A look back at the 2017-18 winter sports season

By Brad Salmen

DC Enterprise Dispatch Sports Editor

This is among my favorite times of year.

We’ve just passed second winter, which means second spring and third winter are just around the corner, and after that, it’s only a matter of time before third spring and first summer.

But also, it’s the time of year when I get to take a deep breath and relax a little bit after the winter sports season.

Don’t get me wrong; I love covering DC sports. I have a blast. But the winter sports season is not only the longest (four months . . . in the winter), it’s also the most time-intensive, as I have to cover seven teams, including two in Litchfield.

Once it ends, I’m good and ready for a break. Also, there’s not much going on sports-wise in the last three weeks of March, which is why you might have noticed a lighter section the past couple weeks.

Don’t fret, dear readers, next week we’ll have the Spring Sports Preview edition, and after that, we’ll be headlong into the spring sports season (third winter permitting).

But for now, here’s a column looking at each team from the 2017-18 DC winter sports season.

***

There’s no way to put it delicately: it was a disappointing season for the LDC girls hockey team.

The Dragons entered the season with two new co-head coaches: Brett Damerow and Matt Hogg, both of whom replaced Hannah Impola (now the head coach at Hutchinson).

LDC won two of their first three games, and then lost the next 23 games in a row, including 13 of them by shutout.

So, it might surprise you to see me write the following:

The future looks bright for LDC girls hockey.

It’s true, the team did graduate two out of their top three scorers this season, in Kristen Jones and Jasmin Estrada.

But, the team does return seven out of their 11 top scorers for next season, including their top scorer in sophomore Alyssa Olson (5-5-10).

Just as importantly, the team returns a goaltender who is going to be an impact player for the next three seasons.

LDC has been nothing if not fortunate with their goaltending situation the past few seasons. Maddy Benson, now playing for St. Scholastica, was a standout for four years in the net for the Dragons.

If this last season was any indication, we’ll have another four-year standout in freshman Avery Stilwell, who kept her team in games they had no business being in all season long.

Plus, looking toward the long-term future, the LDC 12U team made the state tournament this season, with six players that will advance to JV next season.

As a side note, I want to say thank you to Matt Hogg (the ‘DC’ side of the LDC two-coach combo, at least in terms of press). I could always count on Matt to provide timely quotes and analysis, and through our conversations, I have no doubt that the team will rise.

***

The DC/L boys swim coaches will tell you that they were also disappointed, not in the season itself, but by the final result.

Under head coach Pete Travis, the Chargers have consistently sent four to seven athletes to the Class A state tournament.

This year, the team was within hundreths of a second of having the same outcome in several different events at the section meet.

However, the team fell just short in all but one. Only senior Spencer Atkinson advanced to the big dance, in the 100 backstroke.

Atkinson, who finished as the top 100 backstroker in DCL history, had an eventful two days at state.

In day one, Atkinson tied for eighth place in the preliminaries, setting up a rare swim-off to determine who made the finals (the top-eight prelim finishers make the finals, while finishers 9-16 make the consolation finals).

Atkinson lost the race by .04 seconds, and finished 11th in the consolation finals on day two.

The Chargers will return nine letterwinners for next year’s team.

***

It was a similarly tough season for the girls basketball team.

DC finished 5-20 overall, 2-12 in the Wright County Conference West, under second-year coach Rob Walters.

The Chargers had to adjust to the loss of two post players from last season, Cassadi Kirchoff and DCHS all-time leading scorer Alayna Johnson (now at DII Northern St.).

Without those two, DC had only one player listed as tall as 5-10. And, as a result, it was a tough go in an extraordinarily tough conference that included four teams that were ranked in the top-10 at one point in the season.

However, I’ve been impressed by coach Walters since his first day at DC, for two reasons: 1. his ability to get the best out of his team, performance-wise; and 2. his ability to make the high school athletic experience memorable for his players, for all the right reasons.

Fun fact about Rob – he’s the last technological holdout out of all my coaches.

While I know all my coaches personally, outside of Rob we conduct most of our communication electronically. The coaches submit box scores via email, I’ll email them some questions, they’ll respond via email.

While Rob has mastered emailing me a photo of his book, he’s the one coach I have to call to get quotes from each week.

After many weekly conversations with Rob, I will say this: when you have a rapport with someone and you talk with them long enough, their true character comes out.

Rob’s true character is this: he wants to win (as does every coach).

He agonizes about his coaching decisions during the game (as does every coach).

But also, bottom line, he wants his team members to enjoy their experience as girls basketball players for DCHS. And that’s something I think a lot of coaches don’t focus much on.

Week in and week out when I talked to Rob, he would say something along the lines of, “as long as the girls are having fun, that’s the most important thing.”

I’ve spoken with several players from this year’s team, and they all said they enjoyed the season.

Well done, Rob.

***

The gymnastics team also had a first-year head coach this season, former DC and Wisconsin-River Falls standout Alex Wente.

Wente took over the reins from Sara Keskey, who remained as an assistant coach.

From her first interview, Wente stressed that she wanted her gymnasts to first and foremost be good teammates, and pull together as a team.

And, as a team, the results are very promising.

The Chargers scored their highest score in several years, despite missing a couple key gymnasts for much of the season.

What should make next season even more intriguing is the fact that the team did not have a single senior, and will return every gymnast for next year.

While they’re still a couple steps below perennial section powerhouses Willmar and Melrose, from what I could see, this season was a good step in the right direction. The girls made vast improvements throughout the year, and yes, they pulled together as a team.

***

The future looks very bright for the DC wrestling team next season.

The Chargers will return 11 of the 13 wrestlers who participated in the section tournament, including nine placewinners.

Included among those are three state entrants: Prestin Bradley (138, 5th; Jacob Schmitz, 195, DNP; and Jude Link, 113, DNP). Bradley and Schmitz are juniors, Link an eighth-grader.

Bradley (35-8) finished oh-so-close to wrestling for the state title.

He was matched up against Foley’s John Dierkes (37-10) in the semifinals. Bradley and Dierkes had split two matches earlier in the season, with Bradley winning the most recent match, 8-4 in the section finals.

As expected, the state semifinal match was extremely tight, with Dierkes prevailing 8-6 on a takedown in sudden victory (overtime).

I wasn’t at that match, so I did not find this out until afterward, but I heard from several sources that Bradley was the victim of a bad call by the referee late in the third period that allowed Dierkes to tie the score.

Knowing Prestin, I’m sure he will use it as motivation in the offseason to become even better next season. I look forward to seeing what he, and the rest of the team, can do.

***

Without a doubt, the most improved team of the 2017-18 winter season was the boys basketball team.

A year after winning just four games, the Chargers rebounded to finish 15-11 in a very entertaining campaign.

The team featured four players who could turn hot and take over the game at any moment: seniors Trever Kaiser, Alex Terning, and Isaac Morris, and sophomore Sanders Asplin.

As I have written about extensively, Kaiser will go down as the greatest player in Dassel-Cokato boys basketball history.

Kaiser entered this season already as the team’s all-time leading scorer, having surpassed Matt Nyquist late last season.

He averaged more than 20 points again this year, and finished  with 1,634 career points, a total that will be extremely difficult to top.

Kaiser, who will be attending the University of Mary next season, was fun to watch. When he got on a roll, he would absolutely dominate the game; he could knife inside on a drive, or stop-and-pop threes. He also led the team in blocks on the defensive end.

Terning and Morris were both built in much the same caliber, threats from both inside and out. Asplin, the diminutive, lightning-quick guard, was a defensive nightmare, and led the team in steals and fast-break layups.

Rounded out with a supporting cast that included seniors Grant Thinesen, Jake Nelson, Ethan Brandel, Gus Flick, and Grant Sangren, DC was a force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, it was a disappointing end result, a first-round playoff loss to Big Lake for the second year in a row.

The Chargers will have some big shoes to fill next season, as they return only two letterwinners, Asplin and junior Collin Krick.

***

I’ll be honest, heading into this winter, I didn’t foresee a very bright season for the LDC boys hockey team.

The team had lost a ton of firepower from last year’s squad, and was starting an unproven goaltender in freshman Darby Halonen.

Through the first dozen games, the Dragons didn’t do much to improve my outlook, going 6-6 and losing several games they would tell you they should have won.

We all know what happened next.

The team jelled at the right time, Darby solidified his position in the net, and the Dragons swept through the section playoffs for their second state tournament appearance in three seasons.

A few notes from the season:

• I think out of all the teams I covered this winter, the Dragons had the most improvement during the season. They were an average team at the beginning of the year, but by the end, they were a very good team. This could be seen in their two games against Luverne – in the first, midway through the season, the Cardinals defeated LDC 3-2 at Litchfield. However, in the section final, the Dragons were clearly the better team in a 4-1 victory.

• Among the highlights of the regular season was  LDC snapping a 12-game, six-year losing streak to Delano. A lot of local Finns have relatives or friends in Delano (I myself have three nephews who played or play for the Tigers), so it was especially sweet for us to get that win.

• Just like the girls, the boys appear to be set in the net for the next three seasons. Like the rest of his team, Darby Halonen only got better as the season went on. He was a little shaky to start the year, but turned into a fine backstopper by season’s end.

• As it was two years ago, the section final game at Gustavus Adolphus was the highlight of my winter season. While it didn’t quite match the intensity of two years ago when LDC won 7-6 in overtime (frankly, I don’t think I will ever see another game like that), it was a madhouse nonetheless. It was Minnesota high school hockey at its finest.

• As for the outlook on next season, well, it looks bright.

LDC will need to replace three of its top four defenseman (Orrin Grangroth, Filip Haataja, and Matt Wedin).

However, the team returns seven out of their eight top scorers including team MVP Brandt Pedersen (26-17-43), along with Halonen in net.

If that’s not enough to make you pull out the sunglasses, I don’t know what would.

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