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John’s Journal: The Final Glorious Days Of A Memorable 2020-21

An Attitude Of Gratitude From Start To Finish

Posted: Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 10:08 PM


As we close the books on the 2020-21 school year, I have been thinking a lot about where we started. It was March 12, 2020, when Covid-19 sent our world into a tailspin. That was the day when section and state basketball tournaments were shut down, with no MSHSL sports or activities being held last spring.

We made our way back slowly and tentatively, with fall sports but no state tournaments, followed by winter sports that started late but ended on a strong statement with the crowning of state champions.

And here we are now, 15 months later. At the finish line. The spring season began somewhat later than normal, but state tournaments were held with no restriction on spectators and no required masking. It was absolutely glorious. It also was somewhat different from a scheduling standpoint, with five state tournaments being held last week; those things are normally spread out a bit more.

If I had to choose one word to describe these tournaments, it would be “gratitude.” With the knowledge that spring athletes and teams didn’t have a season last year, everyone has been so happy and gracious, enjoying every moment and taking nothing for granted. During this final stretch of the spring, I didn’t hear one discouraging word from a coach, athlete or official. And of course, anyone complaining about anything during the spring of 2021 is in the wrong business.

As a way to try and document this very busy week of tournaments, I have been jotting down things I saw and heard between Tuesday and Saturday, June 15 and 19, the home stretch of the year.

I filled the gas tank on the John’s Journal Toyota Camry on Monday evening, ready for a busy, fun week. I attended as many contests as I could in as many places as I could, and here is what happened…

TUESDAY/ BASEBALL IN ST. CLOUD

The drive from the Twin Cities on west-bound Interstate 94 past Maple Grove is -- as anyone who makes that trip regularly knows -- an adventure. A major construction project can make for an interesting journey, but I arrived in St. Cloud for the Class A and 2A baseball state quarterfinals with not too much trouble.

As I walked through the pass gate, a member of the security staff asked me, “What school are you from?” We got my identity figured out and I was cleared to enter.

Randolph starting pitcher Brandon Gerster, relieved in the seventh inning of the Rockets’ 9-5 Class A win over Fosston after striking out 15, tipped his cap to the cheering fans.  

As the starting lineups for the Aitkin Gobblers were introduced before their Class 2A game against Albany, the first name announced was student manager Craig Ashton. Craig walked from the dugout to the third-base line, barefoot and comfortable.

Watching streaming coverage of the state softball tournament in North Mankato via Prepspotlight.TV and my laptop, I peeked in on a game between Pipestone and Maple Lake. I was slightly confused about who’s who because the colors of both schools are green, white and black. I figured it out.

“Rockin’ in the Free World” and “YMCA” were played between innings on this beautiful summer day.

I chatted with Joe Brown, talented and hard-working young reporter from the West Central Tribune in Willmar. Joe talked about a rare situation: he had tested positive for Covid-19 between his two vaccine doses. It’s good to see Joe back on the job.

Food of the day: a high-quality cheeseburger from the concession stand at Dick Putz Field.

I visited with my good friend Jil Fiemeyer, who was in the stands cheering for her hometown Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines. Jil’s daughter Jane was 8 years old when she died after battling leukemia in 2012; I knew Jane and continue to be inspired by Jane and her mom.

Jil sent me a text earlier in the week that included a photo of a young man visiting Jane’s grave; Carson Kern plays second base for Wadena-Deer Creek. Jil's text read, “He thought he and Jane would have gone to prom together if she was still alive. A great kid! Going to support him and other classmates of hers.” Carson scored the Wolverines’ lone run in a 3-1 Class AA quarterfinal loss to Plainview-Elgin-Millville.

I left St. Cloud at 7:27 p.m. and arrived home at 9 p.m., listening to a .38 Special Pandora station while completing 194 miles driven for the day. Inside the house I tuned into Prepspotlight.TV again. The softball state tournament semifinal game between Randolph and Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian, the last one of the day, started at 10:17 p.m.

At 10:55 p.m., the Twitter account of Randolph’s state tournament baseball team posted a brief video of the ballplayers, at their hotel in St. Cloud, gathered in one room, watching the softball game in North Mankato on TV and cheering for their classmates and friends.

The final baseball game of the day saw a combined 35 strikeouts; 18 by Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City’s Josh Kingery and 17 by Belle Plaine's Jackson Kruger in Belle Plaine’s 2-0 win. The state tournament record is 19 strikeouts by Springfield's Mike Davison in a victory over Austin … way back in 1963. Mike, who passed away in Glencoe in 2013, pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1969 and 1970.

WEDNESDAY … SOFTBALL IN NORTH MANKATO

During the Class A state championship softball game between Browerville-Eagle Valley and Randolph, Rockets eighth-grader Carter Raymond and assistant coach Ashleigh Lindow shared an index finger bump (as opposed to a fist bump) before Carter stepped to the plate.

On the first pitch of the Class 2A title game, St. Charles’ Grace Buringa hit a home run. As Le Sueur-Henderson and St. Charles battled for the championship, a lady in the St. Charles crowd stood up between innings and hollered “Gimme an S! Gimme an A! Gimme an I! Gimme an N! Gimme a T! Gimme an S.” I didn’t notice anyone on the other side volunteering to spell out L-E-S-U-E-U-R or H-E-N-D-E-R-S-O-N.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, St. Charles had the based loaded with no outs, trailing the Giants 7-4. A foul pop-up between home and third base was caught by Olivia Fritz at third base before catcher Zoe Thompson and Olivia collided and both fell. Smart play by pitcher Chloe Brandt, who ran in to cover home and make sure the runner on third couldn’t tag up and score. The game’s final out came on the next play and the Giants won 7-4.

I chatted with Becker activities director Dave Niemi, who was carrying the Class 3A softball championship trophy following the Bulldogs’ 4-0 victory over Winona. Becker also won a girls basketball state title this year. That’s quite an accomplishment during a pandemic year, and Dave and I discussed what kids can accomplish when given the opportunity.

As I sat behind the wheel of the Camry before heading out, a grandma walked over to me and said, “My team just won a state championship. Can I pull that logo off your car and give it to them?” She was referring to a large MSHSL logo on the hood that is part of the car’s graphics package. I explained that it wasn’t a sticker and wouldn’t come off, but it sure would be cool if it did.

Departed Caswell Park at 2:49 p.m., drove through a detour or two, listened to postgame reports from the Biden-Putin summit and arrived home at 4:33, having driven 431 miles in two days. Fired up Prepspotlight.TV again and saw that the Class A baseball state semifinal between New York Mills and Randolph was tied 1-1 in the 10th inning, then the 11th.

Nathan Weckop hit a three-run homer for Randolph in the top of the 12th inning and it appeared that the Rockets would beat New York Mills. But the Eagles tied it and the game went on. The scoreboard on Prepspotlight.TV said “3rd inning” as the game moved to the 13th. Turns out their graphics only go to 12 innings. In the 15th inning, New York Mills won it 9-8 on an RBI single by No. 9 hitter Jace Rudolph.

I gassed up the car again late in the evening. Better safe than sorry.

THURSDAY … LACROSSE AND 3,200 METERS

Loaded up for the day with a cooler, my camera, my laptop and other necessities, I headed for Stillwater High School and the boys and girls lacrosse state semifinals. I sometimes use the Waze app when driving, which is good at alerting drivers to clogged roads and suggesting alternate routes. Waze offers voice alerts in many voices and languages; I have used Cookie Monster and British voices, but today I clicked on a Russian voice. I didn’t understand a word but I chuckled when it alerted me about turns that were coming up.

The Prior Lake and Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys and Lakeville South and Prior Lake girls lacrosse teams triumphed in the semifinals on a hot, sticky day. The Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys had two Kobalt battery-operated misting fans on their bench, sitting atop five-gallon buckets.

At halftime of one of the games, official Holly Souza of St. Paul reached a hand into a cooler, scooped up ice cubes, put them inside her hat and put her hat back on her head. She was asked, “Do you want a wet towel?” Holly smiled and said, “Nope. It melts!”

By week's end, the Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys and Prior Lake girls would win lacrosse state titles.

Leaving Stillwater and heading across the Twin Cities for the first session of the state track meet at St. Michael-Albertville, Waze predicted an arrival time of 5:22 p.m. The music I listened to – Head East, Rush, Electric Light Orchestra, etc. --- on satellite radio was often interrupted by the Russian voice as we made our way through traffic, arriving at 5:29.

Track meets are also social events, and I chatted with several folks who have worked as officials at our state track meet for years. Like the officials in all MSHSL activities, they are a great bunch of dedicated, knowledgeable professionals.

I also caught up with media friends who always have positive attitudes and work so hard in chronicling kids and teams in their coverage areas. I saw Bill Bentsen, a onetime coach and administrator who went on to become a highly popular print and radio personality in southeast Minnesota. As we talked, Bill told me that Carol, his wife of 53 years, passed away in September. This was crushing news. Condolences to Bill and his family.

The evening was dedicated to 3,200-meter races for boys and girls in both classes. History was made when Emmet Anderson of Staples-Motley won the Class A boys race, becoming the first state track champion since June 2019.

One veteran coach asked where his 3,200 runner could pick up his race number (which was needed to compete). The time window for picking up numbers had already closed, but he was accommodated.

I talked with someone who had struck a deer while driving a day earlier. His car seemed to run OK immediately afterwards, but it died a few miles from the track. He arrived in a taxi.

It was a glorious evening and a wonderful way to kick off the state track championships. Once the races were completed, stadium announcer Scott Stallman said, “Good evening and drive safely.” He could have added, “Watch out for deer.”

I arrived home at 9:26 p.m., having driven 499 miles over three days. I talked with my friend Steve Thompson on WCCO radio between 10:30 and 11 p.m. Steve understands the importance of high school activities and we talked about how great it was to have things back to normal.

FRIDAY/ TRACK AND FIELD AND SUNSHINE

The day began when I pulled out of my garage at 8:17 a.m. I live 56 miles from St. Michael-Albertville High School, and that famous stretch of Interstate 94 always seems to be an obstacle. It took me an hour and six minutes to make the trip this time (I had changed the Waze voice to French). The first track-related sign I saw was a school van. Written on the windows was, “Go Huskies! State track!” Indeed.

At 9:43 a.m., 17 minutes before the first event, “Eye of the Tiger” was played on the stadium sound system. Class A boys and girls events would be contested today.

Cameron Stocke of Rock Ridge won the Class A boys 1,600 title. What’s Rock Ridge, you ask? It’s a cooperative team with athletes from Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert; in some sports the schools field separate teams. A new school building is being built, and the two school systems will officially become one when the facility opens in 2023. Cameron will be around to see it since he’s a sophomore.

As Perham senior Jacob McCleary crossed the finish line to win the Class A 800, he pumped a fist. Winning isn’t everything, but it’s sure something.  

The facilities at St. Michael-Albertville are first-class, with lots of spectator seating, a wonderful track, and great field event areas. Another improvement over past sites is a giant digital scoreboard, which is used to instantly display times in each running event. In addition, Wayzata Results, the official timer for MSHSL track and cross-country, has live results on its website. You can’t have a first-rate track and field meet without those two things.

A meet official, like everyone else new to the site, exclaimed, “We love this place! It’s amazing!”

In one of the most dramatic events of the day, Pine Island pole vaulter Jarod White cleared 15 feet, 9 inches to win the gold medal. He then had the bar set at 16-2 (knowing the all-time state record is 16-1 ¾). He narrowly missed on all three attempts, but he is a junior and the future is very bright.

The Class A boys throwing events were won by future Big 10 athletes: Stewartville’s Will Tschetter (basketball at Michigan) in the discus and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton’s Tony Nelson (football at Minnesota) in the shot put.

Mehlayna Straub, sophomore from Southwest Christian, crossed the finish line in the 100 meters, looked at the scoreboard and saw her time. She gasped upon seeing “12.52 seconds” – half a second faster than her seed time – and put her hands over her mouth. She finished fifth and was thrilled.

When senior Morgan Gehl of Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda placed third in the Class A 800, it ended a great chapter in the annals of Minnesota coaching. Her coach, Gary Hildebrandt, is as great a person as you’ll ever meet. He has coached track, cross-country, football, volleyball, wrestling and soccer at several schools in southwest Minnesota. He is now retired after a lengthy career that included induction into the Minnesota Track & Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Blake junior Anisa Thompson, who won the Class A girls 100 and 200 titles, was sitting in the shade of the awards tent on the infield as the medalists in the 100 awaited their turn at the podium. One of the medalists, looking ahead to competing with Anisa again in the 200, asked what time she was aiming for in that event. Anisa threw out a number and the other girl smiled and said, “Oh, I’m chasing you” … meaning she didn’t think she would be able to stay with Anisa. The Blake star smiled back and said, “Oh no, you’ve got this.” It was one of many examples of great sportsmanship throughout the week.

SATURDAY/ WRAPPING EVERYTHING UP

Interstate 94 really brought its ugly A game today, but more on that in a bit. By day’s end I had driven 723 miles over the five days; the slowest stretches were on I-94 (sigh).

Best concession item of the week: pulled pork sandwich with a spritz of barbecue sauce at the track meet.

This day was devoted to Class AA boys and girls competition, and it was stupendous … until that darn interstate highway joined the mix.

As the medals were awarded in the boys 1,600 meters, Stallman announced that the meet record in the event was set by Joe Klecker of Hopkins in 2015, and that the previous evening Klecker had qualified for the Olympics in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Oregon. A cheer went up from the fans.

Becky Leuer, longtime coach, administrator and official from North Branch, helps hand out medals in the awards tent. Becky is always smiling, and that’s exactly what she was doing as she said, “Best job at the track meet!”

Baseball state championship games were played Friday at Target Field. In the Class 4A contest, Farmington had defeated Park. Saturday afternoon, Park activities director Phil Kuemmel Tweeted from the @ParkWolfpack account: “Last night officially ends our spring season. So many great accomplishments in all of our sports. But most importantly, these kids got to have a season after missing out last year. Thank you to all who made that happen. On to summer.” Couldn’t agree more.

Teamwork often involves more than one team. That was the case with a pair of wheelchair racers. In the 100-meter wheelchair race, Blake Eaton of Duluth Denfeld edged Macario Palomares of Buffalo; they were the only entrants. Blake’s racing chair had a mechanical issue after the race, with the 200-meter event coming up. Macario’s family drove home to Buffalo to find the proper part to fix Blake’s chair, and the repair was made seconds before the 200 started. Blake again nosed out his friend Macario, and everyone congratulated each other.

There was a tie for ninth place in the boys high jump, with medals going to the top nine finishers. One of the kids who tied for ninth, A.J. Graham of Henry Sibley, was sitting in the awards tent when he saw a friend in the stands. He yelled, “I made it, baby!” Yes you did. Congrats.

The final session of the 2020-21 school year, the Class AA girls portion of the state track meet, was scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. The start was moved back one hour when a traffic incident on – where else? -- Interstate 94 delayed the arrival of several teams and athletes.

But you know what they say about major construction projects on busy highways: It’s a mess now but once it’s finished we will love it. That’s exactly the situation today, as we look back on 15 months of shutdowns, delays, questions, uncertainties and worries.

It’s finished. We are back to normal. We earned it. And we love it.

Have a great summer.

--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 jmillea@mshsl.org

 


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