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Fist Bumps And Lightning: The Life Of An Officiating Crew
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/26/2015 12:56:40 PM

Before the team took the field, everyone exchanged fist bumps. It was going to be a long day on this first weekend of the Minnesota high school football season.

This was a five-member team, men between the ages of 34 and 55. They wore striped shirts and black pants, with whistles hanging on lanyards around their necks. These officials, proud residents of the Iron Range, would work a nine-man game at 1 p.m. and an 11-man game at 7 p.m., both in St. Louis County.

By the end of the night, their first two games of the season would be behind them. To be more precise, that was what everyone hoped.

The crew members were referee (also known as “the white hat”) Jim Johnson, umpire Aaron Lamppa, head linesman Dave Troland, line judge Bill Novak and back judge Josh Lamppa. This is a veteran crew, averaging more than 23 years of officiating experience. The Lamppas, who are cousins, are the youngest of the five; Josh is in his 15th year and Aaron in his fifth. The other three have been working games for more than 30 years.

This is also a celebrated crew, with Johnson, Novak, Troland and Josh Lamppa all having worked football state tournament games. Most of the members work other sports, including state tournament games in girls and boys basketball. Josh Lamppa owns another rare achievement: He was the head coach of the Nashwauk-Keewatin boys basketball team that finished second in the 2004 Class 1A state tournament.

Josh Lamppa is a science teacher at Nashwauk-Keewatin. The others’ jobs include shipping, product management and operating heavy equipment in a taconite mine.

Before Saturday’s first game, the crew shared fist bumps and walked onto the field at South Ridge High School, 21 miles north of Cloquet. They shook hands with the head coaches and introduced themselves.

After South Ridge coach Brent Johnson heard “Hi, Dave Troland.” “Hi, I’m Josh Lamppa.” “I’m Aaron Lammpa” and “Bill Novak” he said laughed and to Novak, “I thought you were going to say Lamppa again.”

The crew inspected the field, field markers and first-down chain before bringing the team captains from South Ridge and Kelliher/Northome to midfield for the coin flip. Johnson introduced himself to the captains and said, “Our other officials are Mr. Novak, Mr. Troland, Mr. Lamppa and Mr. Lamppa.” After the national anthem was played, there were more fist bumps before the five scattered to their spots for the kickoff.

South Ridge athletic director Tony DeLeon set the game time for 1 p.m. once he had Johnson’s crew lined up. That’s how respected they are. Coaches and administrators all over the Iron Range feel the same way.

“We’re very familiar with them,” said Virginia football coach Ed Cremers, who would see the crew Saturday evening. “Parts of that crew ref our basketball games, they’re umpires for our baseball games. We know them, plus they’re very personable. They’re good communicators. You can tell they’re here for kids.”

The nine-man game went relatively smoothly for a season opener. Nine penalty flags were thrown and the teams combined for seven turnovers. On the strength of a 27-yard touchdown pass from Giizhik Wagner to Cal Roosdett in the second quarter, Kelliher/Northome won 8-0 in a game that lasted two hours, three minutes while clouds filled the ski and a strong wind blew from the south. The officials spent halftime inside an equipment shed, drinking from water bottles provided by DeLeon.

As with all quality officiating crews, they worked together like a five-piece jazz band. The ball was snapped, a play was run, whistles were blown. Novak and Troland marked the spot and Aaron Lamppa placed the ball. Johnson, positioned behind the offense, blew his whistle to mark the start of the play clock and the five readied for the next play, all in perfect sync.

Distance is often a factor in outstate Minnesota. The Kelliher/Northome Mustangs drove two and a half hours to South Ridge, including a short stint on a gravel road. After the nine-man game, the officials’ second assignment was 45 minutes to the north in Virginia, where the Blue Devils would host Hibbing.

Working two games in one day is a rarity for football officials. Due to the high school season starting earlier than normal this year, Johnson’s group will officiate five games – half of their regular-season schedule -- before Labor Day. But Saturday’s doubleheader was their only one-day double dip.

Leaving South Ridge, all five officials had time to go home, shower and rest briefly. They reassembled shortly after 5 p.m. to attend a benefit spaghetti dinner next door to Virginia’s Ewens Stadium. The dinner was held at the Miners Memorial Building, with proceeds helping Jay Mott, who was struck by lightning in June and severely injured (www.helpthemotts.com).

After dinner they put on the stripes again and hit the field for their second game of the day. As predicted, bad mojo was percolating in the western sky.

On the opening kickoff, Hibbing’s Jon Boggio caught the ball and ran 65 yards for a touchdown. Alec Hendrickson scored on a three-yard run and the score went to 20-0 on a 25-yard run by Trevor Erickson in the second quarter.

And then, zap! A bolt of lightning was seen with 13 seconds left in the half and the officials cleared the field under MSHSL safety guidelines. Every time lightning is seen, no matter how far away from the field, play must be stopped for 30 minutes.

The first bolt came at 8:04 p.m. The officials waited in the press box, where Virginia athletic director Kerry Bidle was looking at weather radar on his computer. There was some optimism that the weather would clear, but every time lightning cracked, the 30-minute clock restarted.

There was food in the press box: crock pots, hot dogs, chips, cookies, water and soft drinks. The officials and members of the chain gang partook, but mostly everyone waited. Rain fell and wind blew, but those were manageable impediments. Lightning was not.

Before a regular-season game starts, the home team is in charge of deciding whether to play or not. Once the action has begun, the officials make those calls. And when lightning keeps crackling and the clock keeps ticking, decisions must be made. Johnson went to the locker room area to meet with Cremers and Hibbing coach Dave Frisell.

The other four officials waited in the press box, talking and joking but mostly waiting. The radar still showed promise, but the actual conditions greatly disputed what the computer screen displayed. Bidle had the officials complete paperwork that would result in each of them receiving payment of $75 for the evening’s work.

Talk turned to the possibility of suspending the game and finishing it on Monday (MSHSL rules prohibit Sunday events). There were some minor issues with a Monday resumption. Two of the officials would not be available, but replacements could be found. Also, starting a game on Saturday and finishing it on Monday was not optimal for the teams, which both would play again four days later.

As the sky continued to explode, the decision was made at 10:12 p.m. after a delay of two hours, six minutes. The teams would come back Monday and re-start the game at 5 p.m.

The officials returned to their locker room, grabbed their bags and headed for the parking lot. All five were still wearing their stripes.

Postscript: The game was indeed finished Monday, with Hibbing winning 34-7.

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

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 11
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,150
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Coach Mad Dog: A Lifetime Of Football And Survival
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/24/2015 12:12:00 PM

When the Minnetonka football team opened the season Saturday with an 8-6 victory at Champlin Park, no one was happier than Skippers assistant coach John Mattox. And that happiness extended well beyond the excitement of good preparation and well-executed Xs and Os.

Mattox is more than a coach. He’s an 85-year-old football lifer who appreciates every day and loves spending time with young athletes.

“I like the young people, I like to help them, I like to be with them and I would say it probably keeps me young,” said Mattox, who is lovingly known to the Skippers as “Coach Mad Dog.”

Mattox introduced himself to Minnetonka head coach Dave Nelson shortly after Nelson left Blaine to join the Skippers in 2001.

“We met 14 years ago and he’s been here ever since,” said Nelson, who coached Blaine to a state football title in 1988 and did the same with Minnetonka in 2004. “He loves the game, he loves the kids. And the kids love him.”

Mattox is a graduate of Minneapolis West High School who also coached football at St. Louis Park, Blake, Bloomington Kennedy and with the Arena Football League’s Minnesota Fighting Pike. One of his longtime friends is Minnetonka ninth-grade assistant coach Roger French. One year younger than Mattox, French spent 21 years as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at Brigham Young University, as well as stints with the University of Minnesota, Memphis State, Wisconsin and Northern Iowa.

Mattox is something of an entrepreneur; he collaborated with former Vikings kicker Fred Cox in inventing the Nerf football in the 1970s. Mattox treasures every day, because 35 years ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer and told he probably didn’t have long to live.

“They gave me a bilateral thoracotomy; they slit you all the way down the back and open you up,” he said. “They took out the upper lobe of the right lung, five ribs, the scapula, radiated me, fried the collarbone and sent me home with a handful of pills and said, ‘You’ve got about a five percent chance of living five years.’

“Everybody should be a survivor; that’s what these kids are learning, they’re learning how to survive. How do you face adversity? You don’t know how to deal with adversity unless you’ve faced it.”

Mattox and Nelson work with Minnetonka’s offensive linemen. Coach Mad Dog isn’t afraid to needle a player when the time is right, and the Skippers appreciate his humor as well as his knowledge of football and life.

“He’s always got the quick wit and he’ll lighten the day when it needs to be lightened,” Nelson said. “Deep down, he really cares about this program, he really cares about our players and I think our players know that. He would do anything for any of the kids here.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 11
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,150
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



14 Football Openers Moved To Monday
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/23/2015 8:06:02 PM

Saturday's weather interrupted many Week 1 football games across Minnesota, and some games were either suspended or never started. Here is the list of games that have been moved to Monday...

Henry Sibley at Hastings, 1 p.m.
New Life Academy at St. Croix Lutheran, 4:30 p.m.
Hibbing at Virginia, 5 p.m.
Bagley at Badger/Greenbush-Middle River, 6 p.m.
Brooklyn Center at Fridley, 6 p.m.
West Lutheran at Alden-Conger, 6 p.m.
Ada-Borup at Warren-Alvarado-Oslo, 7 p.m.
Belle Plaine at Norwood-Young America, 7 p.m.
Roseau at Warroad, 7 p.m.
St. Paul Central vs. St. Paul Johnson, 7 p.m. at St. Paul Harding
Hill City at Cromwell, 7 p.m.
Breck at Providence Academy, 7 p.m.
Cherry at Carlton, 7 p.m.
Moose Lake-Willow River at Barnum, 7 p.m.



Preseason Challenges Faced, Football Openers Beckon
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/20/2015 2:44:18 PM

With the first games of the 2015 football season being played Saturday, a strange period of preseason practice is winding down. Preparation has been a challenge on several fronts for every football team in Minnesota, and time has been of the essence.

The normal three weeks of practice before the first game has been trimmed to two weeks this year. That was done because the Prep Bowl will be played two weeks earlier than usual; the University of Minnesota has home football games scheduled Nov. 21 and 28, so the stadium is available for Prep Bowl games only on Nov. 13-14 instead of the normal post-Thanksgiving timetable.

Preseason practice and Prep Bowl schedules will return to normal in 2016 when the Prep Bowl moves to its new home, the Vikings new stadium. But for now, getting ready for the season has been a test for coaches and players.

Adding to the changes are new regulations that limit practice time and contact during practice. Teams cannot hold two-a-day practices on consecutive days, two hours of rest are required between two-a-day workouts, and the amount of time teams can employ full-contact drills are limited. One major result for many teams has been more walk-through drills than in previous years.

One of the big matchups Saturday has Hutchinson playing at Becker; Becker is the defending Class 4A state champion and Hutchinson reached the 4A state semifinals. Becker coach Dwight Lundeen -- who started the Bulldogs football program 46 years ago – said preparations have indeed been rushed this season.

“Everything is getting jammed into a shorter amount of time, even team pictures needed to be taken the first day of practice so they can print the programs by the first game,” he said. “We have less X and O time so we’re going into the first game with less plays and defensive calls. But it’s fair and the same for everyone.”

Bloomington Jefferson coach Tim Carlson, whose team will play at Cooper on Saturday, expressed the sentiments of many coaches regarding the shortened prep time before Week 1.

“Not only do we have just two weeks to prepare, we have less time within those two weeks with the limit on two practices a day,” Carlson said. “There is no way we can be as prepared as we have in the past. We will be limited on offense, and defense and special teams will not be as polished. Schools that have players play both ways are at a greater disadvantage.”

Blaine coach Tom Develice said the Bengals have simplified their preparation for Saturday’s game at Wayzata.

“Instead of teaching our schemes against multiple offenses and multiple defenses, we are really concentrating on the specific schemes that our game one opponent will most likely run,” he said. “The biggest challenge is evaluating our talent without a scrimmage and with very limited contact during the short two weeks.”

Gene Teigland, coach of the New Life Academy/St. Croix Prep/Bethany/Liberty
cooperative team, said seven-on-seven work during the summer helped his players prepare for the season.

“Also the playbook is getting trimmed a little for the first couple of weeks,” he said.

“I am concerned about tackling,” said Tiegland, whose team will play at St. Croix Lutheran on Saturday. “I’ve never been big on doing a lot of hitting and we already use bags, but the shortened weeks concern me more than the daily limit. Younger guys need more reps so when the stress of the game comes they don’t fall back into their bad habits and are using proper technique. We are doing a tackling circuit every practice to help alleviate this potential issue.”

Blaine’s Develice said he thinks the limited two-a-days and less contact in practice will work out well in the future.

“I think in a typical year, where you have three weeks to prepare, the changes in practice format is going to pay dividends with keeping players out for football,” he said. “Parents and players will like the idea that every other day there is only one practice, and more importantly there are limits to the amount of contact you can actually be exposed to each day.

“I think the hardest part is that this year we have that change and then also playing one week sooner. My only concern with playing one week earlier: is there a chance for increased injuries in game one? Players are not in game shape yet, the month of August is usually hot in Minnesota and with one less week players might still be making mental mistakes in games. We are trying to handle this by simplifying our schemes on offense and defense along with increasing conditioning in practice.”

Conversely, Jefferson’s Carlson said he is worried about the limits on contact in preparing for games.

“We will have no contact the Thursday and Friday before our game,” he said. “Games are two and a half hours long and full of contact. In a notice we received from the MSHSL, it told us we can teach tackling, blocking, getting off blocks -- in other words ‘contact’ -- without having them actually do it. That's like sitting a 16-year-old in a car, telling him how it should work, but not letting him practice. Then send the kid on a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Or explain how to play a piano, but you just can't touch the keys before the recital. We are going to use our time the best we can to make sure our players are prepared and safe.”

For some schools, the new limits on practice and contact are not an issue.

“There is not really a huge impact on our program,” said Albany coach Mike Kleinschmidt, whose Huskies will play host to Fergus Falls in Week 1. “Over the last 60-plus years, we've always had only one-a-day practices and never have live contact.”

Lundeen said, “We do very little hitting in practice anyway, so walk-through practices are procedures that we have done for years. We will be physically ready to play our first game.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 7
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 720
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Edina Girls Soccer: Coach Is Hobbled But Determined
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/19/2015 4:00:38 PM

Two weeks ago, Edina girls soccer coach Katie Aafedt sent texts to her school’s activities director and her team’s captains. In a matter-of-fact way, she informed them that she had been sidelined with a torn ACL in her right knee … only days before tryouts and practice began for the 2015 season.

One of the captains, Eva Anderson, recounted the text. “She said, ‘This is not a joke. I tore my ACL. This won’t affect anything. I will just be a lot slower for a while.’ ”

Activities director Troy Stein received a similar message. “She said, ‘Sorry I didn’t call you back. I tore my ACL last night.’ It was just a casual text,” he said.

Aafedt has taken her injury in stride, even though she can’t take much of a stride. After surgery on Aug. 12, she was told she would need crutches for seven to 14 days; she stopped using them after four days.

She was playing in an adult soccer league when she planted her leg and heard a snap in her knee. She immediately knew it was the ACL because she had suffered the same injury in her other knee while playing high school soccer at Edina 20 years ago.

“The second it happened, I knew I had done it again,” she said. “It was painful for about the first two minutes, then I was able to walk off the field.”

She went straight to one of her neighbors, who also happens to be an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Christie Heikes had Aafedt lay down on her living room floor, where she confirmed the ACL tear.

“Our kids are friends, we’re neighbors, she’s a former D1 athlete, we’re very like-minded,” Aafedt said.

The coach’s physical therapist is another familiar face. Aafedt is working with former Totino-Grace and University of Minnesota soccer player Julie Eibensteiner. The two have played soccer together on summer teams.

“I’m in great hands,” Aafedt said. “It’s fun, relatively speaking, being back with a former teammate.”

She wears a full-length brace that immobilizes her knee. At practice, Aafedt moves slower than she would like but her assistant coaches step in.

“I’m walking slash waddling slash hobbling, whatever you want to call it,” she said. “Really the only thing it inhibits me from is running around demonstrating stuff. But I’ve surrounded myself with a great coaching staff so they do that. I’m very loud, and the knee doesn’t inhibit my voice.”

The team captains said Aafedt’s injury hasn’t changed anything other than her mobility.

“I’m sure if she was making a big deal out of it, we would be making a big deal out of it,” Molly Hiniker said. “And if she’s not, that’s why we’re not.”

Emily Rethlake said, “She’s really positive about it. She’s handling it in the best way possible.”

Stein said Aafedt’s injury doesn’t detract from her commitment to the game and the team.

“She is extremely passionate about working with our outstanding student-athletes, she has a passion to work with the girls, connect with kids and lead in a positive manner that is infectious and contagious within the program,” he said.

“She uses soccer to build relationships with young women, make connections and grow with them. She’s super organized and detailed and dedicated to the team and the program. We’re lucky to have her.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 7
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 720
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



High School Students Make History At New Stadium
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/17/2015 5:26:18 PM

In a very quiet way, a very special occasion took place Monday afternoon at the new stadium under construction in downtown Minneapolis. The very first seats in the 73,000-seat stadium were installed – a half-dozen plastic purple seats – and the very first people to sit in them were high school student-athletes.

The owner of the stadium, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), worked with MSHSL staff to find a small number of students to represent the high school activities that will take place in the stadium after its completion in 2016.

The students were Jacques Lyles, a football player from St. Paul Central; Emily Sullivan and Bailee Hyde, soccer players from Wayzata; Teddy Broxterman, a baseball player from Roseville; and Joe Nelson and Mia Prideaux, band members from Eden Prairie.

The students -- wearing hard hats, eye protection, gloves and safety vests – were escorted into the stadium by Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the MSFA. They posed for photos and had a chance to see the stadium from the inside. The playing field is currently the home of several cranes and assorted construction equipment, and the roof is well on its way to being completed.

The stadium, which will open in time for the 2016 Vikings season, also will be the home of the MSHSL state football semifinals and Prep Bowl, state girls and boys soccer semifinals and championship games, as well as regular-season baseball games (as was the case at the Metrodome) and marching band competitions. The first seats were installed in one of the end zones.

--See more photos on the MSHSL Facebook page,

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 662
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Totino-Grace Football: A Story Of Loss, Adversity And Togetherness
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/14/2015 12:08:22 PM

The Totino-Grace football team gathered together Monday morning, the first day of practice for the 2015 season, and attended a funeral. Rene Litecky, wife and mother of Totino-Grace assistant coaches Bernie and Brian Litecky, died suddenly on Aug. 1. She was 62 years old.

The Eagles and their school have been through a lot in the last year. Team manager and homecoming queen Rachel Woell passed away last September after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. The Eagles finished the season as Class 6A state runner-up, losing to Eden Prairie 28-27 in the Prep Bowl.

“We’ve definitely had to face some adversity,” said senior captain Hayden Lacy. “We’ve just been kind of getting through that with each other, to be honest. We all come together and get through it.”

Bernie and Brian Litecky missed most of the first week’s practices, but Rachel’s mother, Yvette, has become an official part of the team this season. She is one of the assistant coaches, working with team managers, the athletic training staff and in the words of head coach Jeff Ferguson, “doing a ton of paperwork.”

“I think Rachel helped us come a lot closer together,” said senior captain Lewis Kidd. “Rachel was a great girl and she brought a lot of special gifts to the team. Having her mom out here has helped us all. She’s a great help to us and she loves being a part of this team and we love having her.

“I think we’ve all dealt with the sadness pretty well, but we know Rachel would have wanted us to keep going and keep playing, and that’s what we’re doing for her.”

Ferguson said he has seen his players mature through the loss of Rachel and Rene.

“When you grow up that’s what happens. You experience all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Our 18 seniors have matured so much. They’re been through a lot. And of course, everybody has their own story, at any school. You go through life and stuff happens.”

Rachel passed away on the night of the Eagles’ only regular-season defeat, a 28-0 loss at Maple Grove. Ferguson learned the news while on the bus back to school, and he informed the players in the locker room after they arrived. Ferguson doesn’t like to talk about the sadness of that night; of the game he said, “We had lost 28-0 to Maple Grove and it was probably worse than that. We didn’t have a chance.”

The Eagles finished the regular season with three victories and then put together a four-game postseason winning streak to reach the Prep Bowl. That game ended with Totino-Grace falling short on a two-point conversion attempt.

Totino-Grace has won seven state football titles since 2003. The Eagles’ enrollment of 749 in grades nine through 12 would put them in Class 4A football, but they opt up two classes to 6A. Totino-Grace will play host to Eden Prairie in the 2015 season opener on Aug. 22.

“We’ve never had a year like last year,” Ferguson said. “That group, to get to where we got, that was a miracle. We had a couple talented players. We started eight sophomores and we had guys doing stuff out of their minds. Eden Prairie breaks the huddle and they look like a bunch of Adonises. And we had ‘em.

"That Eden Prairie game, people have mentioned it as a heartbreaking thing. That game was over and I turned and I saw (Rachel's parents) Jamie and Yvette, because they were on our sideline. I was like, ‘OUR loss?’

“I feel so blessed because I think what’s really important is that the kids trust the coaches. The coaches have to earn that. And once you do, then you can be tough on them. Because they know that you love them. Our kids achieve, they push the envelope.”

As practice ended Thursday and the players gathered around Ferguson, he talked about the loss of Rene Litecky and thanked the Eagles for supporting the family and each other. He said Bernie and Brian were an example for all.

“They are role-modeling how you handle tragedy with dignity, faith and grace,” he said.

“Both Liteckys are a huge part of our team, they’re great coaches and they bring a lot to the table,” Kidd said. “Obviously it’s tough losing a loved one like that, but we all came together and helped support them through the funeral. It was nice to be there for them. They’re there for us, so we know we have to be there for them. It’s helped us come closer together.”

Lacy said, “There were so many people at the funeral. Our team was there to support the Liteckys and we all gave them a hug.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 613
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Spuds On The Run: Moorhead Football Goes The Distance
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/13/2015 4:02:42 PM

MOORHEAD – Every sports season is a journey, beginning with the first meetings and practices, extending into competition and closing with the stretch run and the postseason.

Here in Moorhead -- where you can skip a rock across the Red River and watch it land in North Dakota – the 2015 football journey will result in as many miles as memories. The Spuds come from a big school that is geographically isolated, meaning their opponents this fall are a long ways down the highway.

The raw numbers are staggering: The Spuds will drive a total of 1,480 miles traveling to road games and back home again … and that’s just the varsity team, which will spend 22 hours on buses for those four regular-season road contests. They will play at St. Michael-Albertville (404 total miles), Sartell-St. Stephen (338), Willmar (324) and Elk River (414).

“We’re fine with that,” said Spuds senior quarterback Matt Bye. “Wherever we have to go to play those games, we’ll play them.”

The teams that will travel to Moorhead for games this fall are Alexandria, St. Cloud Apollo, Brainerd and Bemidji. Alexandria is the Spuds’ nearest rival, with 105 miles separating the schools. Apollo will drive 167 one-way miles to Moorhead, Brainerd is 137 miles away and Bemidji is 129.

Moorhead fans are excited about the Spuds, who have made a steady climb since coach Kevin Feeney was hired six years ago. They finished 10-2 and reached the Class 5A state quarterfinals in 2012, were 7-4 two years ago and 8-2 last season. Nine players with varsity defensive experience return this season, which provides some optimism during practice time that is a week shorter than normal before the first game.

“That’s a huge part of it,” Feeney said of his defense. “And that’s got to be our formula for success because of the short fall camp. And on the flip side of that, having your quarterback return is also a big advantage.”

St. Michael-Albertville, Sartell-St. Stephen and Bemidji were among the eight teams that reached the Class 5A state playoffs last season, so mileage isn’t the only challenge facing the Spuds. Their eight regular-season opponents in the North Central Red district combined for a 55-27 record last year.

For now, St. Michael-Albertville is the focus. The Knights lost to eventual state champion Mankato West 26-21 in the 2014 state semifinals.

“It’s the old cliché, one at a time,” Feeney said. “But it’s not hard to focus in on a team like St. Michael-Albertville. I watched them play a handful of times last year and it’s not going to be hard for our team to focus in on that. And in Week 2, Alexandria is our closest rival. When you have the gauntlet that we’re going to have to run, you better show up each week or otherwise we’re going to be on the tough end of the scoreboard.”

Moorhead won its first six games last season, losing to Brainerd in Week 7. Their season ended with a 34-27 loss to Sartell-St. Stephen in the Section 8 semifinals.

With the shortened prep time for all Minnesota teams this season, Feeney said summer team activities were more important than ever. Another change this year is restrictions on contact in practice, no back-to-back two-a-days and mandated periods of rest.

“We probably did more scheme stuff in the summer than we ever have in the past,” he said. “The biggest thing we’ve stressed is that we can’t have a poor practice. Typically in the past, we’ve had 10 to 12 practices before we get to game week and now we’re essentially at six. Our tempo needs to be great, our attitude needs to be great, and with the new format for practices, so much more learning is through walk-throughs and meetings and film and less repetitions. We’re trying to get the kids to learn that they need to be at a higher focus level than they ever have.

“We’ve always gone along with the theory that we’re going to throw the whole book at the kids in fall camp and then just keep refining as we go. Even with the change in practice we’ve stayed with that schedule, so our install is fast and furious. Once we get to the last three days of our preparation, we’ll focus in on what we need to focus on for our opponent. Hopefully the kids can come out and execute and of course it’s always one of those things; you hope the fundamentals side of things and the discipline side of things take care of themselves. Like taking care of the football and limiting the amount of penalties.”

The Spuds are committed to working hard, learning from their coaches and enjoying the experience. Those are the things they can control; miles on the highway and hours on a bus are out of their control.

“Even with the schedule we have, we expect to go in and win those games,” Bye said. “We’re not going for moral victories.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 5
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 613
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Underwood Football: Small Town, Big Expectations
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/12/2015 2:08:19 PM

UNDERWOOD – If you have never lived in a small town, you may not fully grasp the meaning of these words:

“There have been decades and decades of people who have played football here before us, and they all want the success just as bad as we do. And that really motivates us to do our best and push each other. There are people we don’t know at all, and they’ll come up to us and say, ‘Hope you have a good year, you guys can do it.’ There’s definitely a good crowd behind us and people who are always motivating us.”

Those words were spoken Tuesday morning by Cole Kugler, a senior football player in Underwood. The Rockets had just finished the day’s workout on a grassy practice field behind the school, which is the home of every student in the area from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 9-12 enrollment is 143 students and Underwood’s population is 339. Small numbers mean nine-man football, and the Rockets are one of Minnesota’s top nine-man programs. They have a record of 46-14 over the past five years, with three trips to the state playoffs and one Prep Bowl appearance.

Underwood lost to Grand Meadow in the Prep Bowl two years ago and fell to the same team in last year’s state quarterfinals as Grand Meadow won another championship. This year’s Underwood roster includes 13 seniors among 36 football players in grades 9-12, and to say they are motivated is an understatement.

“Two years ago, our sophomore year, we went to the state championship game,” senior Justin Masloski said. “Last year that was our goal, and this year we’ve got to do it. It’s our last chance.”

Classmate Matt Biegler added, “We know what it feels like to lose in the Prep Bowl, and we don’t want that.”

If the Rockets achieve their goal of winning a title, it would be Underwood’s first state championship in any team sport.

“They’re hungry to not only get back there, but they want to win this whole thing,” said 17-year head coach Chuck Ross.

If Tuesday’s workout was an indication, the Rockets will be ready when they open the season with a home game against Renville County West on Aug. 22. As is usually the case when a group of veteran coaches works with experienced athletes, the practice was crisp with nothing wasted in regards to motion or time.

The coaches, just like the players, know expectations are high. And that’s just fine.

“It really started long before I got here,” said Ross (pictured), a native of Ortonville. “You talk to some of the older people around here and they still talk about their high school football days. It’s kind of the norm for people to grow up around here and want to play. And not only play, but they want to be successful. The town wants the program to be successful, and I think that all kind of feeds into it. We’ve been happy to have those kinds of kids and parents.”

As with many small schools, game nights in Underwood are special events. People walk the sidelines following the back and forth of the football, concessions are top-notch and the setting is unique, with the Rockets gathering behind a row of trees behind one end zone before popping onto the field.

“Everyone is at every single game, all the time,” said senior Dylan Kalenze.

Ross said, “There’s nothing better than small-town football, when the lights are on and there’s usually some type of activity going, some type of feed. People are coming early and the music’s playing. There’s nothing like it and I think the kids feel that when they run out on the field.”

The Rockets are two-way players, as is the norm for nine-man teams. Playing on both sides of the line means you better have rugged athletes, and Underwood has them. One senior, Joe Onstad, is missing the opening days of camp because he’s at Army basic training in Georgia.

Another senior, Coy Thorson, is as tough as they come. The running back/linebacker/punter is also a Minnesota High School State Rodeo Association champion in saddle bronc and bull riding. He suffered a broken jaw two years ago when a bull’s horn sandwiched itself between his rodeo helmet and facemask; after healing up, his jaw was broken again on the football field.

Thorson is one of seven returning starters in 2015, which is a darn good way to begin the season.

“A lot of them saw a lot of playing time last year,” Ross said. “Experience is definitely one of our strengths.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 3
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 557
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



After A Dream Football Season, Simley Takes Lessons To Heart
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/10/2015 3:20:29 PM

“Dare to Dream” are more than words on a football practice jersey at Simley High School. Last season, the Spartans might have been the most surprising team in the state; their regular-season record was 5-3 and they were never ranked among the top 10 in Class 5A, but they won five consecutive playoff games en route to the school’s first Prep Bowl appearance.

The Spartans’ 2014 season ended in a loss to Mankato West, but there was no better place for me to visit than Simley on Day One of the 2015 campaign. The Spartans provided lessons last year about staying together when times are tough and working as a team.

Rex King, a 2000 Simley graduate who is beginning his fifth year as the head football coach, said Day One this year was “incredibly different” than a year ago at the school in Inver Grove Heights.

“We had all those extra practices and extra games last year, so these kids know what they’re doing,” he said. “Our knowledge is up, which is a great thing.”

Simley will open the season at home against Park High School on Aug. 22. They are among 10 schools in the new Red division of the East Metro District. The Spartans’ other regular-season opponents are Hastings, South St. Paul, St. Thomas Academy, Tartan, Henry Sibley, Hill-Murray and Mahtomedi.

Simley has a dozen starters returning, most of them at the skill positions; finding new lineman is a priority during the preseason. Two returning senior starters told me about last year’s lows and highs, and what they expect this season.

Defensive end Tyrese Beards-Borney said of the 2014 season, “I think a lot of it was just kind of self-determination and believing in ourselves. I feel like that was something we had lacked in the past.”

Cornerback/running back Cole Veith said, “I’ve been playing football since I was 3 or 4 and that was the most fun season I’ve ever had.”

The season was not without what Veith called a “huge breakdown” during a practice in Week 3 or 4. “We all got kicked off the field, and I think that’s when we became a family and we started trusting each other.”

In King’s three seasons as head coach prior to 2014, the Spartans finished 4-6, 4-6 and 2-7. That makes last year’s 10-4 record stand out even more, and that kind of success has an impact that goes beyond the football team.

“I think it makes the community believe,” said King (pictured). “As a head coach I understand why coaches who have been there always say the next year, ‘Oh, I don’t know how good we’re going to be.’ I get that now. But I think we have a good senior class this year. This is my school and I want to see it thrive and do well.”

During the season’s first practice Monday, aircraft flew overhead on final approach to nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Construction workers were busy on a new concession stand, adding to an impressive facility upgrade a year ago that included a new scoreboard, new turf in the stadium and on a practice field, as well as a new track. After more than three decades with no upgrades, the Spartans now are at home in one of the finest high school stadiums in Minnesota.

“I think it gives us pride, that’s the biggest thing,” King said. “When you walk out to your home field and it’s a mud bowl, you don’t even want to play on it; you don’t want to go to the practice field because it’s rock hard. (But now) practices have been at a different tempo, they’ve been more excited to come out on the field. And I think that’s true for all sports; soccer, lacrosse, it makes us happy to be here.

“I don’t want to jump into my ’76 Buick with three tires that’s all rusted out. I can’t show that off. This, I can show off and be proud.”

As for the football season to come, expectations are clearly different at Simley than in the past.

“Last year we didn’t really know what to expect,” Veith said. “We all said, ‘Believe in what we can do, believe in what we have.’ We don’t have a goal for this year; coach keeps saying we have a system and we’re going to work by that system and however that plays out is what’s going to happen.”

Beards-Borney said the Spartans probably have a target on their back now, “But you try not to acknowledge that, you just try to play your game. You don’t really worry about what other teams have to say about you, you just go out and be you.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 37
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



Countdown To 2015-16: Football Kicks Off The Year
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 8/6/2015 11:17:37 AM

In most years, all fall sports begin practice on the same Monday in August. This year is a little different, thanks to a football season that is unlike any others.

Football practices begin Monday across our state, with other fall sports opening practice a week later on Aug. 17. Football is getting a head start at the beginning of the season because of what will happen at the end of the season: the Prep Bowl.

Normally, Prep Bowl games are held on Thanksgiving weekend. But last year and this year, the schedule is different due to the Metrodome being torn down and the new Vikings stadium being constructed. The 2014 Prep Bowl games were held at the University of Minnesota’s stadium the week before Thanksgiving, and this season those state championship games will be held there two weeks before Thanksgiving. In 2016 and beyond, Prep Bowl games will be played at the new stadium on Thanksgiving weekend.

Due to the football season ending two weeks earlier than usual, football practice is starting earlier and there will be only two weeks of practice prior to the first games instead of the usual three weeks. This is a one-year change, and the MSHSL sports medicine advisory committee has studied and approved the shortened preparation time.

Football season openers will be played on Saturday, Aug. 22, with game times ranging from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Don’t be surprised, however, if some games are moved to 7:30 or 8 p.m. if heat and humidity become a concern.

Practices for cross-country, girls tennis, volleyball, soccer and girls swimming and diving will begin Aug. 17. The first competition date of 2015-16 is Aug. 20, when girls tennis teams can play their first matches. Other fall sports can have their first competitions on Aug. 27 and adapted soccer teams will begin practice on Aug. 31.

It’s an exciting time as we begin another year of MSHSL activities. I’m always looking for stories to tell, and anyone can help me do that. Feel free to send me an email using the email address at the top of this post.

Let’s have a great year!

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 0
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 0
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn



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