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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL: Guetzkow’s big night lifts Mayer Lutheran to signature win

MAYER – It was a night to remember for Mayer Lutheran senior Madeline Guetzkow. After recording her 1,000th career point in the first half, Guetzkow helped the Crusaders take over the game in the second half as they picked up a 67-58 signature win over No. 2-ranked Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart Monday night.

“It feels great,” Guetzkow said about the win and the milestone. “I feel like we played really well as a team and they helped ease my nerves at the beginning of the game. It just made me feel no pressure and relaxed.”

After the Crusaders found themselves in a battle in the first half, the second half couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. Mayer Lutheran was held scoreless for nearly the first five minutes of the second half and fell behind as BLHS extended their two-point lead at the half to 12 with just over 10 minutes left to play.

“They’re a good team,” Mayer Lutheran coach Kris Gustin said. “They are hard to defend. I thought when we executed the game plan, we defended them very well and made them take tough shots. That’s what we wanted to do but we had some breakdowns and we didn’t contest as well as we needed to.”

Coming out of a timeout facing their biggest deficit of the night, Mayer Lutheran took control of the game. A 17-1 run by the Crusaders not got them back in the game but gave them the lead. With just under seven minutes to go, Guetzkow gave the Crusaders their first lead of the second half, a lead they would hold onto the rest of the game despite one last rally by the Mustangs.

“I’m really proud of the girls,” Gustin said. “I don’t know what happened at the start of the second half. We came out flat as can be and they came out fired up. It wasn’t looking good for us and then the momentum kind of shifted. I’m really proud of the way they responded.”

“We just needed to clean up our passes and then we got our offense going,” Guetzkow added. “We were patient and that really helped us. Our coach says once you make one the basket just gets bigger. Our confidence really grew from that.”

Back-to-back 3-pointers by the Mustangs tied the game at 53 with under five minutes to play but it was all Mayer Lutheran down the stretch. The Crusaders closed the game on a 14-5 run as they essentially secured the No. 1 seed in the Section 2A North sub-section with the win. Down by 12 midway through the first half, Mayer Lutheran held BLHS to just 11 points over the final 10 minutes to take all the momentum in the win.

“It starts with defense,” Gustin said. “We can do some things offensively in transition but it really does start with defense. When we execute the defensive game plan, things go well. We switched better in the second half. To hold them to only 11 points is pretty impressive. That’s a good team to clamp down defensively like that.”

Guetzkow was big all game long for the Crusaders, especially in the second half where she scored 17 of her game-high 28 points to help take over the game.

“She stepped up,” Gustin said. “You have to be proud of her. She needed eight points coming into the game to reach 1,000 in her career. That’s always in the back of your mind and once you get it you worry there might be a letdown. She didn’t stop one bit. She played hard till the end and kind of put our team on her back tonight. She really took over offensively. The ball in her hands is a good thing for us and she had the ball in her hands a lot that second half.”

The matchup between two of the top teams was possibly just a preview of what lies ahead next month. Both Mayer Lutheran and BHLS are in the Section 2A North sub-section and will likely battle it out once again in the postseason.

“We’re going to have to be ready to play again,” Gustin said. “We have one of the toughest sub-sections with them and BOLD. This was a big one as we’ll get the No. 1 seed and avoid the second-round matchup, but we’re anticipating playing them again they’re going to come out gunning for us. This is the third time in a row we’ve beaten them and I’m sure they’re going to come with a vengeance.

“This game was big,” Guetzkow added. “It’s most likely in our future again so we’ll know what to expect next time.”

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

PREP BOYS BASKETBALL: Holy Family heats up late in win over Delano

VICTORIA – Delano boys basketball coach Terry Techam has seen a lot over his high school coaching career. He experienced something new this time as his Tigers hit the road for a Wright County Conference East matchup with Holy Family.

Delano had a tall task ahead of them taking on the Fire, one of the top teams in the state regardless of class. Despite a strong first half in which they led the entire way, Holy Family turned up the heat in the second half in a 66-43 win over the Tigers Friday night.

“I’ve been in high school basketball for nearly 30 years,” Delano coach Terry Techam said. “I don’t ever remember having a time where I had to prepare for playing against two very talented 7-footers.”

Delano, a team who loves to get out in transition and push the pace, came into the game with a new game plan and executed it to perfection to take a 28-21 lead into halftime. The Tigers slowed things down and controlled the tempo of the game but were unable to continue that in the second half.

Changing from their pressure zone, Holy Family switched to a man-to-man defense and sped up the Tigers to change the momentum. The Fire opened the second half on a big run including knocking down three 3-pointers in less than a minute to break things open. In the second half alone, Holy Family outscored Delano 45-15.

“I’m very proud of how we played,” Techam said. “I thought we competed well and played really well in the first half. We got them out of their zone and then they went man, we really struggled to score.”

Despite the loss, Techam learned a lot about his team. Sophomore JJ Longstreet entered the starting lineup while freshman Max Iversen (one of the team’s leading scorers) saw his minutes take a big hit as Delano slowed down the pace throughout the first half.

“We usually want to go up and down and we want the shot clock,” Techam said. “We want to play fast. We decided tonight that if we play fast, it just multiplies how many times we have to stop them which gets tough. Our best offensive lineup features three guys under 5-foot-10 which makes it tough to guard a team that has five guys 6-foot-2 and over.”

The change in the lineup and the rotation didn’t bother the team. Techam has his guys buying in where all they care about is winning.

“That’s what is fun about this team,” he said. “They’re all about the team. That’s one of the joys of coaching this team. Our slogan is we over me. It can be just a saying to some but our team really believes in that.”

Holy Family remains atop the WCC East standings with a record of 4-0 in conference play. Delano fell to 2-2 in the conference with the loss and sits at 13-6 overall.