It was difficult not getting emotional at Jamestown Speedway last Saturday night.
No, not because John Corell didn't drive to victory, but because after 13 years I never took enough time to truly enjoy my weekends at the track.
So with that in mind, and after snapping 967 heat race photos, I walked from my infield perch to the pit area and watched the consolation features alongside Denny Qual and Joanne Dieterle, two people who both make Jamestown Speedway what it is and have also impacted my life immensely as a sportswriter and as a person.
There wasn't too much talking between the bark of the engines.
Joanne and I discussed my 14-day-old marriage to my wife, Emily, and as Denny showed me photos of his grandkids, I literally watched the sun set on my career at The Sun while the dust of North Dakota dirt danced with the smoke of Canadian wildfires in a fading red sky.
Solid evening for racing last Saturday at Jamestown Speedway. pic.twitter.com/T4Mmds5QOc— Michael Savaloja (@MichaelSavaloja) July 14, 2021
Roughly a month ago, I accepted a new job within the University of Jamestown's department of development. My final day at the newspaper is this Thursday (July 15) and leaving is obviously bittersweet.
I came to The Sun in the summer of 2008, eager to launch a new career in sports writing after being hooked the previous fall while covering St. John 9-man football as a general assignment reporter in Rolla, North Dakota. St. John football coaches Cory Davis and Brad Fitzgerald had just led the Woodchucks to a 9-1 season and the program's first region championship in school history.
I needed more of that.
Former Sun sports editor Dave Selvig was instrumental in my hiring. Six months prior I had taken over as managing editor of the Towner County Record Herald in Cando, and Dave -- a sportswriter under Scott Thorlson at the time -- helped weed out my résumé from dozens of applicants.
I was a somewhat local guy. I could layout pages and Dave knew I was coachable. Anything I lacked, I'd learn.
Class B sports and the speedway were my original assignments, which was perfect. Not only did I play high school sports at the Class B level, but I also raced stock cars for a spell in Grand Forks before college entirely shifted my life's trajectory.
I stumbled into journalism. Largely uninspiring semesters of business and history at the University of North Dakota eventually funneled me into Dr. Victoria Smith Holden's media writing course.
I'll never forget when she singled out a story lede I wrote in a class larger than the entire population of my hometown of Churchs Ferry. I had found a path.
It's impossible to recall every highlight and name in more than a decade and change in Jamestown.
I watched and reported as Dan Carr and Andy Braaten, both iconic Class B basketball coaches, directed their Linton and Carrington teams, respectively, to state championships. More recently, I was fortunate to be courtside as both the women's volleyball and men's basketball teams at the University of Jamestown soared into NAIA elite status.
I'll always remember the look on the face of former Jamestown girls hockey coach Brad Schaack after his girls beat Fargo South-Davies 4-2 in the quarterfinals of the 2013 state tournament. Jamestown's girls had never before bested the Bruins, and that win came on the Olympic ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The gutsiest performance I ever saw? Jamestown gymnast Rachel Schiele getting back on the balance beam in 2018 after faulting while attempting to defend her state title in the event in front of a large home audience at JHS.
I still don't know how she climbed back on? Which reminds me: I'll miss my winter chats with now-retired JHS gymnastics coach Dave Tews.
I was in the house when UJ football coach Brian Mistro collected his first collegiate victory in the mud at Rollie Greeno Field, and when JHS football coach Bill Nelson and the Blue Jays overcame a 20-point deficit in the third quarter behind the arm of quarterback Ty Monson to defeat Bismarck Legacy 21-20 last fall on the same turf.
I also had the privilege of working the first sporting event held at UJ's immaculate Harold Newman Arena in the fall of 2017, a 3-1 women's volleyball sweep over Bellevue University. Later that winter, I'd watch JHS volleyball nearly storm all the way back from a 2-0 match deficit before falling 3-2 to Lauren Ware and the Bismarck Century Patriots in the Class A state title match at the Fargodome.
I'll miss covering Class B hoops at the Jamestown Civic Center. But being able to finally follow the Kevin Strobel-led Edgeley/Kulm/Montpelier boys basketball team to the state tournament this past March in Minot was a heckuva finale.
From watching baseball at historic Jack Brown Stadium to covering the first Hockey Day North Dakota at UJ's Allen Field in 2019, I could go on forever.
Bringing local sports into everyone's home on a daily basis was a responsibility I never took lightly. I didn't write many columns in my stint as sports editor, rather preferring to focus my attention on the stories of athletes and teams, not on what was rolling around in my head.
Honestly? I was too busy trying to mimic my North Dakota sports-writing colleagues, guys like Greg DeVillers, Chris Aarhus, Wayne Nelson and Selvig, to come up with too many opinions.
I don't know if I ever measured up, but I'll always be grateful for the opportunity and my time at The Sun. I met my wife here.
I need to thank The Sun's Kathy and John Steiner, as well as Rob Keller, Keith Norman, Gavin Kutz, Chelsey Staloch and sportswriter Katie Gerber. Their friendship and support have meant everything.
Leaving them is difficult, but I'm ready for a new challenge and excited for the road ahead. I'm also looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends, people who largely came second as I poured what I had into Jamestown's area sports nearly every evening and weekend.
Finally, thanks to all of the athletes, coaches and teams for letting me into their bubble to tell their stories, and to the Sun's loyal subscribers.
Selvig once told me, "Less is more." I've blown that here.
Thanks for reading.