July 13, 2018 at 8:41 a.m.

Top 11 stories of 2017-18 for CL and NB

Top 11 stories of 2017-18 for CL and NB
Top 11 stories of 2017-18 for CL and NB

We opened up the countdown last week the first half of the Top 11 Sports Stories of the 2017-18 seasons.

This week, there is a ton of highlights to cram into a top five. Many of these stories and accomplishments would’ve been enough to earn the top spot in prior years, but with so much team success and an individual state champion, it was a banner year for sports in Chisago County.

Here is a quick rundown of the first half of the list form last week, and then onto the top five stories of the 2017-18 school year between Chisago Lakes and North Branch High Schools:

10. Chisago Lake dance team performs at Target Center after earning state berth
9. Chisago Lakes baseball fights through losers bracket to make it to section title game
8. North Branch boys hockey continues momentum, falls one period shy of state tournament
7. Chisago Lakes girls basketball plays for a section championship
6. North Branch football has a renaissance season

5. Chisago Lakes boys soccer finally breaks through and wins section championship
Regular season success hasn’t been too hard to come by for the Chisago Lakes boys soccer team over the past five years.

They’ve gone a combined 64-19-7 in the half decade period, and earned numerous number one seeds in the Section 7A tournament, but each year, they fell short and most of the times it was in the section championship game.

But 2017 was different. Led by the relentless attack of career goals leader Nils Gulbranson, the midfield wizardry of the Mower brothers, or the stout goalkeeping of Reece Lawlor, the Wildcats finally cashed in on their top seed, winning Section 7A over fourth-seeded Duluth Marshall, and earning a coveted trip to the state tournament.

Ryan Mower scored the first goal for the ‘Cats in their section championship game, and Jacob Lowrey scored the second.  Despite giving up a goal to cut the lead in half, Chisago Lakes responded with a flurry that resulted in a third goal by Gulbranson, and that ended. Lawlor preserved the two goal lead by making two late saves on a penalty kick.

The victory gave the Wildcats their first state tournament berth in school history.  It was also a proper send off for Head Coach Mark Leigh, who had announced before the season that this would be his last. After the game, Lawlor said, “I’m trying to wake up from this dream right now.  I can’t even put how this feels into words.  Before the game, I told coach ‘we are doing this for you.  You’ve done so much and we are getting you there.’  We dominated this game. During the second half, everyone was exhausted but we pushed through and it’s just amazing how the team came together like that and gave it their all.”  

Unfortunately, CL had a tough draw in their opening round game in the state tournament –  they had to play the best Class A team in the state, the Totino Grace Eagles.  The Eagles stymied the Wildcat offense while scoring three goals in the first half and one in the second to beat the Wildcats 4-0.  But that didn’t diminish the accolades and achievements that went with the CL season.

4. North Branch girls soccer finishes fourth at state
The North Branch girls soccer team made it to the state tournament for the second year in a row, but it’s what they did when they got there that put them over the top this year.
Last year, they drew second-seeded Mankato West in the first round and lost to them 7-1, bowing out of the tourney early.

They drew the Scarletts again in the first round this year, but this time they flipped the script, winning 2-1 and sending them to play games at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Sadie Harper converted a penalty kick with 19 minutes left in the second half to give the seventh-seeded Vikings a 2-1 lead and the Vikings held on for the win over the Scarlets in the opening round of the state high school girls’ soccer tournament.  

In the 14th minute, Ms. Soccer McKenna Buisman put a thru ball onto the foot of Ashley Gustavson.  Gustavson put the ball in the lower left corner of the net and the Vikings trailed 1-0.  In the 33rd minute, Sadie Harper fed Savannah Linkert at the top of the box.  Linkert ripped a shot over the goalkeeper’s head, but it banged off the crossbar and was knocked away.  The Scarlets led 1-0 at the half.

In the seventh minute of the second half, Savannah Linkert received a throw-in deep in the Mankato zone.  She carried the ball around a couple of players into the left side of the Scarlet box.  Linkert slid the ball through to Harper, who put a touch on the ball, moved around a defend to the right and rolled it into the net to tie the game at 1-1.

Harper’s late penalty kick sealed the deal for North Branch, as they upset West 2-1.

When the clock ticked down to zero, Viking parents, students and other fans streamed down onto the field to celebrate the Vikings’ opening round upset over the tournament’s number two seed.

The Vikings talked about the 7-1 loss to this team in the state tournament last year a lot over the past week.  Viking senior captain Keeley Ertl said at the time, “We worked so hard and that is definitely the most fun we’ve ever had as a team.  After we took the lead, we knew that we needed to work that much harder.”

The Vikings would go on to lose a tight game 3-2 to eventual state champion Mahtomedi in the second round, and a 2-0 contest to Visitation in the third place game, but the experience of playing on the U.S. Bank field and for the biggest stakes is one they’ll never forget.

3. North Branch volleyball makes a run to state title game
The Vikings had been building towards this year for a couple of years. They were bumped down a class, making them one of the bigger schools in Class AA, and they featured a senior-heavy roster that was also dotted with very talented underclassmen.

Expectations were certainly high for the North Branch volleyball team going into the state tournament this year, but the way they handled their first two opponents was a surprise, to say the least.
Third seeded North Branch took it to Watertown-Mayer in a three set sweep to open the state tournament, winning 25-20, 25-23 and 25-20.

In their second round match, the Lady Vikes faced off against second-seeded Marshall, a team that had only really lost to elite Class AAA schools on the year. This was supposed to be the litmus test to see if North Branch could hang with the very top level AA teams. The Vikings passed the test so convincingly that   a state title seemed well within their grasp. They launched a blitzkrieg on the Marshall defense and dispatched of the Tigers in three sets, winning 25-16, 25-10 and 25-21, extending their postseason set win streak to 18.

The win set up a showdown with unbeaten Maple Lake, who had swept their way to the finals also. The Irish won last year’s Class AA title and sported a 44 match win streak heading into the state title game. Their roster features 11 seniors and two all state hitters.

In the state championship game, the Vikings were swept by Maple Lake, but they were competitive in all three matches.

It was a thrilling run for the North Branch girls and their fans, one that won’t soon be forgotten.

2. North Branch softball only loses thre times all year, finishes second at state tournament
The North Branch softball team was packed with seniors, and they all knew what kind of potential they had.

Led by first year Head Coach Kathy Crudo, the softball team went 25-3 on the year, losing only once in the regular season, once in sections and in the state title game.

The Vikings knew they had something special when they opened the season with an 8-0 shutout of the high-powered Buffalo Bison. The momentum continued throughout the season despite a 4-3 hiccup against Rogers. They finished the regular season at 18-1 and the Mississippi 8 Conference champions for the first time in school history.

They were loaded with strong senio leaders in Sam Pederson, Amber Yoch, Kate Berg, Liz Gladitsch, and Cassie Sinn. They had some very talented underclassmen in Macy Brodin, Kristi Pilz and Sophie Smith, and their fiery new coach was the perfect fit to bring out their talent.

Once they got into sections, they were cruising until a tough loss to Cloquet in the winners bracket, but that didn’t phase them. Rain delays didn’t phase them, either. They came all the way to play the Lumberjacks in the finals, and they dominated them, winning by a combined score of 23-5 over the two games.

Their hit parade continued in the state tournament as they demolished Holy Angels 12-0 in the opening round. In the semifinals, Pederson pitched a gem, earned a a complete game win over Hill Murray in a 3-1 contest.

In the state championship game, the Vikings ran into Faribault and their ace pitcher McKayla Armbruster. She held the Vikings to just one hit as the Falcons won 2-0, leaving NB just short of their season goal. But, the run they had was an amazing, memorable, fun experience for everyone involved. Just after the run was over, Crudo had this to say, “This season was not just the 17 on the section roster or 35 members of our high school program, it was truly about the entire community, staff, parents, kids, athletic department, administration, school board members, superintendent, other coaches, youth softball members, grounds crew, maintenance, social media support, and everyone else that played a part in helping us make this season a success.”

1. Aliah Williams wins Class A All Around state championship in gymnastics
Aliah Williams had a ridiculous first year for the Chisago Lakes gymnastics team.

The former club gymnast broke nearly every school record and then topped it all off with the ‘Cats first state championship in the sport, winning the Class A All Around title.

She flew past most of her competitors, and once the scores were tallied, Williams was crowned the Class A state champion in the all around. She scored a 38.2625, which was a personal best and a new school record. She beat Jackson Hegg of Detroit Lakes, who finished in second place with a 37.85.

“To have Aliah become the state champion was incredible,”Head Coach Brett Kjos said. “What a meet she put together.”

“It was definitely the best meet of my life,” Williams said. “It was a crazy feeling. A mix of being thrilled that I won but also that our section did amazing as a team! I felt like it finally all came together and the thought that I had the best meet of my life in that spot was insane.”

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