Winter Sports Review: The Future Looks Bright

In reviewing the seasons from this winter’s sports teams, a common theme emerges.

The future looks brighter than ever.

Sure, it’s a little bit of a common cliche that’s put forth after every season.

But in this case, for most of our sports teams, it holds true.

• Take, for example, the Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield wrestling team.

It might seem like the future could not get a whole lotbrighter for the newly-formed DCL squad (which, interestingly, went the entire season without a nickname/mascot).

The co-op, in its first year of existence, achieved what no team from Litchfield or Dassel-Cokato had done in over a decade: send a team to the state tournament.

In addition, the squad sent a whopping nine wrestlers (out of 14 weight classes) to the individual state tournament. This put them tied for second-most behind Simley, the eventual Class AA state champion, which sent 11.

Unfortunately, DCL received some unfortunate news just before the state tournament began. Three of their key wrestlers – Alex Joedemann, Noah Halonen, and Will O’Brien – were disqualified for the entire state tournament weekend after a pre-meet skin check. Besides being ruled out for the team duals, Halonen and O’Brien were unable to wrestle in their individual weight classes at state.

I especially felt bad for Halonen, a senior who had put in countless hours on-and-off the mat to achieve his goal.

Without those three key wrestlers, DCL lost both of their matches in the team duals.

Even so, considering the team advanced to the state tournament, and sent nine individuals, there isn’t much room for improvement next season, right?

Wrong.

DCL will lose just three seniors from this year’s squad – Halonen, Jackson Martin, and Bryce Penk – and will return over 20 wrestlers with significant varsity experience for next season.

Among them will be their top wrestler Jude Link, a sophomore who took second place at 152 pounds in Class AA.

I wrote after the tournament that Link was oh-so-close to being crowned champion, but if you weren’t there watching, you really can’t appreciate just how close he was.

Link took it to his opponent, Fairmont/MCW senior Payton Anderson, all match long in their title tilt. He had several deep shots that Anderson was barely able to fend off. But with 30 seconds left, Link came off a shot a little too high, and Anderson re-shot for a takedown to score a 3-2 victory.

Knowing Link’s off-season dedication, I am excited to see what next season has in store for him.

Among the other returning state entrants are Jerry Simes (4th place), Andrew Joedemann, Victor Franco, Eddie Simes, O’Brien, Beau Nelson, and Brenden Rokala.

Rokala – “Big Rok” –  takes home the postseason award for the most exciting match.

In the Section 6AA tournament, held at DC, Rokala found himself up against Jeremy Phyle of Big Lake in the 285-pound “True Second” match, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.

Rokala, a sophomore, weighed in at 220 pounds. He had a season record of 2-3.

Phyle, a senior, looked to be pushing all of 285. He had a record of 21-13.

Rokala wore down Phyle throughout the first and second periods, and in the third reversed Phyle to his back and stuck him, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.

• The Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato boys hockey team finished one game short of making what would have been their third state tournament appearance in five years.

The Dragons, under first-year head coach Brice Berggren, advanced to the Section 3A title game against Hutchinson.

LDC trailed by just one, 2-1, after two periods, but the Tigers opened the floodgates in the third with six goals to take an 8-1 victory.

The Dragons ended the season with a record of 12-15-1.

Without a doubt, there will be some big holes to fill in next year’s lineup. LDC will lose their top two scorers in Jake Johnson and Alex Heinonen, among others.

Nevertheless, the next few years should be very intriguing. The Dragons will return forwards Mason Schroeder (13-13-26) and Logan Benson (9-10-19), along with talented sophomore defenseman Gavyn Lund (4-12-16) for next season. In addition, they will return three-year starter Darby Halonen in net.

To add to the encouragement, the LDC JV team went undefeated this season, and in fact dominated most of their games. Plus, the Bantam A team (15U) had a phenomenal season, ending up ranked among the top-15 in state.

• Consider this progression: 2, 8, 13.

That’s the number of wins in each of the last three seasons for the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato girls hockey team.

In the 2019-20 season, LDC finished with a winning record for the first time in over a decade, with a record of 13-12-1.

The Dragons received the #5 seed in the section, and fell to #4 Delano 3-2 in the section quarterfinals.

The team will lose their top two scorers from this season, in Sophia Hillmann (8-17-25) and Alyssa Olson (13-7-20).

However, they will return their next top-eight scorers, along with standout junior goaltender Avery Stilwell.

Stilwell, a three-year starter, posted a .939 save percentage this season – fourth best statewide, in all classes.

In the long-term future, the LDC girls 12U team advanced to the state tournament, and was ranked either #1 or #2 all season.

• In terms of bright futures, it doesn’t get much better than this: returning every single one of your athletes.

That is the case for the Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield boys swimming team this season, as they had no seniors on this year’s team.

After failing to send a swimmer or diver to the state tournament last year, DCL got back on the board this season, as freshman Logan Christopherson advanced to the state tournament in the 100 Breaststroke.

Christopherson finished in 19th place at state, just out of the consolation finals.

DCL had a number of swimmers finish within reach of state qualifying, which bodes well for next season.

• The Dassel-Cokato girls basketball team had a tough go of it this season, finishing just 2-23.

However, the Chargers will graduate just one senior from this team – Cam Patten.

The team will return three juniors for next year – including leading scorer Kezia Lee – along with eight sophomores with varsity experience.

The Chargers were close in a number of games this season, but lack of experience played a big role in their losses.

One more year of experience should bode well for next year’s squad.

• For the first time in eight years, Dassel-Cokato had a gymnast advance to the state tournament this season.

For the first time in 23 years, the Chargers had one participate.

Kiana Keith advanced to the Class A state tournament on the beam. She finished with a score of 8.6625.

She was the first DC gymnast to qualify for the state tournament since 2012, when her head coach Alex Halonen (nee Wente) qualified on the vault.

Halonen sustained an injury that kept her out of the state tournament, however, meaning Keith was the first DC gymnast to actually participate at state since Kara Hedin in 1997.

Keith will be a tough replacement, as will seniors Madeline Pokornowski and Randi Bayerl, both of whom were multi-year starters.

However, the team will return two letterwinners including captain Kianna Anderson and freshman Lauren Abfalter, along with four other gymnasts with varsity experience.

• The Dassel-Cokato boys basketball team will be looking to fill some big holes from this season.

The Chargers improved their record from 2-23 in 2018-19, to 6-19 this season. DC fell to Litchfield 58-41 in the section playoffs.

The team will lose four out their five starters from this year’s squad, including all-conference standout Sanders Asplin, who was the team’s leading scorer with 17 ppg.

Returning for next season is sophomore starting guard Eli Gillman, along with letterwinners Gaige Webb, Ben Smock, Jacob Gnerer, and Ethan Stertz.

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