John's Journal
Maple Lake Ready To Make Run At State Title 6/4/2015
NORTH MANKATO -- Life, as well as sports, can provide quite the interesting twists and turns. Look, for example, at the Maple Lake High School softball team.

The Irish are coached by a California native … they have lost in two previous state championship appearances and will try to change that outcome Friday … after moving up from Class 1A to 2A … which turned out to be a good thing.

Maple Lake defeated LeSueur-Henderson 4-2 and New Ulm 6-1 on Thursday in the state tournament. That moved the Irish into Friday’s 2 p.m. title game against Kasson-Mantorville.

They played in title games in 2008 and 2009, when they were in 1A. New Life Academy was – and is – a powerhouse in 1A softball. The Eagles won state titles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and are at state for the 10th year in a row. Maple Lake was shutout by New Life in the 2008 and 2009 championship games, with Danielle Schmidt pitching for the Eagles. Schmidt -- named this year to the softball coaches association Hall of Fame – was a four-time all-tournament player at state and holds several state tournament records for shutouts and strikeouts.

But Schmidt is long gone, Maple Lake (pictured) is now in Class 1A and none of the current Irish players were on the team the last time it went to state.

“Now we’re in Class 2A, and that makes it that much more special,” said Irish coach Tim Knudsen. “This is brand new for them. This is really cool.”

Over spring break the Irish went to California and played some scrimmages against strong teams from the Bay Area. That’s where Knudsen grew up (and where he met his wife, a native of Royalton), and he knew the journey would help prepare the team for the season.

“We did that because we knew that if we got here we would see really good pitching, which we don’t see in our (Central Minnesota) conference,” he said. “Rockford has a great pitcher (Bria Majeski), but other than that we don’t see very good pitching.

“That trip started it and we did a pretty good job out there. We just escalated into the season and through the playoffs.”

The Irish have a record of 26-2, with losses to Rockford in the regular season and in Section 5 tournament play. They then beat Rockford twice to win the section title.

Senior Kennedy Goelz-Haney was the winning pitcher in both games Thursday and is 16-2 on the season. Sophomore pitcher Olivia Marquette has a 10-0 record, and Knudsen said she may pitch Friday. Maple Lake had a total of only eight hits in Thursday’s two games, with ninth-graders Amber Klug and Linsey Rachel combining for four of them.

“We knew with seven seniors we had good leadership, and we have two dynamite freshmen that play really well for us,” Knudsen said.

THE BUS BROKE DOWN … BIG DEAL

When the Cherry softball team’s bus died Thursday morning, no one panicked. The vehicle had already delivered the Tigers to Mankato on Wednesday … a 277-mile trip … so being in town was key.

The bus was loaded with softball gear at the Best Western hotel when the driver told coach Darrell Bjerklie that it wasn’t going anywhere.

“We came out to get ready to come here, we have a certain schedule. We don’t want to get here too early,” he said at Caswell Park. “And the bus driver tells us the bus is broke down. We could panic, but we teach the girls how to handle adversity.

“I calmly walked up to the front desk and asked if they had a shuttle van. They had one, it carried seven. And both of us coaches had a vehicle because our wives are here, and they each hold five. It’s enough for the team, so we unloaded the bus, loaded the vehicles and calmly came here. We were here on time.”

The Tigers lost to New York Mills 14-7 in the Class 1A quarterfinals and beat Rush City 2-0 in the consolation bracket later Friday.

LITTLE KIDS, BIG CROWD

Thursday was the last day of school at LeSueur-Henderson, and the fourth- and fifth-graders enjoyed a special field trip to the state softball tournament.

An enthusiastic crew of 170 students sat in the grass beyond the outfield fence to watch the Giants play Maple Lake in the 2A quarterfinals.

“This is a second-year tradition because we made it to the state playoffs last year,” said Hilltop Elementary principal Christine McDonald. “This was our plan; if we made it we were going to bring the kids again. And people in the community have asked us, ‘Are you guys coming?’ They’re excited that we’re here.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 595
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 11,014
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Aney Isn’t Alone Among Females At Boys State Tennis6/3/2015
One of the stars of this week’s Class 2A boys state tennis tournament is Jessica Aney of Rochester Century. The senior was the second girl to play in the team portion of the competition, and she will become the first female to play in the singles division when singles and doubles play begins Thursday.

Aney, who will play college tennis at North Carolina, won all three of her matches at No. 1 singles – beating boys from Edina, Mounds View and Minnetonka -- in the team competition as Century placed third. She will take a record of 16-0 into the singles tournament, having lost just two sets all season.

But Aney isn’t the only female playing a vital role in the tournament. The East Ridge boys team is coached by Suzie Heideman (pictured), who is easily identifiable by the words stitched into her team jacket: “Coach Suzie.” Her unseeded Raptors finished third a year ago in their first trip to the state team tournament, and on Wednesday second-seeded East Ridge beat Edina 4-3 in the fifth-place match.

“This year it was a little different, with us being seeded second,” she said. “The guys felt a lot more pressure and the expectations were higher because we had been here and been successful.

“I told them last year, ‘Enjoy being the underdog because it’s not going to stay like that.’ You play a little more freely when you have nothing to lose. I told these guys that the only expectation I had for them was to play their best and never give up, and support each other with positive attitudes. The outcomes will happen. I’m super proud of the way they played today.”

Heideman is in her fourth year as the East Ridge boys coach; one of her assistants is Jon Rydberg, and they switch coaching roles with the girls tennis team in the fall.

Heideman came to East Ridge with a strong coaching pedigree. She spent six years coaching boys and girls tennis at Greendale High School near Milwaukee, Wis., and was named Wisconsin coach of the year after leading her boys team to a state championship in 2005.

She is very familiar with Minnesota tennis, having graduated in 1997 from Mounds View, where she was a captain of the tennis, basketball and softball teams and played in the girls state tennis tournament. She played collegiately at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

One of the biggest victories of her coaching career came at state last year, when the Raptors defeated Mounds in the opening round. Heideman played for Mustangs coach Mike Cartwright in high school.

Cartwright said Heideman was “a very feisty baseliner” in high school, showing traits that fit her role as a coach.

“She just hated to lose,” he said. “And that’s something she has carried over into her coaching career. She showed a lot of qualities as a player that would make for a good coach. She was very analytical about the game, she analyzed her opponents well, she self-evaluated her own game and tried to continually improve.”

Mounds View and East Ridge are members of the Suburban East Conference, so Heideman and Cartwright coach against each other on a regular basis. The Mustangs haven’t lost in conference play since 2000. This spring, Mounds View beat the Raptors by scores of 6-1 and 4-3.

“One of our goals is to get them in conference,” Heideman said. “Obviously they’re a strong team. Mounds View has a strong history and I’m trying to create that at East Ridge. Everybody says, ‘Why is Edina always good? Why is Mounds View always good?’ It’s because of traditions, and when people know there’s a strong tradition of tennis excellence, they need to get there and work hard. That’s really my goal, to have a positive experience and create that atmosphere where our kids want to work hard to get there.”

Heideman was excited to see Aney play in the boys tournament, saying it was good for tennis.

“Obviously she’s an elite tennis player. She’s right up there with them and it’s exciting to see. I think it puts a lot more pressure on the boys who have to face her.

“She’s pushing those players and also creating excitement for the game. Maybe there are young girls who want to get to where she’s at. It’s exciting to see. She’s had a lot of people watching her matches and she’s impressed them.”

TEAM RESULTS

CLASS 1A
Championship/ Blake 7, Breck 0
Third place/ Rochester Lourdes 7, Crookston 0
Fifth place/ St. Peter 5, Foley 2

CLASS 2A
Championship/ Mounds View 4, Elk River 3
Third place/ Rochester Century 4, Minnetonka 3
Fifth place/ East Ridge 4, Edina 3

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 571
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,862
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
From Up North, Crookston and Hibbing Make It To State 6/2/2015
The boys tennis teams from Hibbing and Crookston knew the odds were long when they walked into Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday to begin the Class 1A state tournament.

Blake is the two-time defending champion, and strong programs like Rochester Lourdes and Breck are regular entrants in the derby to decide team titles. And then there is this fact to consider: 97 team champions have been crowned since the first MSHSL tournament in 1950, and only six (or one, depending on how you view the state map) have come from northern Minnesota.

Greenway High in Coleraine took home the single-class title in 1961. That’s the one absolutely true blue northern team to capture gold. Figure in St. Cloud Tech (1976, 1983, 1985) and Staples-Motley (1990, 1991) and that is the extent of the non-metro and non-southern schools to win boys tennis team crowns.

Which, of course, doesn’t bother the boys from Crookston and Hibbing one little bit. That they met in Tuesday’s state quarterfinals was a fitting way to honor the legacy of teams from up north, where a dearth of indoor courts and a preponderance of cold, wet weather can put a headlock on springtime tennis.

“I think they’re really excited,” Crookston coach Mike Geffre said before the quarterfinals. “I don’t think nerves play into this too much because the pressure is really in getting here.”

That’s especially true when getting here isn’t a regular thing. The Pirates are at state for the first time in 12 years and Hibbing is back for the first time in 14 years. Both teams were battle-tested in section play; Crookston held off 10-time defending section champ Thief River Falls 4-3 in the Section 8 title match and Hibbing needed 4-3 wins over Duluth Marshall and Cloquet to qualify from Section 7.

Each team also will have a doubles team competing when singles and doubles competition begins Thursday: Bobby Tiedemann and Matt Garmen from Crookston and Jake Jolowsky and Scott Perunovich from Hibbing.

This business of getting to state may become a more regular thing in the future for one simple reason: Crookston has no seniors on the roster and Hibbing has only one.

“Not having a senior, they’re probably a little bit calmer because they know, win or lose, they still have another shot coming up,” Geffre said.

But still, any trip to state is a big one. There may have been a few doubts about such a proposition in Hibbing after the Bluejackets opened the season with eight losses in as many matches. There was, however, an asterisk attached to that fact: *Hibbing, which moved from Class 2A to 1A last season, is still playing a schedule loaded with 2A competition.

“I was pretty stubborn about the whole thing,” Hibbing coach Gary Conda said. “I felt 2A made us better, made us work harder. It finally got to the point where we didn’t have the depth, we didn’t have the numbers anymore. We said, ‘You know what? We can’t compete with Elk River and some of these teams (in 2A Section 7.’ ”

Hibbing’s regular-season schedule was still front-loaded with some strong 2A competition, thus the 0-8 start. But even though the Bluejackets took some lumps early, that helped steel them for the stretch run and postseason play.

“That was partly on purpose, but also because I hadn’t had enough time to change the schedule a lot,” Conda said. “In hindsight it helped us. Our competition was way more than some other teams had, and it paid off. That’s why we won all those 4-3 matches at the end.”

Tuesday’s state quarterfinal match came – no surprise here – right down to the wire. Crookston defeated Hibbing 4-3, with a large crowd watching and cheering as Garmen defeated Jack Kearney 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 at No. 3 singles to clinch the match.

Crookston’s other winners were Tiedemann at No. 1 singles, Andy Gregg at No. 2 singles and the No. 2 doubles team of Jacob Roesch and Jake Widseth. Hibbing got wins from Nate Stark at No. 4 singles, Jolowsky and Nate Bestul at No. 1 doubles and Carter Anderson and Michael Sullivan at No. 3 doubles.

Afterwards, Conda asked with a smile, “Is there a northern Minnesota trophy?”

There certainly should be.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 563
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,819
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Holdingford’s Nathan Brinker: The Best Of All Time 5/27/2015
Ask people around the central Minnesota town of Holdingford about the best male athlete in school history, and the answer is almost certain to be Nathan Brinker from the class of 2015. The tougher question, however, is this: What was Brinker’s greatest athletic moment?

Some will flash a big grin and talk about his performance in last fall’s Class 2A Prep Bowl, when he never left the field, played half a dozen different positions and threw a pass for only the second time in his career … which was caught for a touchdown and the go-ahead points in the second overtime of the Huskers’ 20-18 win over BOLD.

Others in Holdingford will mention the Class 1A state wrestling championship Brinker captured last winter, capping his state tournament run with a pin in the title match at 195 pounds. He is only the second wrestler in Holdingford history to win a state championship.

And some may talk about what Brinker has done this spring in two sports; he led the Holdingford baseball team with a .500 batting average and on Wednesday he qualified for the Class 1A state track meet in the shot put as well as with three buddies in the 4x100 relay.

Not a bad senior year, huh?

“You can tell with Nathan; he’ll do whatever it takes,” said Huskers football coach Luke Mitchell. “He’s a real standup, solid kid. He comes from a great family and he’s had a great upbringing.”

At 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Brinker is a farm boy with a rare mixture of strength, quickness and speed. He will play NCAA Division III football at St. John’s University, a short drive from Holdingford. And long after he graduates from high school, he will be remembered and cited as an example for younger students in town.

“He has nothing to look back on with regret,” said Jason Bruns, Holdingford’s athletic director, baseball coach and an assistant football coach. “If everybody had his work ethic, it would really be fun. He’s a natural athlete and a lot of things come easy for him. But he still put the time in, too.”

At the Class 1A True Team state track meet in mid-May, Brinker finished second in the shot put, sixth in the 100-meter dash and was a member of the winning 4x100 relay team as Holdingford captured the team title.

He added another state championship away from athletics. He was part of a four-person Holdingford team that won a state FFA championship in Agricultural Mechanics and will represent Minnesota at a national competition in Kentucky.

As a junior, Brinker placed second at the state wrestling tournament, then battled asthma in capturing the state title in February. He had never been on the track team until this spring. In the first track meet of his career, he won the shot put. He’s tough and committed.

Football is his favorite sport but he wanted to give track a try as a senior. Working out as a shot and discus thrower, as well as a sprinter, took a back seat during the baseball season, however. Baseball came to a close Tuesday night with a loss to top-ranked and defending Class 2A state champion St. Cloud Cathedral in a section tournament game, but the upside is that Brinker will have time to devote all his efforts to track for the first time as he prepares for the state meet June 5-6 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

“I’ve been going to baseball practice, and then I’d go to track if the coaches were still there,” he said. “That was usually four times a week and sometimes on weekends. Now I can actually come out and practice.”

Brinker had the best shot put effort of his short career during Wednesday’s Class 1A Section 5 championships at St. John’s. His winning throw of 52 feet, 7 ½ inches is the third-best reported distance among Class 1A boys this spring. His best previous mark was 48-4.

“I knew it would be good, but not that good,” he said of Wednesday’s big toss.

Brinker began making an impression as a ninth-grader, seeing some varsity playing time on the football team. He was a running back that year, became an offensive lineman as a sophomore and then returned to running back. He will play linebacker at St. John’s.

“He always had the body but he was a raw talent,” Mitchell said. “He was always a physical kid. Nathan brings something that a lot of kids don’t with his combination of size and speed.”

Around Holdingford, the legend of Nathan Brinker will only grow in years to come.

“His name will come up in every sport, that’s for sure,” said Bruns, a 1990 Holdingford graduate. “I can’t think of anybody like him from our school. He’s probably the best I’ve seen.”

Mitchell, who is an elementary teacher, said there is no question about that.

“The kids go nuts over him. He’s a celebrity. After he won the wrestling title I told him, ‘Nathan, you are going to be remembered around here for a long time.’ ”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 555
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,691
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn
Blooming Prairie’s Awesome Athlete/Student/Role Model5/20/2015
BLOOMING PRAIRIE – When you talk to people at Blooming Prairie High School about John Rumpza, you hear things like this:

--“John’s the kid that I want my boys to grow up to be.”

--“He’s somebody that you’d want your daughter to bring home.”

--“He’s one of those kids you wish would never graduate.”

Rumpza is in the final days of an amazing high school career, which has extended beyond the athletic arena. Yes, he is a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball), but he’s also a top student who played trumpet in the school band program until this year, when his coursework left no room for band.

Sitting in the dugout during baseball practice Tuesday, Rumpza ticked off the classes he’s taking in his final semester: “Calculus, physics, chemistry, college English, and a more general English class.”

Clearly there was no senior slide for Rumpza, who will leave a shadow at Blooming Prairie that extends even further than his real shadow (he stands between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7). He can remember a couple of B-plus grades, but otherwise it’s been straight A’s and a 4.0 grade-point average as a senior. He will attend Division II Winona State University on a football scholarship.

His academic high point was being named not only his school’s male winner of the MSHSL Triple-A Award for academics, arts and athletics, but also winning the same award among all Class A Section 1 schools. He attended the statewide Triple A banquet in Minneapolis and was featured on television at halftime during one of the basketball state championship games at Target Center.

Rumpza was a three-year starting quarterback for the Awesome Blossoms. Football coach Chad Gimbel said, “I’ve been doing this for 20-some years and I’ve had a lot of great kids come through. He’s one in a million.”

Rumpza, a 2,000-point scorer in basketball, was offered a scholarship in that sport by Division II Bemidji State but he made his biggest impact on the football field. He was a finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Football award after a spectacular senior season. The Blossoms finished with an 11-1 record and won the Class 1A Section 1 championship before losing to Minneapolis North 14-6 in the state quarterfinals.

The 2014 season was a record-book battle between Rumpza and Nicollet senior quarterback Dalton Elliott, who will play football at Division II University of Sioux Falls. Elliott finished his career with a state-record 9,100 passing yards, followed closely by Rumpza with a No. 2 all-time total of 8,991. Elliott also set a state record with 113 career touchdown passes; Rumpza had a second-best total of 112.

With Rumpza, however, it’s not the numbers that people in Blooming Prairie will remember most.

“For everything he’s accomplished, he’s a better person off the field,” Gimbel said. “That’s hard to find.”

Rumpza grew up watching his brother Patrick, a 2008 Blooming Prairie graduate, compete in athletics. It might sound farfetched now, but John was unsure if he would be able to play at a high level.

“I always loved sports but I guess the next level always kind of scares me,” he said. “Right now, looking at college, it just makes you nervous a little bit. My brother played high school sports, too, and you always looked up to them, wondering, ‘Could I ever do that?’ ”

He proved he could certainly do that and more. This spring he leads the Blossoms baseball team with a .400 batting average; they will open Class 1A Section 1 tournament play at Hayfield on Thursday.

“He’s down to earth, he’s polite, he’s everything,” said baseball coach Matt Kittelson. “He’s the star athlete, the 4.0 student, the altar boy at church, just a real outstanding community member. He’s a great role model for everybody. He works hard at everything he does.”

The senior class will graduate on May 31; it’s an ending that Rumpza says has snuck up on him.

“It’s kind of weird. You never really think it’s going to come,” he said. “You just don’t think about it very much until it’s actually here. I’m getting ready for the next step, and it will be a big change going to college.”

He knew Winona State was a good fit after his initial campus visit. He plans to major in math education with the goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach.

“That was the first offer I got,” he said of Winona State. “And I was looking for the right educational program. I visited there and it just felt right.”

He plans to redshirt during his freshman football season. Winona State’s current starting quarterback is Jack Nelson, who will be a junior this fall. (Nelson is from Byron, another southern Minnesota small town.) If everything goes right, Rumpza will step in as the sophomore starter after Nelson graduates.

He took a similar path in high school, becoming the Awesome Blossoms’ starting quarterback as a 10th-grader.

“It got to be a lot at first, just the mental aspect of the game,” he said. “I was just kind of trying to ease my way into that. In my senior year I could definitely tell that the game really slowed down and I had a lot better understanding of the game.”

Rumpza ran the scout-team offense as a ninth-grader, and Gimbel said he was impressive at such a young age.

“One guy who had coached with us and moved on stopped by practice one day. I said, ‘There’s our next quarterback.’ ”

He added that Rumpza’s transition to the starting job was an easy one.

“He started out having success right away. There were some trials and tribulations; he would have a good game and in the next game he might struggle. But what really impressed us was how he came back in the next game, really refocused.”

Rumpza threw for 38 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a sophomore, completing 57 percent of his passes. That percentage climbed to 63 percent as a junior and 65 percent as a senior.

“You can see how laid back he is,” said Blooming Prairie athletic director John Worke. “He doesn’t make hasty decisions, he’s very rational. Very rarely can you get him upset. He’ll show emotion with good things like the best of them, with a fist pump after a touchdown, a high five, hugging a teammate.

“He has continued to grow and mature, not only athletically, but academically and emotionally. He’s really become a good role model and good leader for other kids to look up to. We feel that as educators and coaches we’ve all played a part in that. We’re proud that he’s one of ours.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 533
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 10,245
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn