Lakeville honors its athletic tradition

Four individuals and a program go into Panther Hall of Fame

If a group of athletes goes six years without losing a meet – not even at sections or state – that’s likely to get them some kind of commemorative plaque displayed at their school. And so it is with Lakeville High School’s gymnastics teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, which were honored at the Panther Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday afternoon.

The hall of fame committee inducted its first class in 2005 and in the years since has cited several high-achieving Lakeville teams from specific seasons. This was the first time the Panther Athletic Hall of Fame recognized an era – specifically, the gymnastics team’s “Decade of Dominance,” which ran from late 1992 to early 2003.

Yes, that’s actually 11 seasons. The Panthers qualified for all 11 state meets in that period, winning the Class AA team championship nine times. In one stretch from the 1994-95 season through the 1999-2000 season, the team never lost.

Four individuals, two student-athletes and two coaches, also were inducted into the hall of fame at Sunday’s ceremony at Crystal Lake Golf Club.

All for one

Members of the Lakeville High School gymnastics teams of the 1990s and early 2000s were honored at the Panther Athletic Hall of Fame ceremony Sunday afternoon. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

The Panthers earned nine of their school’s 11 state gymnastics championships from 1993 through 2003. They placed third in the two years they didn’t win.

While Lakeville had numerous quality gymnasts in that time frame, it never had the state individual all-around champion. One of the team’s top performers of all time said that was because of a philosophy that prioritized team goals over individual objectives.

“Some individuals had to make sacrifices in order for the team to have success,” said Kelli Nygren-Holm, a 2012 Panther Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. “That came from Milan (Mader, Lakeville’s head coach) and the phenomenal coaching staff he surrounded himself with. If you had to go first on an event because the team needed your score, then you went first” even though the gymnast might have had a higher individual score had she competed later in the event.

Lakeville did have six state event championships, won by four different gymnasts, during the “Decade of Dominance.” But it was primarily team accomplishments that made it a successful run. In addition to the six-year undefeated streak in all competitions, Lakeville won 130 consecutive dual meets from February 1987 until December 2000. The Panthers broke 150 points 53 times, with a high score of 153.7 in 1995. The team was ranked nationally six times. Three gymnasts went through their entire high school careers, grades 7-12, without losing a meet, said current Lakeville North gymnastics head coach Teri Homan, who joined the Panthers’ program as an assistant coach in 1995.

Mader, who coached high school gymnastics in Lakeville from 1977 to 2011, estimates he worked with more than 1,000 students on his teams, said the success wouldn’t have been possible without the athletes’ dedication and the support of the assistant coaches and parents.

Making Lakeville a basketball town

Andy Berkvam

Former Lakeville and Lakeville North girls basketball coach Andy Berkvam and current Panthers boys basketball coach John Oxton went into the hall of fame the same year. But twenty-seven years ago, they were seeking the same job – head coach of Lakeville High School’s boys team. The position went to Oxton, who had just arrived in Lakeville after six years of teaching and coaching in Montana.

“I wanted to be the boys basketball coach, but they hired the right guy,” said Berkvam, who accepted the Lakeville girls basketball head coaching opening.

There were some early struggles, as Berkvam’s first Lakeville team started the season with a 13-game losing streak. The Panthers’ fortunes eventually changed, and they made the first of nine state tournament appearances under Berkvam in 1999.

Lakeville won back-to-back state Class 4A championships in 2001 and 2002, going a combined 55-1 over the two seasons. The Panthers also finished second in the 2004 Class 4A tournament.

Berkvam’s program remained a state power after the North-South split in 2005. The Panthers won their third state title in 2010. They were 32-0 in the 2009-10 season and are the last Class 4A team to go undefeated.

He coached three Miss Basketball award winners – Liz Podominick, Cassie Rochel and Rachel Banham – as well as Shelly Soule, who succeeded Berkvam as Lakeville North head coach in 2013.

“When I first started coaching, I was all about winning,” Berkvam said. “Later, I understood the importance of helping kids develop.”

Berkvam still teaches physical education in Lakeville but in 2013 returned to his alma mater, Northfield High School, to coach boys basketball. But the influence of numerous Lakeville teachers and coaches, from Dan Schneider, Milan Mader and Dick Johnson to Larry Thompson, Rick Ringeisen and Dick Zeman, stayed with him.

“They were a big part of my life. We had a lot of fun in the lunchroom, I can tell you that,” Berkvam said.

Oxton, similarly, helped put Lakeville and Lakeville North boys basketball on the map. He has taken nine Panthers teams to the state tournament. Lakeville North has won section championships the last six years; if the Panthers win again in 2018, it’s believed that will be a state record for Class 4A. North was in the Class 4A championship game three times in five years, winning in 2014 with an improbable final-minute comeback against Hopkins in the title game.

John Oxton

The best player on the 2014 team, J.P. Macura, will be a top returning player at Xavier University this fall. Nathan Reuvers, a 2017 Mr. Basketball Award finalist, will begin his career at Wisconsin in the fall.

“To see how much boys basketball and girls basketball in Lakeville has evolved over the years is really cool,” Oxton said. “None of us would be here without the athletes … and the pride of Lakeville has stuck with me all these years.”

Oxton and Berkvam both are members of the Minnesota coaches association hall of fame, but each described himself as merely one link in a chain. “If everyone does their job, it works out pretty well,” Oxton said.

Both got a chance to coach their children on varsity teams; Oxton also took a two-year sabbatical as North head coach so he could watch his daughter play basketball for Lakeville South. Both coaches said they relished the opportunity to influence young people on and off the court.

“I get a chance to make a difference in a kid’s life, and hopefully he can pay it forward someday,” Oxton said.

Four-sport athlete

Merle Thompson

What Merle Thompson did in the 1950s was a rarity then and is almost unheard of now. He was a four-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball, baseball and track and field. He earned 14 letters in the four sports and still had time left to study, as Thompson also was valedictorian of Lakeville High School’s class of 1953.

Lakeville was a much different community then, Thompson recalled.

“It was a rural school,” he said. “We had a student body of 150 for grades 9-12. The senior class had 20 boys and 14 girls.”

That didn’t stop Lakeville from playing 11-man football – and being very good at it. The 1952 team went undefeated and won its conference. Thompson said it was ranked as the 17th-best 11-man team in the state. It was honored as a Team of Distinction at the 2009 Panther Athletic Hall of Fame ceremony.

Thompson served in the Navy, then had a 48-year career as an engineer and project manager at IBM in Rochester. He and his wife, who’s also a Lakeville graduate, have three children and seven grandchildren.

He remembers his high school graduating class fondly. “There are about five of us left from that class,” Thompson said. “We played all the sports together through junior high and senior high. I think we did ourselves, our school and our town proud.”

Still a record-holder

Jon Jellum

Lakeville shot put and discus throwers have had a tough time equaling Jon Jellum’s school records, even though they’ve had almost 25 years to try. Jellum was the state Class AA champion in the shot and discus in 1993, and his best throws in those events still rank among the top 50 all-time in Minnesota high school competition.

As a 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior, he played on Lakeville’s 1992 state championship football team and was named All-State. He was a three-time all-conference athlete in football and track. Jellum also was on John Oxton’s first boys basketball team at Lakeville High, was a four-year letter-winner in that sport, and by his senior year was a captain and all-conference player.

Jellum went on to play football at the University of Minnesota. He lives in North Carolina now with his wife and five children and works as a sales representative. He welcomed the opportunity to return to Lakeville and reconnect with people who helped shape his future.

“It has been far too long. I’ve missed you guys like you can’t imagine,” Jellum said. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to receive this award.”

Physical education teacher and former girls basketball coach Andy Berkvam, who was in the same Panther Athletic Hall of Fame induction class as Jellum, recalled taking note of Jellum’s size and athletic ability, and noted that he looks like he still could play today.