July 6, 2018 at 10:49 a.m.
This year, there were a ton of teams in the area that had great success. Typically, we’re happy to get a team or two into the state tournament, but this school year saw three teams all finish fourth or higher on Minnesota’s biggest stage, including two North Branch teams that played for a state championship.
Those and all of the other top stories of this season will be covered over the next two weeks in this two-part column.
I just want to thank all of the coaches, parents, athletes and administrators who work to make sure the sports seasons run smoothly and that we can get the information out to the readers. There’s really some great things going on the area, and it’s been my pleasure to share them with you this year and all the years in the past.
Without any further ado, here are the top 11 sports stories from the 2017-18 school year!
11. Individuals who competed at the state tournament
In 2017-18, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic for state chances. Some of those dreams came to fruition and some came up short, but this area still produced a boatload of state tournament participants.
They came in all different sports and were built in different ways. They all had strived for the same goal this year, and here are the ones that made the state tournament in their respective sport.
Brandt Bombard and Ashton Labelle (wrestling); Keeley Ertl (gymnastics);
Josh Wenthe and Zach Carlson (wrestling); Justin Lawry (boys golf); Elsa Leopold and Aliah Williams (gymnastics); Hannah Janzig, Sophie Janzig and Hannah Stec (girls alpine skiing); Ryan Mower and Jamie Mower (boys alpine skiing); Savannah Gorski and Hannah Stec (girls swimming); Jimmy Nord and Storm Opdahl (boys swimming).
10. Chisago Lake dance team performs at Target Center after earning state berth
The Chisago Lakes dance team is sending their jazz competition team to state after finishing in third place in the Section 2AA meet in early February
The girls beat out some stiff competition from Duluth Denfeld, Hermantown, Zimmerman and North Branch for the coveted third berth to the state tourney. It’s always a tough section with private schools Totino-Grace and Benilde-St. Margaret’s usually claiming the top two spots.
“Everything we had been working on came together in our section meet performance,” Head Coach Kyra Wachholz said. “Everything clicked.”
Wachholz decided to prep for the state tournament in a little unorthodox way, taking the dancers to movies and team bonding exercises instead of full on practices and drills, and the move paid off.
Although they didn’t make the finals, the girls still impressed the judges. The judges had this to say about the performance: “Chisago Lakes did a great job! Movements complimented the music so well and choreography was creative and strong! Body placement was difficult and really displayed the skill level of this team. Transitional choreography was super impressive and well executed – it really drew in the crowd and left us all in suspense. Wonderful job!”
9. Chisago Lakes baseball fights through losers bracket to make it to section title game
After a strong regular season that saw the Wildcats fall just short of winning the Mississippi 8 Conference title outright, the Chisago Lakes baseball team drew the top seed in Section 7AAA during the spring season.
It was one of their best chances to earn a trip to the state tournament, and they got off on the right foot. The ‘Cats shut out Princeton 5-0 in their opening round game. That set them up against familiar county rival North Branch, who they dispatched easily 16-5, moving on to the section championship game.
They faced off against upstart sixth seed Grand Rapids who had upset Duluth Denfeld and Cloquet en rout to the game.
Ace Mitch Barrett struggled against the Thunderhawk lineup, and CL fell 6-4, which sent the Wildcats into the losers bracket and a tough route to get back into state tournament contention.
Their first step was complete after a dramatic comeback against Cloquet. The Wildcats went down 6-0 in the game and looked to be dead in the water, but they stormed back to win 8-6 and send them back against Grand Rapids on a high note.
The task was simple: to get to state, the ‘Cats had to beat Grand Rapids twice. The Thunderhawks only had to win one game.
Chisago Lakes came through in the first game, winning 5-4 in another nail-biting game. But, in the second half of the double header, the ‘Cats seemed to run out of gas. They played sloppy, walking a lot of batters and making a lot of mental mistakes. They got down 10-1 by the third inning and despite cutting that to 10-5, the ‘Cats never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Wildcat head coach Jay Brown said at the time, “It’s not hard to figure out what happened in this one. We walked eleven and hit a batter, and Grand Rapids took advantage of all of our wildness. And it’s too bad we came up short again. We lost our first three games this year, but came back to win 15. We went from not competing well at the beginning to having a very good season and I’m proud of these guys.”
The run was electric and exhilarating for all of those involved, but it came up just short.
8. North Branch boys hockey continues momentum, falls one period shy of state tournament
The Vikings hockey team has seen a steady climb to prominence in the area. Just three years removed from a five year stretch where they went 23-106-1, the Vikings improved to eight wins two years ago and 17 wins last year before winning a school record 22 game this past season.
That regular season got them a second seed in the section behind only Monticello, the defending Section 5A champion and state runner up.
The Vikings took care of business in the first round, blanking seventh-seeded Mora 11-0. That sent them to play upstart Pine City, who had a similar record to NB. It was a nerve-wracking affair for all involved, but North Branch came out on top 4-3, advancing to their first ever section championship game in boys hockey.
In the other side of the bracket, the Magic had taken care of Pequot Lakes and Chisago Lakes, setting up the showdown between the top two seeds.
In the 5A Championship game between the Vikings and the Magic, Monticello’s Jack Saunders scored on a shot from the right point to break a 1-1 tie at 13:12 of the third period.
The late goal was a heart breaker for North Branch as they couldn’t come back and tie the game up. Monticello added two more goals, including an empty-netter with five seconds left, to make the final score 4-1. The loss ended the best season in North Branch High School hockey history.
“It’s a tough thing. It would be easier to go away from a game we lost 4-1 if the team had truly dominated us. It’s a lot harder knowing that. for at least 30 minutes of the game, we pretty much took it to them,” Head Coach Matt Cottingham said at the time. “As a coach, you feel heartbreak for the kids. All the work they put in, the first time we reached quite a few milestones for our program and then coming up just short of going to state. We did so many good things throughout the season. This was definitely a great steppingstone for our program. And honestly, if you had told me at the beginning of the season that we were going to go 22-6, I would have told you we were going to state. I knew we were going to be good, but the players exceeded my expectations.”
7. Chisago Lakes girls basketball plays for a section championship
In what was senior Carmen Backes’ last season before she heads off to the University of Wisconsin to play Division I basketball for the Badgers, the Wildcats made an unexpected run to the section finals.
Their regular season was very inconsistent. They beat a team in Mahtomedi who was ranked number one in the state for a good chunk of the season, but they also lost to Cambridge-Isanti, one of only four wins on the year for the Bluejackets.
They finished 17-12 and that earned them the third seed in the section. As expected, they won their first section game over Princeton, but they struggled doing it, beating the sixth-seeded Tigers by only two points after beating them handily twice in the regular season.
It all seemed to set them up to bow out to second-seeded Hermantown, who had beaten the ‘Cats by nearly 30 points earlier in the season.
But, the ‘Cats wouldn’t fold and let that prior game affect them. They came out and upset the Hawks 72-65, sending them to an improbably section championship match up against top seeded Grand Rapids.
The shoe was flipped, however, in that game. The ‘Cats had beaten Rapids 68-60 earlier in the year, but the scorching hot shooting of Heaven Hamling sent the ‘Cats to a 74-54 loss in the section championship game.
Head Coach Craig Walker was a bit emotional after the game as he was saying goodbye to Backes, who has been on the team since she was in seventh grade, and other long time senior players including Heather Elfering and the injured Anna Peters. “Our group of seniors has been a special one that have stayed with the program and their leadership got us back to the section final for the first time in four years,” he noted at the time.
6. North Branch football has a renaissance season
Coming into the season, there wasn’t much reason to expect anything drastically different from the North Branch football team. They had struggled for the better part of the last 15 years to stay competitive.
They were moving into a new district and down a class, but what followed was still a wild surprise.
The Vikings went on an offensive tear, scoring points at a rapid pace and leaving teams shocked and beaten by the time they were done with them.
The first hint at the success to come was the first half against Princeton. The Tigers have always been even competition for the Vikings, and would provide a nice measuring stick. The Vikings scored three touchdowns in the first quarter, including two 50-plus yard scores. They didn’t slow down in the second quarter, scoring two more touchdowns and putting up 34 points in just a half, more than they had scored in any other games the season prior.
They added two more touchdowns in the third quarter to run away with a 50-30 win.
They followed that up by hanging up 42 points on Hermantown, a ridiculous 66 point outing against Duluth East.
They faced their first challenge of the year, losing to Cloquet on a sweltering hot homecoming game, but then picked up where they left off, hanging up 49 on Hibbing, 52 on Duluth Denfeld and 55 on Grand Rapids.
The Vikings did fall in a fairly meaningless week eight game against Proctor, but it set them up for a deep section run.
They had a bye in the first round and then cruised past Grand Rapids in the section semifinals to get a rematch with Cloquet with a trip to the state tournament on the line.
Unfortunately, the Vikings suffered some injuries in the section championship game and couldn’t take advantage of Cloquet errors, and the Lumberjacks ended up winning 46-26, but it didn’t mean the season wasn’t wildly successful for the Vikings.
Aaron Robillard, Tyler Adams, Colton Bauer, Darien Fair, Cam Irving, Conner Hartmann, Thomas Wurdemann and Lucas Jensen-Schneider all had banner years, and many other players stepped up in a big way when the Vikings needed it.
North Branch will be ushering in a new coach this season as Sam Ferraro departed for Forest Lake, but Justin Voss has been on the staff for a few years now and is excited to take over the program and continue to steer them in the right direction.
That’s the first half of the countdown, we’ll get to the second half in next week’s edition of the Chisago County Press. In the meantime, I hope everyone had a safe and Happy Fourth of July and stayed cool in the heat!