Archive for Kip Kovar

PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL: Decker nets 1,000th career point as Lakers cruise past Paynesville

HOWARD LAKE – The gym at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School was so silent you could hear a pin drop. That was until junior guard CJ Decker knocked down a free throw to complete a three-point play, scoring her 1,000th career point.

Decker’s free throw helped her reach the impressive milestone, and the HLWW girls basketball team went on to cruise to a 62-26 victory over the visiting Paynesville Bulldogs Friday night. While it was just one free throw, it’s surely one that Decker will remember for a long time.

“It was stressful,” Decker said about getting the last few points. “The shots, just some of them weren’t falling. Last game, I tried to get it and it didn’t come. I’m just glad that all my family is here and my friends. My teammates were there supporting me. It was awesome.”

While the moment was special in itself, the fact that Decker got to do it on her home floor with family and friends looking on, only adds to the moment for her.

“It was nice that we had three home games in a row,” Decker said. “It was nice to be able to get it done here with all my people.”

While Decker knew she was close to reaching the milestone, she didn’t know how close. That was until she accidentally read a text message on her mother’s phone.

“At the beginning, I didn’t want to know,” Decker said. “I didn’t know until I had 30 to go. I accidentally read one of mom’s texts and I saw it. I didn’t want to know until then, but I figured I was close.”

Decker not wanting to know her points total comes to no surprise to her coach. He’s seen her be a team-first player throughout her career, and getting herself to her career milestone was no different.

“The girls really wanted it for her,” HLWW coach Rick Baumann said. “The word got out, and I tried to keep it a secret, but you know how that goes. It’s a great honor for a great player. Even tonight you could see that she didn’t force anything. She played with the flow of the game. She knew she was getting there, but she’s such a team-first player. That’s hard to come by. I appreciate her even more for how she plays, and puts our team first all the time.”

Decker needed 19 points coming into the game against Paynesville to reach 1,000 for her career. After scoring 10 in the first half and the Lakers comfortably in front, Baumann began to draw up sets for Decker to get it done.

Although Decker had multiple chances to reach the milestone with a 3-pointer, it was only fitting the way it happened.

Decker came up with a steal on one end, dribbled all the way down the court to make the lay up with a foul to bring her within one point. Knowing she was close, Decker calmly stepped up to the line, and found nothing but the bottom of the net with her free throw.

“That’s just it,” Baumann said. “You could tell she was short with her shot because she didn’t want to force it. She didn’t want to take away from what we do as a team consistently. It was a great way to get it, too. She’s made a lot of baskets for us that way over the years, and that’s a great way to finish it for her.”

While the moment will be on she remembers forever, its a sigh of relief as well for Decker. She felt the pressure of the milestone approaching, but can now go back to playing her game, which has the Lakers playing well as of late.

“It is,” Decker said about getting it done being a relief. “There was a little bit of pressure. Scoring that two after (I got it) was nice. It was just normal.”

For the complete story and more HJ sports coverage, check out the Friday, Feb. 1 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.

PREP BOYS BASKETBALL: Noennig, Crusaders grind out big conference win

MAYER – It was as bad of a start for the Mayer Lutheran boys basketball team could have had. A slow start and sluggish play didn’t stop them though from taking care of business.

The Crusaders put the sluggish start behind them, and picked up an important 46-44 victory over SW Christian Tuesday night in a MN River Conference matchup.

The Crusaders came out sluggish from the start, and in fact, even before the game. SW Christian was issued a technical foul during warmups, and before the game even started, Mayer Lutheran missed two free throws. Things didn’t get any better, as the Crusaders allowed two wide-open 3-pointers for the Stars, giving them an early lead. Just 66 seconds into the game, Mayer Lutheran coach Pat Buchanan sat his starting five to send a message.

“The message was, we need to focus,” Buchanan said. “We didn’t have our focus. I told them what defense we were in, and I don’t know what they were doing out there. I had to take them out. That’s just understanding that you have to be focused. We’ve been struggling with jump starts in games. That was one where we didn’t get the first jump because the first five weren’t ready. Being prepared for a game starts two hours before, or a night before the game. We’ve just got to get better at that.”

While the starting five for Mayer Lutheran were learning a lesson, Eli Johnson gave the Crusaders a much-needed spark off the bench. He knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to get Mayer Lutheran going when they needed it most. Johnson, along with the other four who came in for the starters, continued to give the Crusaders depth, which is something Buchanan hopes continues.

“That’s what we’ve been working on,” Buchanan said. “We’re trying to get better strength in our numbers. The bench guys came prepared and were ready to go. That’s what we’ve been working all year for. We’re trying to put it all together right now.”

The lesson for the starting five worked, as their next rotation paid dividends. Senior Baden Noennig returned and scored five quick points to tie the game at 11.

“We started off slow,” Noennig said. “It took us a little bit to get into it, but we got into the flow of things and started hitting shots. We just fell into that groove. We found that intensity we needed.”

With the slow start behind them, the Crusaders got back to their style. Mayer Lutheran held the Stars scoreless for more than six minutes, and used a 16-3 run to take a 27-14 lead with just over three minutes left in the first half. In that run, Jacob Pallas and Noennig connected on a lob pass for another big dunk by Noennig against the Stars to get the crowd into it.

“When we get out and run and get some easy transition buckets,” Buchanan said. “That’s big for us. “When we get out and go, good things happen. It looks good out there. If we can get stops, we can get out and run with anybody.”

For the complete story and more HJ sports coverage, check out the Friday, Jan. 25 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.

WELCOME HOME, NO. 25: W-M’s Czinano returns home as Hawkeyes top Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — When Monika Czinano was just a little girl, there were plenty of influences on her by her family.

Living in Minnesota, Czinano was a big Gophers fan, and would often have her birthday parties at Williams Arena. Her grandfather, an Iowa Hawkeyes fan who passed away when she was young, did all he could to nudge her the other way.

Flash forward to Monday night, and the story comes full circle. In front of her family, friends, former teammates, and friends at Watertown-Mayer High School, Czinano returned home with a little bit of that influence on each side. She was back at Williams Arena once again, but this time, in an Iowa Hawkeyes jersey.

“Monika’s grandpa, a huge Hawkeye fan, passed away when she was 8,” Monika’s mother, Theresa Czinano said. “So. to see her play for them is a bit mind-boggling. And then to see her play in The Barn in front of so many Watertown fans was pretty surreal. It almost felt like a home game, and I guess, in a way, it was.  There were tears for sure, but happy tears.”

Monika Czinano battles for rebounding position in Iowa’s matchup with the Minnesota Gophers Monday night. It was Czinano’s first trip back home with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Monika Czinano battles for rebounding position in Iowa’s matchup with the Minnesota Gophers Monday night. It was Czinano’s first trip back home with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Czinano, a freshman on the Iowa women’s basketball team, was making her first trip back home. While it was a bit of a weird feeling at first coming home, it’s a moment and memory she’ll remember forever.

“This is where I came when I was a kid,” Czinano said. “I was telling my teammates that this is weird coming back to Minnesota and being on the opposing end having birthday parties here when I was a kid. Getting a win against the Gophers on top of it is huge.”

Czinano’s biggest fans

Czinano played just four minutes in Iowa’s 81-63 victory over the Gophers. Although most people knew Czinano’s playing time would be limited, that didn’t stop them from coming out in full force.

More than 65 people made the trip to Williams Arena to support Czinano in her first game back in her collegiate career. Whether it was family, her former teammates at W-M, youth basketball players who look up to her, or kids from the W-M Unified Sports in which Czinano was so active during her time W-M, the loudest cheers of the night came for No. 25.

“This is insane,” Czinano said about the support. “I didn’t expect anything like this. My mom told me that people were coming, but I had no idea that it was to this level. This is amazing. It’s great to come back, and to be able to play in a conference where I do get to come back home every once in a while.”

While Czinano was busy taking care of business during the game, her friends and family who made the trip were soaking it all in. Coming from a small town, the town of Watertown has rallied around Czinano, claiming her as one of their own.

Monika Birthday

A birthday party at Williams Arena was the perfect place for Czinano. Of course, tha had to include a picture with Goldy.

“I was leaving a boys’ game about a month ago and was teasing a friend who begrudgingly watched one of Monika’s games on TV,” Theresa Czinano said. “He admitted he actually enjoyed watching it, and I told him that I kind of have a horse in the race, but I would understand if he didn’t want to watch.  He leaned down and said, ‘Ya know, to be honest, I kind of feel like I have a horse in the race, too.’ I may never forget that.  I hope our community feels a little of that. So many people helped her get where she is. I hope she’s made them proud.  She asked me if I thought anyone would come to a game when she’s a senior and I said, ‘maybe, especially if Lindsey Whalen was still coaching.’  But if not, we’ll still be there, her family, and we’ll probably still make signs. The excitement of watching her play will never wear off.”

Learning from the best

When Czinano decided to attend Iowa to continue her basketball career, she knew there was a highly-touted player by the name of Megan Gustafson already there. Both Czinano and Gustafson play a similar position, and instead of choosing to play somewhere else, Czinano saw an opportunity.

While Czinano was used to playing 30 to 34 minutes a game in high school, she’s lucky to see the floor for 10 minutes or so in her freshman season. While that can be tough to deal with after being a Miss Minnesota Basketball finalist, Czinano has accepted her role this season for the Hawkeyes.

“I know what my role is this year,” Czinano said. “I’m just a huge sponge. This year, I’m just soaking up everything. In different years, I’ll have different roles. My role right now is to be a big morale booster and to be really good in practice. When I get in the game, just know what is happening, so in future years, I can have a bigger role.”

One would think that Czinano has had a love for the game since an early age, but that’s not the case. She wanted to quit basketball entirely when she was in fourth grade, and endured even more later on her in life with injuries to get where she is now.

Monika Baby

Even when Monika Czinano was little, it’s always been about Iowa and Minnesota. Her grandfather was a huge Iowa Hawkeyes fan, while Czinano would often have her birthday parties at Williams Arena for Gopher basketball game. When Czinano returned home Monday night as part of the Iowa Women’s basketball team, the two collided once again as Czinano returned home to play against the Gophers for the first time in her collegiate career.


“Monika was my child who wanted to quit basketball after fourth grade because it was too hard, too much running, and too much sweating,” Theresa said. “So, to see how far she’s come, and how much she’s overcome to get here, it is pretty amazing.”

While Czinano might not see the floor this season as much as she wishes, she knows the opportunity that is in front of her. She has a whole season to learn from one of the best players in the Big 10 – if not the country.

When it comes to records at Iowa for the women’s basketball program, Gustafson is the only name that comes to mind. An All-American, the Big 10 Player of The Year last season, and the player who holds nearly every single record for Iowa is what Czinano has the chance to learn from. Gustafson was the only player in the country last season to average more than 25 points per game, and shoot better than 67 percent from the field. Gustafson will go down as one of the best players of all time at Iowa, and Czinano is soaking up and learning as much as she can along the way from her.

“The amount I’ve learned here, even in the first week, is insane,” Czinano said. “She’s amazing. I’ll go shoot with her on her off days. There’s knowledge that you think you know, and she’ll tell me just to tweak this little thing. Then you’re like, wow. How have I never thought of that? She’s just an amazing player and an amazing teammate, and she makes us all better.”

Getting to go up against Gustafson every day in practice only bodes well for Czinano. While it’s been an adjustment, she’s hoping this year prepares her for the years to come, when it’s her turn to dominate in the paint for the Hawkeyes.

“It was definitely a big adjustment,” Czinano said. “Coming from a school where I’m the only one like that, going against her every day was a huge adjustment in the beginning. It’s made me a better player overall. I can never trade that for anything.”

WALK IT OFF: Mathison’s pin completes rally for HLWW against Kimball

HOWARD LAKE –  The Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling team isn’t the most experienced team by any means. With several young athletes being relied on at the varsity level this season, their youth is bound to show.

It did just that in the early going of a big matchup with the Kimball Cubs Thursday night on their home mat. Although the Lakers youth and inexperience showed up at times, it’s their resilience and fight that helped them rally back for a thrilling 39-37 victory over the Cubs.

“I just said to them that we didn’t wrestle perfect,” HLWW coach Joe Puncochar said. “The message was that we weren’t perfect, but we were successful. It was a lot of fun, but we got to be better next time. They’re going to come for us now.”

With a lot on the line when it comes to section seeding, the Lakers gambled a bit with their lineup. The Lakers moved some of their wrestlers around, hoping to gain an edge, but in the end, it ultimately backfired.

“We made a move at the lower weights,” Puncochar said. “We thought for sure we could pick up two wins. We lost them both. The gamble kind of failed on us.”

Steven Heber and Wiley Wiegert got the Lakers off to a good start with pins in the first two matches, but that’s when the gamble started to fall apart for the Lakers. Kimball won the next three matches to grab a 13-12 lead.

Trailing for the first time all night, Hunter Decker looked as if he was going to put the Lakers back on top. Decker led in his match nearly throughout, but one wrong move found himself on the wrong side of a pin, and Kimball extended their lead to 19-12.

“We had two matches that we were in,” Puncochar said. “Hunter Decker was winning that match for most of the match. He kind of gets caught there at the end, and gets stuck. It’s a huge momentum swing. Just to have everybody else do their job and not dwell on what happened. The match at that point was not in our favor. We didn’t have any momentum. We slowly gained it back and found a way.”

With their backs against the wall after losing four-straight matches, it was freshman Isaac Busse who stepped up for the Lakers. Busse led his match 2-0 after one period, and finished his match with a 4-1 decision to give the Lakers a much-needed spark.

“We had to come all the way back and get some big wins out of some not so experienced wrestlers,” Puncochar said. “Isaac Busse is a freshman, but he’s only been wrestling since sixth grade. He’s still learning. He’s brand new. He’s really a junior varsity kid out there doing the best he can.”

After Busse gave the Lakers some life, Collin Boese got the crowd going even more. A third-period pin for Boese put the Lakers back up 21-19, and the crowd was right back in it.

“We love the crowd,” junior Quinn Mathison said. “Without the crowd, we’d be nothing. They are the most important thing to this team to get us riled up. It’s just fantastic.”

Just when it looked like HLWW had their swag back, Kimball answered right back with pins at 160 and 170, taking a 10-point lead with just four matches to go.

Joseph Schanus delivered with a first-period pin at 182 to keep the Laker’s hopes alive, but once again, Kimball had the answer with a pin at 195 to push their lead back to 10 with just two matches to go.

A pin at 220 gave the Lakers some life, and it all came down to Mathison, who’s in his first season of wrestling with HLWW.

“He’s a first-year kid who started out the year probably 0-5,” Puncochar said. “In a lot of matches, he was actually winning. He would get the first take down, and then would not be really sure what to do. The kid is a workaholic, though. He works every day. He’s here after practice almost every day. He just soaks everything up like a sponge.”

While in his first year, Mathison is new to a lot of things at the varsity level. Despite all that, the junior found himself in a position that he never thought he’d be in this early in his career.

“Not at all,” Mathison said about thinking he’d be in a moment like this. “I was pretty nervous. It was fun, though. I was very happy with the outcome.”

That hard work and dedication put in by Mathison this season would pay off immensely. The junior delivered with a first-period pin, completing the comeback and handing the Lakers a thrilling comeback victory over the Cubs,

“I’m very happy,” Mathison said about the moment. “I couldn’t have done it without our team, though. They brought us to that point. I was just the closing statement, I guess. Without them, we wouldn’t have won.”

It’s a big win for the Lakers who feature multiple wrestlers who haven’t competed in big matches like this one. With the win, they’ll use it for motivation going forward, and be even hungrier to get better.

“There’s a lot of people over in that group there that have never experienced anything like that,” Puncochar said. “Now, they know what it tastes like. They know what that feels like. Now, they have something to relate to. Before, it was me just telling them they’re good. They’ve got to figure it out on their own, though. They’ve got to still believe in themselves, and I think this one right here is going to put a lot on confidence in our room for us.”

“We love to grind,” Mathison said. “We grind every day. I’m just so happy right now. This was just great.”

ON A ROLL: Royals pick up another section win with victory over HLWW

WATERTOWN – Both the Watertown-Mayer and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted boys basketball teams came into their matchup riding high Tuesday night. While both were looking to pick up another win against a section opponent, it was the Royals who used a late push to come out on top in an exciting 51-42 victory over the Lakers on their home floor.

“Good teams find ways to win even when they’re not playing well,” W-M coach Kent Janikula said. “Not everything went our way tonight. It was kind of a slugfest, and not the prettiest basketball game to watch. It’s a sign of a good team if you can win in different ways.”

“This was a high-intensity basketball game between two rivals,” HLWW coach James Carr said. “It was a lot of fun. It was a great high school basketball game.”

The Royals struggled early, finding themselves down by five at the half after HLWW’s Carson Woolhouse drilled a 3-pointer shortly before the buzzer. Despite being down at the half, the Royals came out ready to roll in the second half, making another late push in the second half.

Keeping HLWW’s Brock Bangasser in check was a big focus for the Royals in the second half.

“Bangasser is a really good player,” Janikula said. “He’s a unique player. He’s a 6-foot-7 back to the basket type player, and he does such a good job working before the ball comes.”

After Bangasser helped lead the Lakers to a lead in the first half, Will McBee stepped up his game, along with his teammates, on the defensive end.

“He stepped it up,” Janikula said about McBee. “We challenged the guys at halftime to step up. They were more physical than us the first half. We just played a really physical team, so we were used to going at it.”

While the defense stepped up their game, the offense came along with it. A 3-pointer from Ethan Tang gave the Royals their first lead of the game at 32-30 with just over 11 minutes left to play.

“I think we’re learning about that,” Janikula said. “Early in the year, we got so caught up in that all of our energy was created off whether a shot went in or not. We’re starting to realize that we’re a really good defensive team. We can create energy from our defense. We can’t control if the ball is going in the hoop, but we can control how hard we are playing on defense.”

After fighting their way back into the game, the Royals made their move late in the second half. With the game tied at 39 with eight minutes to play, it was all Royals down the stretch. A 10-0 run gave W-M their biggest lead of the night, and it was the defense doing it once again.

“I told them in the locker room that our defensive mindset right now is fantastic,” Janikula said. “If we continue to hold teams, and we held them to 42 points, we’re going to win a lot of basketball games.”

During the big run for the Royals, it was Sam Ragner leading the way once again. With a two-possession lead and just under two minutes to go, Ragner knocked down another big jumper out of an out-of-bounds play for the Royals, ultimately sealing the win.

“He’s a gamer,” Janikula said. “No moment is too big for him. One of the things I enjoy about him, is that when we were up six there, and he took that shot with two minutes to go. He’s confident. He’s going to knock it down. He’s that type of kid.”

While the Royals made it four-straight wins and back-to-back wins against Section 5AA opponents, the Lakers had their four-game winning streak snapped. The Lakers came into the matchup playing well, but are still searching for a complete game as a team.

“That full 36 minutes is what we’re going to keep striving for,” Carr said. “That first half, we played fantastic. In the second half, we just had some looks that didn’t go. The effort was there all game. Take your hats off to the guys for how hard they played. Now, the next step for us as a team, is putting that whole game together. We want that statement game where we play from buzzer to buzzer the way I know we can play.”

With their four-game winning streak snapped, the Lakers will look to put this loss behind them. With a tough conference schedule ahead of them, Carr and the Lakers know how important it is to move on.

“We know we’ve got conference games coming up,” Carr said. “They’re a lot of fun. We have Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa on Thursday, so there’s another game where it’s going to be tough and physical on the road. We’ll take it on the chin, move forward, and try to get that win the next game.”

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Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports 

PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL: Slow start dooms Bulldogs against Tigers

LESTER PRAIRIE – A cold shooting night combined with a slow start was too much to overcome for the Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity girls basketball team Monday night. The Bulldogs did not make a field goal from the field in the first eight minutes of the game, as the Tigers came out swinging in a 68-34 victory over the Bulldogs.

Belle Plaine opened the game on a 15-2 run as they came out ready to roll. After a dominant first half, the Tigers put the game away early in the second half. The Tigers, who led by 24 at the half, blew the game open even more as they started the second half on a 17-1 run to ruin the Bulldogs’ chances of a comeback.

For the complete story and more HJ sports coverage, check out the Friday, Jan. 11 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.