Archive for HJ Sports

FROM STRUGGLES TO STATE: A look inside the turnaround of the HLWW and W-M football programs

A lot can change over the course of four years.

It wasn’t very long ago that the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted and Watertown-Mayer football programs were in shambles. With numbers low in both programs, a possible co-op between the two schools was proposed as a realistic option to help stabilize both programs.

Flash forward to the 2022 football season and not only are the two schools still competing on their own, but they will also both be taking part in the state football tournament.

HLWW will be part of the Class AA state tournament after defeating Norwood Young America in the Section 4AA title game while Watertown-Mayer will be part of the Class AAA state football tournament after knocking off defending state champion Dassel-Cokato in the Section 2AAA title game.

“I’m really glad to see both programs excel right now,” first-year HLWW head coach Adam Birkholz said. “I think it was a good decision by both programs not to pair at the time. Even though I had no connection to either program four years ago, I knew what might happen.”

In a heated school board meeting four years ago, the proposal of a co-op between the two programs fell through and both were forced to figure things out on their own. With low numbers in the program and stuck in a tough district, often competing against bigger schools, success was hard to find for both programs in their first two seasons on their own following the talks of the co-op.

In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, HLWW and W-M combined to 1-36 between the two of them.
“Sometimes you need to weather the storm and take your down years,” Birkholz said about the struggles of both programs. “I knew there would be some good years coming up too if you stick with it. At all levels of football, you have cycles of good years and bad years.”

For W-M coach Andrew Phillips, he was hired heading into the 2018 season and immediately had his hands full. A possible co-op was put on his plate before he even coached a practice followed by back-to-back 0-9 seasons in his first two years. Even with the challenges, he faced early on, he knew eventually things were going to turn around.

“It’s funny to think about that,” Phillips said. “When I was hired as head coach, one of the very first things I had to do was sit down with HLWW’s athletic director and their football coach and talk about a co-op. We sat there and hashed out what things might look like and went through the school board meeting and voting and all that. Not having that co-op happen at that time, I remember thinking that this is going to be a long road ahead but I think we could do it. I thought we had the right people in the right places.”

He was right.

The seniors on this year’s HLWW and W-M football teams have shown what it takes to rebuild a program.
After the 13 seniors on this year’s roster for the Royals endured back-to-back winless seasons, they stuck with it and things began to change in the program. In 2022, W-M snapped a 29-game losing streak by beating Glencoe-Silver Lake on its home field.

A two-win season in 2020 doesn’t seem like much, but it was the start of the beginning of a new direction for the Royals. They followed that up with a seven-win season in 2021 which continued the momentum into the 2022 season which saw them reach the state tournament for the first time since 2002.

“These kids that are seniors on this year’s team were in eighth grade when I started,” Phillips said. “We went 0-9. As freshmen, they went 0-9. That very easily could have been a way out of football and our program for them. We have 18 seniors on our roster this year and 13 of them played all four years. For those kids to stand here after losing all those games, to deal with the COVID year, it’s something special.”

The turnaround has been similar at HLWW. The Lakers snapped an 18-game losing streak in 2019 with an upset win in the first round of the Section 4AA tournament.

The 2020 and 2021 were tough seasons once again as the Lakers won just one game in the two seasons, but this year, HLWW has turned things around in a big way, posting an impressive record of 9-2 heading into the Class AA state tournament.

“They were forced to play at a younger age due to lack of numbers,” Birkholz said. “They took their lumps. I told them at the beginning of the season that they’ve taken their lumps and now it’s their turn to give out those lumps and to excel. It’s their turn to experience success and that’s what they did. They proved me right that it was their turn and they worked hard these past four years to improve. They put the time in. You need to have seniors to have success and that’s what we have this year.”

The leadership and drive for the seniors is the common theme in both programs. While they all could have left the program when things were tough, they stuck it out and are now getting rewarded in the final seasons of their high school careers.

“These kids have been playing multiple years now,” Birkholz said. “They were forced to play at a younger age with the number of kids on the team. I think it was just a matter of them having a lot of experience and maturity as players. Myself and my staff came at the right time, but this is all on the players. The staff can’t take any snaps or do any of that. It’s really a reflection on their ability to play and compete.”

“I remember telling the kids that were seniors that year that it was going to be rough,” Phillips said. “We had low numbers. We were a small and under matched team. I remember telling those guys that in five years I want you to be able to say I was a part of what started this. They can now look back and say that they’re glad they played football for Watertown-Mayer and look where we are at now.”

While the product on the field has taken a big step forward for both the HLWW and W-M football teams this year, the community has dove in as well.

“You can tell that these communities were hungry to get behind a successful football team,” Birkholz said. “They’ve been so supportive. They want to do all these fun things for these kids to make memories. It’s very exciting to see and be a part of.”

“High school football in Watertown is an event now,” Phillips said. “Every Friday night it’s an event. It’s a thing that people are excited about and we’re excited about it. It’s a big culture change all around. From the team and staff to the fans, it’s just all exciting.”

HLWW and W-M will open state tournament play Thursday night in their respective classes. They’ll do so as their own programs just four years after both teams thought a co-op might be the best way to save their programs.

“When you sit back and look at it four years later, we’re playing in the state tournament and they’re playing in the state tournament,” Phillips said. “It’s kind of crazy to think that at one time we were both trying to save our programs and now we’re about to go play on the biggest stage in high school football.”

TOURNAMENT CENTRAL: Football and Volleyball playoff brackets released

The brackets and matchups for the 2022 fall sports season have been released. The postseason for football will get underway Tuesday, Oct. 25 with volleyball getting underway next week as well.

The following is a look at the seeding for sections for area teams in football and volleyball.


1. Lester Prairie

2. Mayer Lutheran

3. GFW

4. Alden-Conger

5. United South Central

6. JWP

7. NU Cathedral

8. Cleveland


(8) Cleveland at (1) Lester Prairie

(5) USC at (4) Alden-Conger

(6) J-W-P at (3) G-F-W

(7) New Ulm Cathedral at (2) Mayer Lutheran



1. Minneapolis North

2. St. Agnes

3. Concordia Academy


5. Rush City

6. NYA

7. Maple Lake


(7) Maple Lake at (2) St. Agnes

(6) NYA at (3) Concordia Academy

(5) Rush City at (4) HLWW

(1) Minneapolis North – BYE



1. Dassel-Cokato

2. Watertown-Mayer

3. Providence Academy

4. Rockford

5. Litchfield

6. Glencoe-Silver Lake

7. Holy Family


(7) Holy Family at (2) W-M

(6) G-SL at (3) Providence Academy

(5) Litchfield at (4) Rockford

(1) Dassel-Cokato – BYE



1. Mound Westonka

2. Princeton

3. Orono

4. Zimmerman

5. Delano

6. Big Lake

FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS  – Tuesday, Oct. 25

(6) Big Lake at (3) Orono

(5) Delano at (4) Zimmerman

(2) Princeton – BYE

(1) Mound Westonka – BYE




1. Mayer Lutheran


3. New Ulm Cathedral

4. Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s

5. Sleepy Eye


7. GFW

8. Lester Prairie

9. Nicolet



1. Annandale

2. Watertown-Mayer


4. Kimball

5. Rockford

6. Providence Academy

7. Maple Lake

8. Blake

9. Breck

10. Spectrum

11. Maranatha

12. Columbia Heights

13. Patrick Henry

14. Dassel-Cokato

15. Brooklyn Center

16. Cristo Rey



1. New Prague

2. Benilde-St. Margaret’s

3. Holy Angels

4. Delano

5. Jordan

6. Mound Westonka

7. Orono

8. Bloomington Kennedy

FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS – Wednesday, Oct. 26

(8) Bloomington Kennedy at (1) New Prague

(7) Orono at (2) Benilde-St. Margaret’s

(6) Mound Westonka at (3) Holy Angels

(5) Jordan at (4) Delano

Follow Sports Editor Kip Kovar on Twitter to stay updated throughout the postseason for coverage of your favorite teams. – @Kovar_HJSports 


PREP FOOTBALL: Royals run past Holy Family to move to 6-1

VICTORIA – Coming off a tough and physical battle in their last game, the Watertown-Mayer football team wanted no part in a trap game against the Holy Family Fire. From the opening drive, the Royals had things firing on all cylinders as they cruised to a 49-12 win over the Fire Friday night.

“I told them all week that these are the kind of games where teams that are supposed to win go and win right away,” W-M coach Andrew Phillips said. “If we don’t go out there and take care of business, it could go a way we wouldn’t want it to go. Tonight, we finally came out and took care of business right away. We kept our foot on the gas pedal as long as we needed to tonight which was nice to see.”

W-M got the run game going early and often in the win. Senior Wyatt McCabe rushed for more than 100 yards and scored five touchdowns on the night as the Royals poured things on after taking an early lead.

“It’s huge for us,” Phillips said about getting the run game going. “It’s a big confidence builder. We didn’t have to worry about what we were going to run on third and long because of that. The ground game has been great for us. Our guys up front have been doing a great job all season long taking care of business and hopefully they can keep doing that going forward.”

Up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, W-M pulled away for good in the second quarter. The Royals scored 28 points in the span of three minutes of game time to put Holy Family in a deficit they were unable to come back from. Two of the four scores for the Royals came off just one play after creating a turnover deep in Holy Family territory.

With the win, W-M improved to 6-1 on the season with one final game left in the regular season. After taking a big step forward last year in which the Royals won seven games, that was enough to satisfy them. They’re looking for even more this year and are off to a great start in order to make that happen as they are ranked No. 8 in the latest Class AAA poll.

“We had a great year last season,” Phillips said. “These guys are hungry though. They came out all summer long doing the workouts and getting ready for this. They want to play as long as they can.”

W-M closes out the regular season Wednesday night when they host Glencoe-Silver Lake. The Royals will not only be looking to finish off the regular season on a high note but also get ready for what they hope will be a deep postseason run.

“The first thing we need to do is continue to get healthy,” Phillips said. “In AAA football, you don’t have a lot of guys. If a guy goes down, it can create a lot of havoc. That’s one of our biggest things is to get healthy. The other thing is to just continue doing what we’re doing. It’s been our philosophy all year. Just being really good at what we do and that’s what we’re trying to do.”


PREP FOOTBALL: Bulldogs shutout Mayer Lutheran in signature win

LESTER PRAIRIE – A win in October is always a big deal. A win over your rival is even better.

The matchup with Mayer Lutheran has been circled on the calendar for the Lester Prairie football team for a while. It was everything they hoped for.

“It’s been marked on the calendar since last year when we played them,” senior Tanner Scheevel said with a smile. “We’ve all been excited about it. It was a big win for us and it was a lot of fun. It’s been a rivalry for a while. I haven’t been able to play against them the last few years so it felt really great to come out and get a win.”

Taking on each other in a matchup for the No. 1 seed in the Section 2A tournament, it was the Bulldogs who dominated the trenches on their way to an impressive 16-0 win over the Crusaders Thursday night.

“I thought we played great,” Lester Prairie coach Joe Scoblic said. “We shot ourselves in the foot twice in the first half on drives that we could have scored on. We talked a lot about that at halftime. In the second half, we wanted to get them in a grind and I think we did that.”

The Bulldogs came out and issued a statement early on. Lester Prairie scored on a seven-minute drive to open the game to take an 8-0 lead. Following the score, Jace Cacka set the tone defensively for the Bulldogs of what was to come as he and his team forced a three-and-out with a pair of big hits.

“He was just a beast,” Scoblic said about Cacka. “That little wrestler is a stud, there’s no doubt about that. I thought he really set the tone right away on two of the first three plays on defense. He set the tone and the defense just rallied after that.”

As good as the Bulldogs played in the opening half, they led by just eight. With Mayer Lutheran getting the ball first to start the second half, Scoblic knew how important the first few minutes of the second half would be for the rest of the game.

“I could tell they were fired up,” Scoblic said about Mayer Lutheran. “We thought we had to stop that first drive and if we stopped it we could get this game under control and it seems like that’s what we did.”

The Bulldogs did just that, forcing another three and out defensively, Lester Prairie went for the dagger on their first drive of the second half. Logan Lambrecht capped off a methodical drive by the Bulldogs with a five-yard touchdown run to put them up two scores and take all the momentum.

“It feels really good,” Cacka said about the win. “They’ve beaten us the last couple of years pretty badly so it feels good to get one back. We knew it was going to be a tough game and we had to just after it.”

Lester Prairie’s line on both sides of the ball was a big reason for the win. While they aren’t the biggest or strongest guys in the world, they get the job done time and time again as the Bulldogs moved to 7-0 on the season with the win.

“They just don’t quit,” Scoblic said about the line. “They just feed off each other and get after it. Are they perfect? No, but they’re pretty darn good.”

“I’m so proud of those guys,” Scheevel said. “They’ve been putting the work in since last year. We’ve been in the weight room all season and grinding. I couldn’t ask for a better line. They’ve been putting in all the work and it’s paying off.”

Mayer Lutheran was held to just 129 yards of offense in the loss as they struggled to get anything going. Knowing it would be a tough matchup coming in, the Crusaders took one on the chin in their first of what they hope will be two matchups with the Bulldogs this season.

“They’re just mature and a really good team,” Mayer Lutheran coach Dean Aurich said. “I like their whole athleticism on the team. They looked good on video and they looked even better tonight.”

The Crusaders might be the defending Class A state champions but they know there will be some growing pains this year. With several new players stepping into bigger roles, Mayer Lutheran needed a big game like this to see exactly where they are at and what they need to work on going forward.

“To beat these guys, it’s going to take a lot of work. They’re better than us right now. We knew coming in they would kind of be the favorite. They really are. They’re well-coached and have a really good program. When you’re growing, you just have to keep plugging. There are little things we can do better. If we play well and don’t get beat up, we can still make a run but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

For Lester Prairie, it’s been an impressive run for them this season. While the perfect record through seven games may come as a surprise to some, it doesn’t to them.

“They really like each other which is a big plus,” Scoblic said. “We started all of this in June when we started practices. We talked about this season and what a special year it could be. “

“This summer, we did a lot of team bonding stuff,” Scheevel added. “We would go to the beach a lot after practice. We just did a lot of team bonding stuff. It got us all together and we just kind of formed a brotherhood. That’s when we became a family and it just pushes everyone to work a little harder each day.”

“It’s like a family,” Cacka added. “Everybody helps each other out. Everybody cheers each other on. It’s a good team we have.”


PREP VOLLEYBALL: Chaska holds off pesky Crusaders

CHASKA – The Mayer Lutheran volleyball team isn’t afraid to take on anyone. Going up against a ranked team for the 11th time this season already, the Crusaders gave the Chaska Hawks all they could handle and then some in their matchup. Despite pushing the Hawks throughout the match, Chaska was just too much down the stretch in a 3-1 (25-22, 25-23, 19-25, 25-21) win on their home floor Tuesday night.

“They’re fast,” Mayer Lutheran coach Joelle Grimsley said. “They were so fast. We couldn’t keep up with them right away. We haven’t seen anything that fast. After that, we found our grove and put some pressure on them. We found some spots that they don’t do well in and went after them. We made them a little nervous so that was fun.”

Chaska had the early edge in sets one and two but the Crusaders never went away quietly. In the three sets they lost, Mayer Lutheran rattled off eight points on the verge of set point to make the Hawks hold them off.

“It’s awesome to finish a set,” Grimsley said. “We wanted to finish that last set a little better but we made a few too many errors and they found a hole in our defense. They’re smart. They’re a great team. We made two errors at the end and we can’t do that.”

Even though the Crusaders played well in the first two sets, they found themselves down 2-0. Needing some momentum, Gabby Wachholz delivered the spark for Mayer Lutheran rattling off five-straight aces in the third set to give the Crusaders the lead and force a fourth set. Chaska would close things down in the fourth set holding off another Mayer Lutheran rally to seal the win.

The Crusaders had a new look to them as senior Madeline Guetzkow returned to the lineup after missing two weeks with energy. Guetzkow’s presence was big for Mayer Lutheran all game long coming through in big moments as one of their leaders and captains.

“It was fun to see our girls get back in that rhythm,” Grimsley said. “We talked a lot about October 1. That’s the time we start turning things up. Tonight was a great example of that. We were as scrappy as we’ve ever been.”

With the loss, Mayer Lutheran fell to 15-4 on the season. All four losses for the Crusaders have come against ranked teams, three of which are in bigger classes than them. With four games left in the regular season, the Crusaders will be looking to gel together as a team and get ready to make another postseason run.

“For us, it’s chemistry,” Grimsley said about the biggest things for the team to work on in the next two weeks. “We’re still working hard on our chemistry. We have some times when people aren’t sure if they should go for the ball or not or who is going to get it. Skill-wise, we’re getting so much better. It’s just that chemistry and working together that we need.”

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the Oct. 7 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.  Subscribers have full access to this article and more by clicking here. Subscriptions start as low as $1.50 for a two-day subscription, the same price as a newspaper on a newsstand.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports

KOVAR: A look back on the highlights from FDM 2022

When people look back on the 99th Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament, there will be an endless amount of memories to relive. There were memorable moments that took place on the field. There were memorable stories that took place off the field.

It was a tournament to remember for a number of reasons. Despite the 2022 amateur baseball season being over, this sports writer can’t let go quite yet. That’s why I’m taking a look back on some of the most memorable moments that happened in Faribault, Dundas, and Miesville as part of the Class C and Class B state tournaments.

Bird Island outlasts Loretto in the longest state tournament game ever
This seems like a good one to start with. The title says it all.
As I was driving home from Waconia after covering the two games I saw that two of the other teams (Watertown and Loretto) were still playing. The Red Devils game ended just about when I got home, but when I got settled in, Loretto and Bird Island were still playing. I thought it worked out perfectly for me to catch a few innings before heading to bed. I was wrong.

I ended up watching 13 innings as it was the Bullfrogs who came through in the bottom of the 21st inning to finally get the win. The longest game in state tournament history was previously 20 innings. After we got to the 14th or 15th inning, I started to root for the record.

We got the record for the longest game in state tournament history and my amount of sleep took a big hit. The game ended just before 12:30 a.m. At 5 a.m., I was back at work at my part-time job on the golf course.

Chanhassen Red Birds go down in the opening round
There was a consensus on who was the favorite in Class B and for good reason. The Chanhassen Red Birds were the four-time defending Class B champions and looked poised to add another one. The Coon Rapids Red Birds had other plans.

Coon Rapids pulled the unthinkable knocking off the Class B powerhouse. The win by Coon Rapids opened the door for all other teams with the powerhouse out of the tournament early on.

With Chanhassen gone, Class B had a new feel to it as it was literally anyone’s tournament to win. I’m not the biggest Class B guy as all the teams I cover are Class C, but I found myself getting into it more and more as it turned out to be an exciting tournament with the Rochester Royals eventually claiming the state title.
Dumont takes the state by storm again
Last year at the state tournament, the Dumont Saints were one of the darlings of the tournament. After winning a game last year, the Saints became a fan favorite as people anxiously awaited to see what movie they would be watching on their way down to the state tournament.

In 2022, Dumont took the state by storm again but on a whole new level. Not only did they make it to Labor Day weekend, but the Saints were also part of what could be one of the best town ball stories of all time. Two members of the team were in a wedding on the North Dakota/Montana border the night before the game. Instead of driving back and trying to make the game on time, they used a different way to get back in time and it paid off in a big way as they not only won, but both players came through in big spots and had big games in the win for Dumont.

Webster Sox becomes a household name
Just five years ago, the Webster Sox had a 51-game losing streak. 2022 was a different story.
Not only did the Sox make their first region tournament appearance, but they also qualified for the state tournament for the first time in their organization’s history.

The run didn’t end there for Webster. The Sox rattled off a pair of wins to reach Labor Day in their first state tournament appearance.

One of the best parts of the state tournament is seeing new teams make runs. We all know the perennial powerhouses each year, but there’s something special and exciting when a team out of nowhere makes a run as Webster did.

Coming into the state tournament, all I knew was that they were one of the worst teams in the state a handful of years ago. Now they are a legitimate team that has shown what they could do on the state’s biggest stage. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Fergus Falls Hurricanes story
The 2022 state tournament was filled with awesome stories. One story that nobody is talking about is the Fergus Falls Hurricanes. It’s probably because they went 0-1 in the tournament and had their lone game moved to Waconia due to the weather.

The story surrounding the Hurricanes is a great one. Back in June, the team almost folded as they were having trouble getting players to show up to games and sign with the team. The team stuck together through it all though and ended up winning the Region 16 title.

Fergus Falls showed up to their state tournament game with 10 guys and nearly pulled off an upset against the Waconia Lakers. Down 7-0 early and 9-3 later in the game, the Hurricanes refused to go away quietly.
In the bottom of the ninth, Fergus Falls nearly walked off the Lakers with a rally if it wasn’t for a tremendous scoop at first base by Waconia’s AJ Friedrich. Had that ball got past him, the tying and winning run for Fergus Falls would have scored easily and the Hurricanes would have been playing on Labor Day weekend.
I give a lot of credit to those guys for sticking out the season and the run they went on. They were a play or two away from knocking off a powerhouse in Waconia on their home field. Guys who play hard and love the game are what I love about amateur baseball and Fergus Falls was the epitome of that in this tournament.

Weekend No. 2
The second weekend of the tournament is my favorite one. After getting a look at some of the teams on opening weekend, it’s so much fun to see those teams take their shots at region champions on weekend two.
This weekend didn’t disappoint one bit. Of the 16 games in Class C, nine of them were decided by one run and five of them went into extra innings. You couldn’t have asked for better games or matchups all weekend long and the fans were treated to some incredible games. It seemed like almost every game came down to the final pitch and that makes everything that much more interesting.

It’s crazy to think that if you look at the teams that made the Sweet 16, more than half of them could be out of it wasn’t for a play or two late in the games. Nisswa, the eventual state champions, were down 5-1 in the eighth inning before rallying to win the game. Loretto and Bird Island played an instant classic that lasted 21 innings. Watkins and Red Wing treated fans to one of the best pitching duels in the past handful of years. Hutchinson and Bluffton proved that no game is ever over until the final out.

All that happened in one weekend and it was a pleasure to be able to take that all in and be a part of it.

Looking Ahead
As good as the 2022 state tournament was, I’m even more excited for what lies ahead in 2023. The 100th anniversary of the MBA amateur state baseball tournament is poised to be as good as ever and just so happens to be in my backyard with Delano, Dassel-Cokato, and Litchfield combining to host the tournament. Those are three of the top parks in the state with some of the best people in amateur baseball running those organizations. Fans will not be disappointed in what is coming next year.

The state of amateur baseball is so healthy right now and its popularity is at an all-time high. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead next year in 2023. There are some big things planned for it all and I can’t wait to be part of it once again.


Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports