Staying Power: After 28 Years, Lisbon Boys Coach Howell Still Finding Track Success

Joe Howell admits he didn’t know much about math when his old high school gave him a two-week substitute teaching position nearly three decades ago.

“Two weeks is now 28 years,” said the 53-year-old Howell, still a teacher and coach at Lisbon, N.D.

By the end of his first year, Howell had secured a fulltime job and a coaching position, which has brought him decades of success.

As head coach of the perennial powerhouse Lisbon boys track and field team, Howell has built a club with a legitimate shot at a state championship every year.

The Broncos will be making a run at their fourth North Dakota Class B state title when the state meet begins Friday in Grand Forks.

“Our hopes are the same as the other top teams in the state,” Howell said. “We want to win.”

Lisbon’s goal might not be possible if not for its selfdescribed “intense” coach.

“I don’t know how you can’t get jacked up about the enthusiasm of youth,” Howell said after the Broncos celebrated their 11th consecutive Region 1 title last Saturday.

Although he was excited to see a Lisbon victory, it wasn’t a new experience for Howell. In his 28 seasons as boys coach, Lisbon has won 25 region championships.

“He gets the biggest amount of respect from the kids,” Lisbon girls track coach Brad Bittner said. “Our kids compete and they give all they’ve got for their coach.”

Howell is the last to take credit for the Broncos incredible run, however.

“You can’t control much,” Howell said. “The kids control this game.”

Howell admitted having big numbers is the key ingredient to continuing success.

“We get the kids out,” Howell said. “I think that’s a collective thing. You’re going to see multi-sport athletes at Lisbon.”

Lisbon can’t help but thank Howell’s track program, which has become a catalyst for many other successful sports in the town.

Last fall, the Broncos football team finished second in Class 2A. It wasn’t much of a surprise. Like the track program, the football team seems to be strong every year.

The winning ways don’t just extend to other sports. It also permeates into the minds of underclassmen who one day hope to make their mark.

“You see guys that did well in the past and you want to be like them,” said senior Brayden Wagner, who qualified for state in four events.

Howell’s current position as a physical education teacher has allowed him to help the Lisbon youth become interested in track as early as their elementary school years.

“He can tell what you’re going to be good at just by watching you in phy ed,” Wagner said.

At the end of this season, the Broncos lose eight seniors, six who qualified for the state meet.

But, as usual, they’ll be able to restock their talent pool.

Howell made sure of that by bringing eighth-graders to the region meet. He did so in an effort to show the youngsters what they need to strive for to continue the program’s success.

“He’s got the best program in the state,” Fargo Oak Grove coach Terri Krueger said. “I don’t know how he reloads every year.”

Even after all the success, Howell said he isn’t ready to hang his hat.

“I’m not getting tired of it,” Howell said.

“I remember when we used to sit around 20 years ago and say that it (20 years) would be a nice goal. Now 30 doesn’t seem like so many.”

Straight Shooter: Pueppke, 13, Gaining Recognition With Air Rifle

AMENIA, N.D. — Matthew Pueppke focuses his right eye through the scope of his air rifle and balances his body. His target, a circle less than one-eighth of an inch wide, is 33 feet away.

Concentration is the name of the game. If he hits the mark – known as the 10-hole – it’s merely a job well done.

He might as well be threading a needle with his eyes closed.

“It’s hard to get everything the exact same,” Pueppke said. “If your head is a centimeter off, it’ll affect your shot.”

Pueppke, a 13-year-old seventh-grader from Amenia, N.D., has been climbing the national air rifle ranks since he began organized shooting at age 8.

He gained added recognition after setting a national record for the 14-and-under age group at the 2005 United States Junior Olympic shooting championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., last month.

Pueppke scored a record 579 out of 600 possible points in the 10-meter air rifle competition.

During a match, each shot is worth 10 points.

Competitors must fire two rounds of 60 shots over separate 1 hour, 45 minute time periods.

“A lot of folks tell us he’s one of the top, if not the top 13-year-old shooter in the country,” said Eric Pueppke, Matthew’s father.

Eric, who has competed in pistol marksmanship competitions the past 25 years, realized his son’s potential after a paperwork error allowed an 8-year-old Matthew to compete and earn a bronze medal in the 18 to 20-year-old division.

“It’s high-level competition,” Eric said. “It’s good for kids, it teaches them concentration and focus.”

Although Matthew admits his sport of choice isn’t the most popular, he loves it. To his parents, that’s what really matters.

“Sport is sport,” Eric said. “Everybody thinks guns are violent, but when you look at it, this is probably one of the most non-violent sports.”

The single-shot rifles, which run as high as $2,000, are loaded with .177 caliber pellets. Even though the rifles are somewhat pricey, shooting practice isn’t. Matthew fires as many of 120 shots a day in his basement.

Eric created a simulated, regulation length range in the basement of the Pueppke house. The practice range starts in Matthew’s bedroom and ends exactly 33-feet away in a closet.

Each practice shot brings Matthew closer to his goal.

“Hopefully I can get to the Olympics,” he said.

Taking Life’s Jabs: Area Boxer Finds Glory in the Ring

Zach Walters, from Fergus Falls, Minn., is a Minnesota light-heavyweight boxing champion. (Walters Photography)
Zach Walters, from Fergus Falls, Minn., is a Minnesota light-heavyweight boxing champion. (Walters Photography)

Sharilyn Walters listened to her son Zach cry over the phone as he sat in jail in Duluth, Minn.

“What am I going to do, my life is over,” she remembers him saying through the tears.

Zach Walters, one of the top amateur boxers in Minnesota at the time, had been arrested by a drug task force team for marijuana possession – a habit he says started when he was in eighth grade.

“The habit took me down a long path of problems,” Walters said.

The arrest turned out to be a life-changing moment. It’s a miracle Walters believes is truly God-sent.

“I went to church and asked God for help to change my life and give me something better to live for,” Walters said. “That has happened. My life has become something I never imagined it could be.”

Now, only three years later, the 24-year-old Fergus Falls (Minn.) High School graduate and University of Minnesota-Duluth senior has leaped into boxing’s professional ranks.

Riding a five-fight winning streak over the past year, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound righthander is scheduled to face Iowa native Jesse “Iron Jaw” Sanders in an eight-round, non-title fight Saturday at the Duluth (Minn.) Entertainment and Convention Center.

It’s the main event of the “Truth In Duluth,” a fivematch boxing card featuring professional fighters from Minnesota and North Dakota.

“Boxing has become an outlet for him,” said Walters’ manager and promoter Chuck “Sharky” Horton.

“It was a place for him to put his head. He was a confused kid.”

Now, he’s seeing more clearly.

“Boxing is something that’s brought true happiness to my life,” Walters said. Root of true happiness

Madagascar – the small island country east of the African mainland – also meant true happiness for Walters.

That’s where he grew up when his parents served as Lutheran missionaries from the time he was 15 months old.

But Zach’s life took a dramatic turn shortly after his 12th birthday when his parents returned to the United States. The family moved constantly, taking on new missions and trying to find steady work.

The Walters’ four children quickly became strangers in a new world.

“He was Tarzan, basically,” Horton said. “These kids were nuts.”

Walters’ strange journey eventually earned him the nickname, “Jungleboy,” a reference to his former tropical home, not his fighting style.

“I try to be a real disciplined, fundamentally sound fighter,” Walters said. “I try to be cold in my emotions, try to be analytical.”

Walters’ fighting style is a transformation from his childhood, when he never quite found the right place to call home.

“We moved from a thirdworld country to St. Paul, which was a culture shock,” Walters said. “Then to Fresno (Calif.), which was just nuts.”

Finally, after a short time in Pelican Rapids, Minn., the Walters found a home in Fergus Falls.

“That was where the family felt most comfortable,” Walters said.

Birth of a career

It was in Fergus Falls where his boxing career began. When Walters was 15, his parents encouraged him to try several sports. He settled on boxing.

Nearly a decade since he began sparring, Walters is now riding a wave of success. He’s been clean from drugs and alcohol since April 2002, and has found success in the classroom.

He recently made the UMD Dean’s List for the sixth consecutive semester (every semester since he was arrested) and is two classes away from a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He’s also working as a counselor assistant at the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth.

“Zach is multidimensional,” said Sharilyn Walters. “He’s a great boxer, but he’s a great person, too. And I don’t just say that because I’m his mom.”

Walters’ career took off in September after a secondround knockout of Marty Lindquist for the Minnesota state light heavyweight boxing title.

“I’m so impressed with his level of development, physically- and maturitywise,” Horton said.

Walters recently spent two weeks in Florida with Buddy McGirt, who has guided notable boxers Antonio Tarver and Arturo Gatti.

Walters is thankful for the opportunity – and thankful that his life took a turn for the better.

“I look in the mirror and it’s hard to see myself doing many of the things I did several years back,” Walters said.

Now, he’s focused on Saturday’s bout against “Iron Jaw” Sanders.

“He (Sanders) is the guy I’ve been looking at for quite a while,” Walters said. “I cleaned out Minnesota. Now we’re going to see who’s the best in two states.”

Former Star Strawberry Discusses Battles With Dependency

Fargo’s Julie Brown gets an autograph from former baseball star Darryl Strawberry at Ramada Plaza Suites on Saturday. (AP)
Fargo’s Julie Brown gets an autograph from former baseball star Darryl Strawberry at Ramada Plaza Suites on Saturday. (AP)

Darryl Strawberry knows what it feels like to be on the edge.

“I went through hell,” the former Major League Baseball allstar said.

Strawberry spoke about his drug and alcohol dependency Saturday at the Sister’s Path Gala sponsored by Fargo’s Sharehouse at the Ramada Plaza Suites.

“A lot of people go to treatments, like myself, several times, and never can pinpoint where the problem is,” Strawberry said. “You don’t see it until your life is totally at the end.”

Strawberry, who said he has been drug-free for nearly four years, was scheduled to speak with his wife, Charisse, the President of the Tampa, Fla., chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

But the woman who stuck with Darryl through addiction and two battles with colon cancer was unable to attend the event due to food poisoning.

“She’s been through a lot. She’s very committed,” Strawberry said. “She’s saddened that she wasn’t able to make it.”

The Strawberrys have become regular inspirational speakers since Darryl’s retirement from baseball and his numerous recoveries.

“Basically, I like to share my life,” Strawberry said. “Where it all began. How I got through addiction. What it was like, the insanity of it.”

Rick Lopez, the executive director of Fargo’s Sharehouse, said Darryl’s message is powerful.

“He gives a message of hope and coverage for those facing addiction,” Lopez said.

Strawberry spoke primarily about the effect chemical dependency has on families while also promoting his and Charisse’s book, “Recovering Life.”

The Strawberrys co-authored the book, an autobiographical account of their struggles.

“Most of the time, people don’t understand,” Strawberry said. “They think the person who is using or drinking is the one being affected, but families are also being affected.”

Strawberry, who has three children with Charisse and two from his first marriage, said speaking to families of those affected is one of the most important things to him, especially since he knows what the problems meant to his children.

“She (Charisse) really wanted the kids to grow up knowing their dad,” Strawberry said. “They know their dad is around and is involved in things.”

Strawberry won three World Series titles during his 17-year career. His first came with the New York Mets in 1986. The other two came with the New York Yankees (1996, 1999).

He was named Rookie of the Year in the National League in 1983.

After being away from baseball for more than five years, Strawberry is back with the Mets, working in their farm system and helping groom rookies.

“It’s a great feeling to be back with the organization I started with,” Strawberry said. “They want me to work with them and guide them, hopefully teach them some things about baseball.”

With a new job and a new outlook on life, Strawberry’s next step is to literally take things one day at a time.

He lives up to it by wearing a wristband with the words, “Just For Today,” on it.

“Just for today. Each day that you wake up, you just thank God and pray you get through another 24 hours,” Strawberry said.