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Willmar notebook: Homecoming for Apollo coaches

Tribune photo by Ron Adams This display of Willmar Homecoming pins and football memorabilia in the high-school lobby is part of a collection belonging to former Cardinal quarterback Lee Wierschem (Class of ’77). 1 / 2
Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Taking offense: The Cardinals’ offensive line has helped generate over 400 yards per game: from left, 6-foot-1, 260-pound sophomore right tackle Joel Engel; 5-10, 175 senior right guard Leon Richards; 5-8, 230 senior center Carter Shuldes; 5-9, 225 junior left guard Alex Khalil; and 6-6, 230 junior Matt Hennes. 2 / 2

The Skaalerud brothers — Justin (WHS 2000) and Scott (WHS ’09) —  are coming down from St. Cloud for Friday’s homecoming celebration. They will bring a pretty darn good football team with them on the bus.

“I’m looking forward to coming to Willmar,” Justin told me in an email this week. “It will be unique experience for me and my brother, who is an assistant coach on my staff. We’ll be on the other sideline for homecoming.”

Across the field will be Ken Heitzman, who coached both brothers in high school, now the offensive line coach and whose son, Michael, is on the Eagles’ radar.

Justin is in his fourth year helming the St. Cloud Apollo program. The team here Friday is not the bottom-rung Eagles we’ve come to know this century. After winning one game in the Central Lakes the first two years, Skaalerud’s Eagles went 3-4 last fall and are 4-1 coming into Willmar, same as the Cardinals.

“Ben Alvord and Noel Teigen are coming back after a great 2012 season when they were both All Conference and named to the 22-player Saint Cloud Times All-Area Team.  Ben has been our starter [at quarterback] since midway through his ninth-grade year. Now, as a junior, he is listed as one of the top recruits in his class at the recruiting site.  Noel, a senior, has started every game since his sophomore year and was our leading receiver both years.  They, along with Jeremy Koffi, Kyle Rosenthal, Cooper Lynch, Bryce Kirchner and Dusty Cassens have all started for us now for three years.”

I asked what steps he took to elevate the program.

“We opened doors that allow our players to work towards being a better athlete year round,” he responded. “The coaching staff runs a strength and speed program five days a week, December to June, for all students at Apollo, North Junior High and Kennedy Community School, which feed into Apollo.

“When summer begins, we do football-specific training four days a week with future Eagles in grades 7-12.  This summer we took 63 juniors and seniors to the North Dakota State Bison Team Camp in Fargo.

The Eagles’ triumphs have the town talking.

“With Apollo and Tech both 4-1 and tied for first place in Section 8-5A we are seeing some great crowds at our games.  In school last Friday, I would say 90 percent of the kids were dressed in red, white and blue for spirit day, greatly appreciated by our players.  We won our first Homecoming game in ten years [vs. Fergus Falls] last week. It was a great experience for the players and fans.”

What about the team you will face Friday?

“I was very impressed with [QB] Augustine Hahn and [RB] Michael Heitzman.  The offense keeps defenses on their toes.  If you over-pursue the run, they will throw a strike to one of their talented receivers.  If you put too many guys in coverage, they will run the ball effectively.

“Defensively they are quick and strong up front and fly to the football.  We are going to have to be assignment sharp on both sides of the ball, they are very well coached.”

Younger brother Scott, who is nearing his degree in special ed., also coaches JV baseball and VFW baseball Justin teaches 12th-grade Government and 10th-grade World History.

This is not the first time Justin has been part of a revival. His junior year the Cardinals were 0-9 but 5-4 his senior year on a team paving the way for a CLC title in 2000.


Tony Johanneck, a bulk-milk truck driver and former stock car racer, lost 80 pounds the hard way.

Since January, he’s been fighting a Stage 4 cancer.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he told me by phone.

He’s been taking chemotherapy at Rochester for a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He first thought something wrong last November. But the type of lymphatic cancer he had defied early diagnoses through biopsies at both Willmar and Rochester.

Eventually, his illness was pinpointed. His chest and lungs were full of cancer.

“Rice Hospital has a great cancer facility and they saved my live,” Tony told me, “But at one point the doctor recommended I go to Rochester. The Mayo Clinic has so much technology; there were times I had seven doctors hovering about.”

A 15-pound tumor was removed. He underwent so much chemo (he figures 200 hours) he became violently ill and he was hospitalized at Rochester for 2½ weeks.”

“It’s a lot of poison pumped into your body,” he said.

His sister Pat, who lives in Ohio, was found to be a perfect match. She came to Rochester to contribute stem cells.

It’s been a rugged year for Tony and his wife Sylvia. Their son, Brady, races in the Late Model Class. Tony said the car ran exceptionally well but Brady put it up on blocks after four races because “It wasn’t much fun without dad.”

Despite his trials, Tony’s voice sounded strong, even upbeat. He was back at Rochester where he must go once a week for check-ups.

His recommendation for others: “See your doctor; get a yearly check-up.”

On the fly

n The Concordia Cobbers and Johnnies played before 10,022 on Saturday in the Natural Bowl. A year earlier, over 14,000 showed up for the game with the Tommies. Outside of the Twin Cities, Johnnies football is just about the biggest single-event draw in the state and a big reason the MIAC annually leads the nation in DIII attendance.

n Willmar grad Anita Nelson is assistant coach of the Morris/Minnewaska Stingrays girls swim team and head coach of the Morris Area boys swim team. She is also the head aquatics instructor at the Regional Fitness Center on the UM-Morris campus. Older brother Ray Nelson is head swim coach at St. Cloud Apollo, both boys and girls.

n This is the 12th Hall of Fame Class. Allan Backlund of Kandiyohi never missed the induction ceremony for the first 11, including his own in 2004. He passed away this spring, at age 83, and will be missed along the sidelines on Friday. The 2013 inductees — Ray and Betty Hyser, Katie McCarthy Ingram and Lee Smith — will be introduced at the Friday 1:30 p.m. high-school pep fest. The banquet follows at the American Legion at 4:30 p.m. and then halftime introduction at homecoming.

n If you thought September was a flurry of high-school events, you are correct. The Cardinal varsity had 21 home events at which admission is charged (football, volleyball, swimming, boys and girls soccer). The number plummets to just six in October, exclusive of playoffs.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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