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From hopeless to here: reporter’s climb to be inside the newspaper

21731424_10159160583625447_4211866861894963609_oJan. 8, 2017
Written for the La Crosse Tribune, Houston County News and the Coulee Courier

The deeper I get into my twenties, the less I feel compelled to talk about myself. This is probably because if you compared my life to a road, it would either be some kind of trap roundabout or reprehensible detour. 

But for the important sake of letting readers know the person who is reporting on the general public of their community, here is some of the blueprint that led me here, as the newest suburban weekly reporter for River Valley Media Group. 

I spent a year working with and reporting for the talented La Crosse Tribune sports staff. Highlights from my tenure of reporting for sports all came from the stories I felt best portrayed the human element — from a college wrestling national champion and burgeoning triathlete, to Venezuelan-born amateur baseball player and waning legion coach. 

The youngest of three brothers, I grew up on the south side of La Crosse, and returned a couple of years ago. Our parents raised us to know the importance of kindness without ever explicitly telling us that. Testament to our kindness, is that I’m the only member of the family not working in a school, and that we once adopted a 13-year-old aggressive, deaf and blind dog that was months away from dying (three and ½  to be exact — Poor Sheba). 

My love for newspapers probably stems from my parents, who I saw read the paper every morning growing up. Material from the local paper has been the centerpiece of discourse for my immediate and extended family for as long as I can remember, from analyzing the river drownings to concurring that Joe Orso is a suspicious character, we bonded over the content we gathered from the paper. I learned only a couple of things about my late great-grandmother before she passed — that she was devoted to feeding the birds, and that she read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day. 

My underlying infatuation for storytellers and personalities sparked for me as an 11-year-old, after I read an article about Barry Bonds written by Chuck Klosterman in an issue of ESPN The Magazine. I remember being hit by that brainwave you get when reading writing that burns more than it flows, shaking the indifference from you as the words percolate your mind. 

I remember in my pre-adolescence, being inspired by that fire, and then having the instant jones to find and assemble my own voice like it. It wasn’t so much that I felt a call to writing, but rather a call to have fit, helpful opinions and the boldness to declare them. Like David Carr writes in his memoir “The Night of the Gun”: “It wasn’t that I wanted to be a writer; I just didn’t want to be stupid.” 

When I got to high school there wasn’t a school paper, so a classmate and I joined forces to create what should have been called the Saddest Online School Newspaper. The first newspaper story I ever wrote was on the Million Dollar Arm contest ran by a professional sports marketing agent in India, which I plagiarized from an article in USA TODAY. 

When I slipped into my first perceived spell of what I now know to be clinical depression a couple months into my first semester of college, my fondness for newspapers grew, because the complimentary issues of the Star Tribune and New York Times that I grabbed outside my dorm every morning reminded me of the parents that loved me and the rest of the developing world that had little to do with me. 

I studied journalism and wrote for the campus newspaper while at Winona State University, but the shambles of my mental health and the lawlessness of my behavior muddled my ability to grasp the clear motive for me to be there. Forgoing my senior year and the overwhelming advice I got from academic counselors and my parents that it was a terrible idea, I moved to Minneapolis to write and work for a nonprofit agency for local performing artists. 

I learned a lot about the artists I wrote about and art itself in that position in Minneapolis, and formed a routine of ending each day with an extensive writing session, spawned after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule in his book “Outliers”. 

But as my writing voice developed, my financial foothold in the Twin Cities never came. I worked and quit probably a dozen manual labor jobs, which included washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant where the workers only communicated in their native language, and bike-delivering sandwiches from Jimmy John’s on a broken bicycle. 

But even in the most vagrant and washout moments of my life when I was deprived of hope, I stayed loyal to newspapers, and pined for them even more. I evaded my St. Paul apartment and the collapse of my relationship inside to the corner gas station (shoutout to the Marshall Stop) so many times to acquire a donut and a Star Tribune, that whenever there were patrons in line behind me, the regular cashier would announce in his Persian accent, “Dees guy, dees guy knows newspapers and dees guy knows donuts!” 

Every successful rapper and athlete is quick to tell you they have no regrets, but saying you have no regrets doesn’t get rid of all your regrets. I carry my regrets like the few extra pounds my mind has put on. I’m still far from a success story, and prefer to still feel in debt to reclaiming myself. 

Extraneous list of things I like: porches, live music, dogs and cats, NPR, making lists, Kanye West, the movie Almost Famous, taking photos, HBO shows, hats, Green Bay Packers, bars with couches 


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La Crosse Loggers: Jorge Gutierrez’s thoughts with family in Venezuela

Each player for the La Crosse Loggers has his own share of worries.

Some are concerned with developing a specific part of their game to strengthen contribution to a college team next spring. Others are worried about getting the academic schedule they need for the fall.

But for Venezuelan-born Jorge Gutierrez, a 20-year old utility player from Texas A&M, the anxiety that accompanies thoughts of his home country tops the list.

As the Loggers earned their first winning streak of the summer two weeks into the second half of the season, the worsening crisis in Gutierrez’s home country — all of his relatives still live there — has reached a critical point. The economic crisis in Venezuela has worsened in recent months amid devastating food and medicine shortages.

Gutierrez was born and raised in Venezuela, where his dad played professional baseball. Gutierrez’s first memory at a baseball field was going to one of his dad’s games, and he saw his dad hit a home run.

When Gutierrez was 6 years old, his mom got a job promotion, and his family packed up everything for a move to the United States. Around the time of that move, his sister was born. Gutierrez learned English in a year after arriving, and became a U.S. citizen last September.


Photo by Andy Nietupski

Gutierrez is thankful that none of his extended family in Venezuela has been part of the casualties that have accompanied the current crisis. But he said they still struggle to meet their basic needs.

“Even though it’s not too tough (for his relatives in Venezuela), it’s still very hard,” said Gutierrez, who was batting .195 with two home runs and six RBI through 22 games after driving in a run in Wednesday afternoon’s 7-0 win over Rochester. “A carton of eggs costs a hundred dollars, and you can’t go grocery shopping because there’s nothing in the stores. It’s not just stuff they put in the news, it’s happening. I know for a fact that it’s happening.”

Gutierrez’s youngest cousins are unable to get the medicine they need, and another is a doctor who struggles with getting that medicine. Gutierrez’s grandmother recently expressed interest in relocating to live with his family in the U.S. because it’s safer and more comfortable for a person her age.

Gutierrez says that he’s still able to get locked into baseball when he needs to, but it’s impossible for him to keep his mind from wandering to how much he misses and worries about his family. When Gutierrez isn’t playing baseball, that’s his constant focus.

“When I’m off the field, I’m with my family, or calling or thinking about them,” Gutierrez said. “Just trying to be happy, and grateful for all the opportunities I have here in the states that my mom and dad worked so hard for me to have.”

Traveling to Venezuela has become significantly harder, and that has slowed his previous routine of visiting the country every other year. For now, Gutierrez can only hope that he’ll be able to visit his family in Venezuela someday soon.

“We are very optimistic,” he said. “And (we) hope and pray every day that things will get better, because we do want to go back for so many reasons, with the biggest being to see our family.”

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WHCA: Two division prep hockey format doesn’t address all issues

Jul 8, 2017


Photo by Nate Beier

Since the WIAA began sponsoring a state tournament in 1971, Wisconsin boys high school hockey has been comprised of one division.

For the past two decades, however, staff and supporters of smaller programs have petitioned the WIAA to change that format in hopes of allowing more teams to reach the state tournament and take in the overall experience.

The WIAA recently acknowledged those pleas in the form of an amended recommendation, committing to a two-division, eight-team state tournament format for the 2019-2020 season.

Paired with the news to implement a 35-second shot clock in basketball and changes in state tournament seeding procedures, the WIAA announced the modification of the boys hockey divisions in a press release that summarized its June meeting.

The Board of Control voted 9-1 in favor of the two-division format that will run for two seasons on a trial basis before being re-evaluated. Under the new format, Division 2 will consist of the 32 programs with the smallest combined enrollment, and the remaining teams (currently 55) will play in Division 1.

What seemed like a progressive decision by the WIAA to split boys hockey into two divisions was met with some dissatisfaction from the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association. The WHCA discussed and presented a proposal to the WIAA, which then made amendments to it before approving its version.

According to West Salem/Bangor coach Eric Borre, who is the Section Four representative for the WHCA, the two-division system approved by the WIAA board is significantly different than the proposal the WHCA presented to the board. Borre, who served on an advisory board that helped draft the proposals, said a new divisional format has seen increased discussion among the coaches association for the eight years he’s been coaching.

According to Borre, both proposals from the WHCA had clear intentions — split the divisions equally, and increase the number of state tournament teams. The coaches wanted either two divisions with 12 state tournament teams (eight in Division 1, four in Division 2), or three divisions with 12 state tournament teams (four teams from each of the three divisions).

“What we want is 12 teams at the state tournament, because in our estimation, that’s what gets more people involved in high school hockey,” Borre said. “If we get four more teams down to state, that’s four more programs that get that experience, and help grow the game in the state.”

The amended recommendation from the WIAA is seen by the coaches association as a new format altogether, as the only similar aspect between the WHCA and WIAA proposals was to split the existing division.

Proponents of the two-division system believe it could deter the amount of rapidly growing cooperative programs in the state, or sway programs to withdraw from current cooperatives and play as standalone teams in a smaller division. Borre, however, believes cooperative programs are imperative in a sport like hockey, with has experienced a decline in the number of participants over the past few seasons.

“Part of the unique situation with hockey, is that pretty much every school in the state has a gymnasium and a football field, but how many of them access to a hockey rink?” said Borre, who said there is no plan for West Salem to drop Bangor from its cooperative program. “This might cut kids off from hockey, which again is not what we want. We want to grow the sport and expand it. We want more kids to get exposure and get to state (tournament).”

Borre and the coaches association have not heard as to why the WIAA amended the proposal to have only eight teams play in the state tournament, or why the divisions are split 55-32 instead of evenly as the coaches association proposed. Borre said there is some speculation among hockey coaches that the WIAA may be trying to maintain consistency with its other tournament formats. The WIAA, however, has added divisions in other sports without reducing the number of Division 1 state tournament teams.

There is concern from the coaches association that the WIAA’s two-division trial plan does not solve the original motivation for separate divisions, which was to increase the likelihood for more teams to reach the state tournament.

Splitting the divisions may address the competitive challenge of larger programs matching up against smaller ones that may have half of their enrollment, but in all likelihood the powerhouse programs — large and small — will continue to do well and advance to the state tournament.

Onalaska coach Tim Ebner said the debate to change the one-division format has been discussed for the 20 years he’s been coaching. Ebner supported the proposals from the coaches association, and is skeptical the WIAA system will help change the teams that play in Madison at the end of the season.

“I can understand the general thought of wanting to go to two divisions, but when you’re limiting it to the same amount of state teams, you’re not really providing more opportunities,” said Ebner, who is hoping the WIAA will recoup for the lack of state games by making regional and sectional games more visible.

Ebner also believes the new two-division format won’t stop cooperative programs from expanding in the state, and says co-ops will continue to rise until the number of boys playing hockey starts to increase.

“We’re in a situation locally where we may see even more co-ops happening within the next few years,” Ebner said. “Just based on the numbers of players in youth hockey right now that will eventually be moving up to high school, some teams won’t have the numbers. With each year, you lose more kids.”

It’s difficult to predict where the enrollment cutoff will be for the 2019 season, and what teams will fall into Division 1 or Division 2. Currently, Viroqua (enrollment of 355), Black River Falls (516), West Salem/Bangor (720), Sparta (794), and Onalaska (897) are area teams that could potentially play in Division 2.

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Got Energy Triathlon: Andrew Ernst takes men’s title, Deana Jagielo the top woman

Jun 26, 2017


Photo by Peter Thompson

WEST SALEM — Both top finishers of the YMCA Got Energy Triathlon bagged homecoming wins Sunday morning.

The 14th running of the annual race, which starts in Lake Neshonoc, had cool conditions throughout, hovering in the mid-50s temperatures for the 8 a.m. starting dip into the lake to swim the first quarter mile. Racers were relieved the water was warmer than the air.

Andrew Ernst, a 22-year old Onalaska native, was the top male finisher for the second year in a row, finishing well ahead of the pack at 1 hour, 3 minutes and 44 seconds.

Ernst, a recent graduate from Wisconsin, finished about a half hour faster than he did in his first YMCA triathlon six years ago. Ernst was on track to hit his target time of an hour and five minutes, aided by the usual 3.1-mile running leg being closer to about 2.7 miles on the sprint-sized course that concludes in Swarthout Park.


Photo by Peter Thompson

“I joined cross country and track in high school because of triathlons,” said Ernst, who started out running races with his younger brother Konrad, who is the varsity heavyweight wrestler at UW-La Crosse.

Ernst’s rooted interest in cycling helped him burgeon as a triathlete, where the longest legs are spent on a bike. As an undergrad, Ernst was a member of a running club at Madison and got the chance to race in some national triathlons.

“There I was just a number in the crowd,” said Ernst, who says his biggest improvements have been his transitions, which are easily overlooked in triathlons. Knowing how to precisely get out of the water and onto a bike are vital for a top finish.

“I could train for a long time to get 30 seconds faster on the bike,” Ernst said. “But I could cut a similar amount by just not putting on my socks, or something small like that.”

JAGIELO: Deana Jagielo, a 26 year old from Hokah, Minn., was the first female to cross the finish line in 1 hour, 17 minutes and 39 seconds.

Jagielo and her husband Anthony, whom she refers to as her husband/triathlon coach, make the trip back every year to run in the YMCA race and visit her family. Jagielo started running triathlons about six years ago, and now has ran so many she’s lost count. She is currently training in hopes of qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in South Africa.

Jagielo traded leads twice during the cycling leg with second-place female finisher Angela Smith before creating plenty of finishing space for herself. Jagielo enjoys the competitive ambiguity that exists in triathlons.
“The races are always fun because you can have someone who’s a really fast swimmer or runner that won’t finish high,” said Jagielo. “But if you’re just okay at all three legs, you could end up winning.”

GILLIES: The homecoming for the winners was more of a home race for John Gillies, who finished seventh overall and second in his age range of 50-54 at 1:14. Gillies and his La Crosse running crew call themselves the Bluff Busters, who use the bluffs for training ground for triathlons.

Gillies and the Bluff Busters make up a part of the welcoming network of local triathletes who take part in the setting up the YMCA race. Gillies appreciates the everydayness that exists in triathlons more than single exercise competitions, like having to bring your own bicycle to the race.

“Some people just take the bike they ride to work, put their tag on it and are ready to race,” said Gillies, who had two daughters waiting for him at the finish line.

“There’s a lot of people doing it just to say they’ve done one, because it really is a huge accomplishment,” Gillies said. “When you tell somebody that isn’t into exercising regularly, and say there’s swimming, biking and then running, back-to-back-to-back — they think you are crazy.”


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Valley Christian’s Schiek outlasts Luther’s Vannucchi

Jun 2, 2017


Photo by Rory O’Driscoll

For the first seven laps of the WIAA Division 3 boys 3,200-meter race Friday afternoon at UW-La Crosse’s Roger Harring Stadium, it seemed likely that Onalaska Luther High School sophomore David Vannucchi and junior Wesley Schiek of Valley Christian would run to another thrilling finish.

Vannucchi and Schiek’s last gripping race came this past fall in the Division 3 boys state cross country race, when Vannucchi won by 6 seconds.

But Schiek’s strategy became clear a few strides into the final lap, as he bolted the final 400 meters to an uncontested end, finishing at 9 minutes, 28 seconds — six seconds ahead of Vannucchi, who collapsed when he crossed the line at 9:34.

Schiek’s race strategy made for an unexpected outcome for Vannucchi, who battled to keep the lead in a grueling and at times scrappy race during one of the hottest points of the afternoon.

“I felt him on my back the whole race,” Vannucchi said. “I thought maybe he was going to share the lead with me, or it was anyone’s race. For me, the best way to win was to keep pushing the pace, and that’s what I did.”

There were some shoves between Vannucchi and Schiek as they battled for position in the first few hundred meters. In the latter half of the race, Schiek ran stride-for-stride, barely behind Vannucchi, which resulted in some tangling of cleats.

“I know David well,” said Schiek, who intended to keep Vannucchi in checking distance until the last 600 meters.

Schiek is still recovering from a recent battle with the flu, and thought it would be wise to let Vannucchi set the pace so he wouldn’t overwork himself. He also knew there weren’t many runners in the state who could contend with his kick.


“I felt good. The pace was slow and easy for me,” said Schiek, who’s shins were bloodied from Vannucchi’s cleats. “He was getting a little feisty during the race, and I was just in my normal strides. I actually got cut up a couple times, but you know, that happens. He’s a great runner, and I give him all the props and respect him.”


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Grandad Half Marathon: Adam Bohach posts record-breaking victory

May 8, 2017


Photo by Rory O’Driscoll

If you were near the finish line Saturday morning for the end of the Festival Foods Grandad Half Marathon and missed the closing push of Adam Bohach, you weren’t the only one.

Bohach’s quick finish even made the race announcers appear unready, as the 32-year-old from Decorah, Iowa crossed the finish line of the half marathon in 1 hour, 10 minutes, 2 seconds and set a new course record.

Bohach was a few strides past the line before the announcer hurriedly pronounced him as winner and new record-holder. The only person not in awe of his performance was Bohach, who thought he could run better.


Photo by Rory O’Driscoll


“I was around my goal, but I probably would have liked to be a little bit faster,” said Bohach, who was shooting for his midpoint average of 1 hour, 8 minutes when running marathons. “I landed somewhere in the middle today. I’m still happy to run the 1:10 and get the course record, though.”

The previous record of 1:11:10 was set by Justin Stakston when he won the race in 2010. Tristan Coughlin (1:11:17) challenged the record in 2013 before Bohach beat it Saturday.

Born in Decorah and raised in a nearby town named Spillville, Bohach went on to run cross country and track at Luther College, where he earned All-American honors his senior season. He got his first marathon-length race experience in South Africa while volunteering with the Peace Corps. Bohach now teaches high school biology in Decorah, where he also coaches as an assistant with the cross country team.

Bohach mostly runs marathons and triathlons. He has run five marathons in the past two years — and in that time he’s ran some of his most impressive races.

Bohach placed fifth (out of 8,560 runners) last October in the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, and won his first marathon — the PNC Milwaukee Marathon — one month later. The next race he’s training for is the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., next month.

As to why he chose to run in the Festival Foods Grandad Half Marathon, Bohach has roots in La Crosse through his wife, Flannery, another serious runner who grew up on the south side of the city and graduated from Central High School. Before moving to Decorah, the two lived in La Crosse for a year and befriended Tyler Heinz and Kate Ebert from Grand Bluff Running around the time of its inception.

Bohach is now a sponsored runner on the racing team for Grand Bluff Running. He chose to run in the Grandad race a couple of months ago after deciding that it fit well into his training schedule and a chance to visit family and friends.

It was also a chance for Bohach to run in parts of La Crosse he hadn’t seen before, like the south side, where he expected the quieter part of the course to be.

“I’ve haven’t really been through the south side of town that much, so it was actually pretty scenic for me,” Bohach said. ”There were spectators along pretty much the entire route.

“Even when it wasn’t necessarily thick with people, there were was always somebody outside of their house or wherever, cheering you on.”

Around the third mile, Bohach took the lead for good by starting to pull away from Abe Wengel (1:12:28), who finished second for the second year in a row.

The only challenging part of the race for Bohach came around the eighth mile when runners faced a stiff wind as the route reached the farthest point south before turning and looping back.

“There was actually a bit of a breeze, and nobody was there to block the wind,” Bohach said of the stretch from the eighth to 10th miles. “It was the part of the race where you’re starting to get tired, and there’s not many people around, and then you add the wind.

“You’re just trying to stay positive.”

Bohach, who prefers the scientific over superstitious approach to running, was able to stay positive and keep pace throughout the stretch on his way to an uncontested finish.

“Running is just something I’m passionate about,” Bohach said. “I like to use it as an example of hard work for my students, because I was never the most talented, naturally gifted or fastest runner when I was growing up or in college.

“But just by working hard consistently, I’ve been able to get a little better each year.”

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Weinmann, Carlson in the hunt for national titles

Mar 10, 2017


Photo by Erik Daily


The UW-La Crosse wrestling team, host of the NCAA Division III Championships, will advance its only two national qualifiers to today’s semifinal round.

Seniors Dustin Weinmann (141) and Richard Carlson (174) won both of their opening day matches to advance to championship round today at the La Crosse Center.

Weinmann, the top seed at 141 who is making his third appearance at nationals, came from behind in his first-round match to beat unseeded Maxwell Nauta (18-5) from Centenary University (N.J.). Trailing by a two points in the second period, Weinmann battled back to post an 11-8 decision. It was a hard-fought match where Weinmann’s patience, and national meet experience, came into play.

“He was doing things I knew were coming, but I couldn’t really tell when he was going to hit it,” said Weinmann, who was 23-0 coming into this weekend. “He caught me off guard a couple of times, and I had to make a late-match adjustment. Luckily it worked out.”

His quarterfinal match went in a similar fashion, with Weinmann controlling most of a tightly contested match against unseeded Joseph Farinde (32-8) from Johnson & Wales University (R.I.), whom Weinmann defeated by tech fall when they met last season.

After breaking a 2-2 late in the second period, Weinmann clinched the match with a takedown early in the third to go up 3-2, before going on to win a 7-2 decision. Weinmann (25-0) will wrestle the fifth-seeded David Flynn (23-4) from Augsburg (Minn.) in today’s semifinal.

Third-seeded Richard Carlson, making his second appearance at nationals, beat unseeded Colin Barber (35-9) from Cortland State University, N.Y., in a 2-0 match. Time was stopped twice at the end of the first period with the scored locked 0-0, after Carlson started to bleed from a cut in his mouth. Carlson attacked for the remaining two periods, picking up points in each period to advance to the quarterfinal.

“I didn’t want that to happen (injury stoppage), because then he got to rest,” said Carlson, sporting a championship-weekend mustache. “I knew if it was a close match that I would have the advantage, because I know I have a gas tank, and most guys don’t train like I do.”

Carlson’s quarterfinal match against sixth-seeded Tory Cain (15-2) from the Rochester Institute of Technology was the most entertaining of the Eagles’ wins on Friday.

With Carlson leading 1-0 in the second period, he stepped into Cain as both were wrangled in a body lock at the edge of the mat — Carlson lifted, and then slammed Cain for the pin, generating a roar from the raucous Eagles student section in the second-deck seating.

Carlson (27-2) will face second-seeded Eric DeVos (17-0) from Wartburg College today in a semifinal match. With semifinal wins, Weinmann and Carlson would advance to the championship round, which begins at 5 p.m. today.


Photo by Erik Daily

PARKER, ZURFLUH FALL: Onalaska High School graduate Grant Parker and Sparta High School graduate Tristan Zurfluh both lost a pair of matches on Friday.

Parker, a senior for Augsburg (Minn.), lost a major decision to Ursinus’ Derek Arnold and dropped a 6-3 match to Erik Beshada of the Merchant Marine Academy at 157 pounds to see his record fall to 22-12.

Zurfluh, a senior for Luther (Iowa), was beaten by Cortland State’s Zach Zupan 3-1 in sudden victory and Ithaca’s Nick Velez 8-2 at 165. His record dropped to 21-12.

DIVISION II: Caledonia High School graduate and St. Cloud State senior Austin Goergen (28-2) was knocked off during the 285-pound quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II national tournament in Birmingham, Ala.

Goergen, ranked first nationally, opened the meet by winning via injury default. That set up a match with sixth-ranked Garrett Gray (38-2) of Tiffin (Ohio), and Gray eked out a 3-2 victory. Goergen, who placed sixth as a freshman, second as a sophomore and third as a junior, came back to beat Fort Hays State’s Christian Lance 6-5 and remains alive for third place.

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