John's Journal
The Best of John's Journal: No. 8/ Sack Hunger: A Night Of Celebration In Spring Grove7/10/2019
Here is entry No. 8 on the list of my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. The focus here is on Spring Grove High School and the entire Spring Grove community, which went to great lengths to gather donations of food and cash to support the Houston County Food Bank as part of the inaugural #mshslSackHunger food drive involving the MSHSL and Second Harvest Heartland. The story was originally posted on January 14.

SPRING GROVE – The school colors at Spring Grove High School are red and black, and the Lions girls basketball players wore their colors with pride during Friday night's Southeast Conference game against Lanesboro. The visiting Burros' colors are orange and black.

And yet, an intriguing shade of light blue was seen everywhere inside the gym. Both teams wore light-blue t-shirts during warmups. The Spring Grove pep band wore the same shirts. Little kids, moms and dads; it seemed like there must have been a hundred of those same light-blue t-shirts in the gym.

That's because there were 100 shirts in the gym. Along with the basketball game – and the familiar tradition of a community gathering for a ballgame – the evening was designated as a celebration of Spring Grove’s community commitment to serving others. And it was my great pleasure to bring those 100 t-shirts to town as part of the celebration. The shirts carried the logo of a collaboration between the MSHSL and Second Harvest Heartland, which provides millions of meals every year in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

I was honored to use the @MSHSLjohn Twitter account to help publicize what we called the #mshslSackHunger campaign during the football playoffs in November. All 28 schools that had teams play in the state semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium were invited to collect food donations and feed the hungry. Spring Grove did a phenomenal job, collecting more than three and a half tons of food to help their neighbors in Houston County.

During a pregame ceremony, Spring Grove Student Council president Rhiannon Skauge told the crowd, "Students, staff and the community have donated cash and food items. Together we are feeding people and changing lives. Let’s give ourselves a big round of applause for coming together as a community to support this cause."

The numbers are remarkable. For a community of 1,330 people and a K-12 school of 350 students to gather so much food – plus thousands of dollars in cash donations to purchase more food – is a real testament to the people who inhabit a southeast Minnesota community known as the first Norwegian settlement in the state.

Traveling with me to Spring Grove was Marcus Schmit, the director of advocacy at Second Harvest Heartland. Marcus was a fine athlete at Red Wing High School not too many years ago, and he and I loved spending a few hours with the great folks in Spring Grove.

During the pregame ceremony, Marcus presented a framed certificate of recognition from Second Harvest Heartland to Spring Grove High School. It read: "In recognition of their heroic dedication to hunger relief and achievement as the 2018 Sack Hunger champion, on behalf of Second Harvest Heartland and those we serve, thank you for your support and commitment in providing 11,466 meals for the one in 11 neighbors facing hunger.”

This was a true community effort. Rhiannon (pictured) mentioned many of the leading contributors during her remarks.

“We have a lot of community support during the food drive,” she said. “Bekah Leafblad and the Trinity Youth worked with student council to canvas the town collecting canned goods and cash. Teresa Fegyak and Merchants Bank hosted a two-day bake sale with student council members and bank employees donating baked goods for the sale. Patrick and Red Longmire from Red’s IGA (grocery store) are huge supporters of the school and community. They had a turkey takeout dinner with proceeds going toward the food shelf and also provided a spot in the store for us to have a bake sale. Ellingson Elevator weighs all the food items before they are taken over to the food shelf. Renee Eiken, past student council advisor, has laid the groundwork for the success of this standing tradition.”

If you click on a website called www.springgrovemn.com you’ll see a wonderful slogan: “Pretty. Neat. Small town.”

Indeed. Congratulations to everyone in Spring Grove.

---Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 9/ The Pride Of Marshall: Four Sports, Ten Trips To State7/8/2019
Here is No. 9 on the list of my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. This story is about Kaia Sueker of Marshall High School, who made a tremendous impression on her teammates and coaches during her career.

The question was very straightforward, as was the answer from Marshall High School girls basketball coach Dan Westby: "No, no, no."

The question: Have you had any other athletes like Kaia Sueker in your coaching career?

No, no, no.

Kaia, a 5-foot-5 senior, is a rarity for several reasons. She's a four-sport athlete, competing in both volleyball and cross-country in the fall, basketball in the winter and track and field in the spring. She plays marimba in the school band and violin in the school orchestra. She's been involved in so many other school clubs and events that it's hard to keep track.

And then there’s this: She has now competed in 10 state tournaments … or 11 if you count her stint as a basketball team manager when she was in eighth grade. And that number is likely to reach 11 (or 12) when her final track season rolls around this spring. That’s how it all began, when she qualified for the state track meet as an eighth-grader.

"I don’t know where she gets the energy,” said Westby – also the Tigers volleyball coach -- after Marshall lost to Becker 68-67 in Wednesday’s Class 3A state quarterfinals at Maturi Pavilion. “She’s a pretty amazing kid.”

Kaia had 14 points, three assists and three steals in the game. It was a heartbreaking loss, coming in the final seconds, but she was all smiles afterwards.

“I think it’s really cool to be up here,” she said. “It’s such a great experience and I’ve enjoyed it with all my teammates. I’m really proud of everyone.”

Kaia is the only player who was also a member of Marshall’s last trip to the state basketball tournament in 2016. In the fall she’ll be a freshman on the cross-country and track teams at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. The end of her high school days will certainly be felt back in her hometown.

“There just aren’t kids like that anymore,” Westby said. “She’s quite a kid. It’ll be different in all sports, not having her. She’s been a part of it for so long.”

I asked Kaia to look ahead 10 years or so and predict what she will remember most about her high school career. Her answer said a lot about herself, her family, Marshall High School and how important school activities are everywhere.

“I think I’ll remember these moments with my team and how special they are,” she said with that big smile. “I’m never going to forget them. I’m going to miss it a lot, I know that, and I’m going to miss my teammates for sure. It’s just been a great experience.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to “Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Best of John's Journal: No. 10/ From 1983 To 2019, Two Ballplayers And A State Record7/5/2019
Today we begin counting down my Top 10 favorite John's Journal stories from the 2018-19 school year. No. 10, which was originally posted on May 5, features two baseball players, one who set a state record in 1983 and another who broke that record in 2019.

Tim Gullickson, who was a record-setting high school baseball player in 1983, has never felt more like a celebrity than he has over the last week. That's because of a young man from Litchfield who topped Gullickson's record streak of 33 consecutive games with a hit.

After Owen Boerema stretched his hitting streak to 34 games a week ago and the news came out, Gullickson started getting calls and texts.

"I'm more famous now that I don’t have the record anymore," said the 53-year-old who lives in Bemidji.

Thirty-six years is a long time for a record to stand. Among the top 10 hitting streaks in Minnesota high school baseball history, all but Gullickson’s 33 were set in the last six years.

Boerema is a senior who throws and hits lefthanded and plays center field when not pitching. In a 4-0 win over Rockford on Thursday, he went hitless to end the streak but pitched a two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts for the Dragons (8-1).

"I’d rather get a win than anything else,” he said. “I wasn’t too frustrated because I was pitching well. And at that point I already had the record. If I had been at 32, then I would have been pretty frustrated.”

Owen had hits in every one of the 26 games he played last season. After the season he learned from coach Jeff Wollin that his 26-game streak put him in the top 10 all-time. His teammates, knowing this fact as the 2019 season began, loudly updated the number each time he extended it.

Wollin said, “Every game when he got a hit, usually in the first inning, you heard somebody in the dugout, ‘That’s 29! 31!’ It doesn’t seem like it weighed on him. I just think he wants to get on base. And if you walk him, he’s probably on second.”

That’s because Boerema, a long and lanky kid with wheels, stole 13 bases in the first eight games this season.

His speed was on display early in Friday’s home game against Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (which was halted by rain in the third inning with Litchfield leading 6-0). On the game’s first pitch, Howard Lake’s Noah Bush hit a looping liner into center field that looked for all the world like a hit until Boerema raced in and made a diving catch. In the bottom of the first inning, Owen hit the first pitch deep and it banged off the left fielder’s glove. Boerema ran to second for what everyone assumed would be a two-base error, but he kept motoring and ended up on third.

“You couldn’t find a finer young man to break this record,” Wollin said. “He’s a great kid, very humble, great student, from a very nice family. He’s got it all in the right perspective. He helps coach summer rec with the little kids, helps with the field in the summertime.”

Owen has been on the Dragons cross-country team in the fall and plays basketball in the winter. He plans to attend the University of Northwestern in St. Paul and play basketball and baseball.

Owen’s batting average this spring is .677. Gullickson, a righthanded pitcher and hitter, still holds the Deer River school record for batting average, hitting .589 in his senior year of 1983. Gullickson said he wasn’t aware of his state record until about 10 years after he graduated.

His coach at Deer River, Jim Erzar, informed him of the news after scouring scorebooks. Erzar was the head coach there for 37 years before retiring after the 2017 season. He was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2013; he’s still involved with the game, now as an umpire.

The person who handled statistics for Erzar in Deer River all those years ago was a young girl named Robin Edgeton … who married Tim Gullickson. “She was a good student,” Erzar said, “someone I could rely on.”

The 1983 season was Erzar’s second as head coach. He recalls a game early that spring when Gullickson was at the plate with the score tied and a runner on second base in the bottom of the seventh inning. He gave Tim the green light to swing away with a 3-0 count, and the senior drove in the winning run.

“That’s how he was,” Erzar said, “kind of clutch.”

Sounds like a young man, 36 years later, from Litchfield.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to “Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

The Best of John’s Journal 2018-19: Honorable Mention Stories6/26/2019
This is a fun time for me. Another school year has ended and I'm going back through all the memories from 2018-19 via the postings here on John's Journal. From the first day of practice for fall sports in August though the end of spring state tournaments in June, I'm reliving lots of wonderful experiences as I traveled around the state, meeting people, watching events and sharing their stories.

The annual goal at this point is to select a Top 10 list of my favorite John's Journal stories. This is always a difficult task; I've been with the MSHSL for a decade now and this yearly summer project, while not easy, is always fun.

Looking back at 2018-19 has been a delightful mission. I went through 386 total entries that were posted between August and June, winnowing stories down to a manageable list; and by "manageable" I mean I managed to whittle it down to 31 stories. From there I'm selecting my personal favorite Top 10 (those 10 have been chosen and I'm in the process of ranking them). I also came up with five Honorable Mention stories. This was tough.

The Honorable Mention stories are summarized here. You can find each of these stories by going to the bottom of this post and clicking "More of John’s Journal" … then you’ll find a month-by-month list of stories on the right side of the page.

In the days ahead I will re-post each of the Top 10 stories individually, counting down from No. 10 to No. 1.

Thanks to everyone for reading these posts throughout the year(s).

Honorable Mention Stories (in calendar order)

Sept. 2/ Like Father, Like Son: The Multisport Boumans Of Buffalo


It’s not surprising, genetically speaking, that Aidan Bouman is a talented football player. His father, after all, is Todd Bouman, who had a lengthy career as an NFL quarterback. Todd is now the head football coach at Buffalo High School, where Aidan is the starting quarterback.

Football, however, isn’t the only family tradition. Aidan also is following in his dad’s footsteps as a multisport athlete. Todd was on the football, basketball and track teams in high school at Russell-Tyler-Ruthton in southwest Minnesota, then played football and basketball at St. Cloud State. Aidan also plays basketball for the Bison, and that won’t change despite his announcement in June of a verbal commitment to play college football at Iowa State. He was the Cyclones’ first commitment from the Class of 2020, making the decision months before his first day of school as an 11th-grader.

Aidan is already taller this his father. Todd, 46, is 6-foot-2 and his son stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 225 pounds. Another difference is that Aidan is lefthanded. If you look at photos of both of them throwing the football, it is almost a mirror image because their motions are so similar.

Sept. 30/ Blue Ox, White Jerseys: Making Memories in Bemidji And Grand Rapids

Oh Hail Bemidji High School! For we’re a hundred million strong! Our hearts are always with you; our eyes upon you every Bemidji man! Rah! Rah! Rah! Oh yes, we’re here to cheer you, to put the old pep in each play! So fight Bemidji, fight Bemidji, fight to win your way to victory!

Imagine the scene in Bemidji on Friday night. The famous statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox standing there, minding their own business, on the shore of Lake Bemidji at 9:35 p.m. Paul, the top of his flat-top cap 18 feet in the air, probably saw the two school buses rolling down Paul Bunyan Drive. They made the left turn at the light, pulled up to the curb and football players began piling out, hootin’ and hollerin’.

Imagine the scene in Grand Rapids on Saturday morning. Varsity football players are diving to make tackles, somehow missing every time, then cheering and celebrating in the end zone as students with special needs spike the football, some showing off celebratory dance moves. This was the fifth annual Itasca County Victory Day, a time when boys and girls who cannot play football become football stars, putting on jerseys, running drills with the varsity boys, hitting tackling dummies, kicking field goals, catching and throwing passes, hearing their name over the public-address system as part of the "Thunderhawks starting lineup" and again when they outrun the flailing varsity players into the end zone.

Dec. 3/ Brainerd’s Mike Bialka: 40 Years Of Positive Impacts

In 1978 Les Sellnow, editor of the newspaper in Brainerd, called a recent college graduate who was in his first year as the sports editor (and one-person sports department) for the Crookston Times. Les had an opening for a sports writer and invited Mike Bialka to return to his hometown for an interview.

The young scribe had a conflict. He would be playing in the state amateur baseball tournament and couldn’t make the interview. A couple of phone conversations later, Sellnow said simply, "If you want the job, it’s yours.” No interview, no hoops to jump through. So the young man’s first day on the job was the first day he walked into the newsroom of his hometown newspaper.

That young man’s last day on the job will be the first day of 2019, ending a 40-year career at the Brainerd Dispatch, the last 33 as sports editor. Mike Bialka is a real rarity: he devoted nearly his entire career to his hometown community newspaper and made a million friends along the way.

March 2/ Park Rapids’ Ashton Clark: Perseverance, Dedication, Commitment

Saturday night was special at Xcel Energy Center. The final matches of the high school wrestling season, in which individual state champions are crowned, are always held in a joyous, raucous setting, with gold medals being awarded in front of cheering crowds. High school wrestling careers sometimes end quietly, too.

Ashton Clark, a senior from Park Rapids, was hoping to go out on top. He placed second in Class 2A as a sophomore and junior and came to the 2019 state tournament in the 120-pound class with dreams of a first-place finish. That dream was dashed when he lost an opening-round match on Friday morning in the most dramatic way possible.

But the story, the story that really matters, the story that says so much about the young man, is how he made it back to state when it seemed impossible. Ashton suffered a broken leg on Jan. 5 while wrestling in the championship match at a tournament in Ogilvie. He won that match, despite a broken bone just above the ankle. Doctors told him his wrestling season was over.

He wasn’t hearing it.

June 5/ Future Teacher Signing Ceremonies Continue To Grow

During a special ceremony last month, held for the first time at Delano High School, several soon-to-be-graduating seniors sat before their families and teachers and signed the same statement. They intend to become educators as they head off to college, and the statement read, "I dedicate myself to the life of an educator and providing the foundation upon which future generations will build their lives. I commit to the cultivation of character, for I know that humanity cannot flourish without courage, compassion, honesty, and trust. Further, I commit myself to the advancement of my own learning and to the cultivation of my own character, in order to promote the love of learning in my future students."

Similar signing ceremonies were held this spring at nearly 20 other Minnesota high schools. A year ago I was made aware of three such signings, so clearly the idea of holding Future Teacher Signing Ceremonies has taken off in our state.

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to “Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

Hopkins' Fahnbulleh Named National Track Athlete Of The Year6/24/2019
Congratulations to Hopkins High School sprinter Joe Fahnbulleh, who has been named the National Senior Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association. He is the first Minnesota athlete to win the award.

Here is the announcement from the NHSCA...

The National High School Coaches Association ("NHSCA”) is pleased to announce Joe Fahnbulleh of Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota as its National Senior Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year.

Fahnbulleh closed-out his scholastic career by defending his 200 meter dash Class 2A state title, plus he anchored the school's 4x200-meter relay team that won its second straight state gold medal. The relay team broke its own state record with a winning time of 1 minute, 25.66 seconds. Fahnbulleh, who will attend the University of Florida on a scholarship, was named Mr. Track and Field in Minnesota by the sport’s coaches association.

“The (Florida) coaches didn’t just only care about my athletic ability, they cared about me as a human. I see coaches at UF as the father figures I never had in my life. That’s why I chose Florida,” Fahnbulleh said.

Fahnbulleh, who fled Liberia (Africa) with his family during a coup, said education is very important, “My mom says nobody can take away your education. Opportunities are there. Most people see them but don’t take them; I act on my opportunities.”

“Joe is an excellent example what this award stands for,” said Eric Hess, Executive Director of the NHSCA. “He has excelled as much in the classroom as he has on the track. We congratulate him on an outstanding high school career and wish him success at the University of Florida.”

Fahnbulleh is the first Minnesota athlete to win the NHSCA Senior Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year Award.

Throughout the 2018-19 sports season, the NHSCA has been announcing the Athlete of the Year honorees in 20 boys and girls sports. This marks the 20th consecutive year the NHSCA has honored achievers within the high school athletic community nationwide.

Each of the honorees will receive a beautiful plaque. In addition, the Athlete of the Year honoree will be displayed in the National High School Digital Sports Hall of Fame that is currently under development.

Here are the NHSCA’s past selections for the Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year:
2018 – Kieran McDermott, Bel Air HS, Maryland
2017 - Damion Thomas, Northeast HS, Florida
2016 – Norman Grimes, Canyon HS, Texas
2015 – Chad Zallow, John F. Kennedy HS, Warren, Ohio
2014 – Trentavis Friday – Cherryville HS, North Carolina
2013 – Grant Hill – Huntsville HS, Alabama
2012 – Jarrion Lawson – Liberty-Eylau HS, Texas
2011 – Gunnar Nixon – Santa Fe HS, Oklahoma
2010 – Sam Crouser – Gresham HS, Oregon
2009 – Mason Finley – Buena Vista HS, Colorado
2008 – Christian Taylor – Sandy Creek HS, Georgia
2007 – Craig Forys – Colts Neck HS, New Jersey
2006 – David Klech – California HS, California
2005 – Kevin Craddock – James Logan HS, California
2004 – Xavier Carter – Palm Bay HS, Florida
2003 – Earvin Parker – Lewisville HS, Texas
2002 – Ryan Shields – Leo HS, Illinois
2001 – Alan Webb – South Lakes HS, Virginia
2000 – David Fraser – Westfield HS, Texas