John's Journal
Familiar Names Atop Football Rankings9/5/2012
The No. 1 teams in the Associated Press high school football rankings are Eden Prairie in Class 6A, Totino-Grace in 5A, DeLaSalle in 4A, St. Croix Lutheran in 3A, Caledonia in 2A, Dawson-Boyd in 1A and Edgerton-Ellsworth in Nine-Man.

Eden Prairie, St. Croix Lutheran, Caledonia, Dawson-Boyd and Edgerton-Ellsworth all claimed state championships last season.

To see all the rankings in all classes, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

Two Years After Tornado, Wadena-Deer Creek Celebrates New Beginning9/4/2012
WADENA – When the Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball team played its first home match of the season last week, it really didn’t feel like a home match. This was understandable, since the Wolverines had only practiced in their new gym twice and had never competed there.

The key word in Wadena is “new.” As in brand new. Shiny new. Spectacularly new.

We all remember June 17, 2010, when an F4 tornado roared through Wadena. It was a miracle that no one was killed, but the devastation was centered on the high school and surrounding area. The school was flattened. Between that day and now, a transformation has occurred, with a new middle/high school now completed and ready for this week … the first week of a new school year and the first week that everybody can finally put the tornado behind them.

“If you go around town, there are not really a lot of signs left that something like that happened,” said volleyball coach Sue Volkmann. “It’s pretty much cleaned up and back to Wadena again. This is kind of the final phase, because everybody’s school is the centerpiece of their community.”

This centerpiece is a model for a modern school: lots of sunlight streaming through large windows, geothermal heating and cooling, 41 high-tech classrooms, terrazzo flooring and lots of other fabulous touches.

A couple hours before the Wolverines opened the volleyball season against Moorhead on Thursday, a workman was installing the number “600” above the school’s main entrance, signifying the address on Colfax Avenue Southwest. Another was attaching a sign outside an office suite that said “Administration.”

For the last two years, school officials, staff and students made do with what they had. High school classes were held at Minnesota State Community and Technical College and Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School. It was an awkward and crowded situation, where an elementary classroom has been turned into a weight room and wrestling mats, boxes of textbooks and other supplies lined the hallways.

The volleyball team played its home matches in the gym at the elementary school, with fans sitting on folding chairs for part of the season before bleachers were installed.

“We adjusted and everybody was very flexible, we did the best we could and got everything going,” activities director Norm Gallant told me as we stood in the new school. “Fifteen months ago this was a flat, gravel lot and now we’re in the building and it’s been an unbelievable process.

“Our coaches and our kids just did a super job,” said Gallant, who began his job as activites director two days before the tornado struck. “We had what we had and we made the best of it. We had a couple of really good years.”

The new school, paid for mainly by insurance with additional money coming from FEMA, includes a community safe room; it is in essence an auxiliary gymnasium with extremely thick walls designed to withstand winds up to 275 miles per hour.

As fans entered the school for Thursday’s volleyball match, they saw a few minor final touches that had not yet been completed. Handmade signs marked restrooms, concession stand workers were figuring out new equipment, a workman was fine-tuning a drinking fountain, some new chairs for the cafeteria/commons area were still partially wrapped in plastic.

The volleyball team was finally playing in its new gym and using its new locker room. That was no small victory, because in the elementary school the volleyball team had used a choir room as its locker room.

When I asked the team captains about their new locker room, Sydney Schissel said happily, “There’s a bathroom.” Caitlin Volkmann said, “We have lockers and mirrors.” To which Schissel added, “And no piano.”

I can’t speak for the girls locker room, but the gym is spectacular. The floor consists of more than 14,000 two-inch maple strips pieced together, and the floor is surrounded by 1,284 blue bleacher seats, 20 basketball hoops and a running track circling the space above the seats. Banners marking achievements of Wolverines teams and athletes through the years hang from the walls, adding history to the new space.

“The gymnasium turned out better than I ever could have imagined,” Gallant said. “It is absolutely georgeous. Everything is very modern and clean, basically the way we wanted it.”

For the volleyball team – which is ranked sixth in Class 2A and defeated Class 3A Moorhead 3-1 – just having a new home is special.

“It’s awesome. It’s ours, finally,” said Emily Miron. “It doesn’t seem real, almost. Just being here, it’s almost not like a home game yet. But pretty soon we’ll get used to it.”

Schissel called it “unreal. It’s unbelievable, thinking back to everything we went through. It’s crazy to be here now. It’s exciting.”

The Wolverines have played in the last four state volleyball tournaments, winning the 2A championship two years ago. The goal of this year’s team – which lost only two seniors from the 2011 squad – is to make it five consecutive trips to state.

Miron summed up the feelings of everyone at Wadena-Deer Creek when she said, “I think it’s going to be a really great year.”

And that sentiment goes far beyond volleyball.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 23
*Miles John has driven: 1,126
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
After A Year Of Waiting, St. Clair Is Back In The Game8/31/2012
Pregame warm-ups had been concluded and the national anthem and introduction of the starting lineups would be happening shortly. St. Clair head football coach Chris Harvey checked the scoreboard clock at Brooklyn Center High School to see how much time was left before his Cyclones would face the West Lutheran Warriors on Friday in the first game of the football season. The clock was ticking down, with seven minutes showing.

“Seven minutes is too long to wait,” Harvey said as he paced the sideline. “Let’s get this going.”

No team has waited longer for the 2012 season than St. Clair. A year ago, in the final week before the season opener, a tough decision was made at the school southeast of Mankato. The roster was short, size was a concern and the numbers simply didn’t add up. So the Cyclones forfeited their 2011 varsity season and played only junior varsity games.

Friday, therefore, was huge. The last time the Cyclones had played a varsity football game was Oct. 26, 2011; a 34-28 overtime loss to Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton in a Nine-Man Section 2 playoff opener.

After all that time, through a lost season, St. Clair -- now playing 11-man football -- returned with a thunderous effort Friday, defeating West Lutheran 67-6. The game was played at Brooklyn Center because West Lutheran – the home team – does not have a field.

“It’s nice to be back playing varsity football,” Harvey said after the game. “It was really hard on the kids last year. To their credit they never quit working hard. For them, it’s great to be back out here.”

Friday’s roster listed 37 players, including 11 juniors and 13 ninth-graders. Those numbers are much improved from a year ago. When the decision was made to skip a varsity season, the immediate response was not surprising.

“I think there was some initial shock, people thinking, ‘We used to always do it, why make a change?’ ” said St. Clair athletic director Brad O’Donnell. “But I think people started to understand. We still had homecoming, all the things we normally would, just with a different age level. Last year we had two seniors, one that was out for football for the first time. It was hard to continue to go with the same trend of losing kids year after year. We wanted what was in the best interest of the kids and the best interest of the program for the long term.”

At this point, everyone is happy to look to the future. After all, that’s about the only option the St. Clair football players have had for the past year. They spent tons of time in the weight room, many players went to a team camp in Iowa over the summer, they convinced boys who were on the bubble to join the squad. The result is a bigger, more enthusiastic roster.

“The kids have responded well,” O’Donnell said. “They’re changing the culture a little bit. It’s a steppingstone. It’s good to see them out. Sometimes kids will talk about coming out but won’t actually do it. They’ve had great practices, getting ready for this week.”

Once they were back on a varsity field, the Cyclones wasted no time. Senior Miklo Miller returned the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown and added two more running touchdowns before the first quarter had ended. St. Clair led 19-0 at that point, 40-0 at halftime and 53-0 after three periods. The fourth quarter, played under running time, went quickly.

“(Last season) wasn’t much fun because you were going against other people that weren’t as good as they were supposed to be,” Miller said.

Quarterback Blake Flowers, another senior, called last season a disappointment, but Friday’s experience was the perfect way to return.

“It was awesome starting off the season like this. It was a good win,” Flowers said. “We were expecting to win, but maybe not by that much.”

Harvey was gracious towards West Lutheran, which will play a mix of 11-man and Nine-Man games this season.

“Our hats are off to West Lutheran,” he said. “They’re a Nine-Man team playing us in 11-man. These games are tough, even on the winning side. Hats off to them for playing hard for four quarters.”

The Cyclones know things will get tougher, especially in the Gopher Valley A Conference. Next week they will play a conference home game against Minnesota Valley Lutheran, which beat Redwood Valley 22-20 Friday and is 1-1 this season.

But regardless of what the rest of the season may hold, the key emotion in Friday’s postgame glow was pure joy at simply being back in the game.

The waiting is over.

--To see more photos from the St. Clair-West Lutheran game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 21
*Miles John has driven: 862
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
History Is Made By St. Cloud Christian Volleyball Team8/30/2012
CAMBRIDGE -- Nervous? Nope. Excited? Absolutely. That’s how Toria Gillson, a senior at St. Cloud Christian School, described Tuesday night’s historic volleyball match.

Not only was it the varsity season opener for the Warriors, it was the first varsity volleyball competition in school history. And that made it very, very special.

“I don’t really get nervous, I get excited,” Toria said afterwards. “And I was really excited.”

The first varsity match also was the first varsity defeat, but the 3-1 loss to Cambridge Christian at the Armed Forces Reserve Community Center in Cambridge was historic nonetheless. St. Cloud Christian is a tiny school, with K-12 students -- including a high school enrollment of 60-some kids -- learning together in a former St. Cloud elementary building.

“We’ve got a bunch of excited kids who want to be athletes and we try to find places for them,” said athletic director Paul Hastings. In most cases, places for St. Cloud Christian athletes are found through cooperative agreements with St. Cloud’s other, larger high schools: Apollo, Tech and Cathedral.

St. Cloud Christian’s first true “home” team was track and field, with the first varsity squad competing in 2007. Cross-country followed in 2009. The school’s most successful current athlete is McKenzie Holt, who placed fourth in last year’s Class 1A state cross-country meet, then last spring was second in the 3,200 meters and third in the 1,600 at the 1A state track meet. Holt is a junior this year.

The school’s volleyball program, which began in 2005, has been built on a steady diet of junior varsity and C squad competition.

“In the last couple years we felt we’ve been competitive against the JV and C teams we’ve been playing, and other coaches have said, ‘Hey, you’re ready for varsity,’ ” Hastings said.

On Tuesday in Cambridge, St. Cloud Christian had 10 enthusiastic varsity players dressed in purple uniforms, black calf-length socks and black shoes. The first game against Cambridge Christian was tied 20-20 before the home team pulled away for a 25-21 win. Cambridge Christian won the second game 25-23, St. Cloud Christian captured the third game 25-17 and the third game went to Cambridge 25-17.

The Warriors’ first varsity match lasted a little more than 90 minutes and was followed by nothing but smiles.

“I think the nerves kind of got to them a little bit,” said coach Karla Hultgren. “They were really excited about having the opportunity to play a varsity game and being in the game most of the time. I was really happy about that.”

When I asked Karla to compare this year’s team with what she saw when the program began in 2005, she smiled and said, “It’s a night and day difference. We had girls who hardly knew the game of volleyball. And now we have kids who play Junior Olympic volleyball, kids who have come through the ranks, and it’s really become a family. That’s what’s really cool.”

A major piece of becoming a varsity program was joining a conference. The Warriors are a member of the Christian Athletic League, whose other members are spread around the state and beyond. They include Cambridge Christian, Christian Life in Farmington, Faith Christian in Rochester, Mountain Lake Christian, Immanuel Lutheran in Mankato, Good Shepherd Academy in River Falls, Wis., and several schools in the Twin Cities.

The Warriors will play their next five volleyball matches on the road before the next historic step: their first home match. Since their school has a very small gym (“We’d be running into the walls all day,” Gillson said), the Warriors will play their home matches at St. Cloud Cathedral. The first one will be against Hope Christian School of St. Paul on Sept. 24.

“Thank goodness that Cathedral is so gracious to open their school to us,” Hultgren said.

Laura Knoblauch, a St. Cloud Christian senior, would have been overjoyed had the team won Tuesday. But she was happy nonetheless.

“I think we did really well,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud. Honestly, I feel better that we played really, really well in this game. I feel better about that than if we had won and it had been easy. We really stepped up and we did a good job.”

Knoblauch, who has been part of the volleyball program throughout her high school career, talked about the change in the last four years.

“It’s really different. We’ve improved so much. It’s such a blessing. I don’t have any words to describe it. We’ve improved so much and come so far. It’s so cool.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 19
*Miles John has driven: 800
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn