John's Journal
Softball, Track And Field, Tennis On A Wild Friday6/8/2018
NORTH MANKATO – On one of the busiest days of the high school sports year, Friday provided some great lessons in dedication, thoroughness, hard work and commitment. There was an all-time state record set on the first day of the state track and field championships, there was a miracle finish in the Class 4A state softball tournament, and there were retirements by several long-serving coaches in baseball, track and basketball. But let’s start this report with an athlete who finished her high school career with the rare distinction of playing in the same state tournament six years in a row.

Her name is Rhiana Roberts and she is a senior at New York Mills. The Eagles recorded their second consecutive Class 1A softball championship Friday with a 9-6 victory over Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian, the same team they defeated in last year’s title game. Rhiana had three hits and scored three runs in Friday’s game. As the Eagles pitcher, she struck out six and walked one.

She not only saw her high school career end, it also ended a lengthy chapter for the Roberts family and the Eagles softball team. Her older sisters, Emily and Autumn, also played on the team, so the 2019 season will be the first in 11 years without a Roberts on the roster.

“It started with Emily in seventh grade, rolled over to Autumn in eighth grade and then Rhiana ever since seventh grade,” said New York Mills coach Bryan Dunrud. “The parents have instilled great values in them and they’re just great kids, great young adults now.

“As they came into the program you could tell they play a lot of ball at the house. The knowledge, the teaching of the game, they’re very skilled. But even beyond that, they’re just good people with good morals who you’re proud to have as part of your team.”

New York Mills nearly saw its quest for a repeat title end in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Eagles trailed Hayfield before scoring four runs in the seventh inning for a 6-5, walk-off win. They defeated Randolph 5-3 later Thursday in the semifinals.

“We’ve come back before,” Rhiana said. “There’s no giving up on us. We’re really family, we play together, we keep going no matter what. In the seventh inning I was standing on second base and I knew we could do it and we did it.”

Rhiana was named to the Wells Fargo All-Tournament Team for the third year in a row. After the postgame awards ceremony, there were lots of photos and hugs.

“This was the last game I’ll ever get to play with my team,” she said, “so I really had to try my best and just play for all the fans and my teammates.”

Dream Ending For Stillwater

The Stillwater Ponies softball team provided an example of what is possible when you don’t quit and keep working hard. Their record during the regular season was 7-13, losing 11 of their last 13 regular-season games. They came to the state tournament with a 13-13 mark and defeated the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds en route to the state championship. They defeated Park 5-1 in Friday’s title game.

--In the Class 3A championship game, Faribault defeated North Branch 2-0. Falcons pitcher McKayla Armbruster, who tossed a no-hitter in the quarterfinals, gave up only five hits while striking out 37 and walking one in three games.

--Maple Lake captured the Class 2A softball crown with an 11-1, five inning win over St. Peter.

--Annandale’s Skip Dolan, who has coached softball for 31 years, had some news for the Cardinals after their fourth-place finish in Class 2A: He told the girls that he was retiring as their coach. Dolan will continue to coach the Annandale boys basketball team.

Track And Field News

--Emily Covert of Minneapolis Washburn won the opening event at the state track and field championships Friday, the Class 2A girls 3,200-meter run. She set an all-time state record with a time of 10:06.19. The previous state record was 10:06.98, set by Chaska's Bria Wetsch in 2006.

The state track and field championships will continue Saturday at Hamline University in St. Paul.

--This weekend's state track and field meet marks the end of a 51-year coaching career for Hutchinson head boys coach Leonard Lasley.

--St. Francis High School graduate Maggie Ewen, now a senior at Arizona State, won the NCAA Division I national championship in the women’s shot put for the third time Thursday in Eugene, Oregon. She also will be competing in the discus on Saturday. Maggie was is a four-time MSHSL state champion in the discus, won three state titles in the shot put and holds all-time state records in both events.

--Richfield High School graduate Obsa Ali, who won MSHSL state championships in cross-country and the 3,200 meters, won the men’s steeplechase at the NCAA championships Friday.

Boys State Tennis Champions

The tennis season ended with champions being crowned in single and doubles …

Class 2A singles: Rochester Mayo's Sebastian Vile won the title with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Eagan's Maxim Zagrebelny.

Class 2A doubles: Nisal Liyanage and Sourabh Terakanambi of Eastview defeated Frank Stich and Benjamin Wheaton of Minnetonka 6-3, 7-5 to win the championship.

Class 1A singles: David D. Bush of Duluth Denfeld defeated Parker Law of Mounds Park Academy 6-4, 6-1 in the championship match.

Class 1A doubles: Pavao Veldic and Kevin Turlington of Rochester Lourdes are champs with 6-4, 6-1 win over Jake Seitz and Ethan Youso of Virginia.

More Coaching News

--Brainerd’s Lowell Scearcy is retiring after 49 years as a baseball coach. His teams won state titles in 1995 and 2000 and went to state 11 times between 1981 and 2014. His career record of 763-323 ranks second all-time behind St. Cloud Cathedral’s Bob Karn (782-305, 48 years).

Scearcy's resignation "letter" was written on a baseball. He wrote, “I feel it’s the right time to call it a career” and “Go Brainerd” ... then added his signature to the horsehide.

-- Hall of Fame Rochester Mayo girls basketball coach Rich Decker and his assistants have resigned. He told Pat Ruff of the Rochester Post Bulletin: “No question the involvement of some parents is a factor ... once it’s miserable, it’s not worth doing it anymore.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
No Home-Field Advantage, No Problem For North Branch Softball6/7/2018
NORTH MANKATO – The softball team from North Branch really didn’t have any home-field advantage this season. In fact, the Vikings really didn’t have a home field. Which makes their first-ever trip to the state tournament even sweeter.

The Vikings played two early-season games on their home field before a construction project blocked access to it for the rest of the spring. They used a field at Sunrise River Elementary School for the rest of the season.

“We played probably like five home games,” said first-year head coach Kathy Crudo said after the Vikings defeated Holy Angels 12-0 in Thursday’s Class 3A quarterfinals in front of a big crowd of North Branch supporters. “Our athletic staff and entire community, as you can see today, definitely is behind us and is willing to do whatever it takes to help us.”

A temporary fence was installed at the elementary field and a generator was used to provide power to a temporary scoreboard and public-address system. And no matter where the Vikings played, they performed at a high level. They lost only once during the regular season (to Rogers 4-3 in early May), then fought through the loser’s bracket to win the Section 7 championship and take a 23-2 record to state.

North Branch defeated Hill-Murray 3-1 later Thursday in the semifinals and will meet Faribault in the state championship game Friday afternoon.

North Branch had a combined record of 29-21 in the last two seasons, when Crudo was an assistant coach. She is a Forest Lake High School graduate (the Rangers made it to state in Class 4A this year) who played softball at Winona State and was an assistant at Minnesota Duluth before going to North Branch.

“They came in with a goal this season and they haven’t stopped,” she said of her players. “If it’s there, they’re going to keep going. Obviously the first couple years were just building years when I got here. But they bought into the culture and into working hard and they all have their own personal goals, but the team goal definitely is what has driven them this far.”

Asked to describe the season, North Branch senior Heather Kost said, “Unreal, first of all, obviously. It’s kind of crazy. We went from nothing to something. We got a new head coach, she’s the bomb and she’s the reason we’re here. And we’ve got six strong senior leaders, and that really helps us. Everyone is super close and that’s what’s making this season so awesome.”

Senior Shelby Robinson said the lack of a true home field was “not much of a challenge. We got used to it right away.”

Crudo said, “I don’t feel like it’s my first year head coaching here. It’s awesome. When you know that the girls are totally on the same page with things, and things are clicking, it’s rewarding for them and I think they definitely deserve anything and everything that has come to them. They would trade any single accolade they’ve had for these moments. It’s awesome.”

Minnesota’s First Family of Softball

Members of the Wagner family from Hayfield are quite busy these days…

--Jana Wagner is coaching Hayfield in the Class 1A state tournament.

--Her husband Corey is umpiring in the state tournament.

--Their daughter Dani just completed her college career with the University of Minnesota softball team.

No-Hitters Highlight Day One

There were two no-hitters in the Class 3A softball quarterfinals: Faribault's McKayla Armbruster struck out 17 and no-hit Bemidji in an 8-0 win, and Winona's Annika Anderson struck out 13, got the game-winning hit in the bottom of the seventh inning and no-hit Rocori in a 2-1 win. In the Class 1A quarterfinals, Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian’s Sierra Van Dyke threw a no-hitter in a 14-0 win over Sebeka.


State Softball Tournament

CLASS 1A

Quarterfinals

New York Mills 6, Hayfield 5
Randolph 4, Carlton 3
Edgerton/SW MN Christian 14, Sebeka 0 (5 innings)
New Ulm Cathedral 10, Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 2

Semifinals
New York Mills 5, Randolph 3
Edgerton/SW MN Christian 5, New Ulm Cathedral 1

CLASS 2A

Quarterfinals

Maple Lake 3, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 2 (9 innings)
Pipestone 4, Esko 1
Annandale 2, St. Agnes 1
St. Peter 10, Cotter/Hope Lutheran 0 (5 innings)

Semifinals
Maple Lake 12, Pipestone 3
St. Peter 5, Annandale 2 (10 innings)

CLASS 3A

Quarterfinals

Faribault 8, Bemidji 0
Winona 2, Rocori 1
North Branch 12, Holy Angels 0 (5 innings)
Hill-Murray 10, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 3

Semifinals
Faribault 7, Winona 1
North Branch 3, Hill-Murray 1

CLASS 4A

Quarterfinals

Park 9, Lakeville North 0
Centennial 4, Shakopee 2
Stillwater 8, Forest Lake 4
Buffalo 10, Edina 4

Semifinals
Park 10, Centennial 0 (6 innings)
Stillwater 14, Buffalo 4 (5 innings

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
After 43 Years, Brainerd Tennis Team Returns To State 6/5/2018
The Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota must have seemed like the Taj Mahal of tennis to the Brainerd boys team as the Class 2A state tournament began Tuesday. The facility is world-class, with 10 indoor courts, 12 outdoor courts, 30-foot ceilings, ample seating for spectators and other amenities. That’s a far cry from what the Warriors experienced in getting there.

With the worst spring weather that longtime Brainerd coach Bruce Thompson (pictured) could remember, coupled with no indoor courts for the team to use, it seemed only fair that the Warriors earned the right to play in the team state tournament for the first time in 43 years. Thompson was a first-year teacher in Brainerd and an assistant coach on that team in 1975, and now he’s a retiree who spends winters in Arizona.

Thompson’s memory from that 1975 state tourney is sketchy. He remembers it was held on outdoor courts at a Twin Cities high school, but he doesn’t recall the name of that school.

Playing at state is a grand payoff for the Warriors. The cold and snowy spring weather forced them to compress nearly their entire regular-season schedule into three and a half weeks.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tougher spring,” Thompson said.

The closest thing to indoor courts available to the team was banquet rooms – yes, banquet rooms – at Cragun’s Resort outside of Brainerd.

“It’s a convention center but it’s carpeted so it’s not the same thing,” Thompson said. “And the walls are a pale yellow and the lights are dim. Try and see the ball with those conditions. But we spent a lot of time out there.”

The unseeded Warriors lost to third-seeded Rochester Century 6-1 in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. It was Brainerd’s first loss after 24 victories this season. The Warriors’ victory came at No. 3 doubles, where Matt Hintz and Camden Cooper defeated Century’s Sanjiv Ramana and Arhan Mehta, 6-7(4), 6-4, 10-7. Brainerd fell to Eastview 6-1 later Tuesday in the consolation bracket, ending the Warriors' season with a record of 24-2.

Tanner Lundberg is Brainerd’s only representative in the state singles and doubles tournament, which will be held Thursday and Friday. He will meet Elk River sophomore Stewart Morrell in the first round of singles play.

Brainerd’s path to the team state tournament wound through the highly competitive Section 8 playoffs. The Warriors defeated Bemidji 5-2 and Willmar 5-2 before holding off St. Cloud Tech 4-3 in the section finals.

“We really felt all along, looking at our rivals in our section, that if we played well and we improved and we did some things we had to do, we could be in it,” Thompson said. “It was so tight with Tech and Willmar both, maybe we were fortunate but we earned it. We earned our trip back.”

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Importance Of Educators, Past And Future 5/30/2018
Kelsi Olson, a young band teacher at Brainerd High School, was standing on the stage in the performing arts center at Rosemount High School, where a large alumni concert band was assembled. Kelsi was talking about the reason for the gathering: a man named Steve Olsen was being honored as he retired after a lengthy career as a music educator.

Two days earlier a quieter but no less important gathering was held at Burnsville High School, where graduating seniors who plan to become teachers were honored at a signing ceremony in the school’s career center.

The events provided valuable bookends on the importance of educators by saying “thank you” to someone closing out a wonderful career and “welcome” to 14 young people embarking on a similar path.

In the old days of newspapers there was a joke about people who were responsible for compiling each day’s lists of deaths and births. The process was lovingly known as “shipping and receiving.” Time, of course, marches on, and it was inspiring to be in attendance at the Rosemount and Burnsville events. And on a personal note, there was a family interest in each gathering because my daughter Allison, a teacher at Burnsville, helped plan the future educator signing ceremony there, and she and her two older brothers were band kids under the tutelage of Steve Olsen.

The Burnsville event was brief, lasting no more than 20 minutes. Our daughter and her colleague Dave McDevitt spoke before the students signed letters of intent.

“It’s been a joy to get young people interested in this amazing field of changing lives,” McDevitt said. Ms. Millea added, “Do not lose the spark you have right now. You’re here right now because you are excited about teaching. That’s what we love. You are committing to a brighter future for everyone. You are dedicated to improving lives. … You are literal superheroes for making the choice to teach. If you want to make the world a better place, start with education.”

Steve Olsen, like so many educators in our state and beyond, always made the world a much better place. His 37-year teaching career began at Rosemount in 1981, took him to Bloomington Kennedy and then Eden Prairie before he returned to Rosemount in 1998. He taught elementary music, which he loved, during the last four years of his career.

My wife and I attended every concert in which our kids participated, as well as countless marching band performances at football games, parades and competitions. Those were special days; we think of them often and we miss them.

Steve – whom just about everyone calls “Mr. Olsen” – always went the extra mile. As Mother’s Day rolled around each year, during rehearsals he would ask his students to use their cell phones to call their moms, who would then listen to their children’s band play a song dedicated to them. How sweet is that?

The band assembled for the celebration at Rosemount consisted of former band students under Steve from both Eden Prairie and Rosemount. There was some gray hair and a few bald heads, along with fuller heads of hair on more recent graduates. Steve’s family had sent out the word (and the music) and the group got in a rehearsal before the event began. The musicians included Steve’s wife Natalie (a band teacher in Farmington), their daughter Kaylee and her husband Brad.

Between songs, different individuals stood at the microphone to speak about Steve and how important he has been to them.

The words of Kelsi Olson, a 2011 Rosemount graduate, were especially poignant. She began by saying, “I’m not sure I could adequately describe in words the impact Mr. Olsen has had on my life or the lives of his students in general, because it extends far beyond the many things he taught us.”

She talked about being a high school senior and telling Steve she was thinking of becoming a music educator.

“Instead of simply giving me advice about all the directions that I could possibly take, Mr. Olsen invited me to work as a student aide during his first-hour ninth-grade band,” she said. “I was able to see some of the behind-the-scenes work that Mr. Olsen did as a band director, which would have been helpful enough for a high school senior looking at this as a career. But like he did in so many aspects of his teaching, Mr. Olsen went above and beyond and invited me to lead the band for a rehearsal cycle on a piece and then conduct them at their concert. This was hands-down the best possible real-world experience I could have gotten at that point in my life. It ignited something in me that made me realize that this was a direction I was meant to take.

“I don’t think there’s an adequate enough way to say thank you besides doing everything I possibly can to pass on what I learned from you to my own students. I think I can speak for a lot of us on stage that we didn’t quite realize how lucky we were to have Mr. Olsen (pictured in the pink tie) as our band director while we were in school. It wasn’t until after we left that we could truly appreciate one of the biggest reasons why Mr. Olsen was a great teacher; the fact that he made extraordinary experiences the norm for us. He would always tell us that what we did, our work ethic, our dedication, our level of performance, was not normal because it was done at such a high level. But the thing was, we didn’t believe him. To us, these things were totally normal. Mr. Olsen instilled in us a desire to pursue greatness, to commit to what we were doing with everything we had, and to never settle for mediocrity.

“Looking back at it now from a different perspective, he was right. Our work ethic and level of dedication was definitely not normal. But because we had Mr. Olsen as a teacher, what was truly extraordinary became our normal. I believe this is one of the marks of a great teacher, and I believe I can speak for all of your former students when I say that we are so appreciative of this. As a band teacher myself, I understand that what we hope for our students is that they leave our classes not only as better musicians, but as better human beings.”

The alumni band performed the Eden Prairie and Rosemount school songs as people in the auditorium stood and clapped along. Before the final song of the night, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, Steve spoke briefly. He talked about knowing in fifth grade that he wanted to be a band teacher, about being paid $14,000 a year as a rookie teacher, about his goal of helping students love music.

He gave thanks for all the students, colleagues, administrators and families he has known over all these years.

“I feel very grateful, very blessed,” he said. “I’m so thrilled to have had this wonderful career.”

One more personal note: Our middle child, who lives in Phoenix, was frustrated that he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and join the band at Rosemount. But he had a good excuse. He’s a music educator, just like Mr. Olsen, and he was teaching that day.

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Won 800: New Ulm Cathedral Coach Reaches Big Milestone5/27/2018
NORTH MANKATO – Saturday was special for Bob Mertz. There were cupcakes, balloons and congratulations here at Caswell Park after the New Ulm Cathedral softball team won two playoff games in a quest to reach the state tournament, which will be played at Caswell June 7-8.

The balloons included a big silver “8” and a big silver “0” and another big silver “0” … in recognition of Mertz’s 800th career victory, more than any other softball coach in Minnesota. The cupcakes were covered in yellow frosting, with red frosting used to create stitches across the top of each one. They resembled real softballs and they were delicious.

Mertz, a Cathedral graduate and retired math teacher, was all smiles. He posed for photos with his wife Linda as well as with the Greyhounds. He told the players, “Let’s do this again on Thursday!”

He was referring to the postgame celebration. With victories over Cleveland and Sleepy Eye on Saturday in the Class 1A Section 2 tournament, the sixth-ranked Greyhounds (18-2) advanced to the section championship round. They will play again on Thursday against the winner of the loser’s bracket, which will be decided Tuesday among Sleepy Eye, Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s and Cleveland.

“I’m so fortunate,” said Mertz, who has been the head coach at Cathedral since 1979. His 39-year record of 800-139 translates to an astounding .851 winning percentage and an average of more than 20 victories per season.

The Greyhounds have won seven state championships, beginning with a threepeat in 1993, 1994 and 1995. The others came in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.

“They’re all real special, they really are,” Mertz said of the milestone wins during his career. “The year we won a state championship for the third time in a row, in 1995, that was our 300th one and it happened at the end of the state tournament. That was really special.”

Mertz thought he might retire from coaching when he ended his teaching career a few years back, but he just couldn’t walk away. Beginning last season, he made 2007 Cathedral grad (and former softball player) Jamie Portner his co-head coach.

“I finally figured it out and started inviting former players of mine to help coach,” he said. “So for the last 16 years I’ve always had assistant coaches who were former players. It really makes it so much easier, the kids identify with them.”

Portner, who joined the coaching staff in 2012, said, “I don’t know if there’s anybody in the state of Minnesota who knows more about softball than Bob Mertz. And he’s just kind of a comfort; if you ask him to do something that you’re not comfortable with he’ll go out and do it. It’s kind of a confidence thing, too. If you’ve got him on your side you’ve got a good chance of winning. He’s such a creative thinker. It’s nice to have him on our side instead of playing against him.”

Mertz was not an athlete in high school, and he was somewhat hesitant when he was asked to become an assistant softball coach at Cathedral in the 1970s. He filled that role for three years before taking over as head coach.

“I’m a real novice,” he said. “I was a little worried about coaching when they asked me. But the smartest thing I did was say yes. I’ve never gotten to a point where I said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I’ve always wanted to come back.”

Bob and Linda spend winters in Arizona, and this year they planned their return to Minnesota for April 1. “I was thinking I’d miss all the practices in the gym,” Bob said. “Then we had another three weeks of practices in the gym, so I didn’t miss anything.”

Mertz's presence during games is strong. During Saturday’s game against Sleepy Eye, he made one trip to the pitchers circle to speak with the infielders. He calls pitches, something senior catcher Rose Hazuka appreciates.

“He is so intelligent, it is absolutely amazing,” said Rose, the fourth daughter in her family to play softball for Mertz. “He knows the game of softball like the back of his hand and he can call pitches left and right and it’ll be spot on.”

Senior infielder Jenna Helget said, “He knows what he’s talking about and all of us have improved as softball players. We really appreciate all he does and all the time he puts in.”

The coach has no plans to retire. Once he does make that decision, he will probably make it very, very clear. That wasn’t the case after the 2016 season, when Linda took him at his word.

“I make goofy statements sometimes,” Mertz said. “My wife heard me say, ‘I’m going to retire.’ ”

That triggered surreptitious contact with all of his former players who could be reached, followed by a surprise retirement party. He was thrilled to see so many of his players, including four members of the first team he coached. But he actually was not planning to retire. He told Linda, “You can’t take me seriously when I say these things.”

Portner said Mertz often talks of someday stepping down, but the players keep him coming back.

“He always talks about it, and then he finds a group of girls that he wants to see through. He said 2007 was going to be his last year, then 2009. He just finds more players to be excited about and it carries him through.”

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

Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn