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The Best Of John’s Journal No. 3: Onamia’s Shan Donovan
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 7/23/2017 7:48:34 PM

We have arrived at the final three stories on my Top 10 list from 2016-17, and No 3 is very special. The story, posted on May 22, is a profile of one of the most amazing people I know. Shan Donovan was born in China without a left arm, and today he is a three-sport athlete and multi-dimensional high school student in a small Minnesota town. The word “inspirational” doesn’t even begin to describe Shan...

One Arm? That’s No Problem For Onamia’s Amazing Shan Donovan

ONAMIA – Shan Donovan was standing near the right-field foul line, playing catch with a teammate before the Onamia High School varsity baseball team hosted Pine City. After a couple of tosses, Shan (his name is pronounced “Shawn”) shouted, “Get a little closer. My arm’s not warmed up yet.”

As the boys got loose, Shan did what he does every day on the ballfield. He caught the ball in the glove on his right hand, flipped the glove off, grabbed the ball in mid-air with his bare hand and tossed it before leaning down to pick up the glove and re-start the process.

The fact that Shan does not have a left arm is no impediment for the Panthers’ sophomore starting catcher. He also plays football and basketball, sings in the school choir and acts in school plays. He is proficient with several musical instruments, including the tuba, trumpet and piano. And he does it all with one arm.

“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to find a way to do it,” said Jason Runyan, Onamia’s head coach for baseball and boys basketball. “He lives the high school life. He’s involved in everything.”

Shan doesn’t know anything different. Born in China without a left arm, he was five years old when he was adopted by Cathy Donovan, a physican in Onamia.

Shortly after arriving in this small town a few miles south of Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota, Shan began getting involved in sports. First came karate and then taekwondo, followed by almost every other activity he could get his hand on.

“He just wants to be involved in everything and that’s how he got into sports,” said Cathy. When asked if Shan is so heavily involved in sports and other activites that he overextends himself, she laughed and said, “No. I get overextended, he doesn’t.”

Playing baseball presents specific challenges to Shan. He uses his teeth to tighten the Velcro strap on his batting glove. But like putting on shin guards and a chest protector, it’s second nature. Crouching behind home plate, he shakes off his mitt, flashes signals to the pitcher, puts the glove back on, catches the pitch and with one shake of his hand the glove flies off, he grabs the ball and throws it back to the mound. When a baserunner attempts to steal, Shan is lightning quick in getting the ball into his throwing hand and firing.

He is a switch-hitter who bats from the right side of the plate when the bases are empty; with runners on he moves to the left side and is likely to put down a bunt, using his speed to dash to first base.

“He has more power from the right side and he’s a lethal bunter from the left side,” Runyan said. “We ask a lot of him, in bunting situations especially. He’s very fast. He just works hard, that’s all there is to it.”

Runyan, who is in his first year at Onamia, admits he thought Shan was kidding when, shortly after Jason arrived in town, Shan told him, “I play catcher.”

“I thought it was a joke, honestly. I did. It wasn’t a joke, obviously. I put him back there at catcher and right away he was good, blocking every ball. What amazed me the most I guess was when the first kid stole, I didn’t know how it was going to go down. I’d seen a little in practice, but it was an instant flip of the glove and he throws.”

To perfect his catching/throwing motion, Shan watched online videos of people who had lost limbs but played baseball or softball anyway, many of them veterans.

“It’s one of those sports that’s pretty complicated because most everybody sees it as a two-arm sport,” he said. “You definitely have to use two arms; catch with one and throw with the other.”

Shan has been fitted with a prosthetic arm. He doesn’t use it, calling it “annoying.” His desire to try new things is a testament to his positive attitude.

“I don’t find really anything challenging, unless there’s absolutely ones where you definitely need two arms to do,” he said. “Most (amusement park) rides, they tell me I can’t ride them because you need to hold on with two hands. But that’s not really a problem. The one I really have an issue with is making friendship bracelets. I’m not a big fan of it and I don’t do it much.”

When his school schedule included a pottery class, he wasn’t thrilled about attempting to create pottery with one hand. In the end, though, he enjoyed the class and discovered he was a talented potter.

Playing mostly junior varsity basketball last winter, Shan didn’t do a lot of scoring but Runyan called him one of the leaders on the JV and the best defensive player. Shan’s basketball practice were sometimes limited because he had to rush off to other activities.

Runyan said, “There were three of four practices where he would come up and say, ‘Hey coach, I’ve got to go practice for the musical’ or ‘I’ve got to go practice with the jazz band.’ I thought, ‘You’re doing it all. You’re livin’ it, man.’ ”

While Shan realizes he is an inspiring figure, he doesn’t outwardly try to portray himself that way. He’s just a high school kid doing what busy high school kids do.

“I go to a camp where a lot of people look up to me,” he said. “I inspire people without realizing that I’m inspiring them. I’m not really trying to do that.”

His mom recalled when Shan helped a group of elementary students work on basketball skills. The kids, most of them righthanded, were less than excited about trying to shoot with their left hand.

“One or two of them were complaining, so Shan gave them a pep talk,” Cathy said.

Shan’s grandparents, George and Shirley Donovan, watched the Onamia-Pine City game in lawn chairs along with their daughter Cathy and the family dog, Flash. (Everybody, including Flash, nibbled on peanuts.)

Shirley talked about seeing a magazine photo of an amputee climbing Mount Everest and asking Shan, “Did you see this?”

To which Shan’s mom quickly interjected, “Don’t give him any ideas.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



The Best Of John’s Journal No. 4: Moorhead Speech Team
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 7/20/2017 12:09:19 AM

I attend the state speech tournament every year. For the 2017 state tournament I focused on one team throughout the day. I chose Moorhead High School for a couple reasons: The Spuds are routinely one of the strongest speech teams in the state and their coach is nationally known. The decision resulted in this story from April 22…

State Speech: A Day In The Life Of The Spuds

“Kaden, how do you feel?”

“You feeling good, Maryn?”

Rebecca Meyer-Larson was checking on her team a few minutes before Friday’s Class 2A state speech competition began at Apple Valley High School. The Moorhead coach knew the hay was in the barn after months of hard work, and she also knew the final day of the season held high expectations.

There are 13 categories in speech, ranging from Creative Expression to Extemporaneous Speaking to Storytelling to Original Oratory. Last year Moorhead went home with a state championship in one category (Izzy Larson and Devon Solwold in Duo Interpretation) and won enough second- through eighth-place medals to share the 2016 team championship with Eagan.

A few days before Friday’s event, Meyer-Larson talked to me about speech and what makes it different from other MSHSL activities.

“It’s not like wrestling, it’s not about getting a pin, it’s not about getting faster,” she said. “It’s so subjective. All you can control is how much you can control; sleep, preparations.”

This is Meyer-Larson’s 25th year as the Spuds coach. (She is on the right in this photo.) In her first year, the team consisted of five students. This year there are 74; 28 of them qualified for state via the Section 8 tournament.

“We always start with, ‘Who do you want to be later in life? What kind of person do you want to become?’ ” she said. “I’m biased of course, but I think this activity is the best at preparing these kids for the future. I’m amazed by their intelligence, their drive, their desire to do good and be good.”

As the Spuds knew, there were no guarantees Friday. Izzy Larson (the coach’s daughter) and Solwold were back to defend their Duo Interpretation title. That category has been a Spud specialty, with Matthew Wisenden and Jordan Hartjen winning state in 2014. Could Izzy and Devon make it three Moorhead Duo Interp titles in four years?

State speech is a torrent of cross-current performance streams. Classrooms are the competition sites, with speakers, judges, room managers, coaches and fans studying maps of the school to find the room and speaker(s) they want to see. In the first three rounds, six speakers are in each room and their lineups change during those rounds so different judges can see them.

Following the first three rounds, the top eight in each category advance to the championship round, with each category viewed by five judges.

In Extemporaneous Speaking, Moorhead’s Bridget McManamon’s first-round presentation centered on President Trump’s relationship with American workers and labor unions. As she made her points while discussing things like NAFTA and jobs in the coal industry, Bridget quoted articles from The Economist, Politico and other sources.

Evyn Judisch -- competing in Creative Expression with a highly entertaining presentation that he authored (titled “Greetings Mr. Ducksworth”) -- sat at a classroom desk waiting for the room manager to start the round. All the speakers dress in business attire; males in dark suits and females in skirts and jackets. Evyn (pictured), with slicked-back hair and large eyeglasses, owned the room as he voiced three characters and physically “became” them. He had seemed small as he sat at the desk but was larger than life during his performance.

In a nearby classroom a few minutes later, Moorhead’s Kaden Moszer was the opposite of teammate Evyn during his Serious Interpretation of Prose speech: “I’m Not a Serial Killer” by Dan Wells. While Evyn made Room 219C laugh, Room 211 was buried in absolute silence as Kaden glared, glowered, muttered, screamed and raised an invisible knife (no props are used).

“By the end of the season they’ve been giving these speeches for a while,” Meyer-Larson said. “It’s fresh every weekend, but we always tell them you walk up to the front of the room and they ought to see in you that you love your words, you love this activity, love your team and represent the activity and your school.”

After three rounds, lists of those who qualified for the championship round were posted on TV monitors throughout the bright, spacious school.

The results, as it turned out, were very good for the Spuds: 16 of them advanced to the final round. That meant 16 medals would be traveling home to Moorhead

The results were announced, with MSHSL speech rules clinician Cliff Janke at the podium. One by one, the eight finalists in each category came to the stage and stood in a line as winners of the eight medals were revealed, from eighth to first.

It quickly became clear that this was going to be Moorhead’s day. Storytelling state champion: “From Moorhead, McKensie Bedore.” Informative Speaking state champion: “From Moorhead, Sarah Schulz.” Serious Interpretation of Prose state champion: “From Moorhead, Noel Kangas.”

The first three categories to be announced resulted in three champs from Moorhead. Meyer-Larson sat in the bleachers with the team, standing, applauding and seeming breathless at times.

The Spuds’ Carolyn Solberg won gold in Great Speeches and teammate Maryn Cella placed third. In Serious Interpretation of Drama, Luke Seidel was second and Kenan Stoltenow was sixth. In Humorous Interpretation, Ariana Grollman finished as a state runner-up and Sophia Klindt was fourth.

The closers came through, too. Izzy and Devon were awarded their second consecutive state championship in Duo Interpretation and teammates Abby Dahlberg and Skyler Klostriech were fifth. Then came the team scores: Moorhead 84 points, Apple Valley 62, and Eagan and Lakeville North sharing third place with 34 points.

For the jubilant Spuds, this had become a day of Non-Extemporaneous Peaking.

“It was definitely kind of a trial to get through it,” Devon said of winning another title with Izzy. “I was really, really eager this year, even more than last year, to just be here. You of course want to do it again but you’ve got to swallow whatever happens. The fact that it went down this way is phenomenal.”

“The reason why these kids are so good is because Minnesota is so good,” said Meyer-Larson. “And that’s because of the Minnesota State High School League, the way they treat these kids. They treat them like rock stars. If you ask any kid here, they believe what they’re doing is every bit as important as what happened at state hockey or state wrestling. Because it is. The high school league does a brilliant job of making these kids feel special.”

After photos, hugs and even a few tears, the day – a remarkable day for the kids who were 250 miles from home -- had ended.

“It’s just so fun,” Izzy said. “One thing my mom says the most is that it’s not about the trophies and how well you do; it’s about the heart and how much passion you have for your speech and your team and sticking together and having an awesome time. And that’s we did. Sometimes it works out.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



The Best Of John’s Journal No. 5: Grand Meadow Superlarks
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 7/17/2017 5:00:21 AM

We have reached the Top 5 stories from 2016-17, and No. 5 comes from a small town that has become synonymous with success in nine-man football. I visited Grand Meadow -- which ended the 2016 season with its fourth consecutive state championship -- for a regular-season game on a brilliant Friday evening in October.

Here’s the story, which was posted on Oct. 3…

In Grand Meadow, Nine-Man Football Is Grand

GRAND MEADOW – When this little town was established during the Civil War era, it took its name from the picturesque prairie landscape of southeast Minnesota. Nowadays, the grandest meadow in Grand Meadow is a field of thick green grass on the eastern edge of town, 120 yards long and 40 yards wide, the home of the best little football team in Minnesota.

The Grand Meadow Superlarks have won the last three nine-man football state championships. They own the longest current winning streak in the state regardless of class, with Friday’s 80-34 victory over West Lutheran extending their run to 41 games. Their last defeat came in October 2013.

Friday’s victory capped Homecoming week, which was filled with the usual array of fun festivities that included themed dress-up days in the K-12 school, float building, an afternoon parade and introduction of Homecoming royalty at halftime of the football game. An unofficial tradition took place very late Thursday evening/early Friday morning when some merry pranksters TP’d the home of head coach Gary Sloan.

His dog, hearing the shenanigans, woke the coach. Sloan flipped on an exterior light “and I saw about a dozen of them out there,” he said with a smile Friday afternoon. “That didn’t even faze them.”

It’s hard not to have fun during autumn in Grand Meadow. Everyone takes great pride in the success of the Superlarks, filling a small set of bleachers and lining up along the fence that circles the field. The town itself is crowded all the time these days, with a growing school enrollment fueled by parents who work in nearby Rochester and Austin and want to raise their kids in a quiet town with a quality school.

The school building is unique: Five windowless monolithic domes that encompass classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab and offices. The structure opened in 2002 and is being expanded this fall with the addition of larger gym, locker rooms, workout facilities and four classrooms. Geothermal energy powers the school via 26 miles of pipe under the practice fields a few steps away.

Grand Meadow’s current high school enrollment is 95 students. When the Superlarks won their first-ever state football title in 2013 the senior class consisted of 17 students; a year later that number was 18 and last year it was 29. The district's average current class size is in the upper 30s.

Many nine-man football schools struggle with numbers and some form cooperative teams with other schools in order to keep football alive. The opposite is taking place in Grand Meadow, where growth may push the Superlarks into 11-man football at some point.

“We won’t get to that 11-man number in the next four to five years but we’re getting close,” said Sloan.

Game nights in Grand Meadow include a few special amenities. Seats in a couch located behind an end zone are raffled off; an auction was held at halftime Friday with the game ball selling for $1,200. The press box is a roomy three-story building that seats coaches, video cameras, scoreboard operator and announcer on the top level, while the second story houses four “luxury suites” that also bring in funds.

The long winning streak means every team wants to play its absolute best against the Superlarks, and West Lutheran – the school is in Plymouth, two hours from Grand Meadow – did just that. The Warriors (enrollment 145) and quarterback Ben Beise had 311 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Grand Meadow is a running team, with senior Christopher Bain carrying nine times for 217 yards and three scores and junior Zach Myhre running eight times for 130 yards and one TD.

“I feel like there’s pressure in every game,” Myhre said. “And I know we’re going to get every team’s best effort, no matter who they are, the No. 2-ranked team or the worst team. We’re going to get their best effort.”

Senior Connor King said, “Pressure is obviously there. There’s not much we can do about it other than just play our best and go into every game the same.”

There is a friendly in-house rivalry between graduating classes. Two years ago the senior football players had a career record of 47-6 and last year’s class went 53-3. This year’s seniors have lost only once in 43 games since their freshman season.

“They’re all trying to beat the class in front of them. It’s a friendly competition. These guys are buddies but there’s a lot of bragging rights,” said Sloan, a native of Ellendale who also is a special education teacher, activities director, transportation director and Title IX coordinator for the school district. This is his 24th year as the head football coach.

Grand Meadow’s first trip to the state football playoffs was in 1986, but the Superlarks have a long, rich history. Bill Severin Sr. was the coach in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1965 the team set a then-state record with 47 straight wins. Severin was named Minnesota’s first coach of the year in 1965 and was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989.

The current Superlarks are 5-0 going into Friday’s game at LeRoy-Ostrander (2-3). Grand Meadow fans can be forgiven for looking ahead to the final regular-season game against Spring Grove, which is also unbeaten in 2015 and is routinely the Superlarks’ biggest rival in the Section 1 playoffs.

Grand Meadow’s streak was in serious jeopardy in last year’s regular-season finale, a 21-20 nail-biter at Spring Grove. In six postseason games that followed, the Superlarks won by an average margin of 24 points; the closest game was a 14-point victory over Underwood in the Prep Bowl.

The Superlarks’ average score this fall is 65-17. They are rushing for 391 yards per game, with Bain averaging 131 yards and Myrhe 93 for a team with starters that go to the bench as soon as the second quarter.

All this success hinges on many factors, of course, but none are more important than coaching. Sloan has only four assistant coaches, and all of them – Aaron Myhre, Deke Stejskal, Anthony Stejskal and Josh Bain – played for him.

“Our coaching staff does a really good job and the players buy in and work hard in the offseason,” King said. “It’s like a band of brothers here. We all get along with each other and we work well together.”

Zach Myhre added, “Obviously there are a lot of kids who get in the weight room in the offseason and work their butts off, but I think it comes down to our coaching staff implementing our game plan and then us successfully playing with it.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



The Best Of John’s Journal No. 6: Homecoming In Montevideo
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 7/14/2017 7:48:02 AM

This story, which is No. 6 on the Top 10 list of my favorite stories from the 2016-17 school year, came out of a picture-perfect autumn day in Montevideo. It was more than a five-hour round-trip drive for me on that Friday, and it was well worth every mile. Homecoming is always a big event in schools all over Minnesota, and the happenings in Montevideo shine a great light on all the fun, positive things that are possible.

Here’s the story that was posted on Sept. 26 …

Montevideo: Where Homecoming Is King

MONTEVIDEO – Let’s start this essay with the final act of wonderfulness I witnessed during Homecoming Day in Montevideo, home of the Thunder Hawks and some of the nicest people you will ever come across. Friday was big, filled with special events. However, the final moment for me was not a big thing but a little thing, a little thing that exemplifies what makes high school activities so special.

The Thunder Hawks football team had just lost the Homecoming game to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City. The visiting Falcons led 3-0 at halftime in a game dominated by defense, ACGC’s Jeremy Nelson ran for two short touchdowns in the second half and the Falcons won 24-0.

As the boys of Montevideo left the field to exit the stadium and make the short hike across 17th Street to their school, they walked through a tunnel of humanity. Parents, grandparents, family, friends, little kids and old timers, their fans slapped them on their big shoulder pads, patted the top of their helmets, said “Good game” and “Good job” and wished them luck next week.

I was standing with Montevideo activities director Bob Grey, watching this all take place. I said to Bob what came to mind after spending the day in town: “Bob, these kids are so lucky to grow up here.”

Montevideo is the county seat of Chippewa County, pretty much equidistant between the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, S.D.; two and a half hours due west of the Twin Cities and two and a half hours northeast of Sioux Falls. It is home to 5,300-some proud souls and has a sister city in Montevideo, Uruguay; a statue of José Artigas, the father of Uruguayan independence, stands proudly in downtown Montevideo, Minnesota.

I see a lot of great things everywhere I go in Minnesota. This trip to Montevideo was a day-long affair, though, making it a very enjoyable deep dive. There was a pep rally featuring a live cow, a wonderful small-town Homecoming parade, free hot dogs before the football game, and a lovely autumn evening to cap it off.

The afternoon pep rally was for everybody, and I mean everybody. Every kid who attends public school in Montevideo crammed into the high school gym, a feat that involved bus rides and other high-wire logistics in herding tiny little tots, classroom by classroom, to their proper seating locations. When all were in place, 1,450 humans – plus teachers and staff – were soon on their feet screaming and clapping for the Thunder Hawk teams.

Football, volleyball, cross-country, girls swimming, girls tennis teams; all were highlighted under the direction of Kyle Goslee, who teaches physical education and coaches softball when he isn’t masterfully ceremony-ing pep rallies with all the screaming gusto of a combination drill sergeant and professional wrestler. (Here’s a brief excerpt from Kyle’s repertoire: “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”)

The cheerleaders scripted many of the activities, including a round-the-gym flurry of cheers from each class, all 13 of ‘em. The kindergarteners kicked it off, following the cheerleaders’ chants and finishing with a very high-pitched “We are the Class of 2029!” And so it went right up to the seniors in the Class of 2017. There were sleeping-bag races, blindfolds and other tomfoolery, and much anticipation for Sammy the cow.

Sammy is not much of a cow, really. She was small enough to be carried into the gym in the arms of a young man and little Sammy stood still while a selectee squatted down and gave her a smooch on the snout. Sammy was returned to her home on the range at that point, and the tarp that had been placed on the gym floor came away unscathed.

The parade. Oh my, the parade. Those little kids sat on the curbs along 17th Street – also known as Thunder Hawk Drive – and waited until it was time to spring into action and scramble for pieces of candy as if they were hundred-dollar bills. The parade was led by the Montevideo Volunteer Fire Department’s largest firetruck, a slow-rolling mastodon of a thing carrying several humans on top … although they were so high in the air it was hard to be specific about details.

There were pickup trucks carrying Homecoming royalty, flatbed trailers carrying teams and clubs, a cute contingent on foot representing Montevideo Elementary School, the great Thunder Hawk marching band, and a float featuring a giant inflatable Minnesota Viking and a large fake can of soup bearing the label “Cream of Falcon Soup” (the ACGC Falcons disrupted that prediction).

As the parade ended, folks lined up for freshly grilled, free hot dogs. Before long the Thunder Hawks and Falcons were on the football field, preparing for the ballgame. Montevideo head coach David Vik took a swig of Diet Squirt, placing the can on the track behind the bench as kickoff came.

For much of the evening, the punters – ACGC’s Adam Johnson and Montevideo’s Reece Kuhlmann – were the busiest guys in town. Another leg specialist, Frederick Hansen, kicked a 24-yard field goal for the Falcons late in the first quarter. The offensive dam didn’t exactly bust after that; the next scoring came midway through the third quarter.

The band members, still in uniform, sat in the stands and entertained everyone in grand style, just as they had done several hours earlier at the pep rally and again during the parade. High school students chatted and cheered, adults handed over cash to little kids bent on attacking the concession stand, the coaches coached and the players played.

The football uniforms displayed some mud by game’s end and the hometown Thunder Hawks came out on the short end of the scoreboard. But as the boys walked off the field, they were met by all those other people who live in their town.

All those lucky people.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



The Best Of John’s Journal No. 7: Coaches, Competitors And Friends
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 7/12/2017 12:31:55 PM

The countdown of my Top 10 favorite John’s Journal stories from 2016-17 continues with No. 7, a tale of close friends who have been boys basketball coaching colleagues for decades. I spent time with Steve Philion of Red Lake County and Vern Johnson of Win-E-Mac when their teams met at Win-E-Mac in Erskine.

I always enjoy spending time with people who have devoted their lives to teaching and coaching, and I never come away from these encounters without having learned something. Steve and Vern have had a positive impact on countless numbers of students and athletes, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company.

Here’s the story that was posted on Jan. 25 …

Career Coaches, Hall of Fame Members, Longtime Friends

ERSKINE – Steve Philion and Vern Johnson have known each other for about 40 years. Now in their 60s, the men are high school boys basketball coaches who have seen a lot, learned a lot and taught countless numbers of students and athletes.

Philion is the coach at Red Lake County and Johnson is at Win-E-Mac. When their teams met on a frigid January evening here at Win-E-Mac, it was part homecoming, part family reunion, part elbow in the ribs.

“I tease Steve every time I see him,” said Johnson with a smile. “I tell him, ‘You can’t quit. I don’t want to be the only old guy.’ ”

While their junior varsity teams were on the court, Johnson and his son/assistant coach Bret saw Philion in a hallway. In a voice loud enough for his longtime coaching counterpart to hear, Vern said to Bret, “Look! There’s an old coach over there.”

All jokes aside, Johnson and Philion are among the top coaches in Minnesota history. Both are members of the Minnesota High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame; Johnson was inducted in 2013 and Philion in 2016.

Their successes, however, extend far beyond the basketball court. Philion is retired from a career teaching high school math and Johnson is a retired elementary teacher who currently is working as a long-term elementary substitute teacher at Red Lake Falls (the Red Lake County boys basketball team is a cooperative team with students from Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County Central).

Philion, a graduate of Red Lake Falls High School and Bemidji State, began his coaching career in 1975 as coach of the boys and girls basketball teams at Gonvick-Trail (which became Clearbrook-Gonvick). In 1998 he returned to his hometown to coach the Red Lake Falls boys. He also is a longtime official, working football, baseball, softball and volleyball on the high school and college level for more than four decades, and works as an MSHSL Rules Clinician. (Pictured are Johnson, left, and Philion, right.)

Johnson, a graduate of Erskine High School and the University of North Dakota, began his coaching career as an assistant at Erskine in the 1970s and became the head coach at Grygla-Gatzke in 1980, where he remained for 33 years (also coaching football) until retiring in 2013. A year later, he returned to coaching when he was hired at Win-E-Mac to replace a young coach who moved to Colorado.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would coach again,” Vern said. “I was satisfied. I took a year off with the intention to take a lot more years off. But the kids keep you young. It is refreshing.”

Memories can be foggy, but Philion and Johnson recollect that they first crossed paths playing softball when they were in their 20s.

“Vern’s a pretty passionate guy,” Philion said. “He’s into the game and he’s pretty lively on the sideline. They always play good defense and they always have good fundamentals; typically he’s had pretty decent teams over the years. Small schools usually have ups and downs but he’s had more ups than downs.”

Johnson said, “Oh, we’ve battled against each other. We still compete and we’re still friends.”

The Win-E-Mac Patriots defeated Red Lake County 64-42 in their first meeting earlier this month; they will meet again at Red Lake County in the regular-season finale on Feb. 27.

Like Johnson, Philion has a son (Kevin) who serves an assistant coach. Kevin also drives the team bus.

“This is his fourth year with me,” Steve said. “It’s pretty special. It’s fun having him there, he’s very sharp.”

Bret Johnson has been coaching with his father for three years, and Vern calls their relationship “kind of a special bond.”

“The other night I know he wasn’t real happy with me, and he thought I should have made a change earlier. Later I said, ‘Are you mad at me?’ He said, ‘Yup. You should have gotten out of that zone earlier.’

“You don’t always get to spend a lot of time with your kids. I have a feeling I won’t be the best coach in the family. He’ll be a lot better than I am.”

Both coaches are taking it a year at a time, enjoying the days with their teams and the competition with friends.

“I hate playing his teams,” Johnson said of Philion. “They just work hard and they’re fundamentally sound. It doesn’t matter how much talent they have or don’t have. You better be ready or you’re going to be taught a lesson.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



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