Archive for Kip Kovar

PREP VOLLEYBALL SEASON RECAP: Mayer Lutheran racks up sweeps in potential state title season

MAYER – The postseason is what the Mayer Lutheran volleyball team prides itself on. A perennial section title and state tournament contender, the Crusaders work all season long for one goal – a state title.

Mayer Lutheran didn’t get the chance to fight for that this season. In fact, after their season was cut short, they didn’t get a chance to even contend for a Section 2A title.

“With the season starting up and having a shortened season with only section playoff matches was going to be something we all had to wrap our minds around,” Mayer Lutheran coach Joelle Grimsley said. “My philosophy has always been the season is just our journey where we learn about each other and get better for playoffs. Win or lose a match, the conference season was all part of the season. Then playoffs begin and that is the time we begin our peak. That philosophy took a hard shaking this year.”

Ranked No. 3 in the final Class A poll of the season, the Crusaders were poised for another section tournament run. They never got the chance as their season was cut short, forcing Grimsley and her coaches to rethink how they do things.

“We as a staff and a team had to come to grips with a different reality,” Grimsley said. “This took us all weeks to figure out different goals and motivation to excel in whatever our situation was.  When we all did this, we were able to focus much better. Our goal at that time, with six matches left and no playoffs, was to finish with no losses.”

The Crusaders did just that. They finished the season with an overall record of 11-1. All 11 wins came in three-straight sets. Their lone loss of the season was just a five-set loss to Southwest Christian.

“I am so proud of the way this team persevered through such a strange season,” Grimsley said. “We were able to give thanks for so many things as we continued to play. In one of our last devotions, the girls all expressed items they were thankful for. Health, this volleyball team, technology, being in school, family, and friends.  The team built many memories in a short period and worked very hard. They only lost three sets for the season and wished they could play Southwest Christian again.  This season has taught us all to continue to be grateful for what we do get to do and rise every day and give thanks.”

As strange as the season was throughout for the Crusaders, the end topped it all. Due to being forced into quarantine, Grimsley was unable to coach the team in the fall week and change of the season. During that stretch, she not only missed the final moments with her team but also her senior libero Morgan Chmielewski recording her 1,000th career dig against Norwood Young America Nov. 19.

“The last 12 days of the season, I would not even be able to coach my team,” Grimsley said. “ I often wondered which was worse. The way last season ended with a five-set match losing 17-15 and missing out on state, or this season not being with this team at the end of the season to be there for support and watch Morgan reach 1,000 digs?”

Through it all, this was a season to remember for everyone involved in the Mayer Lutheran volleyball program. The memories were made despite not getting a chance to reach their ultimate goal.

“The relationships that we built are always there for our memories,” Grimsley said. “It would have been exciting to see what this team could have accomplished on and off the court.”

As the season comes to an end, so do the careers of three seniors (Chmielewski, Brooke Friske, and Sydney Lehrke). All three have left their marks, especially in this crazy season.

“Morgan has been a three-year starter for the Crusaders and has led in so many ways,” Grimsley said. “Getting 1,000 career digs, being a captain, playing soccer, and being nominated the Homecoming Queen are just a few things that she has been able to accomplish this year. She has been a great leader for us and a role model for so many young players.  Her determination and work ethic will be greatly missed. I will miss her dearly.  Brooke Friske and Sydney Lehrke were first-year varsity players as seniors, and stepped right in leading also in so many ways.”

KOVAR: There are two ways to look at this fall sports season

I’ve been doing this job for almost six years now. Never had I covered a season like this one.

When this global pandemic started back in March, there was a movement called #BeTheLightMN. Essentially, schools around the state left their lights on at football, baseball, and softball fields to honor the Class of 2020 who didn’t get a spring sports season.

As the 2020 fall sports season came to an end this past week, the lights were on once again for a final time.

Knowing last Friday would be the final day of games across the state for the foreseeable future, I didn’t know what to feel. It all happened so fast. I had the brackets filled out for football playoffs. I was getting excited about what the volleyball postseason would like, as well. None of that matters though anymore.

The fall sports season is over and I wasn’t ready for it to be. Luckily, I was able to double-dip on coverage for the final night of competitions. I started my night watching the Dassel-Cokato football pick up a win over a really good Glencoe-Silver Lake team. Following that one, I stopped at Watertown-Mayer to catch the final half of their football game against Fairmont.

Once the W-M football game was over, that’s all there was. The game was over. I went over to the W-M huddle and waited to talk with head coach Andrew Phillips. After interviewing Phillips for a bit and chatting for a bit about other things, it was time to leave. I wasn’t ready though.

As I got back to my truck, I didn’t leave. I sat there looking at an empty stadium with the lights still on. I decided I wasn’t going to leave until the lights went off. About a half-hour later, the lights that shone above the field slowly disappeared, officially putting an end to the 2020 fall sports season.

It was a weird feeling knowing this was it. There are no more sports for the foreseeable future.

As I sat in my truck looking at the lights, I thought about all the awesome moments and memories I’ve witnessed and covered throughout this crazy and unique season.

As I was looking back, I thought about the athletes. They were having their seasons taken away from them once again. It just didn’t seem fair.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a high school athlete right now. Some were about to play for a section title which was the highest point they could get to this season. Some already had their seasons to come to an end because of a loss. Some were just playing another game to get once more chance to play the game they love.

If there’s anything I hope these athletes take away from this season it’s this. I hope you all don’t think of this season as the one that got taken away from you. I hope you think of this season as the one where you did everything you possibly could to play the game you love.

There was no state tournament. Some teams didn’t get to play a full schedule. Some teams didn’t get to play for that section title like they thought they would. Those are all reasons to be upset. Instead of focusing on those things, I hope athletes are focusing on things like this.

I hope the W-M football team remembers that feeling they had when they broke their 29-game losing streak this year. I hope Mayer Lutheran’s Morgan Chmielewski and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted’s Jenna Pelnis remember how it felt when they reached the 1,000 career digs milestone. I hope the W-M and Mayer Lutheran volleyball teams remember their incredible seasons as two of the top teams in the state. I hope Collin Boese remembers his 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown against rival Maple Lake. I hope Dylan Mandt remembers his touchdown for the Royals as time expired. I hope all athletes and coaches realize how lucky they are to get to play this season.

There’s been a lot of talk about what this season has looked like. I think Chad Courrier of the Mankato Free Press said it best in a column of his own. This season was never about winning section or state titles. It was all about getting the chance to play the sport these kids love with their friends one last time.

So to all those athletes out there who are hurting right as the season was cut short, I hope you look at things like this. Don’t think of this as the season that was taken away early. Think of this season as the one where you got the chance to play and make more lifelong memories with your friends playing the game you love. It wasn’t ideal, but it was something.

Take it from a former high school athlete. It’s been nine years since I’ve last played a high school sport and I still get chills and excitement walking into a gym or onto a field to cover a game. High school sports are special. You’ll remember those moments forever.

In a season where it seemed like nothing was normal, there were still plenty of memories and moments to remember. Keep those moments and memories in your heart and be proud of what you all did this season.

I want to thank every athlete, coach, and athletic director across the state for their hard work and dedication this season. Nothing was easy, and nothing was possible without you.

Thank you for everything you did to allow this guy to cover the athletes and sports he loves to do. Your hard work and sacrifices did not go unnoticed.

Follow Sports Editor Kip Kovar on Twitter.

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports

SECTION 2AAA FOOTBALL: Chargers continue postseason dominance with win over G-SL

GLENCOE – The postseson is what the Dassel-Cokato football team lives for. That was on full display once again as the Chargers finished off their season with a convincing 35-7 win over Glencoe-Silver Lake Friday night.

“I’m super proud of our guys,” Chargers coach Ryan Weinandt said. “We had three really tough losses in the regular season. We take a lot of pride in the playoffs. These seniors over the last three years are 9-2 in the postseason. I don’t think there’s a team in D-C that’s had a run of nine playoff wins in three years. They play well when it counts.”

“When playoffs come around, everybody just kind of realizes that we need to elevate our game that much more,” senior Collin Asplin said. “We’ve always been a playoff team. We want to win during the regular season, but we’re preparing for the playoffs.”

The history of postseason success didn’t show for the Chargers in the early going in their matchup against the Panthers. After going three-and-out on their first drive of the game, a bad snap on the punt set up G-SL with a red-zone opportunity immediately. It took G-SL just one play as Mitchell Jaskowiak scored from 11 yards, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead early.

“It couldn’t have gone much worse right away,” Chargers coach Ryan Weinandt said. “They are a very good team. They got banged up earlier, but they had a bunch of their guys back tonight. We knew they were going to be very solid.”

Things got even worse for the Chargers as they fumbled it away on their second drive. After giving up a touchdown on their first defensive play, it was the time for D-C to turn things around with their defense.

“The first couple of minutes, it was a little rough,” senior Teddy Berquist said. “We just screwed our heads on straight. We knew we needed to be more disciplined. We can’t let that happen. We just played as a team and kept them to minimal yards. That was the game-changer for us.”

D-C’s defense came up with a stop, forcing G-SL to attempt a long field goal. Thanks to a high snap, the Chargers blocked the field goal attempt, setting their offense up in good field position.

From that point on, it was all D-C. After converting a 4th and 3, Eli Gillman scored on a six-yard touchdown run, bringing D-C within one.

After D-C’s defense forced another stop, Weinandt put a lot of faith in his offense on their next scoring drive. The Chargers converted three fourth-down attempts on the drive that was capped off by a five-yard touchdown run by Asplin to give them their first lead of the game.

“We converted a bunch of fourth downs,” Weinandt said. “Those are critical. If we don’t get those, this is a totally different game. Those conversions are huge. They can change the whole game.”

With two offenses built on running the ball, Weinandt knew each possession was going to be big. The way his defense was playing, that gave him the confidence to keep going for it on fourth down throughout the game.

“They wanted to do exactly what we wanted to do,” Weinandt said. “We want to slow it down and take a bunch of time off the clock. I just thought we had to. We weren’t getting big gainers right away, so I thought we just had to be OK with getting two or three yards each run. I didn’t want to give it back to them that’s for sure.”

Since giving up the opening score to G-SL, D-C’s defense was locked in the rest of the way. That only gave the offense more confidence as they posted 35 unanswered points to finish off the season with a win.

“Once we got ahead of them a bit, they got out of their game,” Weinandt said. “Our defense just played phenomenally. At halftime, I talked with Schuette and asked if we could keep going for some fourth downs. He thought confidently the defense could get the ball back if we didn’t get them. That made it a lot easier for me to keep going for it on fourth down.”

The win for the Chargers caps off another impressive season, especially for their seniors. With all the uncertainty and changes they’ve had to deal with, they’ve left a legacy at D-C for years to come.

“It feels good,” Berquist said. “We put in the work through the summer and everything. We didn’t know what we were going to get out of this season, but we just prepared to be the last man standing. Here we are.”

“Coming into the year, we didn’t even know if we would have a real season,” Asplin added.”Now at the end, we were ready to play Litchfield and then switched to play these guys. Basically, we had one day to prepare for these guys. Ending the season on a win is an amazing feeling.”

Selfless play and the hunger to win has been the motto for the Chargers all season long. With so many different players playing different positions this season, all that mattered was winning.

“If you ask anybody about this team, nobody is going to care about their stats,” Asplin said. “We want to win. We don’t care where we’re playing. We want the best for the team. Whoever is called up, they’re ready to step up.”

Follow Sports Editor Kip Kovar on Twitter.

@Kovar_HJSports

PREP VOLLEYBALL: Chmielewski notches 1,000th career dig as Crusaders sweep Raiders

MAYER – The senior year for Morgan Chmielewski has been one to remember for a number of reasons. Early on, it looked as if the libero on the Mayer Lutheran volleyball team wouldn’t get a senior season. Once the Minnesota State High School League reversed course and brought volleyball back, Chmielewski and her team had its sights set on some hardware with a conference and section title. Now the standout player for the Crusaders won’t get a chance at that either of those as the regular season will come to an end for Mayer Lutheran this week no matter how they do.

Of all the uncertainty and things taken away from Chmielewski this season, there’s one thing that can’t be taken away. Chmielewski recorded her 1,000th career dig Thursday night in Mayer Lutheran’s 3-0 (25-13, 25-14, 25-21) sweep of Norwood Young America.

“It feels really good,” Chmielewski said about reaching the milestone. “The whole time we were so full of energy. Without coach Grimsley, it was really hard, but we played at our level and it was really fun.”

Mayer Lutheran coach Joelle Grimsley wasn’t present at the game, but she was watching closely from home as her senior libero closed in on the milestone.

Chmielewski needed 14 digs coming into the match to reach the milestone. Although she was aware she was close to reaching it, she knew it was important to focus on playing her game.

“Everyone was kind of talking about it,” Chmielewski said. “I knew I just had to play like my regular self. We just needed to play our game and we did a very good job on defense overall. Our blocking was really good and they made it easy for me to get to my position.”

Early on, digs were hard to come by for Chmielewski as the Crusaders had their offense firing on all cylinders. Mayer Lutheran jumped out a 20-9 lead in set one and a 20-12 lead in set two to put the Raiders on their heels from the start.

After taking a commanding 2-0 lead thanks to their high-powered offense, Chmielewski recorded her 1,000th career dig midway through the third set.

“I was really hoping she’d get it tonight knowing that we might not get a game tomorrow,” Emma Lade said. “I was really glad she got it tonight.”

The Crusaders took care of business in set three, picking up their 10th sweep of the season. All 10 wins for Mayer Lutheran this season have come in three-straight sets.

“If we keep our energy high, we’ll do what we did tonight,” Lade said. We’ll just keep winning.”

While wins have piled up for the Crusaders this season, it hasn’t always been easy. The uncertainty that has surrounded this season has made things tough, but they’ve rallied together to make the most of it.

“It’s been really hard,” Chmielewski said. “With the supportive teammates and coaches we have, along with all our parents, it’s kind of kept us in check. It’ll be interesting to see what rules are like coming up, but it’s fun to just get some more games in.”

“It’s been crazy,” Lade added. “At first when we didn’t get a season, we all just kept working out. We were working hard before school started all summer. Then once we got the season, we were beyond excited. We were happy that we could play, and now it’s happening again. We’re sad and a little depressed, but at least we got some part of the season.”

Mayer Lutheran will close out its season by hosting the New Prague Trojans Friday afternoon. The Trojans, a Class AAA school, will give the Crusaders one of their toughest challenges of the season.

“This last game for us, especially playing a bigger school, it will be interesting to see how we play,” Chmielewski said. “If we play at our level, we’ll be good contenders with them.”

Follow Herald Journal Sports Editor Kip Kovar on Twitter.

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports 

SECTION 4AA FOOTBALL: Irish hang on against rival HLWW in Section 4AA quarterfinals

MAPLE LAKE – Seniors play a big role for any football team. The 17 seniors on the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted football team mean even more.

Without them, there would have been no thrilling win last year to snap their losing streak. Without them, there would be no season this year. Without them, they wouldn’t have found themselves with a chance to tie the game in the first round of the Section 4AA playoffs against rival Maple Lake.

While HLWW’s season came to an end with a 14-6 loss to rival Maple Lake Tuesday night, the impact those seniors have made on the Lakers’ program the past few seasons is undeniable.

“It’s unbelievable,” Anderson said about his seniors. “You remember covering us and we were looking at a potential co-op. All those guys came out and came together and helped us field a varsity team on our own. They took their licks being all young kids. They were all sophomores playing back then. They’ve been getting better and better. Even though the results aren’t there, they all kept coming out. Clearly, they got better and better every year. They definitely left a trail. They’ve left a trail that hopefully, we can continue to go down and build on.”

The Lakers were looking to win a postseason game for the second season in a row, and they got off to a great start thanks to sophomore Collin Boese. Just when it looked like the Irish were going to go in for a score in the opening quarter, Boese recovered a fumble and returned it 99 yards for the Lakers to give them a 6-0 lead early.

“That was a huge play,” Anderson said. “We’ve been talking a lot about that this year. We’ve been good defensively inside the red zone. We have that bend but don’t break mentality. We talk about how guys fumble the football on the goal line. You see it all the time at all levels of football. It was great to see our guys not giving up and it led to a big play for us.”

With 40 seconds left in the first quarter, Maple Lake took the lead as quarterback Brayden Belanger scored on a sneak from the one-yard line. With the extra point, Maple Lake held a 7-6 lead.

HLWW and Maple Lake traded field position and punts for much of the second quarter as the Irish took a 7-6 lead into the locker room.

Both defenses continued to dominate in the second half. After the Irish took a 14-6 lead on another sneak by Belanger, HLWW’s defense delivered four crucial stops the rest of the way as the Irish turned it over on downs, keeping it a one-score game.

“Our defense is good,” Anderson said. “The number of points we’re giving up doesn’t reflect how well our defense is playing. Our defense has been making plays all year. When we give the defense a short field, it’s tough to stop teams when they get four downs and aren’t worried about punting or kicking a field goal. They’ve realized that one of our strengths is our defense. When we leaned on them, we stayed in ballgames.”

Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game, HLWW had a drive going with just over minutes left to play. The Lakers ultimately turned it over on downs, giving the ball back to Maple Lake with just two timeouts remaining.

Needing another stop, the Lakers leaned on their defense once again. They delivered, forcing a three and out, giving the ball back to their offense with just over two minutes left to play.

“They’ve been awesome,” Anderson said about his defense. “They are really disciplined. It’s the best thing. We’ve got kids that pay attention to their job and embrace their roles. They didn’t force as many turnovers tonight, but the ones they did were big ones.”

With just over two minutes to go, the Lakers needed to go 77 yards after having less than 50 yards of offense all game long. That didn’t matter.

“They’ve shown me and it’s no surprise,” Anderson said. “These kids have a lot of heart. They play hard. They play hard for each other.”

With senior Bennett Paulson in at quarterback despite dealing with an injury, HLWW got a drive going. A swing pass to Boese got the Lakers moving forward. Follow that up with a nice gain by Noah Bush and the Lakers were cruising. Another swing pass to Boese, and just like that, HLWW was at the Maple Lake 14-yard line with just over a minute to play.

HLWW took multiple shots to the end zone, but the Maple Lake defense held firm as they held on for the 14-6 win, ending the season for the Lakers.

“It was what we thought it was going to be,” Anderson said. “It was two teams grinding it out for potentially their last game of the year. It’s playoff football and rivalry football. It’s a game of inches isn’t it?”

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the Friday, Nov. 20 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information. 

Follow Kip Kovar on Twiter. @Kovar_HJSports

PREP VOLLEYBALL: Chargers outlast Lakers in five sets once again

COKATO – Learning to finish things off and win has been the goal for the Dassel-Cokato volleyball team all season. They showed their making progress towards that again as they battled back in an exciting 3-2 (16-25, 25-26, 16-25, 25-17, 15-12) win over Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Nov. 13.

“This was overall a really nice match for us,” Chargers coach Linda Resop said. “Our team has been working hard in the gym to put together a strong, versatile offense, and we realize it starts with a great pass to give our setters and hitters a chance to run options and connect.”

For HLWW, it was another time they let a lead slip away. Despite having a 1-0 and 2-1 lead over Dassel-Cokato, the Lakers were unable to get that elusive first win of the season.

“Our athletes put up a great fight against D-C,” HLWW coach Carol Meyerson said. “I have to hand it to DC, they do a great job of persevering. I am very pleased with how we played. We were down two starters and had to make some unexpected adjustments.”

The Lakers, who were without one of their top hitters in Marit Gueningsman, came outs swinging early. Back-to-back aces from Abby Niesen gave HLWW an early 7-2 lead. From then on it was all Lakers as they took a 1-0 lead with a 25-16 victory.

In a familiar spot down 1-0, D-C did what they always do – fight back.

A kill from Evelyn O’Brien early on gave the Chargers their first led of the night. O’Brien would add another kill, giving D-C an 8-4 lead and forcing a HLWW timeout.

“We just feed off each other the whole time,” O’Brien said. “Just bring each other up and be super positive.”

D-C would tie things up at one with a 25-16 win in set two, but it was HLWW who came out firing in set three thanks to the emergence of younger players.

Big kills down the stretch from Lexi Koch and Emma Kaillo put HLWW back on top with a 25-16 victory.

“I was impressed with Kayla and Emma,” Meyerson said. “They really stepped it up into their first starting roles on varsity without much prep. Lexi and Gabby also had great nights. They  are excellent leaders and always bring energy and excitement to the game.”

A big reason for the big nights offensively for those hitters was the defense by HLWW libero Jenna Pelnis. She had a match-high 47 digs.

“Jenna also led in the back row with amazing defense,” Meyerson said. “She kept us in a lot of those long rallies.”

With D-C down to their final set, they responded in a big way. The Chargers opened the fourth set on a 6-0 run and never looked back as their offense was clicking. Zoe Verhey, who finished the match with 11 kills, had two clutch kills down the stretch to force a fifth set.

“All our hitters were able to capitalize on this tonight and I think the team was able to see how dynamic and effective they can be when they work together,” Resop said. “Our team is really resilient and not willing to give up on themselves or each other.”

With the match going to a fifth set for the second time in a week, D-C wasn’t satisfied with just forcing a fifth set. HLWW had an early 6-4 lead, but a kill from O’Brien in the back row tied the set at seven.

With the set still tied at 11, it was O’Brien and the Chargers who took control down the stretch in a 15-2 win in comeback fashion.

“We try to play one play at a time, one game at a time, and they do that with a lot of heart,” Resop said. “Now, we have to figure out how to start fast, so we don’t always have to play from behind.”

“It was back and forth the entire time,” O’Brien added. “I think we did a really good job of pulling it together and coming through. It’s kind of been a rough season so far, but we haven’t stopped. We keep going.”

For HLWW it was their second five-set loss in the same week. While they were so close to picking up that first win, Meyerson knows how important it is to stay focused going forward.

“It can be disappointing to lose two five-set matches in the same week, but these girls are excited for the last couple weeks of the season,” Meyerson said. “I think we’ll continue to see some competitive matches.

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the Friday, Nov. 20 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information. 

Follow Kip Kovar on Twiter. @Kovar_HJSports