John's Journal
Remembering A Teammate, An Opponent And What Sportsmanship Means9/6/2011
WABASHA – Across Minnesota last Friday, 104 high school football games were played. Every one of those games was important, but what took place prior to one specific game was very, very special.

It was a scene unlike anything I have witnessed in several decades of writing about sports of all kinds, from the professional ranks to the youth level. I doubt I will ever see anything like it again. The story, which began a year ago with a terrible tragedy, continued Friday evening with memories, tears and special tributes.

Cole Younker was 16 years old when he was killed in a car accident on Sept. 10 last year. He was a passenger in a car that collided with a semi-trailer on Highway 61 in Wabasha. Cole was a three-sport athlete at Wabasha-Kellogg High School.

On Friday, Southland High School’s football team played at Wabasha-Kellogg in the first game of the season for both teams. As Southland coach Shawn Kennedy told me, “We wanted to do something in honor of and in memory of the young man who was killed. We wanted to do something to really show true sportsmanship.”

It was a simple act, really, involving the planting of a tree and releasing of balloons. But simple acts can have the greatest impact.

The planning began when Southland athletic director Bill Feuchtenberger phoned Wabasha-Kellogg athletic director/football coach Nick Richmond. “He said Southland wanted to do something when the time was right,” Richmond said. “We decided we were going to do a tree and he said, ‘Whatever it takes, just send us a bill and we’ll do it.’ ”

Cole’s mother, Bonnie Younker, was asked to select a tree and she picked out a beauty. It’s a red maple, which will someday stand 35 to 40 foot tall. It was paid for by Southland. Between warm-ups and the start of Friday’s game, both teams lined up on either side of the planting site, which is in a corner of the football/track complex. Four captains from each squad placed the tree in a hole (that had been dug by Richmond a day earlier) and then used shovels to fill in the dirt around the trunk.

Bonnie stood with the Wabasha-Kellogg Falcons and cried while the tree in memory of Cole was planted. When the job was done, she hugged all eight captains.

It was quite a sight: young boys in football uniforms (minus helmets) taking their time and working together to get that tree started on its new life. A few fans gathered around to watch. Some of them cried and others sniffed back the tears.

“I’m very fortunate, along with the rest of the coaching staff, in that we get to play in a conference, the Three Rivers North and South, in which all of us coaches get along very well,” Kennedy had told me earlier. “When something like this happens, I think it affects everybody. He was a son, a sibling and it was a devastating thing. Why not try and do something in his honor, to really show that it’s only a game and to really show true sportsmanship? We always talk about being a class act at Southland, and Nick does the same thing over here, and that’s what it’s all about.”

On the right shoulder of each Falcons jersey this season are two small black numbers: 32. That was Cole’s number. Stickers with his number were affixed to their helmets. Some of the players had written Cole’s initials, CJR, on black anti-glare patches they wore under their eyes. Some have tattoos dedicated to Cole.

On Thursday, Richmond sat down to watch the film from last year’s game between Wabasha-Kellogg and Southland. He admitted that it was hard to watch as Cole made tackles, and he didn’t let the players watch the video.

“The one-year anniversary is coming up and the kids are still feeling it,” he said.

As a recording of the national anthem was played, the teams stood in lines at each end of the field. Bonnie Younker and several other women then brought out bundles of balloons and handed one to each Falcon. The players had written notes to Cole, which had been placed inside the balloons. As the balloons were released into the warm Minnesota sky, they floated up and began taking a southwesterly tack toward the nearby Mississippi River.

“I get goosebumps when I say this, but this is why we do this,” said Kennedy. “I’m starting my 27th year of coaching. And let me tell you something, I think this is pretty special to be able to be a part of this and help do something for Wabasha and for the family.

“I lost my father when he went in for gall bladder surgery and never came home. It just brings back those kinds of feelings for me personally. I am very blessed, because 55 of these kids drove six and a half hours in a snowstorm to be at my dad’s wake service. That’s pretty special. It’s only a game, and this puts it in perspective that there are more important things.”

The game ended with Southland winning 48-0. But that’s not the memory that will remain. The sight of a grieving mother, of young boys doing something larger than themselves and their game, of all those balloons sailing away ... all of it unforgettable.

“In a weird way, I expected a call from them just because I know coach Kennedy,” Richmond said. “From the first time I met him, he was a class act. I love the guy. So I knew it was coming. How do you show sportsmanship better than what they’re doing?”

As the season opener neared, some of the Falcons wrote notes to Cole that were separate from the notes that sailed away with the balloons. One of them read:

“Hey buddy, we miss you. It’s not the same here any more. We’re playing for you, OK? Thanks for everything you’ve ever done to and for me. Miss you.”

--To see a photo gallery of the tree planting and balloon release, as well as video, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 15
*Miles John has driven: 1,466

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
Future Gophers QB Helps Journalist Break The Rules9/2/2011
NEW PRAGUE -- There is a cardinal rule in this business of sports writing: You never conduct interviews until after the game has ended. That’s why I was quite surpised when Mankato West football Mark Esch offered to let me violate that rule Thursday night.

There was no drama taking place. The West Scarlets had long ago tied a big ribbon on their season-opening victory over the New Prague Trojans. The score was 22-0 after one quarter, 52-0 at halftime and 60-6 with a few minutes to play in the fourth quarter as I stood on the West sideline chatting with Esch.

There was no mystery about who the media would interrogate after time ran out. West quarterback Philip Nelson, who might be the highest-profile high school player in Minnesota, had put on a big show. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound senior completed 10 of 16 passes for 184 yards and five touchdowns, and also ran the ball 11 times for 135 yards and another score. And that was just in the first half; he didn't set foot on the field after halftime.

Nelson committed to the University of Minnesota in February, and Thursday’s performance is sure to be noticed by Gophers fans. I was looking forward to interviewing the three-year starter following the usual timetable: 1) game ends, 2) teams shake hands, 3) coaches speak to their players, 4) reporters ask questions.

But out of the blue, Esch said, “John, would you like to talk to Philip now?” I stammered and stuttered a bit, surprised by the in-game offer. I said, “That’s something I would never ask to do, but if it’s OK with you, sure.” So the coach hollered, “Phil!” Nelson walked over to us, Mark introduced his quarterback to the guy from the MSHSL and the pre-postgame interview began.

“I just knew the Gophers was where I wanted to go,” Nelson said. “The coaching staff has such a hard-nosed program, they’re disciplining everybody, they’re going to make me a better person and I think they’re going to start winning sooner than what a lot of people think. That really excites me. I want to be part of my home state and help turn around the program.”

The final score was Mankato West 60, New Prague 14 and the entire second half was played under running time. Rules allow running time to be used in the fourth quarter when the margin is 35 points or more, but coaches have the option to speed the clock sooner. Shortly before halftime, Esch asked the officials if they would talk to New Prague coach Jim Benick about going to running time right away in the second half, and that’s what happened.

West is ranked No. 1 in Class 4A for good reason ... and Nelson is the biggest reason. He connected with Hunter Friesen for touchdown passes of 16, 11 and 24 yards, and found Konor Severns for scoring plays of 26 and 12 yards. Nelson also ran for a 12-yard score and Jordan Hage had a 5-yard TD carry for the Scarlets.

“I think the game has really slowed down for him, even from last year to this year,” Esch (right) said. “He put on an extra 20 pounds in the offseason. He sees things well and he’s focused.”

The West defense, meanwhile, held New Prague to less than 50 yards of offense in the first half; the Trojans never got within 45 yards of the end zone until the third quarter.

“He did a nice job,” Benick said of Nelson. “He executed, he’s physical, he put the ball on the money. He’s a nice player, a nice competitor. The best way to stop him is keep him off the field. And we weren’t doing that at all.”

Nelson, who kicked off four times and would have punted if the Scarlets had lined up in punt formation in the first half, said, “I think we played really hard. We executed really well offensively and defensively and we just played an all-around great game. But there’s always room for improvement.”

West had an overall record of 34-3 in the past three season. They won the 2008 Class 4A state title (when Nelson started one game as a freshman), lost in the state semifinals in 2009 and in the state quarterfinals last season. Nelson has started every game since the start of the 2009 season, and his goal this season is to take home another state championship.

“I’m so excited for my senior year,” he said. “This is our senior class’s last chance to play together and win state, and I’ve been looking forward to my senior year more than anything else. This is the most unbelievable year that you can ever experience, playing with the kids you grew up with. We’re taking it week by week.”

It’s safe to consider Week 1 a smashing success ... even if the rules of journalism were ignored.

--To see a photo gallery from Thursday's game, as well as a postgame video interview with Nelson, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 13
*Miles John has driven: 1,295

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
A Season Interrupted By Cancer, But Plenty To Be Thankful For9/1/2011
Nick Manzoni’s coach calls him a ridiculously talented soccer player. Which is part of the reason why not being able to play this season is ridiculously hard for the Orono senior attacker. But cancer does ridiculous things.

Manzoni, who was a Class A first-team all-state player a year ago, was considered one of the top candidates to be named Minnesota’s Mr. Soccer at the conclusion of the 2011 season. But over the summer, tests for recurring pain and soreness in his right calf showed Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare disease that accounts for only one percent of childhood cancers.

That means Manzoni (No. 10 at right) is undergoing chemotherapy, which is a weekly routine right now, followed by surgery in September and then more chemo. It also means no soccer this fall.

Not playing is “ridiculously hard, to be honest,” Nick said Wednesday night at Orono before the fifth-ranked Spartans lost a 3-2 overtime decision to St. Michael-Albertville. His doctors believe the cancer was found early enough that he should get a clean bill of health at the end of the treatment regimen. But again, sitting out his senior year is hard on him as well as his teammates.

Nick had 18 goals and 10 assists last season, when the Spartans reached the state quarterfinals. Fellow senior Willi Semsch said Nick’s play was crucial in getting through the Section 6 playoffs in 2010.

“In the section semifinals against Breck we were up 1-0 and he hit a shot from probably 35 or 40 yards out, chipped the goal, and that was pretty cool,” Semsch said. “And in the section finals against Benilde, which is probably our biggest rival, he pretty much dominated that game and scored two goals. That was huge.

“We’ve just got to step up as a team, all of us. No one of us is as good as him, so we’re going to have to do it as a team, as a whole. We’ve got to support each other.”

Another senior, Mason Whitney, said playing without Manzoni is “a huge difference because we had to completely change our offense. Generally our offense was kind of ‘Get Nick the ball, watch him dribble and watch everybody else run,’ because sooner or later about four people would draw to him and he would pass or just keep on dribbling and score a goal.”

Orono coach Brad Carlson said Manzoni is “a ridiculously good soccer player. He’s the complete package in soccer and he’s as smart as a whip.”

The cancer was diagnosed in June, and it wasn’t long before Debbie Manzoni saw a sight that brought her to tears … but these were tears of gratitude for Nick’s friends.

“He’s got some great, great, great buddies on the team and everywhere,” she said. “Nick started losing his hair and he got it buzzed but he said, ‘Nope, this won’t do. It’s still patchy.’ ”

So Nick and some of his friends shaved each other’s heads. “I came home to see all these bald heads sitting in the basement,” Debbie said. “I just started crying.”

At the Spartans’ first game this season, headbands bearing Nick’s number 10 and his initials (NWM for Nicholas William Manzoni) were unveiled. That’s just one of many ways Nick has been supported by his teammates, his friends and their families.

“He’s got good friends and they care about him a lot,” Carlson said. “His first week in the hospital, Willi and Mason spent the nights with him.”

Nick was preparing for a college showcase soccer event when the pain in his calf returned for the second time this year. He still plans to play college soccer, but the schedule has just been adjusted a little.

“I’ll see how I recover from this whole thing, but right now the plan is to recover by the end of January, get back on my club team and start playing a lot,” he said. “I might take a gap year to try and get in better shape.”

Semsch remembers Nick saying he had a pain in his leg, but soreness and minor injuries are nothing out of the ordinary for athletes.

“Then one day he said it might be cancer, and he told me a couple days later that it was cancer,” Semsch said. “I wanted him to be out on the soccer field with me, because he’s a really, really good player. And he’s one of my best friends, so it was tough in both senses.”

Before the Spartans opened the season at home against Maple Grove last week, Semsch asked Manzoni if he planned to be there. “He was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to kill me to not play.’ I know it’s just killing him,” Semsch said.

Whitney was on a school trip to Spain when he learned of Nick’s diagnosis. “It was a huge blow,” he said. “My friends told me online and I couldn’t really call him or anything. When I got home I just drove straight to the hospital.

“It’s really tough. It’s tough on all of us, and I would imagine it’s just tenfold and way, way worse for him. He doesn’t like to show his emotions that much but you can tell it’s just eating him up not being on the field, not playing with us. We’ve been building up to our senior year, we’ve been talking about it since day one. We went to state last year and we were planning on going even further this year.

“This is a huge wakeup call, when one of your best friends goes out. Everything’s fine and dandy, nobody’s ever been even sick, really. And then he ends up getting cancer.”

Cancer is certainly bad news, but there has been plenty of good news since Nick was diagnosed. The best bit of medical information came when the Manzonis learned that the cancer had not spread from Nick’s calf.

“We had so many people praying for us, and three prayers were answered,” Debbie said. “It could have spread to his lungs, to his bones and to his bone marrow. And each day for three days we received the results of those tests, saying, ‘Not in his lungs, not in his bones, not in his marrow.’ Thank you, Lord, for that good, good news.”

Nick goes into the hospital every Monday for chemotherapy, which is administered intravenously. He stays for three or five days each time. The chemo has had no side effects other than the loss of his hair.

“The doctor said he’s been like the poster child,” said Debbie. “There are a lot of things to be thankful for in the midst of a really awful, scary thing.”

--To see more photos, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 11
*Miles John has driven: 1,241

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
A New Look And A New Season For Two Volleyball Powers8/30/2011
FARIBAULT -- Change was in the air for both teams long before Lakeville North and Bethlehem Academy opened the volleyball season here on Tuesday night. And then the whistle blew, the first ball of the season was struck and change was transformed into action.

Each team is ranked No. 2 in its class, and the 3A North Panthers defeated the 1A Bethlehem Academy Cardinals 25-16, 25-19, 25-22 in a great old gymnasium that included a nearly full house, a pep band, cheerleaders and an enthusiastic student section celebrating the first day of school at Bethlehem Academy.

About those changes …

Lakeville North was coming off a historic season. After 14 trips to the state tournament and five runner-up finishes between 1981 and 2007 (the first four as Lakeville, the fifth as Lakeville North), the Panthers finally won it all in 2010. But the landscape shifted dramatically during the offseason as coach Milan Mader retired after several decades and and hitter Taylr McNeil, who has already made a verbal commitment to play at the University of Minnesota, moved to Eagan and now is a sophomore for the Wildcats. McNeil’s sister Kellie, the 2010 player of the year in the state, is now a Gophers freshman.

North’s new coach is Steve Willingham, who was an assistant to Mader from 1986 to 2005.

The changes have not been quite so dramatic at Bethlehem Academy. The Cardinals lost all-state players Jena Budde and Victoria Nass to graduation but longtime Franz Boelter remains at the helm. The big adjustment for the Cardinals is that for the first time in eight years they are not coming off a trip to state.

Between 2002 and 2009, the Cardinals won 1A championships in all the odd-numbered years and finished second in all the even-numbered years. That string of state appearances ended last year with a loss to eventual state champion Wabasha-Kellogg in the Section 1 tournament finals.

The Cardinals are ready to begin the journey toward another possible state appearance, and as Boelter said after Tuesday’s match, the road is just beginning.

“We hung in there,” he said. “They made enough mistakes to help us out, and we made enough mistakes to prevent us from winning a set. It was a little bit of a sloppy first match, but at least we stayed competitive and hopefully we worked out some of the jitters and the kinks. We’ll certainly have a chance to get better, and we’ll certainly be pretty good by the end of the season.”

The sentiments were similar on the other bench. “I thought we played about how we expected,” Willingham said. “We’ve got a long way to go in some facets of the game. There are some things that we do really well right now, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to get better at them, either.”

North is skilled and powerful. Sophomore Alyssa Goehner and senior Kelly Nizzari, a pair of 5-foot-11 outside hitters, combined for 28 kills and 6-foot senior Nicole Latzig finished with five kills and a sterling .416 hitting percentage. Senior setter Jessica Wolf ran the offense nicely, recording 32 assists.

For the Cardinals -- who always rely on great defense -- junior hitters Maddie Borwege and Jessie Mathews combined for 16 kills and 5-11 ninth-grader Lauren Mathews had four while seventh-grader Payton Nutter and senior Daisy Jo Robinson combined for 21 assists.

“We are young and some of our youth has some experience,” Boelter said. “We’ve got a number of kids playing their first varsity match, and there was an excitability factor against a good team. (Lakeville North is) going to be a very good volleyball team, I think we’re going to be a very good volleyball team, and they’re just ahead of us right now.”

Lakeville North and Bethlehem Academy have been meeting during the regular season for several years now. The reasoning is simple: face the best competition you can and you’ll be well-prepared for the postseason. And opening the season in such an intimate, loud, crowded setting adds even more.

“This gym is awesome, isn’t it? You won’t play in a space like this very often,” Willingham said. “And there are only a couple of them left in high school volleyball, so that’s always fun. … We want to play the best teams, and Franz’s teams always play defense. And if you don’t play defense with them, they’re going to hand you your lunch. It was a fun match and we love playing these guys.”

TIDBITS …

--The Bethlehem Academy band – including a couple of cheerleaders who picked up their instruments between cheers -- put on a sterling performance before the match started. How nice is this: a play list that included songs by Lady Gaga, The White Stripes, the Spencer Davis Group and Roy Orbison.

--The out-of-town media was very well-treated by Bethlehem Academy athletic director Ed Friesen. Before the match got going, Ed handed me a complementary diet soft drink that shall not be named and a world-famous Bethlehem Academy chocolate chunk cookie.

--Celebrities in the crowd: It was a pleasure to chat with former Apple Valley coach Walt Weaver, who has forgotten more about volleyball than I will ever know. I also ran into veteran broadcasters Mike Morrissey, who has been behind the microphone since 1967. Mike had the night off, and his colleague Gordy Kosfelt handled play-by-play duties for KDHL in Faribault.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 9
*Miles John has driven: 1,199

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn
Bloomington Jefferson, Wabasha-Kellogg New No. 1 Volleyball Teams8/29/2011
The state volleyball rankings are only in their second week, but there has already been change at the top.

Preseason 3A No. 1 Lakeville North is No. 2 this week behind Bloomington Jefferson, and in 1A Wabasha-Kellogg has risen from No. 2 to No. 1 ahead of previously top-ranked Nevis (now No. 4).

Jackson County Central maintained the No. 1 spot in 2A. Here are the rankings …

CLASS 3A
1. Bloomington Jefferson (10) 220
2. Lakeville North (5) 196
3. Wayzata 188
4. Blaine 167
5. Lakeville South 159
6. Shakopee 138
7. Centennial 113
8. Eden Prairie 106
9. Hopkins 95
10. Andover 60
Others: Eagan (53), Hutchinson (26), East Ridge (21), Waconia (21), Apple Valley (19), Totino-Grace (10), Prior Lake (9)

CLASS 2A
1. Jackson County Central (4) 150
2. Lesuer-Henderson (3) 145
3. Stewartville (2) 132
4. Belle Plaine (1) 116
5. Marshall 102
6. Maple Lake 92
Kasson-Mantorville 92
8. Visitation 75
9. Wadena-Deer Creek 55
10. Byron 12
Others: Caledonia (7)

CLASS 1A
1. Wabasha-Kellogg (7) 158
2. Bethlehem Academy (1) 151
3. Mayer Lutheran (1) 139
4. Nevis (2) 137
5. Minneota 112
6. Win-E-Mac 102
7. BBE 99
8. Southwest Christian 94
9. Canby 56
10. Ada-Borup 47
Others: MACCRAY (39)