Archive for Kip Kovar

STATE OF MIND: W-M/MW’s Kelley cliches second-straight Class A all-around title

ST. PAUL – There was a time in Watertown-Mayer/Mound Westonka’s Reagan Kelley’s life when gymnastics was a question mark. After years of competing in club gymnastics took a toll on her body and mind, there was a sense of doubt hovering over her gymnastics career.

“There was a time where she was going to walk away from gymnastics,” W-M/MW coach Steve Hangartner said. “She didn’t want to do it anymore. Now she just loves gymnastics again. That’s a big reward to us when you see that. She still wants to do it. We knew she had a lot of talent but she was going to walk away. To see where she is now is awesome.”

Kelly’s love for the sport was on full display as she capped off her high school career winning her second-straight Class A state title in all-around Saturday night, posting a score of 38.500.

“Coming in today, I felt like there was a lot more competition than there was last year,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of girls’ all-around (scores) go up and up this year. I was a little bit nervous, but I have a lot of confidence in myself. I know what I needed to do to pull it off and I did and it feels really good.”

Coming off a stellar performance in the team competing the night before, Kelley picked up right where she left off. A score of 9.85 on vault for her opening rotation set the tone for what was to come the rest of the night.

“It gave me such a confidence boost to start off strong with a stick,” Kelley said. “Today I actually stuck it. It gave me a big confidence boost for the rest of the meet. It was a great way to start off.”

There was just one focus for Kelley throughout the night – herself. With multiple gymnasts on her heels, Kelley took care of business and it paid off with her second-straight state title.

“Today, I came in just thinking about myself,” she said. “I was just trying not to look at other people. I just needed to pull it together on my own and I think I did a good job at that.”

“I noticed today how positive she was,” Hangartner added. “She was focused. I came up to her and told her that she missed this and this and she just told me that it’s alright. I just had to make sure I stayed positive to keep on pumping her up. She was in the zone all night. She was ready to go and we just left her alone.”

Kelley carried a ton of pressure on herself this season, labeled as one of the top gymnasts in the state. Looking to help lead her team back to the state meet again, she did just that as she helped an almost entirely new roster keep their impressive winning streak intact this season.

“We noticed that she took on a lot of pressure this year,” Hangartner said. “She took on a lot more this year. With how good she is, even if she doesn’t hit, her score is still going to count. If she misses, that’s five-tenths off our team score and she knows that. She really had support from the whole team all year. She was crying just because she didn’t want the season to end.”

Kelley’s presence for the Royals will be missed beyond her talent. She had a way of connecting with her teammates all season long, a bond that helped herself and the team make it another memorable season capped off in the best way possible.

“She was just a joy to have around,” Hangartner said. “She was hanging out with eighth graders like they were best friends. For those girls to get to hang out and practice with the best gymnast in the state, that’s awesome. That’s memories they’re going to have for the rest of their lives. You get to know these girls in a personal way and it’s really rewarding.”

KOVAR: What does the future of the Crow River Valley League look like?

There’s a saying that the only thing that’s constant is change. That sums up the Crow River Valley League pretty well the last couple of years and amateur baseball in general.

The CRVL has had a few big changes over the past couple of years and there looks to be even more coming on the horizon. The biggest change recently has been Young America moving to Class B last season. The Cardinals will once again be classified as a Class B team in 2023. Young America officially petitioned to move back to Class C at the November 11 meeting but no motion was brought forward.

The Cardinals were also at the February 11 meeting talking with the state board about options for the 2023 season. Young America requested to forgo section games and the Class B playoffs due to player retention and financials. The state board was not in favor of that move but told the Cardinals they would be allowed to not participate in the 2023 postseason if that’s the choice they wanted to make.

Young America is not the only CRVL team that might be presented with a change in the coming years. Waconia, Carver, and Watertown are all close to the criteria mark and have the potential to be Class B teams in the near future. Waconia and Carver are very close to the line while Watertown has a little bit of flexibility with their roster and the majority of their success came in the past two seasons.

The MBA set a total of 45 criteria points to determine if a team should be classified in Class C or Class B.

The Waconia Lakers are quickly approaching that mark with 42 points. Of their 42 points, 14 are success points and 15 are player points.

The Carver Black Sox are also close to the mark with 40 criteria points. The Black Sox have 10 success points while having 24 player points.

The Watertown Red Devils are the only other team that is near the criteria mark. The Red Devils have just eight player points but have acquired 20 success points, much of which have come in the past two seasons because of their deep tournament runs.

Currently, only one Class C team has been bumped to Class B for the 2023 season. The St. Patrick Irish finished the 2022 season with 50 criteria points. Of those 50 points, 26 were success points.

The points system in amateur baseball is a hot topic no matter who you talk to. All in all, I do think it’s a good system for classifying teams when it comes to player points and dealing with the sizes of towns and/or school districts. The part where I struggle to agree with is the success part of things.

In my opinion, Young America, Waconia, Carver, and Watertown are not Class B teams. While each of them had its fair share of success over the past five years and change, none of them has won a state title.

Success points are an interesting discussion. A team is awarded 12 points if they win a state title, 10 points if they make the finals, eight points if they make the semifinals, six points if they make the final eight, four points if they make the final 16, and two points just by making the state tournament. That means unless there are significant roster changes, both Waconia and Carver are on the verge of being a Class B team if they find any success in the state tournament in 2023. I don’t think that’s right.

When I look back at the 2022 season in the CRVL, it’s safe to say that Young America was definitely missed. Not only do they bring a competitive and talented team to the league, but they also have one of the biggest and most passionate fan bases as well. Their fans were dearly missed this year at the Region 7C Tournament where it was evident.

Young America made a couple of nice state tournament runs in the past few years before moving to Class B. As good and as exciting as those runs were, they never even made a state championship appearance.

I understand that the MBA state board is trying to even the playing field and keep Class C as close to what they want it to be. I just don’t understand how a team who hasn’t even won a state title can be moved up a class. Being successful at the state tournament doesn’t turn a Class C team into a Class B team. The goal of every team at the beginning of the season is to win the championship. It’s not just to make the tournament. It’s not just to make the second weekend. For most teams, not coming with a trophy is a disappointment.

I want to see the best teams playing in the biggest games come the state tournament. I don’t mind if we see a team make the semifinals three years in a row or win a couple of state titles in a row. I don’t think teams should be punished for being good. Teams have stretches where they have a bunch of players in their prime and that’s a good thing. It’s fun to see them be successful and watch them try to accomplish their goal.

Class C has not had a repeat champion since the MBA moved to a three-class system in 1986. It’s not like one or two teams have been dominating the competition throughout. In the past 10 tournaments, only two teams have won multiple state titles – Plato and Sobieski. That means we’ve had eight different state champion teams in the past 10 tournaments. That doesn’t seem like a problem to me.

As much as I love the CRVL and how great of a league it is, I worry about what the future might look like. The league already lost one of its best teams in Young America to Class B. With three more teams on the edge of suffering the same fate, it’s a scary time for the CRVL. If the league were to lose Waconia, Carver, and Watertown as Class C teams, Region 7C would be in trouble. The addition of Westonka and the return of Norwood is huge now this year, but if the league as a whole were to lose four perennial powerhouses in the span of a couple of years, it’s tough to say the CRVL would be able to hold onto its reputation as one of the best leagues in the state.

Currently, the CRVL gets four state tournament bids for the Class C state tournament based on great attendance over the years. You take away those four teams and attendance will drop significantly and might even result in having a state tournament bid taken away.

There’s no easy solution to it all. Rules are rules and I do believe the MBA is doing what they think is best for amateur baseball as a whole. I just worry about what might become of the CRVL in years to come. I’ve been covering the league for almost a decade now and have been following it even longer. I love this league and the players and fans that come with it. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years coming up for the CRVL and I’m not sure what to expect. All I can say is that I hope the league remains strong and remains together. It’s one of the best leagues in the state from top to bottom and has a passionate fan base for all teams that can’t be matched.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

AMATEUR BASEBALL: 2023 Amateur State Baseball Tournament poised to be an exciting one

When the state tournament for amateur baseball comes around this summer, it’s going to be a special one. The Minnesota Baseball Association will be celebrating its 100th state tournament this year and four of the top ballparks in the entire state are already eager and excited to bring fans to enjoy games.

This year’s tournament will have games played at Delano Municipal Baseball Stadium, Saints Field in Dassel, and Optimist Park in Litchfield. Lions Field in Waconia will also host some of the Class B/A games over the first weekend as well.

Delano and Dassel-Cokato are no strangers to hosting the state tournament. Delano hosted the 2019 state tournament along with Maple Lake and D-C as the third site. Litchfield and D-C combined to host the 2016 state tournament.

All three organizations have already proven they know what it takes to pull off running a state tournament. They’ll have their biggest test yet though as they are ready for the challenge of hosting the 100th tournament in MBA history.

“With it being the 100th anniversary, it’s a big deal for everyone,” D-C’s Jordan Flick said. “We’ve hosted a few other times and I think we’re pretty well prepared for doing this one. We’re really excited about it. There’s a pretty big buzz going around. We’re super excited to host and we’re elated at the opportunity.”

The experience of hosting a big tournament is there for Delano and Dassel-Cokato, but for Litchfield, they are looking to make a name for themselves when it comes to hosting the big show.

“It means the world to us as a group,” Litchfield’s John Anderson said. “Being a location that hasn’t hosted a ton of tournaments in the past, it’s nice to be a part of it. 2016 really gave us a solid boost being the third site and showed us what it really takes to elevate ourselves to be in the conversion to host this one. There are so many awesome fields and parks across the state. To be able to partner with juggernauts like Dassel and Delano, it’s awesome. They have so much experience. The excitement is really high.”

Litchfield as an organization has put a ton of time and effort into their park. The Blues were part of the 2016 state tournament along with D-C and Hutchinson and also hosted the Region 12C Tournament this past summer. Fans can expect a new look to Optimist Park when they come to the state tournament as they’ve been hard at work improving the park over the past few seasons.

“The amount of upgrades has been pretty crazy,” Anderson said. “What we’ve been able to do the past five or six years is incredible. The big project was our covered grandstand. The first thing fans will notice is that pretty new grandstand. It’s a sight to see compared to what we used to have.”

Other new updates at Optimist Park include new netting around the field, a new sound system, changing the backstop from fence to stone, extended dugouts, extra room outside of the field, and improved bullpens. Optimist Park will also feature new seats under the grandstand that will be installed in June.

“The amount of work all three sites have put in is really impressive,” Anderson said. “We’ve really utilized the experience and knowledge from everybody. We’re excited for the teams that will be there and the fans as well as our community. We just want to make our experience better at the park. We recognize there are a lot of great parks and we always say why can’t that be us? That’s our motivation. A lot of these communities have really great fan bases that can enjoy it. That’s what we want and that’s what kind of pushes us.”

Lithcifeld will get a chance to show off Optimist Park to the state ahead of the state tournament as Fox 9 will be on-site for their annual Town Ball Tour Wednesday, June 28.

“We’ll really be able to showcase what we’ve done in the past two or three years,” Anderson said about Fox 9 coming to town. “That’s going to be that lead-up for us. Getting the local community involved and their support is important to us. These kinds of tournaments don’t run themselves and we need as many volunteers and support as possible. It’s perfect timing for us and it’s going to mix in well with the build-up we have going.”

The focus over the years for Litchfield has been on hosting this tournament, something they haven’t taken for granted or lightly.

“We’ve been listening to what people have had to say,” Anderson said. “Luckily we’ve been put in a place where we can respond and do many of those things. We wanted to put that all together to make it a better experience for the fans and players. We are just loaded up with projects and it’s all in preparation for this tournament. I told our board that every decision we make is with the state tournament in mind. Every decision we’ve made has been leading to this state tournament.”

While Litchfield is looking to emerge as one of the premier sites in amateur baseball, Delano and Dassel-Cokato have been at the top of the best ballparks for many years for most people.

“We take a lot of pride in our parks,” Flick said. “There’s been lists out there ranking all the parks. All I can say is we’re fortunate we have people who are really dedicated to upkeep on the park and making sure the playing conditions are tight. We have a very loyal fan base and volunteers that help with big events. We can’t thank them enough for the work that they do. It sounds cliche, but it really does take a village to put on a tournament like this. Our volunteers are great.”

For Saints Field in Dassel, many of their big projects and improvements came ahead of them hosting the state tournament in 2016. One of the top parks in the state, D-C hasn’t rested on its laurels as they continue to find ways to improve the player and fan experience.

“We had a lot of major upgrades to the park since we hosted in 2016,” Flick said. “We’re working on some more seating now. On the field itself, we’ve replaced some of the chain link fences in foul territory with really cool wooden boards that kind of give it a Field of Dreams-type feel. We also made a full turf warning track and it’s a little bit more reliable and less upkeep there that boards the outside of the field.”

Delano has also continued to work on improvements at their field as well. Last year a new deck was added outside of the left field and right field fences giving fans an entirely new and unique way to take in a game.

“We’re trying to leave no stone unturned,” Ryan Hayes said about preparing for the state tournament. “We’re always looking to up the ante. Some of the stuff is a little bit easier but we’re always trying to add more events and attractions between games. You’re always looking for volunteers and now we’re headed back to some of the same companies for advertising just a couple of years later. I would say preparing will be a lot of the same we’ve done but with a little extra on the marketing aspect of it.”

A big part of the focus for Delano and the other hosts for this tournament is getting new fans into the parks.

“We’re really trying to get those people who don’t know much about the game out,” Hayes said. “That’s kind of the key. We know who’s going to come out already and it’s all about how we can get other demographics out to the park and show them that this is a fun atmosphere that you need to be a part of.”

This upcoming tournament will be a special one for Hayes. Although he’s helped out in ways with some of the previous tournaments, being able to host the 100th anniversary means a lot to him because of how much townball has been a part of his life.

“For somebody who’s grown up with it, it means a lot to me,” he said. “Growing up, most people want to be a major league baseball player. I wanted to play town team baseball. I grew up in Maple Plain and my grandparents would take me to games every Sunday after church. It was always town ball. It was always so cool as a kid. In 1997 I was chasing foul balls at that tournament and now I’ve helped out with the last two we’ve hosted. This is super special to me. It’s really cool being in my 30s and seeing how far it has come.”

One aspect that Delano, D-C, and Litchfield all take pride in is having the North Star League be the center of this year’s state tournament. All three have been working tirelessly over the past few years and are excited to share what they have in store including the late addition of Lions Field in Waconia.

“It’s special for our teams and it’s special for our league,” Flick said. “We love our partners. They have great sites and were also really happy Waconia is there to help us out.

“We just jumped all in with them,” Hayes added. “Everyone was on board. They’ve been very easy to work with and we know what they’re capable of doing. Waconia kind of speaks for itself. That was a pretty easy choice to have them come on board as well.”

While all three sites have been working nonstop to pull off the tournament, the Minnesota Baseball Association as a whole has been too. The MBA has continued to find ways to make the tournament even better which is something that hasn’t been unnoticed by the hosts.

“That group is so open-minded about things,” Hayes said. “You can call them up anytime you want and they’re just very approachable. It’s been very helpful to be in contact with them when they have an open-door policy. They want to go down all those alleys too and at least see what the possibilities are. That’s always great to see.”

“It makes it really feel big time,” Flick added. “We love working with the MBA and the state board. They’re super flexible about working with us and helping us if we need anything. You can tell how dedicated they are to growing this as much as possible.”

The 2023 amateur baseball state tournament gets underway Friday, Aug. 18 at all four sites. For more information about the tournament or to volunteer, check out or contact any of the organizations.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

SECTION 4A WRESTLING: Lakers capture first section title in program history with dominant performance

HOWARD LAKE – When Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling coach Joe Puncochar took over the program eight years ago, his biggest challenge was trying to fill weight classes. Fast forward to 2023 and his biggest challenge was deciding which guys to put into the lineup.

The Lakers have been working on building a program over the years and it came to its pinnacle Friday night capturing their first section title in program history with three convincing wins at the Section 4A Team Wrestling Tournament.

“They’ve wanted to do this for a really long time,” Puncochar said. “We’ve fallen short the last couple of years. All those things you tell someone and they keep doing it that it will pay off, it’s so nice as a coach when that comes true. Sometimes it might not pay off and you might never get to that point, but it feels really good for these kids to get that opportunity to wrestle in the big show.”

It’s a huge step for the Lakers as a program as they’ve continued to get better and better over the years. What started as a dream for Puncochar when he took the job became a reality in front of their home crowd.

“My first year here, we had 12 kids in the room and we had like two wins,” he said. “We had a lot of zeros in our points column at the end of the night. I always dreamed about getting this program to wrestle for a section title. It’s not me who did the work but it feels really good to come full circle going from all the way from the bottom to the top.”

The Lakers dominated the competition in all three matches. After opening the Section 4A Tournament with a 71-6 win over Trinity, HLWW completed the job with lopsided wins over Le Sueur-Henderson and Kimball to secure their spot at the state tournament.

“It’s been just a great experience,” senior Colton Long said. “We kind of came in knowing we’ve been one of the top teams all year and just had to focus on what we do. We did that and we got the job done.”

Long, one of the four seniors on this year’s team has seen his fair share of ups and downs throughout his high school career. Friday night was the ultimate high for him as he recorded his 100th career win in the section title match helping his team make program history.

“It’s been great,” Long said. “Just to see that all the hard work that we’ve put in in the past paid off. Guys just stuck it out and trusted the process we’ve been instilling in our program. It just feels good to get that taste in your mouth knowing we accomplished something.”

It’s been a journey in the making for the Lakers as a program over the years. After battling to pick up any wins to be able to send multiple individuals to the state tournament, HLWW will now be sending the entire crew down to experience the state’s biggest stage in wrestling.

“We were so excited when a kid made it to state, but when we get everybody on the team down there and the whole community gets behind you, that’s what it’s all about,” Puncochar said.

“It’s going to be fun,” Long added. “We’ve got a great group of guys and it should be a fun experience having everybody down there.”

The Lakers will take some time to celebrate making program history. They also know the job isn’t finished as they expect to go to the state tournament and compete and show just how good they are.

“We’re going to celebrate this tonight but the message on Monday is we’re not just happy being there,” Puncochar said. “We’ve wrestled a tough schedule the last couple of years to be prepared for this opportunity. Our guys will be ready. It’s going to be a heck of a battle and we’re excited about it.”

For an in-depth look at the turnaround of the HLWW wrestling program, click here for a story about the Lakers.

MAKING HISTORY: HLWW’s Hintz makes program history by securing state meet appearance

WATERTOWN – There was a little bit of doubt lingering in the mind of Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted/Holy Trinity senior Riley Hintz heading into the Section 5A meet. There was none in coach Tammie Thiemann.

After getting off to a shaky start, Hintz dug deep the rest of the way and made school history for the Lakers as she qualified for the Class A state meet in all-around.

“It’s really exciting,” Hintz said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it for all-around but I did. I did way better than I thought.”

Hintz is the first gymnast in school history to qualify for the state meet after posting an all-around score of 35.025 which was good enough for third place overall.

“We’ve never been to state in gymnastics and have never had a single gymnast make it,” Thiemann said. “It’s amazing. It’s by the far the best thing ever as a coach. I’m excited for her. I knew she was going to do it. She’s just so driven that I had no doubt she would make it to state. It’s pretty cool to see.”

It was a tough start for Hintz as she opened things up on beam. She posted a score of 8.150 which was good enough for 10th place overall and put her behind in the race to qualify for state in all-around.

“I had a really bad beam and that was first,” Hintz said. “I was really nervous and discouraged at first.”

From her least favorite event to one of her favorites, the night for Hintz changed in a big way as she made her way to floor.

“Beam is what she feels is always her worst,” Thiemann said. “That’s where we started and I told her let’s get through it. Watching her rise up from that was icing on the cake. You couldn’t have asked for anything more as a coach. She just never gave up.”

Hintz delivered a bounce-back performance on floor posting a score of 9.075 to get things back on track. From that point on, it was smooth sailing for the senior as she delivered in big ways on vault and bars to secure a spot at the state meet for the first time.

“I’ve just always loved floor,” Hintz said. “I get really excited about that. I’ve always been a bit nervous about my first pass on floor but when I landed it, that gave me confidence and I was really excited for the rest of the meet.”

Hintz capped off her night by taking second on bars with a score of 8.600 and tied for second on vault with a score of 9.200 to make school history as the first gymnast to reach the state meet.

The night was also a big one for the Lakers as a team. HLWW/HT posted a new season-best score of 127.150 which was good enough for fourth place overall.

“It’s amazing,” Thiemann said. “I’ve always told them that they’ve had it. I knew today was going to be a big day for them. The team pulled through and that’s what it’s all about. They grew together all season and it was great watching them. It’s the best part of my job.”

“This is perfect,” Hintz said about the night. “Our team had a personal record tonight too. That’s very exciting. It was three points higher than our previous best. That’s really awesome to see.”

Hintz will represent the Lakers in all-around at the Class A State Meet Saturday, Feb. 25 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium. The competition for Class A begins at 6 p.m.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

SECTION 5A GYMNASTICS: Royals claim ninth-straight section title

WATERTOWN – All season long Watertown-Mayer/Mound Westonka gymnastics coach Steve Hangartner had to wait and see just how good his team truly was. The wait was worth it as the Royals put on a show at the Section 5A meet and claimed their ninth-straight section championship by posting their best team score of the season when it mattered most Thursday night.

“It’s the first time we’ve had our whole lineup all year,” Hangartner said. “There are still things we’re still trying to iron out and work on, but they did pretty well. I’m really pleased with them.”

“We’ve been dealing with some many injuries this year,” Reagan Kelley said. “This was our first meet having everyone. It feels nice because we’re getting our scores back up to where we kind of think they should be. I’m really proud of us.”

The Royals started their night out on beam which is not an easy task. After Hangartner saw his team go a perfect 5-for-5, he knew his team would be ready to go the rest of the meet.

“Starting out on beam is not easy,” he said. “You can’t be real aggressive at all. You have to be really focused. It’s not like vault or floor where you can run and go all out. With beam, you have to be in control and that’s tough. For them to start out with five sticks was pretty impressive.”

After getting off to a good start, Kelley, the defending state champion in all-around for Class A stole the show with two big-time performances on vault and bars. On vault posted a score of 9.75 while finishing off her meet with an impressive 9.75 on bars to close things out.

“I was so excited to compete on bars last,” Kelley said. “That’s my favorite event. Just nailing that routine felt awesome.”

“She’s competed in all-around every meet this season,” Hangartner added. “She keeps herself healthy. She’s really good at keeping herself healthy. Reagan’s pretty smart and she knows how to regular herself and knows if she needs to push herself or not. Some gymnasts will run through a wall for you but you have to be smart. I can trust her.”

Kelley’s big night earned her the Section 5A title for all-around posting a score of 38.625. Teammate Maggie McCabe also finished second in all-around for the Royals with a score of 36.225.

Other state qualifiers for W-M/MW include Evelyn Mielke on vault, Maddie Sanders on beam, and Payton Hecksel on beam. Of the three state qualifiers, Mielke and Sanders will be making their first state meet appearance for the Royals as well as the younger girls on the roster participating in the team competition.

“I’m so excited for everyone to come to state,” Kelley said. “Some of our girls that qualified haven’t before and I’m just excited about that. We all did really awesome today and I couldn’t be more proud of my team. (We) kind of started a little bit rocky this season. We kind of thought the dynamic of our team was going to change a lot this year but honestly, we’re doing really well. We’re trying to stay healthy and it’s been a really good season so far.”

The Royals will head into the Class A state meet looking to win their third state title in a row. They’ll have their hands full with teams such as Big Lake and Detroit Lakes but they know what they’re capable of now after getting their whole lineup

“I think some people are not even really looking at us,” Hangartner said. “There are teams that have been scoring way more than us all season. Now we’re right behind them. We can improve on a few things in a week.”

Kelley will also be back to defend her state title for all-around, an opportunity that brings excitement and nerves for the senior in her final state meet appearance.

“I’m really excited but also nervous,” Kelley said. “I won last year and I want to set that expectation for the same if not even bigger. I am a little nervous but I’m prepared and think it’s going to go very well.”

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports