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Timberwolves 2020-21 Season Outlook

The NBA finished it’s season not so long ago using the bubble format. The Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the helm worked their way through the playoffs quite effortlessly and won the championship.

In an effort to get the 2021-2022 NBA season back on track to start at the regular time, the NBA is electing to begin the season early this year, considering how recently the Finals just concluded. This December 22nd start should allow the league to catch up this year, as the finish to the regular season is currently slated for May 16th.

Each team will play a 72 game schedule and the Play-In Tournament will be continued for this season, where the 7-10 seeds in each conference play to determine the final two playoff seeds.

With individual player workouts starting this week and preseason games starting on December 11th, let’s take a quick look at how the Wolves roster is shaping up and what we can reasonably expect this year.

Guard/Wings: Ricky Rubio, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Jarret Culver, Josh Okogie, Jake Layman

The Wolves made a couple big moves this offseason to help bring some stability to the roster. First, Minnesota used their 1st overall pick to draft Anthony Edwards, an athletic scorer whose potential is through the roof. Adding Edwards to the mix should help provide another dynamic scorer to the lineup.

Perhaps more importantly for the short term, the Wolves brought back franchise icon Ricky Rubio. I still remember being at the first preseason game after he was drafted and fans kept chanting for Ricky, despite the fact that he was still in Spain.

On draft night when the trade was made, my wife and I had the following conversation.

Me: Hey, guess what the Wolves just did?

Her: Screwed up the draft?

Me: Fair point but no. We traded for Ricky Rubio!

Her: Didn’t we trade him because he sucked?

Her point had some validity as Ricky’s inability to score the ball really made it difficult sometimes to appreciate his elite playmaking ability and defense. While giving him away and replacing him with Jeff Teague was a mistake from the beginning, letting him go wasn’t in theory terrible.

Getting him back is both exciting and actually worthwhile. Ricky has been a respectable shooter in his past few years in Utah and Phoenix, raising his field goal percentage to above 40% and his 3-point percentage to around 34%. Combine that with elite playmaking and leadership and Ricky is a great addition to this young squad.

Bigs: Karl-Anthony Towns, Ed Davis, Juancho Hernangomez, Naz Reid

I actually like what the Wolves did by adding a dynamic defensive weapon in Ed Davis. He leaves a lot to be desired offensively, but Minnesota needs defense to pair with Towns’ offense.

When gauging fan interest and excitement, there seems to be a lot of hype believing that Minnesota can be a legitimate playoff team. While the team should no doubt improve from their 14th place finish in the Western Conference last season, it is hard to know how far they can go.

For perspective, teams that are undoubtedly better than Minnesota include: Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets (as long as they have James Harden), Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and the return of the Golden State Warriors. Those are my top seven.

Teams that are in the same tier as the Wolves potential, but are likely still better than the Wolves include: Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns. Those are my top nine.

Teams that are in the same tier as the Wolves who I think they can reasonably be better than: Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans. That slates Minnesota hopefully at the 10th spot in the West.

Minnesota is a young team that has a little time to reach their potential. Besides Davis and Rubio, everyone on the roster is under the age of 26, meaning this year probably isn’t their year to make a big splash anyway. However, the Wolves should be in competition for the 10th seed and the Play-In Tournament.

If the Wolves aren’t close to that 10th seed, this year will be considered a failure in my book. However, if Minnesota can stay competitive, show improvement over the course of the year and perhaps even slip into the playoffs, I do like their future outlook. A closing lineup of Ricky Rubio (or Malik Beasley), D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns does get me rather excited.

Realistically, some of these Western Conference teams are beginning to age out and the Wolves could become quite relevant over the course of the next few seasons. It begins with a 36-36 season and a shot at the playoffs.

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

Cowboys Crush Vikings Playoff Hopes

I’ll admit, I was starting to buy in. I was a little skeptical, but I was starting to talk myself into it. The road was certainly an uphill battle. With seven teams making the playoffs, the Vikings had a ways to go to crack the top seven, but there was a path.

That path essentially involved winning their next three winnable games, continuing this winning streak against the 2-7 Dallas Cowboys, the 3-7 Carolina Panthers and the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars. Getting to 7-5 before the final four games was going to allow for some margin of error down the stretch.

However, the Vikings stumbled in the first step to that plan, in a 31-28 loss to the Cowboys this past Sunday afternoon. Now at 4-6, Minnesota’s playoff chances have plummeted to around 10%, according to playoffstatus.com.

Weirdly enough, Minnesota didn’t play that poorly. For the first time since quarterback Dak Prescott was injured, the Cowboys actually showed up and played a solid game.

In the four games since Prescott’s injury before the Vikings game, the Cowboys had scored two offensive touchdowns. However, the Dallas offense was able to string some drives together, as quarterback Andy Dalton finished with 203 passing yards and three touchdowns while star running back Ezekiel Elliott finally had a solid outing with 103 yards on the ground

Kirk Cousins actually played outstanding. Cousins finished 22/30 for 314 yards to go with three touchdowns. Also, despite promising less work for Dalvin Cook to try to save his body, he finished with 27 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown along with 5 catches for 45 yards.

What went wrong during the game was turnovers. In the first quarter, the Cowboys scored a touchdown on a short field after a Cousins fumble. Right before the half, a Cook fumble gave the Cowboys a chance to chip in a 19 yard field goal, giving Dallas 10 points off turnovers.

Another dagger was the fake punt that was called back via penalty. Clearly this was something the Vikings had talked about during the week, where if the Cowboys showed a certain punt coverage look, it could be exploited with a fake punt pass to the gunner. However, our gunner got excited, stood up and was still shifting when the ball was snapped. More potential points off the board.

Other than that, I’m afraid there isn’t that much more to say. I think analyzing this team is pretty simple. First, Cousins is a solid quarterback. He played a great game Sunday and he is by all accounts a great dude. However, he is exactly what he always has been over the course of his career. You’re never going to win less than 6 games with him as long as you have a decent team around him but you’re also looking at a peak of a divisional playoff round exit. That’s just the inevitable truth.

The rest of the offense is fine, but also could use some work. First, Justin Jefferson is obviously a bonafide stud. While Stefon Diggs is tearing it up in Buffalo, replacing him with a rookie who has All-Pro potential has worked out phenomenally.

Dalvin Cook’s usage is incredibly concerning. While he might be the best running back in the league, they definitely need to learn how to protect him as an asset. Cook can’t continue getting 30+ touches per game.

Lastly, the defense is a work in progress. Aside from Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris and Eric Kendricks, this defense is young and inexperienced. As the season has progressed, many different players have stepped up and actually started to play well. Mike Zimmer has slowly started to work his magic making this defense somewhat presentable given the circumstances.

So where does that leave us for the rest of the season? The Vikings basically need to win out to get to 10-6 to really have any shot at the playoffs. While matchups with the Panthers, Jaguars, Bears and Lions are certainly winnable, games with the Buccaneers and the Saints are likely to be the Vikings final nail in the coffin.

Minnesota needs to keep developing this youthful defense, manage Cook’s usage so he doesn’t get hurt and start considering how they can improve for the 2021 season. Now that the Vikings are likely out of the playoff race, fans can just relax and watch the team develop without the stress of thinking this season can actually amount to anything.

 

PREP VOLLEYBALL: W-M dispatches Litchfield in a sweep, wins Wright County West outright

WATERTOWN — Watertown-Mayer coach Andrea Raser wasn’t very happy with the laundry list of mistakes her team gave to Litchfield in their first meeting earlier this week. A 3-0 clear-out of the Dragons in the home gym Nov. 19 was a much better indicator of the now 11-0 Royals, who will finish out the shortened regular season against Mound-Westonka Nov. 20.

“You give a team 47 points and you still win, imagine what happens when you really play ball,” Raser said after the game.

Both teams were energized Thursday night, a fraction of it likely due to the new COVID-19 restrictions set Wednesday that will end the volleyball season after this Friday night. W-M knocked off Litchfield 3-1 Nov. 16 in a tighter match than the set scores showed. They responded with a sweep (25-22, 25-17, 25-19) of the rematch in dominating fashion.

The race to 10 points in each set was close, and then the Royals front line and outside hitters started to warm up. Paige Thibault had three separate cannon shots for kills on the left side that kept up the pressure all night and Mallory Czinano had a versatile game at middle blocker. In the middle of set two, it looked like Litchfield was going on a big run to take the lead. A 5-0 burst from the Royals during a couple incredibly long and effort-filled volleys crumpled the comeback. W-M rolled in set three 25-19 to finish it off with another solid offensive performance.

“It wasn’t just the players on the court,” Raser said. “It was everyone on the bench, as a team.”

With a clear-cut Wright County West conference win in the bag, Friday’s match against Mound-Westonka, which Raser said will hopefully be in the newly reduxed main gym, is the final step toward a perfect season.

“The best thing we can do without playoffs now is go for an undefeated season,” she said. “How many teams get to say that at the end?”

Paige Thibault led the way with 15 kills and a hit percentage of .364, while Mallory Czinano and Ashley Olson each added six kills. Libby Burns and Kate Thibault combined for 30 digs and made some spectacular diving saves throughout. Natalie Ernhart orchestrated the offense with 31 assists. Once again, every dressed player got in the game, and every senior was able to start on their Senior Night.

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