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The Best Of John’s Journal From 2022-23: Top 10 Honorable Mention

Five Stories Of Inspiration, Competition, Tradition And Success

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2023 - 8:04 PM


The Mountain Iron-Buhl Rangers celebrate their first girls basketball state title.




Bob McDonald Court in Chisholm.

I am making progress … admittedly slowly … on selecting my Top 10 John’s Journal stories from the 2022-23 school year. I have settled on 10 stories but the hard work is putting them in order from No. 10 to No. 1. That task is ongoing.

I also have selected five other stories that just missed out on Top 10 status but are worthy of being named Honorable Mention. I’m not ranking them in any order other than chronologically. Here are brief excerpts from those five stories, along with links to the original posts…

Sept. 26/ The Battle For The Paddle In Detroit Lakes

DETROIT LAKES -- It’s a good thing the traveling trophy that’s on the line when Detroit Lakes and Perham meet on the football field isn’t a Faberge egg or a collection of fine china.

The trophy is a wooden canoe paddle, and the matchup is aptly called the Battle for the Paddle. There are a number of terrific traveling football trophies in our state, and I have seen many postgame celebrations as players from the winning team raise the artifact high and holler their lungs out. Among my favorites, in no particular order, are the Battle Axe (Luverne and Pipestone), Babe’s Bell (Bemidji and Brainerd), Bay Bell (Minnetonka and Wayzata), Tractor Trophy (Northfield and Farmington), Little Brown Jug (Fairmont and Blue Earth) and Armistice Day Trophy (St. Charles and Chatfield).

The scene Friday night was routine … until it wasn’t. Since Perham had defeated the Lakers 30-27 last season (scoring the winning points on a 52-yard hook and ladder play with 13 seconds to play), the Paddle was in the hands of Perham activities director Erin Anderson as this year’s game wound down. There was no drama, with Detroit Lakes scoring on its first play from scrimmage – a 79-yard run by Ethan Carrier -- and winning 49-6.

As the players went through the traditional postgame handshake line, Anderson stood on the field with the Paddle, which bears logos of the two schools and scores from previous games. He handed the Paddle to the celebrating Lakers and offered one of them a congratulatory pat on the shoulder. That’s when things got beyond wild, because in the midst of their wild stompin’ hootin’ and hollerin’ and grabbin’ at the Paddle, the Lakers broke the thing into two pieces. No problem, because now they had TWO trophies to raise into the night sky.

Jan. 21/ A Familiar Name Is Back On The Bench In Chisholm

When Joel McDonald resigned last summer after 23 years as the head boys basketball coach at Hibbing High School, his plans didn’t include spending so much time inside the most famous gym in Minnesota, where he set scoring records and his father set coaching records.

But here he is, a first-year assistant coach for the Chisholm Bluestreaks, who play on Bob McDonald Court inside historic Roels Gymnasium.

Joel finished his high school career in Chisholm as Minnesota’s all-time scoring leader in 1991. As the coach at Hibbing, the Bluejackets went to the state tournament in 2021 for the first time in more than 30 years. Bob McDonald, who coached for 59 years and won more games than any boys basketball coach in state history, was 87 when he died in 2020.

Joel, 50, is the youngest of six siblings. His brothers Mike (Cambridge-Isanti) and Tom (Ely) are longtime high school coaches and Paul McDonald coached at Vermillion Community College for 29 years.

Feb. 14/ Three Siblings, Three Hockey Officials

The Szymanski kids grew up in a sports-oriented family in Sauk Rapids. Ryan, Matt, Justin and little sister Kaelyn were athletes at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School. They all became hockey officials, which set up a special day for their family recently when Ryan, Matt and Kaelyn officiated together for the first time.

“It was the most fun reffing experience I’ve had,” Matt said. “It was really special to do that with both of them.”

Ryan and Matt had worked together on the ice previously, but never with their sister. All three are teachers as well as officials…

--Ryan Szymanski, 35, is a special education teacher at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School.

--Matt Szymanski, 32, is a fourth-grade teacher at Cottage Grove Elementary School.

--Kaelyn Szymanski, 25, is a special education teacher at Pleasantview Elementary in the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district.

Justin, 30, who lives in Milwaukee, used to officiate. Matt has cut back on the number of games he works after becoming a father last year. They all umpired baseball games and Matt also has worked as an MSHSL soccer official. Becoming officials seemed like a no-brainer after their competitive careers ended.

“It’s pretty much ingrained with us,” Ryan said.

March 16/ The Curse Is Gone As MIB Wins Class 1A Championship

Nobody was saying the girls basketball team from Mountain Iron-Buhl was carrying a jinx, but the Rangers’ history at the state tournament sure could have made you think.

Year after year, the Rangers followed a pattern: Great regular season, whip through the Section 7 playoffs, head down from the Iron Range to the Twin Cities for the state tournament … and come up short of a title.

They came to state in 2011 for the first time since 1994. They were the Class 1A runner-up in 2012. They returned in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and were runner-up again in 2017. Another appearance came in 2018, then 2019, 2021 and 2022. (MIB missed state in 2020, the year Covid halted the tournament after two days and no champions were crowned.)

The Rangers were proud of their matched pair of second-place medals, but nobody wants to keep going to the well and seeing someone else pull up gold.

Maybe the 12th trip to state in 13 years was the magic number. Because they climbed the last mountain on Saturday, defeating BOLD 52-21 at Williams Arena to finally, finally, finally have gold medals on blue ribbons placed around their championship necks.

The team’s star and scoring leader, junior Jordan Zubich, summed everything up nicely afterwards, saying, “We’ve been down here so long. I said when we were in the lines getting our medals, ‘Holy crap, guys, we just broke the streak! We broke the MIB curse!’ It's crazy.”

April 3/ Spring Sports Held Outdoors? Yes, In Southeast Minnesota

I awakened Monday morning without any concrete coverage plans. That was because under the current weather conditions in Minnesota, there was little chance that anything was happening outdoors. My own yard was evidence of that, with snow everywhere after the latest storm dumped inch after inch.

Everything changed at 8:06 a.m. A message from the Pine Island Baseball Twitter account carried big all-caps news: “GAMEDAY UPDATE!!! PLAY BALL!!!! VARSITY AND JV BOTH WILL PLAY IN LAKE CITY TONIGHT AT 5:00!!”

I had been watching the status of that game for a day or two, realizing that southeast Minnesota had not received any April snow over the weekend and competitions just might be possible. After seeing the baseball game would happen, I looked at some schedules and zoned in on two other events, a softball game at Dover-Eyota and a track meet hosted by Plainview-Elgin-Millville.

Assuming that the roads would be clear (which they were), I decided to visit all three Monday events -- softball game, track meet, baseball game – as a memorable way to observe my first day of 2023 spring outdoor competitions. 

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]  

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Clay Target 2023 State Tournament Recap