May 09, 2019 05:27 PM
What would you guess is the most popular sport in St Paul public high schools - in terms of number of participants?
You'd think hockey, football or basketball. Maybe track, dance team, track or soccer?
It's badminton, and St Paul Johnson is Minnesota's reigning dynasty.
"One time... I was wearing this shirt," said Johnson's Kachoua Vang, motioning to the Johnson Badminton logo on her shirt. "They saw, 'oh, a Johnson badminton team?!'. You know that feeling? You feel really proud to be a part of a Johnson badminton team."
Governors head coach Mark Fischbach has also given people wardrobe-related revelations about the sport.
"City wise, people know about it," Fischbach said. "But in the suburbs? Yeah, it's like, 'What's on your shirt? What are you wearing there?' Yeah, that's a badminton racquet. I coach badminton. We get 80 girls out every year and it's a highly competitive sport."
Click the video box on this page to watch KSTP Sports' story as it aired on the St Paul Johnson badminton team
Fischbach grew up playing traditional sports like hockey. He first came to badminton as an assistant coach. Through clinics and instructional videos, he studied the game and eventually took over the Governors program.
Johnson has won nine high school state titles - most by any team in Minnesota - including four in a row.
Fischbach has kept the dynasty rolling thanks to the huge number of girls who come out for the team.
"First of all, I have great coaches," Fischbach said. "But we want everybody to feel they can be part of something."
"They may show up and say, 'We want to play without friends and show up a couple days a week' or 'I want to be part of this program and be a state champion'. We include everybody. We have different tracks, with some practices more focused on fun versus competitiveness."
Over the years, the Governors roster has swelled to as large as 80 players. This year, more than sixty players are on the team that can field only ten varsity players per match.
Senior Nuhchi Chah is Johnson's #1 singles player this year. She admitted it was tough waiting from when she first started with the program to being a part of the competitive varsity squad.
"It was hard. You have to work for it. Everyone wants to be at the top," Chah said. "I'm not gonna start at the top as a freshman but you slowly grow as time goes by. Once you get (coaches) training... it's the best."
Vang is on one of Johnson's top doubles pairings this season. Her role on the team evolved as her own motivation grew.
"At first, I was scared," Vang explained. "I didn't want to sign up. My friends encouraged me to sign up. They said it'll be fun. You'll meet a lot of new people. So I decided to join and, yeah. it's just like they said. Everyone is nice and approachable. We have teamwork... and friendship which make it really fun."
"I started in middle school. That was when I knew nothing about badminton. All I know was 'hit the birdie'. I didn't know the lines, the rules - but I continued playing it because I gradually started to like badminton."
A vast majority of the players on Johnson's badminton team are Hmong - owing both to the large Hmong presence in Johnson's neighborhood as well as the popularity of the sport within the Hmong community itself.
"It's kinda like a hockey family in Minnesota," Fischbach explained. "We now have that culture now with our badminton team. They're playing with their parents when they're younger, then they're playing in rec centers and playing year round. They want to get better and they want to play. If I didn't kick 'em out of practice they'd stay til 9 every night playing badminton. They love the sport, they love to play."
It's a love for the sport that gets handed down.
"I grew up playing it," Chah said. "Both my siblings play it. It's a family thing for me."
"We have a family like atmosphere on the team," Fischbach said. "We just had our banquet the other day for our Governors club - our alumni - and three sisters showed up. It was cool. They're eight years apart but they were all there, all varsity players. Just nice to see."
That family bond not only helps participation numbers, but also helps maintain the Governors championship pedigree.
"Girls come into the gym, they look up at the banners and say 'I don't wanna let my older sister down. I don't want to let the girl I played with last year down. I want to carry it on - do something special when it's my turn'," Fischbach said.
That tradition does carry pressure as the Governors head into this year's State Tournament seeking to run their title streak to five straight years.
"It's pressure," Chah said. "You want to win it, you want to do the best because you don't want to let down the school, community and coaches especially."
But that pressure can also be a positive.
"It's always a challenge, but I like challenging myself," Chah said. "I look forward to the State Tournament."
The 2019 State Badminton Tournament starts with first round matches at home sites on Monday, May 13th.
The team finals - from Quarterfinals to the Championship - play at Burnsville High School on Tuesday, May 14th starting at 4:00 p.m.
The individual tournament is also at Burnsville on Wednesday, May 15th and Thursday, May 16th.
Updated: May 09, 2019 05:27 PM
Created: May 09, 2019 02:31 PM
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