Archive for HJ Sports

KOVAR: The most interesting week of my journalism career

Imagine stepping to the free-throw line with a chance to win the game late. Players typically have a routine they do each time they go to the line, giving them the best chance to calm themselves down and knock down those shots.

The same goes for sports writers. We get a good routine and habits sportswriters we’re able to put together a quality sports section every week. Well, sometimes your routine gets thrown off.

Just like everyone else, this past month or so has been anything but ordinary for me. No matter what your occupation may be, there’s no doubt that all of us have had to change the way we work in some way or another. Last week was a perfect example of that for me in many ways.

Since schools have been closed and there haven’t been any spring sports going on, I’ve been working more as a general news reporter than the sports editor lately. I’m still obviously putting a sports section together each week, but also, I’m working on additional news stories to help provide quality content for our subscribers.

The change was surreal at first, but I’ve gotten into a nice flow switching from covering games to working on general news stories. I’ve had plenty of experience of doing it in the past, and I told myself to use this as a challenge to work and improve on my writing.

Last week was different though. As some of you may have seen in Ivan’s (our editor) column last week, he was forced to be sidelined for a bit with a non-coronavirus medical issue. With Ivan out, I was asked to step up and lead the way for the Herald Journal in terms of coverage.

I found out I will be taking over those duties Thursday night, and come Friday morning, got to work. Nearly all of Friday was spent creating a storyboard for the next week’s paper to make sure we could put together another quality paper.

Once things were set up coverage wise, it was time to take on some more duties. I worked on proofing stories more than I usually am asked to. I was involved in several different meetings that usually don’t require the sports guy to be there. It was a weird time. I was out of my element for a bit.

Flash forward to Wednesday, the day we layout the paper for publication, and things were stressful once again. It was my first time laying out the entire paper for Herald Journal. I usually only touch my sports pages while Ivan among others takes care of the rest of the paper. In the end, we put it all together and send it off to press and get started on the next week’s paper. This was different.

Somehow we were able to put out a paper last week. It was tough. It was stressful, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This week showed me a lot about how important local journalism is to communities like ours. There have been so many changes around our office, and there really is no normalcy anymore. It seems like each week we’re operating under different schedules and guidelines and that’s OK. Through it all, I believe we’ve done a great job of putting out quality content for our subscribers to keep them informed and entertained with other stories.

As I gear up for at least another week of laying out the entire paper once again, there are a few people I need to thank. First off is Nan Dashwood, our do-it-all superstar was a guardian angel this week for me. Any questions, ideas, or concerns, Nan helped me get through it. The paper wouldn’t have the coverage it did or look as good as it did without her, so a big thanks to her.

I also have to thank Denise Ernst who is a member of our editorial staff. I never knew how much Denise does for the paper every week, and there’s extra special thank you to her for what she does. Between editing stories, laying out things for the paper, or answering any questions, she was a rockstar for me this past week.

The last words of thanks I want to share is to our subscribers and readers. Without you, there would be no paper. Just know we’re working hard and doing whatever we can to keep you informed with everything to keep you safe, as well as providing stories and information for you to get away from life for a while.

I stepped to the free-throw line this week with a chance to help our newspaper out. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a routine, but that’s why local newspapers are so important. We strive daily to do all we can for you to keep you informed. We are all taking on different roles or other duties to do what we can.

We’ve got a great team here at Herald Journal and I’m proud to be a part of it.

EMBRACE THE GRIND: Development of HLWW wrestling program has been years in the making

HOWARD LAKE – It all started five years ago. When Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling coach Joe Puncochar took the job, there was a feeling of excitement for him. He was eager to take over a program for the first time and being able to do things the way he thought was best for building a program.

“My first thought I guess really had nothing to do with the state the program was in,” Puncochar said. “It was more just the excitement about the chance to be a head coach. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. This opportunity came up. It was right in that sweet spot of where we needed to be in my personal life.”

That excitement was still there, but Puncochar knew he had his work cut out for him shortly after taking the job.

“When it actually got down to looking at the current state of the program it was in, I kind of chuckled a bit,” Puncochar said. “I thought I really got myself into a major project.”

It was no secret that the HLWW wrestling program was going through hard times. Overall numbers were low and success was hard to find. That didn’t stop Puncochar and his staff from getting to work right away with the support of the school behind him.

HLWW wrestling coach Joe Puncochar (pictured left) has been committed to turning the Lakers’ wrestling program around since taking over. After winning just three matches in his first two seasons, Puncochar and his staff have the Lakers on the rise after back-to-back impressive seasons.

HLWW wrestling coach Joe Puncochar (pictured left) has been committed to turning the Lakers’ wrestling program around since taking over. After winning just three matches in his first two seasons, Puncochar and his staff have the Lakers on the rise after back-to-back impressive seasons.

“The school really put a major investment into the wrestling program right before I got hired,” Puncochar said. “They had just added onto the middle school and they put a brand new wrestling room right across the hall from the phenomenal fitness center we have. I knew at that point they were not ready to let the program continue to suffer.”

A TOUGH BEGINING

Early on, things didn’t come easy for Puncochar and the Lakers. In his first season, HLWW finished the season with a 2-21 overall record. A season that ended with a less than impressive record wasn’t a complete loss. Despite winning just two matches all season, there were big steps taken in Puncochar’s first year as head coach.

“The biggest high I think that year was at the end of the year in the first round of the section tournament,” Puncochar said. “We were like the ninth seed or something. We were wrestling Spectrum at Arlington in front of Sibley East, who was really good at the time. We knew that the winner was going to get slacked by them. At that point, we were like 1-20 or something like that. They could have packed it in. They knew we weren’t really good and we didn’t even have a lot of kids. We ended up pulling that out against Spectrum.”

It was just the second win of the season for the Lakers in Puncochar’s first year, but it was something more at the same time. Not only did it bring HLWW together as a team, but it gave his group of kids a glimpse of what could be possible with their hard work.

“It came down to team wrestling,” Puncochar said. “One kid who didn’t get pinned and got a tech fall instead was the difference. At the time, it was a really big deal for those kids. All that work all year long went into something. It was a big deal for those kids. Those kids now are the seniors that just graduated. That really ended the year on a good note and really pushed us into the next couple of years. It just helped to keep those kids around.”

While finishing the season on a high note in his first year, the Lakers opened Puncochar’s second season as head coach in a way that proved to work in the long run. Opening the season at Watertown-Mayer, Puncochar and the Lakers forfeited 13 of the 14 matches as low numbers and experienced forced him to make a tough decision.

“Joe Traen was still coaching there at the time, and I told him before the match that we’re going to forfeit 13 varsity weights,” Puncochar said. “We forfeited 13 varsity weights that night against Watertown. We had like 10 kids who were eligible to wrestle that night, but only one or two were really varsity caliber, if that. I’ll never forget that. The look on his face was like why the heck are you on our schedule. It was kind of a comical thing. They went out there with 13 kids who got their hands raised and we wrestled one match that night.”

The Lakers finished that season with a 3-23 record.

After winning just five matches in the first two seasons with Puncochar leading the way, patience and hard work began to pay off for the Lakers.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

While Puncochar and the Lakers labored through his first two years with just five wins, he knew there was a reason for optimism. Even before he took the job as head coach, Puncohar knew there were better days ahead at HLWW.

“The one thing I did know since I had extensive knowledge of the youth program, it wasn’t going to be long till we could be competitive,” Puncochar said. “I knew right away it wasn’t going to be fun as far as wins and losses. I did know that since I coached the youth at Annandale/Maple Lake, I saw those young kids coming. I knew there was potential there, but they needed someone to come in and provide continuity and work from the bottom up.”

After having just seven returning wrestlers on his team his first year, Puncochar’s hard work combined with a stellar youth program began to change the course of the program for the Lakers. Those young wrestlers Puncochar had seen as a youth coach were now go-to wrestlers for him at the varsity level.

“Wrestling is kind of unique, especially in small schools,” Puncochar said. “Those young guys are counted on. Those guys are ready to go in seventh grade. Not just to go out there but to put up a fight, but they’re winning a lot of matches. Those guys are going to set school records. Those youth coaches really put in a ton of time and allow me to have something to work. Having athletes is great, but you still need to know how to wrestle. Those youth coaches deserve a ton of credit for that.”

The succes Puncochar has gotten from young wrestlers the past two seasons has been because of the effort of the youth coaches before him. Without them, all the work would have fallen on Puncochar and the Lakers’ program would still be in a tough place.

“I think it comes back to a lot of the people before me,” Puncochar said. “They’ve been doing it for so many years. People like the late Todd Matheson, Luke Long, Tyler Trendy, Brad Mallak, Dave Tuchtenhagen, and Josh Wiegert. Five of those six guys are dads of kids in our program right now. Those guys put in so much work down there. I’ve gotten along with them really well. We’ve shared ideas and collaborated and worked together. Those guys had those kids competing at a high level as youth.”

While those coaches had the kids ready to roll, Puncochar’s assistants have been crucial to the change of the program, as well.

“Ben Anderson and Tim Roemer have been with me the longest as far as my assistants,” Puncochar said. “Those guys don’t see the spotlight, but those two have done a lot for us. They put a lot of energy and effort into this program. Those guys deserve a lot of praise, as well.”

A TURNING POINT

During Puncochar’s third season as head coach, the hard work began to pay off. A goal for the Lakers going into the season was to reach the semifinals in Section 4A. After a big and thrilling win over Norwood Young America, that goal became a reality for the Lakers as their hard work was paying off.

“That was the first really big step for the kids buying into the message that we’ve given them,” Puncochar said. “We were 2-21 my first year, and 3-23 my second year. That third year, we were only like 8-17, but at the end of the year, we had guys in the right weight. I bet about half of those 17 losses were competitive. Those kids could taste that we were getting there. That was a really big boost. I think that was the start of a really big confidence boosting time for the kids that are currently in our program. They’ve been hearing that it’s going to pay off in a while, and finally it was starting to.”

Early on in his coaching career, Puncochar was focused on just getting bodies in the room as he tried to recruit new kids to add to the program.

“My role as a recruiter has been to really hammer the seventh and eighth grade boys who aren’t really doing anything,” Puncochar said. “Just trying to get bodies in the room. That’s been my focus since I’ve been here.”

As success over the course of his career has changed the program at HLWW, it’s also changed the way he’s recruited wrestlers.

“At the beginning five years ago, it was the idea that I could basically promise kids varsity spots if that was something they were interested in,” Puncochar said. “Now, that’s not the case. It’s been a fun transition from recruiting for need to recruiting more to benefiting those kids who might not play a second or third sport.”

While the new athletes Puncochar gets to join the team might not help immediately, it’s the bigger picture that is in the mind of the head coach.

“In the long run, those kids can help us as a program,” Puncochar said. “Right away they’re not going to help you. But if they wrestle junior high and junior varsity for a few years, and by the time they are a junior, they are a contributor. That’s a lot more successful than trying to recruit for a need. It’s so hard to get kids put the work in when there is no one pushing them. Before it was you get a spot because you joined wrestling. Now why do I have to work? Now we have 38 kids in the room and they have to work. It’s really intense and competitive. All it does is make the kids better.”

KEEP GRINDING

It’s no doubt the Lakers are headed in the right direction the past two seasons. After winning just three matches in Puncochar’s first two years, the Lakers have won 30 matches over the past seasons. While that’s a huge step in the right direction, Puncochar is not satisfied yet.

“It’s about not being satisfied,” Puncochar said. “I tell the kids all the time. We were 14-8 two years ago and 16-10 this year. That’s awesome and great, but if that’s where you want to be, you and I aren’t on the same page. I want to be in the state tournament every year. Right now we’re competing to get there and that’s great, but until we break through and get there on a regular basis, I’m going to continue to push them and that’s something they’re starting to figure out. We’re always going to find a way to get better.”

Success the past two seasons has built a fire inside the HLWW wrestling program. They’ve worked hard to change the program over the last few years, and if they want to get even better, they know there’s more hard work ahead of them.

“Just keep doing the right things,” Puncochar said about his vision for the program going forward. “We rely on a ton of multi-sport athletes. We strive to develop those habits that successful people have. If you don’t have those factors, you’re not ever going to get there. That’s the message right now. We want to help these guys be better young men. We have a lot of talent, and we just need to continue to shape that. We know we can push ourselves harder and that will only help us.”

MSHSL officially cancels spring sports season

Shortly after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that the schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year, the Minnesota State High School League announced news of their own. Following in line with Gov. Walz, the MSHSL announced that spring sports would officially be canceled effective immediately.

“In response to Executive Order 20-41 issued today by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota State High School League, under the direction of the League’s Board of Directors, has declared, effective immediately, all activities and athletics that occur during the spring season have been canceled for the 2019-2020 school year,” the MSHSL issued in a statement. “The decision of the League is aligned with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Minnesota Department of Health and is in support of practices that focus on community health and safety.”

The cancellation applies to all forms of student participation in any League activity, athletics, and fine arts. The section and state tournaments for each of the League’s spring activities are also canceled. This cancellation applies to Adapted Bowling, Adapted Softball, Badminton, Baseball, Clay Target, Golf, Lacrosse, Music, Robotics, Softball, Speech, Synchronized Swimming, Tennis, Track and Field and Visual Arts. League activities and athletics for the spring season have been suspended since March 15.

Stay connected with the Herald Journal for a full story.

Most Meaningful Athletes in Minnesota Bracket: Week 3

Week three of the Most Meaningful Athletes to play in Minnesota bracket is here. Let’s take a look at how the results from the polls shook out last week and preview this week’s upcoming matchups.

As a reminder, the goal is determine who the most meaningful athlete to play in Minnesota is based on many factors: seasons spent in Minnesota, Championships and playoff appearances while in Minnesota, All-Star appearances and other awards won while in Minnesota, franchise stats and memorable moments that stand out as well as overall popularity.

Here are the official results of the first round matchups from the Twins Region. There were no upsets in this round of voting, as Kirby Puckett crushed Ricky Rubio with 83% of the vote, Johan Santana edged Sylvia Fowles with 62%, Alan Page beat Joe Nathan with 62%, and Randall McDaniel dominated Kevin Love with 80% of the vote.

The only really interesting matchup here was Santana and Fowles. This was a tricky one, as both athletes racked up major awards like Cy Young and MVP’s in their time here. I think Sylvia could have won a decent number of first round matchups, but Johan was a very popular player for the Twins, making him a tough out.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Vikings Region and the first round matchups.

Matchup Number One: 1) Fran Tarkenton vs 9) Sam Cassell

Fran Tarkenton: When you talk about Vikings quarterbacks with anybody who was around in the 1970’s, they will be quick to tell you about the impact that Fran Tarkenton had. In 13 seasons, the Hall-of-Famer led the Vikings to five playoff appearances and three Super Bowl losses. Fran was also elected as the 1975 NFL MVP and scrambled his way to five Pro-Bowls and one 1st Team All-Pro.

Sam Cassell: Cassell had a season to remember with the Timberwolves. A 34 year old Cassell came in for the 2003-04 season to team up with Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell and the Wolves finished with a franchise record 58 wins, were the 1st seed in the West and lost in the Conference Finals to the LA Lakers. “The Alien” averaged a career high 19.8 points, 7.3 assists, made the All-Star team for the only time in his career and gave us all the memory of the “Big Balls” dance, where he injured himself in the conference semifinals celebrating.

Matchup Number Two: 4) Cris Carter vs 5) Neal Broten

Cris Carter: The 2nd most important Vikings receiver in franchise history, Carter had a major impact in his time in Minnesota. In 12 seasons, Carter made eight Pro-Bowls, was a 1st Team All-Pro twice and helped lead a dynamic Vikings offense to eight playoff appearances. Carter remains the franchise leader in yards, receptions and touchdowns with 12,383, 1004 and 110 respectively.

Neal Broten: The star of the Minnesota North Stars enjoyed 13 quality seasons in his time in Minnesota. Broten was Minnesotan through and through, being born and raised here, playing college hockey for the Minnesota Gophers and spending the bulk of his career with the North Stars. In addition to a 1980 Olympic Gold Medal, Broten made two All-Star teams and was a critical piece to 10 playoff appearances.

Matchup Number Three: 3) Randy Moss vs 6) Rebekkah Brunson

Randy Moss: Easily one of the most popular athletes to play in Minnesota, Moss had a storied eight season run with the Vikings. Moss jumped on the scene winning the Rookie of the Year and would go on to be a three time 1st Team All-Pro, a five time Pro-Bowler and would help the Vikings make the playoffs in four seasons. Behind Carter, Moss is 2nd in franchise history in yards, receptions and touchdowns with 9,316, 587 and 92 respectively. There were plenty of memorable moments over the years like his 3 catches for 3 touchdowns and 163 yards on Thanksgiving against the Cowboys, his fake mooning of the Green Bay fans, or his weird return in 2010…

Rebekkah Brunson: A mainstay on the Minnesota Lynx dynasty run, Brunson was a key cog to four WNBA championships. Brunson tallied nine seasons with the Lynx and was a staple on the defense. She was a four time All-Defense team member and made four All-Star appearances in her time with Minnesota.

Matchup Number Four: 2) Harmon Killebrew vs 7) Ryan Suter

Harmon Killebrew: Perhaps the most iconic Minnesota Twin in franchise history, Killebrew comes in as a sturdy 2 seed. Hammerin’ Harmon played 21 seasons for the Minnesota franchise, actually tallying seven seasons before the Twins even existed. Although the franchise only made the playoffs in three seasons, Harmon mustered up 11 All-Star appearances and the 1969 AL MVP award. If you check out the Twins franchise records, you’ll find Killebrew’s name all over the book, including topping the team in career games played, Offensive WAR, Slugging Percentage, RBI’s, Total Bases, Bases on Balls, Extra Base Hits and even fended off Joe Mauer for most Double Plays Grounded Into. I’m serious, Killebrew had 238 and Mauer had 208. Imagine if Mauer had played 21 seasons…. That’d be a MLB record by a landslide.

Ryan Suter: The hype was real when the Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to substantial contracts in 2013. In the eight seasons since then, Suter has made three All-Star teams and helped the Wild make five straight playoff appearances. Suter is first in franchise history in defensive point shares and fourth in career points.

W-M’s Meyer commits to Northern State

WATERTOWN – Baseball has always held a special place in the heart of Watertown-Mayer’s Jackson Meyer. From a young age, it’s been a huge piece of his life. Last month, Meyer announced his commitment to Northern State University, allowing him to continue playing the game he loves.

“I truly love everything about the game of baseball,” Meyer said. “I enjoy practicing, being with friends, and socializing before, during, and after the games. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in an area where there are good baseball and some nice ballparks. I’m excited about the opportunity to continue playing a sport I love at a competitive level for the next four years.”

For Meyer, Northern State felt like home on his visit to campus. Although he considered other schools, the chance to play Division II baseball was too good to pass up.

“I was considering University of Northwestern, Bethel University, and the University of Sioux Falls,” Meyer said. “They are all great faith-based schools, but Northern State University just felt right for me. I like the smaller campus, the athletic facilities, and the chance to play Division II ball.”

While taking an official visit to Northern State, that’s when Meyer felt like this could be the right place for him.

“The recruiting process was fun,” Meyer said. “After meeting with other college coaches, Northern State reached out to me for an official visit. During my visit, I met with head coach Dean Berry and assistant coach Sam Boisner. I toured the athletic facilities and campus, and then met up with coaches the following morning. I felt very comfortable at Northern State after meeting with the coaches and hanging out with a few current ballplayers.”

While Meyer is excited to see what he can do at the college level, he’s hoping he gets to put on a Royals uniform one last time. Meyer, like other seniors around the state, waits patiently to see if they will get a spring sports season this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After having a couple of tough seasons as a team, we are excited to see how far we can go,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of seniors on the team that have played a lot of varsity ball, and our expectations are high. My personal goals are just play hard every game and do what I can to help my team win.”

Meyer has been a staple for the Watertown-Mayer baseball program over the years. His coaches, as well as his father, are big reasons why he is where he is today.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have had several great coaches from an early age, continuing into high school,” Meyer said. “Tim Wabbe, Ryan Trucke, Kory Bender, and Justin Stohs are just a few coaches that have taught me how to respect the game. My dad is, without a doubt, the person who has helped me and pushed me the most in baseball. He has given me the drive, skills, knowledge, and skills needed to play.”

TEE IT UP: Golf courses cleared for opening amid COVID-19 pandemic

As the weather has turned, Minnesotans have been itching to get outside. While there hasn’t been an abundance of options for activities, that changed in a big way as Gov. Tim Walz announced at his press conference Friday afternoon that golf courses have been given the OK to open while implementing extra safety precautions.

“It’s important for us to stay active and enjoy the outdoors while preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Gov. Walz stated in his executive order. “This measure will allow Minnesotans to take advantage of more opportunities to get outside while doing their part to keep their neighbors healthy.”

While courses around the state have been given the green light to open, they’ll do with so with extra precautions. All tee times will be made and paid for online or over the phone to limit interactions. Other precautions that will be taken are no benches, rakes, or ball washers to keep golfers safe. Courses are also coming up with new ideas to limit the interaction players will have with the pin.

The following is a look at new rules and regulations for area courses suggested by Gov. Walz.

BEFORE ARRIVING AT THE COURSE:
• If you are sick or are feeling sick do not come to the golf course.
UPON ARRIVAL AT THE GOLF COURSE:
• Please arrive no more than 20 minutes before your tee time.
• The CDC requirement for social distancing of at least 6 feet will be enforced throughout the property.
• When you arrive at the course, CALL the pro shop to check-in.
ON THE GOLF COURSE:
• Ball washers, benches, rakes have been removed.
• All cups have been raised so the golf ball will not fall into the hole. A ball striking the elevated cup liner will be considered holed.
• Please do not pick up your playing partner’s clubs or ball during the round.
• We ask that you forego the traditional post-round handshake.
PRACTICE FACILITIES:
• Putting green is open but please keep 6+ feet distancing.
• CDC recommendation on social distancing will be in effect on the driving range with dividers which will limit the number of stations.
• Range balls are cleaned between uses by golfers.

Courses are able to open at 5 a.m. Saturday. Below is a look at area golf courses and when they are open with important info. Stay connected with the Herald Journal for an in-depth story on how golf courses are keeping their customers safe while being open.

 

AREA GOLF COURSE INFORMATION

Cokato Town and Country Club

Opening Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Call for Tee Time

ShadowBrooke Golf Course (Lester Prairie)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • All Tee Times made and paid online

  • No Walk-ups

 

Timber Creek Golf Course (Watertown)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Plans to open Saturday, April 18
  • Further details have not been released

 

B’s on The River (Watertown)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Carts allowed

  • Course opens at 8 a.m.

  • Call for Tee Time

 

Albion Ridges Golf Course (Annandale)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Tee times are made and paid for by phone only (320-963-5500)

 

Whispering Pines Golf Course (Annandale)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info

  • Tee times can be made online only

  • Carts will be allowed. One person per cart

 

Southbrook Golf Club (Annandale)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Tee times made and paid for online only

  • Carts available (One rider per cart unless related)

  • Signs with additional rules will be posted at course

 

Wild Marsh Golf Club (Buffalo)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • Tee times online only

  • Carts available (One rider per cart)

  • Putting Green closed

  • Arrive 15 minutes early to Tee Time

 

Buffalo Heights Golf Course (Buffalo)

Open Date: Saturday, April 18

Additional Info:

  • All tee times and payment will be done over the phone (763-682-2854) or online

  • Carts available

  • Social distancing required at all times

  • One customer in the pro shop at a time