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John’s Journal: Nearly A Decade Of Top 10 Yearly Stories

Looking Back On What Has Become An Annual Summer Tradition

Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2023 - 7:02 PM


2019: After winning a state championship, Henning basketball players honored Jacob Quam.


2022: St. Michael-Albertville soccer parent Cleofe Zerna with Knights coach Megan Johnson, who donated a kidney to Cleofe.

In what has become an annual ritual of summer, I am looking back through all the John’s Journal stories I have written during the 2022-23 school year. The goal is to select my Top 10 favorite stories. They will be re-posted in reverse order, starting with No. 10 and proceeding to the No.1 story. This is always an entertaining exercise as I reflect on the kids, adults and communities I am so fortunate to visit and the things I am able to chronicle.

As I started in on this project in recent days, a question came to mind: How long have I been putting together these Top 10 lists? Well, it turns out that we are nearing the 10-year anniversary of this endeavor. The first Top 10 list came after the 2013-14 school year, and the No. 1 story from that year was about Riley Schmitz, a football player from Southland who was legally blind.

In ensuing years, the No. 1 stories included such topics as a softball coach who gave birth in a car on the way from a game to the hospital, how teams kept the memory of deceased teammates with them, how emergency preparations saved the life of an athlete who collapsed due to heart issues, and more.

So, as a prelude to the release of this year’s Top 10 Johns Journal stories, here are brief excerpts from the No. 1 stories from past years, beginning in the summer of 2014…

2014/ Southland’s Riley Schmitz: Heart, Desire Make Up For Limited Vision

Southland football player Riley Schmitz can’t see the farm, the silos or the livestock that surround the Rebels’ practice field. Even though he has been practicing on these fields since he was a fifth-grade football player, clear vision for the senior extends no farther than the end of his arms. Those are two remarkable facts: Riley is a football player who is legally blind.

“His heart, his desire is tremendous,” said coach Shawn Kennedy. “He is absolutely so passionate about football.”

2015/ Victory Day In Grand Rapids: Football And Big Smiles

Eric Soderberg, starting senior quarterback for the Grand Rapids football team, was leading a group of QBs in drills at Noble Hall Field. The athletes each took a snap and navigated several cones while running with the ball. At the end of the drill, Soderberg and the other QBs gathered together in a tight huddle, each put one hand up in the middle of the pack and Soderberg said, “QBs on 3!” They all hollered, “One! Two! Three! QBs!!”

It was absolute magic. These weren’t the other high school quarterbacks; these were cognitively and physically impaired children from Itasca County who had been invited to the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks’ first Victory Day event. 

Sixteen kids – some in wheelchairs or walkers -- joined the football team and one young lady spent her morning with the cheerleaders, who performed routines and kept the enthusiasm high. Members of the Thunderhawks marching band provided the school song and other tunes, and longtime Thunderhawks public-address announcer Roy Tovionen provided play-by-play from his perch in the press box. 

Coach Greg Spahn said, “It’s just so much fun to have our players see the impact they have and give back to some of these kids who aren’t able to experience football.”

Here’s how senior Levi How described the day: “I love it. If there’s one kid smiling today, it makes the whole day worth it.”

2016/ Renville County West Remembers Brandon

Brandon Limones, a three-sport athlete at Renville County West, was 17 when he died unexpectedly in March. His football teammates did not forget him. The Jaguars walked onto the field before games carrying his No. 11 jersey, which was displayed on a stand at the bench. After I wrote about RCW and their dedication to Brandon, the story went a step further.

Before RCW played at Cleveland in the nine-man Section 2 championship game, Cleveland activities director Rich Kern painted an 11 on the field in front of the RCW bench in place of the 50-yard line. He said, “You think to yourself, ‘How can we as a school show our support to the visiting team, that we care about their team and school?’ Yes, we have a championship game to be played and competition between each other, but there is more to the game than just the score.”

2017/ Hope For Henry

ANNANDALE – Two comments overheard during a grand Tuesday evening of basketball in a packed gymnasium do a pretty good job of telling the story. 

Quote No. 1: “This is just a game. There’s a little kid fighting for his life.”

Quote No. 2: “Those were two dang good teams going at it.”

Both quotes are accurate. These were just games, with the girls and boys basketball teams from Hopkins heading to Annandale for a varsity doubleheader. The overall focus was on a little boy who is in the minds and hearts and prayers of everyone who attended.

Henry Dolan is the grandson of Annandale boys basketball coach Skip Dolan. Henry was born with heart defects and given a two percent chance to survive for a week after birth. That was nine months ago. Henry, who has undergone a heart transplant, remains hospitalized and hopes are high for his long-term health. But the road will be long for Henry, his parents, Sam and Mollie Dolan, and his two big sisters. 

2018/ Thanks To The Miracle In Monticello, A Life Is Saved 

MONTICELLO – A miracle, performed by angels, took place at Monticello High School. Those words – “miracle” and “angels” – were spoken by the mother of a young man whose life was saved on a basketball court.

It was the second day of boys basketball practice for the 2017-18 season, with workouts/tryouts held before and after school. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, practice began at 6 a.m. Fifteen-year-old sophomore Ryan Monahan was involved in the first drill of the day when he fell to the court.

“I just kind of blacked out,” he said. “I felt lightheaded during a shooting drill and then I just kind of collapsed, I guess.”

The reaction was swift. Head coach Jason Schmidt, knowing that several coaches from other sports were working out in the nearby fitness center, hollered for them to come to the gym. He removed the nearest AED (automated external defibrillator) from a fieldhouse wall and handed it to head football coach Jason Telecky. Assistant boys basketball coach Bruce Balder-Lanoue was kneeling over Ryan when Telecky arrived with the AED.

“We were very fortunate that we had multiple staff members in the weight room working out,” said athletic director Gary Revenig. “One of the football assistants, our head girls basketball coach, our assistant principal; they all kind of took on a role.”

2019/ Henning’s State Champions Will Gather Again For Jacob

HENNING – On Saturday, three weeks to the day after winning their school's first state championship, members of the Henning Hornets boys basketball team will go to the gym and play. And laugh. And remember their friend and teammate Jacob Quam.

Saturday will mark the second anniversary of Jacob's death. Early in the morning on April 13, 2017, Jacob was driving six miles from his home in Vining to Henning for a before-school weightlifting session when the driver of a semitrailer heading in the opposite direction crossed the center line and collided with Jacob's vehicle.

Later that morning, the Henning students were informed of Jacob's death as they gathered in the gym. Four days after that, his funeral was held in the gym. He would have been a senior this year.

After the boys play basketball Saturday, they will go to Jacob's grave a mile away at St. Paul’s Cemetery. Jacob’s mom, Angela Quam, will meet them there and they will celebrate Jacob with fireworks.

"We’ll do five grand finales," Angela said. "All the boys will be there, then they’re going to somebody’s cabin for a sleepover. Hopefully that’s a tradition they’ll be able to carry on."

2020/ Jackson County Central Football And A Viral Video

On a peaceful November Monday in Jackson County there was some measure of disappointment that the Jackson County Central Huskies would not be playing at the Prep Bowl later in the week. But those feelings were tempered by an immeasurable amount of pride in knowing what the world thought of the boys on the football team from the little southwest Minnesota town near the Iowa border.

In a tiny gym inside Pleasantview Elementary in Lakefield, 12 miles from Jackson, four of those boys were teaching. The senior team captains -- Nathaniel Post, Bradley Buhl Jr., Rudy Voss and Jack Brinkman – spent the day with fifth- and sixth-graders, playing games and talking about what's important. They emphasized words like respect, character, hard work. And love. 

"The three things that I want you guys to take with you are things that I live by, that we all live by," Voss said to the kids sitting on the gym floor. "The first one is love. Love each other, respect each other, form a bond with each other. The second one is work hard. Work hard in anything you guys do, whether it's sports, the classroom, group projects, work hard. And the third one is respect. Respect each other, respect your teachers, respect your parents. Holding the door for someone, saying please and thank you, that's the kind of people we want you guys to be.”

If Rudy's name sounds familiar, it's probably because you’ve seen a viral video from the Nov. 16 Class 3A state semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium. After the Huskies lost a heartbreaking 20-14 decision to Pierz in a game between unbeaten teams, Voss, Buhl and coach Tom Schuller spoke to the media in the Vikings’ postgame interview room.

The video is emotional and stirring. Rudy, through tears, talked about football being a blessing in his life, the bond among the 21 seniors, how wins and losses don’t define them. At one point, Rudy is unable to speak and Bradley takes over, putting a hand on his teammate’s back and talking about how at the start of the season each player was asked to do their job and trust each other. 

2021/ The Coach, The Baby And A Wild Delivery

Back in April, the Marshall Independent newspaper provided a preview of the Wabasso High School softball season. Rabbits head coach Tiffany Eichten told reporter Josh VanKlompenburg: “Softball has been a part of my life since I was little and has now become a part of my own growing family. …  I am looking forward to the lifelong lessons and memories that will be made this year.”

She had no idea.

The Rabbits played in the Class A Section 3 playoffs Tuesday in Cottonwood. Having already lost once in the tournament, another defeat would end their season. Wabasso stayed alive by defeating Lac qui Parle Valley 10-0 before losing to Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg 10-7. The Rabbits finished the season with a record of 14-12.

Eichten was extremely pregnant and knew the baby would arrive soon; her due date had already come and gone. When daughter Elloray was born five years ago, she was delivered the day after the softball season ended. Elway, 4, and Jeter, 2, have arrived since.

“I didn’t think it would be that day,” Tiffany told me Wednesday. “I thought, this is kind of like (Elloray), we’ll play and have her the next day.”

2022/ A Coach, A Mom And A Kidney

The whole thing, the whole unbelievable and wholly and very possibly Holy endeavor – a straight-up miracle, perhaps – began simply enough, with a high school soccer coach looking for video of a goal scored by a member of her team.

It ended with the coach donating a vital organ to the mother of three of her players.

This is a good time to share this story, as a new year of Minnesota high school activities opens Monday with the start of fall sports practices. Keith Cornell, activities director at St. Michael-Albertville, phrased it perfectly when he said, “This just shows once again that there is so much more to education-based activities than going out and playing games.”

The story began after a late-September soccer game in 2020. Senior Rheana Zerna scored an improbable goal from midfield as she and her St. Michael-Albertville teammates forged a 1-1 tie at Eden Prairie. Her coach, Megan Johnson, knew that Rheana’s father, Julius, often shot video of the games and she asked Rheana if her dad had taped the big goal. Rheana responded that Megan should become Facebook friends with her mom, Cleofe, because the video was posted on Cleofe’s Facebook page.

“That’s not something I usually do, but I wanted to see the goal,” Megan said.

The two indeed became friends on Facebook, where Cleofe (pronounced Cleo-fay) posted an important message in February: she was suffering from kidney failure and was asking friends to spread the word that she was seeking a donor. After a lengthy battle with kidney disease, her kidneys were functioning at 11 percent of normal capacity. Cleofe, 49, was looking at a future filled with kidney dialysis if no donor could be found.

Her Facebook post read in part, “I realize that as much as I want to fight the good fight on my own, it’s no longer realistic without the help of others. I am currently on the Mayo Clinic kidney transplant waiting list for a non-living donor, but the wait is long, it takes roughly 4-7 years.

“My goal is to have a kidney transplant and not go through dialysis. For the sake of my loving family, particularly my awesome husband of 24 years and our 3 wonderful daughters, I am reaching out for your help.

“I don’t make these requests lightheartedly. I simply just want to extend my life here on earth. I want to grow old with my loving husband and see my wonderful children grow, finish college, get a job, and as they promise they will send me and my husband on vacations. That will be a day to look forward too! And of course, I want to see my future adorable grandchildren.”

The post included a link to Mayo Clinic’s Transplant Center and a questionnaire for prospective donors. Megan clicked the link, kicking off an unlikely journey tying her for a lifetime with the mother of three of her soccer players: Jucel Zerna graduated from St. Michael-Albertville in 2018 and played soccer at Augsburg before graduating this spring; Rheana graduated this year and is now playing soccer at St. Cloud State; and Juliana is a soccer player who will be in 10th grade when school resumes.

Megan, 41, is a third-grade teacher who has coached the Knights for 17 years. Her husband Jerremiah is a sixth-grade teacher and head coach of the Knights boys hockey team. Like Cleofe and Julius, they have three children.

"My wife is a person who exemplifies all the great things about education and activities," Jerremiah said. "She cares so much about her athletes. Every year she’s emotional when the season ends because of how much she cares about them."

Shortly after filling out the online donation questionnaire, Megan received a phone call from Mayo Clinic. That was followed by more phone calls and a day filled with video visits. In the meantime, Cleofe had learned from Mayo that they were in discussions with a potential donor, but she didn’t know it was her daughters’ soccer coach.   

--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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