John's Journal
The Effort, The Atmosphere Of Minnesota’s Best Football Rivalry10/12/2015
SPRING GROVE – With four minutes to play in the biggest football game of the final week of the regular season, one of the head coaches said to the official on his sideline: “I don’t know whether we’re going to win or lose this game, but this is a lot of fun.”

After the game, one of the quarterbacks said, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

The coach was Gary Sloan and the quarterback was Michael Stejskal, both from Grand Meadow. Knowledgeable football fans are familiar with Grand Meadow; the Superlarks have played in the last three nine-man Prep Bowls, winning state titles in 2013 and 2014.

Grand Meadow defeated Spring Grove 21-20 Friday night in what has become tradition in southeastern Minnesota: A meeting between the two teams to end the regular season, with a rematch expected in the Section 1 championship game. That has been the case every year since 2011. Friday’s game pitted the top-ranked Superlarks against the second-ranked Lions, both coming in with 7-0 records.

The teams also came in with a combined record of 100-12 since the start of the 2011 season; Grand Meadow was 54-6 and Spring Grove was 46-6. The Superlarks have now won 30 games in a row, second only to Eden Prairie’s 38 as the current longest winning streaks in the state.

The evening was everything you’d expect from the biggest small-town rivalry in Minnesota. A charter bus brought fans from Grand Meadow, saving them from driving the 58 miles. Grilled pork chops and pork burgers served as supper to folks who filled a couple small sets of bleachers and stood around the field, held in position by a rope that surrounded the playing area.

Across the street from Blayne Onsgard Memorial Field, a cluster of fans sat in lawn chairs around a backyard fire, watching the action from the cheap seats. (But this being a small town where people might talk, those fans also purchase tickets.)

“It was an exciting atmosphere,” Lions coach Zach Hauser said. “You have to give it to both communities for coming out, showing the support. For being a regular-season game, it felt pretty big.”

Spring Grove beat the Superlarks in the regular season as well as the section title game in 2011, and beat them again in the 2012 regular season. It’s been all Grand Meadow since then, and Friday’s victory was the Superlarks’ sixth in a row in the series. But looming on the horizon is the anticipated rematch in the Oct. 24 section title game at Rochester Technical and Community College.

Other games must be won first, of course. Top-seeded Grand Meadow will host No. 8 seed Alden-Conger in Wednesday’s section playoff opener and second-seeded Spring Grove will play at home vs. No. 7 Glenville-Emmons.

Grand Meadow has 95 students in grades nine through 12, and Spring Grove’s enrollment is 77. The Lions’ senior class is the smallest in school history with only 12 students (including four boys on the football team). And here’s a note about the importance of football in these towns: Grand Meadow once moved Halloween trick-or-treating in town to Nov. 1 because the Superlarks had a game on Oct. 31.

Friday’s regular-season finale was a game of big plays, turnovers and stout defense. The rivals came in as the highest-scoring teams in the state regardless of class, but no one expected them to match their offensive averages (Spring Grove 57.6 points, Grand Meadow 56.1).

After a surprisingly scoreless first quarter, Grand Meadow’s Christopher Bain intercepted a pass, switched to his offensive position and ran 66 yards for a touchdown. The score was 7-7 at halftime after Spring Grove’s Chase Grinde, a talented 6-foot-3 junior, hit Dylan Kampschroer on a 62-yard scoring pass.

The Superlarks, known for a punishing rushing game, did exactly that to open the second half, keeping the ball on the ground before a two-yard run by Bain gave them a 14-0 lead. The Lions answered on their first play after the kickoff, with a short pass to Kampschroer turning into an 84-yard scoring scamper to make it 14-14.

A 1-yard touchdown plunge by Bain put Grand Meadow ahead 21-14, which was quickly followed by a 48-yard TD pass from Grinde to Alex Engelhardt on the final play of the third quarter. The key play of the game came on the extra point, which was probably booted a little low and was blocked.

“We knew it was going to be a battle from the start,” Bain said. “They brought it all and we had to fight right back.”

Hauser said, “I was really hoping the extra point wouldn’t be the deciding factor in the game. … I was proud of the way our guys fought all game, and we just came up a hair short.”

The game was intense, the atmosphere was electric. But underneath it all was a strong show of respect on both sides.

“The thing I like about it so much is the sportsmanship among the kids and the coaches,” Sloan said. “We get along great. There’s so much respect.”

Stejskal echoed his coach’s words: “We’ll see them again. We have respect for each other and they always come ready to play. They give us their best effort and we do our best.”

Until they meet again …

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 106
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,651
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Becker’s Alex Meidt: There’s Football In Those Genes10/9/2015
BECKER – One way to look at Becker football player Alex Meidt is numerically. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior is a two-legged stick of dynamite who caught touchdown passes of 71, 26 and 37 yards from quarterback Andrew Stanger on Thursday in the Bulldogs’ 42-6 victory over Albany in the regular-season finale.

For the season Meidt has 24 receptions for 566 yards and 10 touchdowns, usually playing very little in the second half for the unbeaten and defending Class 4A state champion Bulldogs.

But numbers don’t tell the entire story. Meidt has the kind of pedigree that thoroughbred owners drool over. His dad, Chris, is one of the all-time great players in Minnesota high school history, leading Minneota to state championships in 1986 and 1987. Chris still ranks first or second all-time in the state in several passing categories.

Chris’ coach in Minneota was his father, Gerhard, who also coached in Rothsay and Big Lake, had a high school record of 236-79 over 32 years and is in the Minnesota football coaches Hall of Fame. (Pictured are Gerhard, Alex and Chris.)

Alex’s other grandfather is also a Hall of Fame coach, Grady Rostberg of Hutchinson. He coached the Tigers for 34 years, his career record was 277-89-1 and his teams won state titles in 1983, 1984 and 1998. Alex’s uncle Andy Rostberg quarterbacked Hutchinson to two of those championships and followed Grady’s footsteps, taking over as head coach in 1999. Andy’s teams won state titles in 2012 and 2013.

So between Alex Meidt’s dad, uncle and grandfathers, it’s safe to say football is in the young man’s blood.

Chris was an assistant coach at Becker back in 1993 and 1994 before embarking on a coaching journey that took him to Bethel (his alma mater) as an assistant, St. Olaf as the head coach and a stint with the Washington Redskins as an offensive assistant. He left coaching to work for Walmart as a regional manager in Cedarburg, Wis., and two years ago moved back to Becker. He is chief operating officer of North Risk Partners in St. Cloud.

Alex joined the Becker football team a year ago, with Chris returning as an assistant to head coach Dwight Lundeen; he’s the only head coach the Bulldogs have had since the football program began 46 years ago. Lundeen (337-145-3) ranks third all-time in coaching victories behind Brainerd’s Ron Stolski (365-163-5) and Verndale’s Mike Mahlen (360-118-3).

“When I left the NFL and took that job with Walmart, I was able to be with (Alex) in seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade and 10th grade in Cedarburg,” Chris said. “Then to be able to move here and part of the deal is pretty special. I told Dwight when we moved that we were going to try to win two (state titles) in a row. I said I’ll come back, Alex is a great player and I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a two-year run here.”

Things have worked out pretty well. The Bulldogs lost a one-point game to Class 6A Minnetonka in last year’s opener and have won 20 games in a row since then. Alex Meidt wasn't the only spark plug that ignited for Becker against Albany; Tyler Thorson returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, Beau Pauly returned a fumble 32 yards for a score and Gabe Dertinger ran 35 yards for another touchdown.

Going to Becker “was probably the best move ever,” Alex said. “These two years have been amazing. My teammates and coaches have just been great, phenomenal.”

Chris Meidt met his wife, Allison, when she was teaching and coaching in Becker. They also have two daughters, Madeline, 20, and Alex’s twin, Eveline.

Lundeen said, “Chris and I have been friends for a long, long time. I hired a nice young lady to coach basketball and she somehow gave into his proposal and married him. He lived in the community and we became really good friends. Then he coached with me here and coached my sons, which drew us even closer.

“We visited them a number of times and Chris said, ‘I might be looking at getting out and moving Alex back to Minnesota.’ I said, ‘You know where he should be.’ He does a great job wherever he’s at and we’re really blessed to have him on our staff.”

Alex has exceptional speed, runs great routes and is almost impossible to cover one on one. On his touchdown receptions Friday, he was in single coverage and Stanger – seeing the defense -- checked out of the play at the line of scrimmage each time and heaved the long ball to Meidt.

“He’s just a great kid, very coachable, works hard, is fast,” Lundeen said of Alex Meidt. “When they put nobody in the middle, it’s really hard to cover a quick kid with double moves and speed one on one. He’s grown up with football; he’s only played our offense for two years but knows it really well.”

Alex is a rarity in Becker: a star football player who didn’t grow up watching the Bulldogs. Hundreds of such youngsters took the field at halftime Friday as the community celebrated youth football.

“We’ve got them down to kindergarten,” Lundeen said, joking only slightly when he added, “We know who our quarterback’s going to be for the next 15 years.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 104
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,381
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
It’s Hammer Time As Football Regular Season Winds Down 10/5/2015
PROCTOR – The football regular season comes to an end this week, which makes it a good time to reflect on a few things, many of which were on display here Friday night when the teams from Hermantown and Proctor met in the annual Hammer Game.

It’s one of Minnesota’s best rivalries, featuring kids who have competed against each other in various sports since they were little boys. The traveling trophy is The Hammer, a giant wooden hammer that carries the score of every game between Proctor and Hermantown since 1995.

The Rails and Hawks first met on the football field in 1941 and The Hammer has been the winner’s prize for 20 years. Jesse Bodell, a Hermantown junior in 1995, and his father Ron built the thing in their garage. It is modeled after the railroad hammer that was swung in American mythology by steel driver John Henry.

Traveling trophies are found all over Minnesota. One of my favorites is the Battle Axe game between Luverne and Pipestone (what a hoot: the sophomore teams play for the Hatchet and the ninth-grade teams play for the Butter Knife). Another great trophy game pits Blue Earth and Fairmont, who have played for the Little Brown Jug for 61 years.

Friday’s game went the way of the Hawks, who used a 68-0 runaway to even the all-time series with Proctor at 32-32-1. The margin was the largest in the rivalry’s history, but the takeaway from this year’s game went far beyond the scoreboard.

Hermantown has 614 students and plays Class 4A football, Proctor has 474 and is in Class 3A. The schools, which combine to form one girls hockey team, are only nine miles apart and the towns are conjoined twins on Duluth’s western border.

Some people grow up in one town and raise their own kids in the other. Everybody basically knows everybody.

“It’s just a mix of families, and it’s so close that it makes it a really enjoyable time,” said Hermantown coach Daryl Illikainen, who has led 18 teams in this rivalry game.

Friday’s crowd was bathed in pink, especially the student sections. It was a Pink Out, with money raised to battle cancer. Pink lines had been painted alongside the goal lines and 50-yard line. The Proctor band was on hand for musical enjoyment. Members of the American Legion carried the flag onto the field for the national anthem, with the stars and stripes billowing in a cold breeze. This was America on a Friday night, a scene repeated across the country.

The early returns weren’t favorable for Hermantown, which has a 7-0 record and No. 5 state ranking in 4A. On the game’s first series, the Hawks’ Thomas Madison ran for a 47-yard touchdown, but a holding penalty brought it back.

The Hawks didn’t flinch and continued the drive, which ended with James Lindberg running four yards for a score. He added a 26-yard run in a 33-point second quarter and Madison also scored twice, as did Matt Valure. The big booms came when Nick Bostrom threw to Zack Brendon for a 49-yard touchdown and Christian Comstock returned an interception 67 yards for a TD.

Meanwhile, Hermantown’s defense held the Rails (4-3) to single digits in total yards. The Hawks ran for more than 400 yards, with Madison getting 144.

“We have great offensive linemen,” said Madison (pictured with The Hammer). “They come off the ball and they’re smart, they make adjustments on the fly and it’s a lot of fun to run behind them.”

Hermantown is a regular at the boys state hockey tournament and the Hawks made their first trip to the boys state basketball tourney last winter. That kind of success blends into other sports and other seasons.

“A lot of these kids went to state in basketball last year, they’re three-sport athletes,” Illikainen said. “They’re just putting it together. They’ve come in with a mission, they’ve been focused and I’m just so proud.”

Hermantown will finish the regular season Thursday at Moose Lake-Willow River and Proctor will go to Two Harbors the same night. Then section tournament pairings will be set and the second season will begin.

“We came in with the mindset that we were going to work hard this year,” Madison said. “Coach always says we’ll look at the scoreboard at the end of the game. So that was kind of our mindset coming in. The guys have worked hard and put in their time and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.

“I think we can be as good as we want to be. We have to limit our mistakes, we have to stay in check and we’ve got to take it one week at a time. We can’t overlook anyone. I think we’re going to do good things.”

Hard work. Pride. Togetherness. Optimism.

Good stuff.

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

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 102
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 3,231
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
A Day Of Leadership Training In The Granite Ridge Conference 9/30/2015
ST. CLOUD – Wednesday was in important day in the Granite Ridge Conference. An event was held at St. Cloud Cathedral High School: the fifth annual leadership conference for students from all eight member schools.

Administrators at each school selected 20 students to attend, meaning 160 gathered for three and half hours of learning and togetherness (and lunch). The schools in the Granite Ridge are Albany, Becker, Foley, Little Falls, Milaca, Mora, Cathedral and Zimmerman.

The topics were wide-ranging: concussions, social media, leadership, college recruiting, relationships with officials and more. I gave a presentation on social media, with the message that social media is a fantastic tool but it must be used wisely.(During a short break, all 160 students posed for photos with the John's Journal Toyota Camry.)

Cathedral activities director Emmett Keenan told the students that they need to realize how much they have in common. Yes, they compete against each other in athletics, but they are all on similar paths.

“You need to respect what the other person is doing. You need to respect where the other person is coming from,” Keenan said. “When you go to practice today, everybody on the other team is going to practice today. When you go to the game on Friday night or Tuesday night or in December, everybody that you compete against will have worked to get to that same point where you are.

“And believe me, when you respect that you’ll be better, you’ll focus more on what you’re doing and everybody will have a much better time at every one of our events.”

He also told the students that their paths are likely to cross in later years.

“You may end up working for the same company. You may end up teaching in the same school. You may end up in the same job at different schools and work with each other. That is the beauty of athletics and athletic competition.”

Kevin Schlagel, former men’s basketball coach at St. Cloud State, gave an outstanding presentation on what it means to be part of a team, to compete every day and to be disciplined. He first congratulated the students on being selected to attend the conference.

“Obviously somebody saw something in you at your schools that brought you here,” he said.

He used quotes from Alabama football coach Nick Saban, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and others to make some important points.

“Being part of a team is being part of something bigger than yourself,” Schlagel said.

In discussing competition, he told the students to compete every day in every way, reminding them that everyone in every walk of life competes against time, norms, opponents and themselves.

“You’re part of something bigger than yourself,” he said.

Paul Conrad, assistant principal at Albany and a veteran official in several sports, helped the students understand who officials are and why they officiate.

His challenge to athletes was simple: “Make your team and your school better, every day.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 100
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,870
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Tiny Runner Makes Giant Impact At The Griak 9/27/2015
A field of 419 girls from 49 teams in 10 different states competed in the Gary Wilson Gold high school girls cross-country race Saturday at the Roy Griak Invitational.

The race was one of four for high school runners and six for collegiate athletes during the 30th annual Griak, one of the nation’s top cross-country events. As that massive army of 419 wound its way around the University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course, a new name began to emerge on the running scene.

Her name is Grace Ping and she is a seventh-grader competing for Cotter High School in Winona. She turned 12 years old in July. And she astounded the field as well as the high school cross-country world with a dominating victory Saturday.

The astounding facts extend beyond her age. The race was only Grace’s second as a high school athlete and the first time she ran a 5K as part of the Cotter team. And the 5-foot, 80-pound dynamo was a tiny whirlwind of churning legs and arms.

Her winning time was 18 minutes, 12.5 seconds, four seconds ahead of runner-up Judy Pendergast, a senior from Naperville North (Illinois). Placing third was Bismark (N.D.) freshman Mattie Shirley-Fairbairn and fourth was Forest Lake senior Emma Benner.

“It was really fun,” is how Grace summed up the experience. The plan was for her to go with a 5:40 first mile, but she was too fast to hold back.

“Our coach (Mike Costello) who set up our training plan for our team, and my dad, they were like, ‘She could go out in a 5:40 mile.’ And I ended up going out faster than that. I always end up going fast at the start in races.”

She led almost the entire distance, too. Grace had run a race in Stewartville this fall, but it was shortened from a 5K to two miles because of excessive heat (another meet was canceled due to lightning). She is no stranger to running, however, having competed in U.S.A. Track and Field age-group events and other non-school competitions for years.

“She’s been doing fun runs since she was 2,” said her dad, Ryan. “She did her first 5K when she was 8. She did really, really well and fell totally in love with running.”

At the USATF Minnesota Junior Olympic Championships in June, Grace set a national age-group record in the 3,000 meters for 11- and 12-year-olds, winning in 9:56.45.

“She’s been looking forward to this for some time” Ryan said. “She said she wasn’t too nervous because she’s been going to Junior Olympics for cross-country and she’s been in big meets. But my wife and I were kind of nervous because she’d only had one meet in the high school season this year and it was a two-mile.”

Grace was excited to reach seventh grade and finally be eligible to compete on the high school level. She came into Saturday’s race ranked sixth among Class 1A girls cross-country runners, and her aspirations are big.

“That was my goal, to win,” she said of Saturday’s race. Asked about winning a Class 1A state championship this season, she smiled and said, “My goal is to win that, too. I’ll just keep training my best and working my hardest.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 98
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,674
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn