, and we’ll always remember that. We expect her to be an impact player here.”

Wayzata lost 12 seniors from last year’s team and Christopherson is in her first year as their head coach. Czech and fellow seniors Natalie Heising (who has signed with Penn State) and Jackie Russo are captains on a roster filled with young players. Heising recently returned from a stint with Team USA at the International Ice Hockey Federation Under-18 Women’s World Championships.

Czech was named a captain after her injury, which confirmed how important she is to her teammates and coaches.

“Not only does she come to practice every single day, she registered and paid for hockey, even though she will not play one second of hockey this year,” Christopherson said. “She’s there every single day. If she’s going to be late she will call or email like any other kid. She sits on the bench and she’s coaching kids for us. I think it’s been a little different angle for her to see things and learn more about the game. It’s been a real positive thing. She’s kind of rallied around this.”

In fact, having the opportunity to see the game from a coaching angle has made Lindsay consider becoming a coach.

“I think it’s been kind of a blessing,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know an amazing coaching staff at Wayzata, and I want to come back and coach someday with Jess and for Wayzata. It’s a different environment, not being a player and hanging out more with the coaches.

“My team has been so unbelievably supportive, too. When I went out on the ice they were so excited. That’s so awesome.”

Even though she’s back on skates, Lindsay and everyone else knows she will not be in uniform again until she is a college player.

“There’s no chance she’ll get in a game,” Christopherson said. “This is a kid who will be an impact player at the next level. It would be irresponsible to put her on the ice during the season.”

Except, of course, for some light skating at practice, grass skirt included.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 344
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 7,330
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
It’s More Than A Game, It’s The Breakdown 1/29/2017
What started in the 2003-04 season as little more than a randomly scheduled boys basketball game in Becker between two teams that had little in common – great big Hopkins and teeny tiny Ulen-Hitterdal – has become a dominant force in the Minnesota game. Say “Breakdown” to anyone connected to basketball and they will more than likely nod their head.

Officially, the entity is now known as Breakdown Sports USA. The people behind it put together all-day basketball events such as Saturday’s 12th annual Border Battle at Apple Valley High School, which pitted seven teams from Minnesota against seven teams from Wisconsin. Other boys and girls basketball events are held each year and the Breakdown works in promoting other sports as well as producing full-color yearbooks for several sports.

It’s an amazing story, built on a desire by coaches and teachers to support their games. Breakdown founder Justin Hegna coached the Becker girls basketball team to a Class 3A state championship in 2007. His side job was creating publications geared toward high school sports, and that work resulted in relationships with coaches all over the state.

Before the 2003-04 basketball season, he learned that the boys teams from Hopkins and Ulen-Hitterdal had empty slots on their schedules. Since he was coaching in Becker, and as he put it, “I had keys to the building,” the two teams agreed to play there, which made geographic sense. Hegna then added a girls game on the same day between Annandale and Pelican Rapids.

That little afternoon of basketball grew and grew. For years now the Breakdown has hosted an early-season Tip-Off Classic for girls teams and another for boys. This year both were held at Hopkins High School, with 16 games on two courts each day.

Other Breakdown events this basketball season include the Granite City Classic in St. Cloud, the MLK Classic in Duluth, the Winter Lakes Classic in Alexandria and the Community Clash at Hopkins. They also host basketball events in the summer and fall.

The Breakdown’s biggest claim to basketball fame are the matchups they put together. Saturday’s Border Battle, for instance, included the five-time defending state champion among Minnesota’s Class 3A boys teams (DeLaSalle), the two-time defending state champion of Wisconsin’s largest class (Stevens Point), and eight players who have committed to Division I colleges. The capacity crowd inside the Apple Valley gym was testament to the event’s drawing power. The Border Battle is held in Minnesota during odd-numbered years and in Wisconsin during even-numbered years.

“It surely has made some of the teams that are really good get some really good games,” Tartan boys basketball coach Mark Klingsporn said of the Breakdown events. “It’s provided opportunities to play different teams in different settings, really good competition. Sometimes it’s hard for the top-tier teams to line up those great games.”

When Hegna envisioned the concept of a Border Battle, he called Klingsporn. They met in Maple Grove and talked for several hours.

“He had some really good ideas and I had some things I thought might work and that the high school coaches might like,” Klingsporn said.

Minnetonka High School hosted Tip-Off Classics for several years; a local fire marshall made an appearance in 2015 to assess an overflow crowd. That site was the first to use two courts at the same time.

“People thought I was crazy,” Hegna said. “I met with (then-Minnetonka activities director John Hedstrom) because they had two gyms. John should get as much credit as anybody because Minnetonka was one of the few schools with two gyms that could hold high school games. You didn’t see that in high school, two games at once, live real games.

“I think the popularity of it comes from our culture and society. People like options. They like to get more bang for their buck. We market to college coaches, too, and they’re restricted to how many times they can watch a kid. Now they can fly in and see 32 teams in one day.”

There have been plenty of memorable moments, not all of them on the basketball court. For instance, back when Hegna was still coaching as well as running events, he was called for a technical foul during a game. Afterwards, one of his duties was handing the officials their paychecks.

“Probably never before has a coach gotten a technical foul and then had to pay the official who gave him the technical foul,” he said. “I had to deliver the envelope to pay the official who gave me the technical, and I deserved it.”

Saturday’s Border Battle was well-run, with all seven games starting on time and fans moving easily in and out of the gym.

“I’m delighted and I’m surprised by the growth of it,” Hegna said. “We’re very passionate and we’re basketball junkies.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 342
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 7,230
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Class 3A Wrestling Rankings1/27/2017
From The Guillotine.

1. Shakopee (2)
2. Apple Valley (2)
3. Anoka (7)
4. St. Francis (7)
5. St. Michael-Albertville (5)
6. Owatonna (1)
7. Prior Lake (2)
8. Hastings (3)
9. Willmar (8)
10. Eagan (3)
11. Eastview (2)
12. Cambridge-Isanti (7)
Lean and Mean
Coon Rapids (7), Woodbury (3), Centennial (4), Stillwater Area (4), Little Falls (8), St. Cloud Tech (8), Faribault (1), Brainerd/Pillager (8)