John's Journal
Taking Care Of The “Other” Team When Times Are Tough 10/9/2014
I often receive reports of great things that take place at high school events. This one is particularly touching, because it embodies so many positives that are a major part of school activities.

The report below was written by Michael Isola, a good friend and talented journalist who covers sports in Wadena and the surrounding area on his website, BeyondTheBleachers.com. Michael sent the following to me, wondering if I would like to write about what took place at a recent volleyball match. There’s no way I can capture the story as well as Mike did, because he was there to see it and shoot photographs. Here is the email I received from Mike…

Good afternoon John,

Attached you'll find a photo I had taken during the Pink Out Breast Cancer volleyball match between host New York Mills and Verndale on Thursday, October 2.

Both teams are Park Region Conference rivals and the match was a key battle between the two schools. Although Henning is the conference leader and will win the title, there is a three-way battle between NYM, Verndale and Sebeka for second place. So this was a big match with a lot at stake.

However, something happened that still gives me goose bumps.

Prior to the match, a program was held to honor breast cancer survivors. This year the annual Pink Out event took on a much more somber tone due to the fact that the Verndale head coach, Shelley Glenz, was recently diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. Shelley was unable to coach from the bench as she was recovering from a recent chemo treatment, I believe.

Her oldest daughter Jordyn Glenz (a junior) read a statement from her mother that night that brought a lot of emotions to light. When she was done speaking, two players from New York Mills came over to comfort her and give her a hug (which I captured). All of a sudden, the whole New York Mills team came over and surrounded Jordyn for a big group hug.

I was very touched by this gesture. In my 20-plus years of covering sports at all levels, I have never seen such a class act towards another player, and a rival player. Sure, I've read about plenty of wonderful displays of sportsmanship (including quite a few by you), but have never witnessed something like I saw on that Thursday night. Of course, I've witnessed the occasional player helping another player off the field or giving a hand once in awhile ... but not this.

Shelley has three daughters who play volleyball for the Lady Pirates: Jordyn, Shania and Morgan. This display by a rival team affected everyone that night.

This act of compassion toward a player on the “other” team, especially one who is scared of losing her mother to cancer, speaks volumes about the character of these fine young ladies that was on display that night. Volleyball took a back seat to something far greater ... and that is love and compassion. To show you care and support another player in a time of need was one of the greatest things I've had the pleasure to witness.

Kudos to these athletes, and to their coaches and their parents for raising such wonderful young ladies.

The photo shows Lydia Irons (left, obstructed) and Ellie Rutten (facing camera) of New York Mills hugging Jordyn Glenz (back/sideways to camera) after she finished reading the teary and touching letter from her mother.

I was unable to post this photo to my Beyond the Bleachers Facebook page until Sunday after I had gotten back from attending an out-of-state wedding. Within four hours the photo had exploded online ... as of now I have more than 12,816 hits, 449 likes and 26 shares. Unbelievable.

Thanks John, have a great week

Mike
Victory Day In Grand Rapids: Football And Big Smiles10/6/2014
GRAND RAPIDS – Eric Soderberg, starting senior quarterback for the Grand Rapids football team, was leading a group of QBs in drills Saturday morning at Noble Hall Field. The athletes each took a snap and navigated several cones while running with the ball.

At the end of the drill, Soderberg and the other QBs gathered together in a tight huddle, each put one hand up in the middle of the pack and Soderberg said, “QBs on 3!” They all hollered, “One! Two! Three! QBs!!”

It was absolute magic. These weren’t the other high school quarterbacks; these were cognitively and physically impaired children from Itasca County who had been invited to the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks’ first Victory Day event.

Did I say it was magic? Here’s how senior Levi How described the day: “I love it. If there’s one kid smiling today, it makes the whole day worth it.”

Greg Spahn, who is in his first season as the Grand Rapids football coach, put Victory Day on his to-do list as soon as he was hired. Victory Day was started in Trenton, Michigan, in 2010 by a high school coach named Aaron Segedi, a cancer survivor who wanted to give back to the community. Spahn corresponded with Segedi during the Grand Rapids planning stages, and Saturday’s event was a big hit.

The varsity football players worked with the impaired kids on several drills at the same time; running backs swerved around pads on the ground, defensive players put big hits on pads held by varsity Thunderhawks, receivers ran pass patterns and caught the ball.

Everywhere, varsity athletes cheered and their guests smiled.

“It’s just so much fun to have our players see the impact they have and give back to some of these kids who aren’t able to experience football,” Spahn said.

Sixteen kids – some in wheelchairs or walkers -- joined the football team and one young lady spent her morning with the cheerleaders, who performed routines and kept the enthusiasm high. Members of the Thunderhawks marching band provided the school song and other tunes, and longtime Thunderhawks public-address announcer Roy Tovionen provided play-by-play from his perch in the press box.

This hasn’t been a great season for the Thunderhawks. On the same field Friday night, they lost to Alexandria 56-6 to send their record to 0-6. (Spahn smiled before Saturday’s festivities as he said, “I’ll tell you one thing: This will go better than last night.”)

“We’re rebuilding the football program and I think this will be a big piece, to show our kids how to give back and the impact that they have,” Spahn said.

“I hope it shows them the importance they have simply by being a football player, and the impact that they can have on other people. Hopefully it compels them later in life to continue to give back in some capacity. It makes our community better, it makes our players better, and I can’t ask for much more.”

The varsity Thunderhawks wore their black jerseys and their guests wore the team’s white game jerseys. It didn’t matter that the jerseys were so big that they covered some of the kids’ knees; just being able to be a real football player, even if for just one morning, was everything.

“It’s cool,” said senior Dillon Campbell. “We get to do this every Friday night and we don’t think anything of it. And they get to come out and do it once and they absolutely enjoy it.

“The best part is watching them have fun and enjoy themselves. I love watching them smile when they get done with the drills. It’s awesome.”

After all the athletes had taken a turn at each drill station, the day culminated in a very special way: Each guest player scored a touchdown.

The varsity offense lined up against the varsity defense, with one of the guest athletes lined up at running back at about the 30-yard line. Soderberg barked out signals, adjusted his offensive teammates … a linebacker hollered out the defensive calls … and at the snap of the ball a player in a white jersey either took a handoff or caught a short pass and headed for the end zone followed by a convoy of running, cheering, hollering Thunderhawks.

Tovionen did a splendid job in describing the action. “Xavier takes the ball around the right side! Cuts to his left! He’s shedding tacklers! He’s at the 10! The 5! Touchdown!!”

As each player crossed the goal line, they were engulfed by Thunderhawks, offering high fives and pats on the back, with an occasional player lifted up in the air. The band played the school song, the cheerleaders raised their voices to the sky and moms, dads and other visitors wore giant smiles.

One player had a little trouble in hanging on to the ball, but each time he fumbled it he picked it right up and – encouraged by his Thunderhawk buddies – just kept covering ground. In the end zone, the celebration was wild.

“Way to go, Logan! Way to stick with it!”

“I think it’s a great thing to do, to be able to put a smile on these kids’ faces,” Soderberg said. “It’s just awesome to see their faces light up when we play football with them.”

Oh, the smiles. Magic. Pure magic.

--To see a photo gallery from Victory Day in Grand Rapids, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 86
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,198
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
MSHSL Board Of Directors Tables Transgender Policy10/2/2014
In an action that followed two days of often emotional statements from people on both sides of the issue, the MSHSL board of directors on Thursday tabled a proposed policy for schools in working with transgender athletes. The board had the options of approving the policy, defeating the policy or tabling it, and its action moved the proposal to the board’s next meeting on Dec. 4.

The board also voted to put together a committee that will further study the issue and provide more information to the board before its next meeting.

In a workshop session that lasted for nearly two hours Wednesday afternoon, the board invited the public to offer input on the proposal. And for 30 minutes during Thursday’s board meeting, more speakers were invited to talk to the board. In all, 40 individuals had the opportunity to speak about the proposal.

As the board opened its discussion on the proposed policy, it was immediately clear that members were not ready to vote.

Board member Tom Graupmann, the activities director at Northfield, said, “I believe we need to put a transgender policy in place for all our member schools. But more work and collaboration needs to be done. The current draft doesn’t have the structure that we need.”

Graupmann asked for the proposal to be tabled and requested that a committee be formed to work on the policy.

Other members echoed those sentiments …

--Mark Solberg, activities director at Cambridge-Isanti: “We need to get it right.”

--Deb Pauly, a board member who represents the Minnesota School Boards Association: “We need to get it right for all kids.”

--Bob Grey, activities director at Montevideo: “We need a little more clarification, we need a little more time.”

On a voice vote, the board unanimously approved tabling the transgender policy until December.

Among other actions, the board …

--Approved going from three classes to four classes in baseball, effective in 2016. That’s the same year when a four-class softball format will begin. The breakdown of classes will be 64 in Class 4A and 64 in 3A, with the rest of the teams split equally into 2A and 1A.

--Approved adding three team trophies to the state speech tournament, beginning in 2016. Currently only individual awards are given.

--To see a copy of the proposed transgender policy, it is posted on the MSHSL Facebook page.
Waseca’s Shane Streich: Racing With The Big Dogs 9/29/2014
When Shane Streich reached the finish line in Saturday’s Roy Griak cross-country invitational at the University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course, five other runners had already completed the 5,000-meter Larry Zirgibel Boys Gold race. Those five were from out of state, giving the senior from Waseca High School the high honor of being the top Minnesotan in one of the nation’s most prestigious cross-country events.

For Streich, finishing sixth at the Griak was a testament to planning and execution on a warm day. The temperature was in the 80s Saturday, and many of the high school and NCAA Division I, II and III runners who competed had trouble with the heat.

“I knew that today was going to be a warm day,” he said. “I executed my race plan, I saved perfectly. My plan was just to go out a little easier, probably five seconds off the leaders, which I did, and in that second mile start working my way up with them.”

As the race went along he moved into the lead pack, which included runners from Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, including Wayzata senior Connor Olson. Wayzata is a Class 2A cross-country school and Waseca competes in Class 1A. Wayzata won the boys team title at the Griak for the second year in a row, with Olson finishing one spot behind Streich in seventh.

“At 3k I was able to get up in the lead pack with Connor Olson and the last 1.1 miles I knew I had to gut it out and just hang with them,” said Streich, who finished in 16 minutes, 8.61 seconds. Olson’s time was 16:14.06.

“Just for the opportunity to come up here and race with the big dogs, being from a small town, I just wanted to hang with them,” said Streich. “I knew that once I hit the top of the hill with about 200 left,it was going to be kicking point and I wanted to hold on as long as I could. I was about 10 meters behind Connor right when we hit that spot and I just kicked it in. I think today was my day.”

Indeed it was. But whether in cross-country or on the track, Streich is one of the most decorated runners in Minnesota. He was the Class 1A state cross-country runner-up last year; the champion was Perham senior Keeghan Hurley. As a sophomore, Streich finished third at the state meet, as a freshman he was fifth, an an eighth-grader he finished 14th and as a seventh-grader he placed 41st. The 2014 state cross-country meet, Nov. 1 at St. Olaf College in Northfield, will be Streich’s sixth time at state.

On the track, Streich won the 800- and 1,600-meter titles at the Class 1A state meet last spring. When he was a sophomore he won the 1,600 and finished second in the 800; as a freshman he was second in both races; and as an eighth-grader he was eighth in both.

At the Griak Streich ran as an individual, but he was backed by plenty of support from Waseca.

“I like coming up to this meet because of the competition,” he said. “Not only with the bigger schools in Minnesota but also schools from Wisconsin and Iowa and the opportunity to race against these guys; coming from a small town, just being able to come up and have this competition and being able to see what I can do against these guys.

“It feels pretty good. I know some people doubted me, being from the small town of Waseca. It’s nice to come out as the top Minnesotan in this race, and I’d say it’s definitely somewhat of a surprise to some of the other runners in Minnesota and somewhat of a surprise to myself. But I had faith in myself, my coaches had faith in me, my parents and especially my brother (Cole, a sophomore cross-country teammate) and my other teammates had faith in me.”

The Griak result further endorses Streich as the runner to beat in Minnesota, regardless of class.

“It’s definitely a confidence booster for the upcoming meets,” he said. “I expect to keep dropping my times. And to be able to say I’m the top Minnesotan after this race definitely helps from the standpoint of the state meet and also my bigger goal of making the Nike nationals. I think this definitely puts me in position and definitely builds my confidence.”

(photo from www.southernminnesota.com)

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 84
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,765
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Mahnomen: A Special Place With Football At The Core9/24/2014
MAHNOMEN – The hospital in this northwest Minnesota town is close to the high school football field. Very close. Maybe too close. It’s right across the street, just a few paces from the home sideline for the Mahnomen Indians.

After Week 3 of the football season, Mahnomen Health Center appeared to be on the brink of being home away from home for the Indians. Was it a coincidence that a big red electric sign screamed “EMERGENCY”?

“We’re in disarray right now,” coach John Clark Jr. said a few days before the Indians hosted Lake Park-Audubon last week in a game between unbeaten teams. In a 35-14 victory over Fosston seven days earlier, injuries stacked up like firewood.

The starting quarterback suffered a shoulder injury and left the game, the backup quarterback went out with a broken wrist, and the third-string quarterback was already sidelined with a concussion. Jon Hoffner, a senior running back who played a little at quarterback as a freshman and then missed two seasons because of injuries, became the emergency QB. And that’s not all. The Indians’ two starting running backs also left the Fosston game with injuries.

Mahnomen has won the last two Class 1A state championships and came into the Lake Park-Audubon game on a 31-game winning streak, the longest current streak in Minnesota (the state record is 76 by Stephen-Argyle from 2003 to 2008).

But heading into Week 4, questions surrounded the Indians: Are they vulnerable? Was this a true emergency?

It took all of two plays to find the answer. Junior quarterback Tom Pavek -- with his left (non-throwing) shoulder all strapped up after suffering a separation and three sprained ligaments a week earlier – ran 65 yards for a touchdown on the second snap. The next Mahnomen possession ended with another strong statement of the same distance, a 65-yard pass from Pavek to Luke Warnsholz.

Pavek added scoring runs of 61 and 23 yards, Dylan Reitan (another resurrectee from the Week 3 injured list) ran for touchdowns of 11 and nine yards and Mahnomen sailed to a 45-7 win. Crisis averted.

“We kind of went through this last year and we were able to weather it,” Clark said of the injuries. “The kids are excited, they know they are close to playing. That’s small-town football.”

Small-town football indeed. A few hours before kickoff Friday, Clark was walking across Main Street in this town of 1,214 people. A guy sitting in a parked car hollered out the window, “Clark! Good luck!” The coach replied, “Thanks bud! See you there!”

There is plenty more to Mahnomen than football. The Health Center cares for people from all over the area, White Earth Tribal and Community College and the Mahnomen Public School District provide quality educational opportunities, and Shooting Star Casino and Hotel is a popular destination. But in the autumn, football is king.

“This is a special place and football is at the core of that,” said Clark, who grew up in the nearby town of Ogema and graduated from one of Mahnomen’s longtime rivals, Waubon High School, in 1990.

Football fans in Mahnomen know how to get to the Prep Bowl, whether it’s held in the Metrodome, the University of Minnesota stadium (the championship game site for 2014 and 2015) or the new Vikings stadium, which will begin hosting the Prep Bowl in 2016. The Indians made their first state tournament appearance in 1974, and they have been regulars ever since.

In fact, no high school team in the state has played in more Prep Bowls than the Indians, who have done so 13 times. They own eight state championships, coming in 1980, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2013.

The first six of those state titles came when Hall of Famer Ken Baumann was the head coach. Clark was an assistant for two years before becoming head coach when Baumann retired in 2000. Baumann ranks fifth among Minnesota high school football coaches in career victories with a record of 287-66-2.

“It’s all about tradition here and we follow it every year,” Pavek said after the victory over Lake Park-Audubon, in which he carried the ball 12 times for 209 yards and completed three of seven passes for 106 yards.

Before putting on a varsity uniform, Pavek was a student manager beginning in sixth grade. Like most of the kids in town, he has been attending games as long as he can remember.

When I asked Pavek why the team has been so consistently strong, he said, “It’s all about winning the next play.We just fight through each thing, whether it’s getting that extra yard before the first down or stopping the other team on fourth team.”

When Clark was growing up in Waubon, he wondered what made Mahnomen special on the football field. And even now that he’s the Indians coach, he doesn’t seem completely certain of the specific reasons for the success.

“You always wondered, ‘How are they so good?’ or ‘What makes them so good?’ You hear about the tradition and all that. And to be a part of it, it’s a special deal. It’s hard to explain, hard to describe. It’s in the blood, it’s in the water up here.”

Clark had warned me that Friday’s crowd wouldn’t be as big as when the postseason rolls around. It was impressive nonetheless, with fans watching intently and cheering throughout the game. The noise level will only increase as the season moves along toward the ultimate competitive goal: another Prep Bowl.

“When you’re in the playoffs or at the Metrodome and you hear the crowd roar, that’s pretty special,” Clark said. “It’s too bad more people don’t get to experience that.”

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


BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 74
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,663
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn