YEAR IN REVIEW: A look back at the top sports moments in 2021

2021 was a step back in the right direction after a difficult 2020. Sports and life took a step back to normal and area teams and athletes delivered with some memorable performances. From state titles and exciting fishes to incredible individual performances and heartwarming moments, 2021 saw it all.

The following is a look back at some of the top sports moments from the Herald Journal coverage area covered by Sports Editor Kip Kovar throughout the year.

Anderson hits game-winner for HLWW in rivalry game
The winter sports season saw things get going late. It was worth the wait. In the first game of the season for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted boys basketball team, there was no waiting for an exciting finish.

After HLWW battled back to force overtime, Bennett Anderson played the hero for the Lakers hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left in overtime to lead HLWW to a 73-72 win over rival Lester Prairie.

“That was one exciting ball game,” HLWW coach James Carr said. “Aside from the win, it was just a blast seeing the guys compete. They were so excited to play, and it carried over into how hard they played. Both teams gave it everything.”

After battling back, HLWW didn’t let their opportunity to complete the comeback slip away. After Anderson split a pair of free throws to bring the Lakers within two, HLWW still had the ball with just 18 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Anderson drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 73-72 lead.

“I’m really proud of my team for battling through everything and staying in the game,” Anderson said. “I didn’t even know how to celebrate. I was so hyped that I made it. This was a great start for the season and again I’m so proud of the team. We’re only going to get better too.”

Lester Prairie duo hit career milestones
It was a special day for two Lester Prairie athletes back in March. On the same day, both Zach Jackson and Taylor Ebert both scored their 1,000th career point for the Bulldogs.

Ebert was the first to reach the milestone as she scored her 1,000th career point in a 72-19 win for Lester Prairie over PACT Charter.

“Any milestone like this is going to be on their mind,” Lester Prairie coach Mike Lee said. “I’ve had multiple 1,000 point scorers while coaching — I’ve only had one player where it didn’t really seem to bother her performance. Kids think about that. When I gave her the ball, I said, ‘about time!’”, and she just laughed.”

Ebert would go on to help lead the Bulldogs to the section semifinals in her final season in a Lester Prairie uniform

Just a few hours later, it was Jackson who reached the same milestone for the Bulldogs on the same court. Taking on Le Sueur-Henderson, Jackson reached the milestone in a game in which he posted 26 points in a 71-44 win over the Giants.

He became a member of the 1,000 point club on a step-back mid-range jump shot, needing 25 points to reach the milestone.

“Throughout my freshman season, I struggled to figure out my role on the team,” Jackson said. “I started feeling more comfortable each year. I take this milestone, especially in a reduced season, as a great privilege for overcoming some adversity and figuring out how I can be successful both personally and team-wise.”

Jackson and his senior classmate Ebert both knew their accomplishments were coming relatively soon over the last couple of weeks. Family and classmates made colorful signs and the two history-makers were able to take home the respective game balls.

“I was debating making a bet with her to see who could get it first,” Jackson said. “After the game was over my phone just blew up with people saying congratulations. It just goes to show how supportive our community members are.”

W-M gymnastics team wins state championship
There’s an endless amount of words to describe the Watertown-Mayer/Mound Westonka gymnastics team. Champions is one word but a better one is family.

All season long, the Royals leaned on each other to find success. That team chemistry and the relationships they had led them to make history as they won the Class A state championship.

“They’re such a hardworking group,” W-M/MW coach Steve Hangartner said. “You never see them sitting down. I was trying to cut them back a bit in practice leading up to this. We stayed longer. I told them we’re going to be done at 5:30. We were there until 6:30 every night. They even asked after the meet today if they could go back and work out.”

With a new format due to COVID-19, the Royals saw themselves competing in the first of two sessions. That left a seven-hour window for them to wait and see if they did enough to win their first state title in program history. That wait proved to be worth it as the W-M/MW saw all their hard work pay off as they won the Class A state title with a team score of 146.350.

“It was definitely worth the wait,” senior Rosie Unglaub said. “All of the building up and once we got the news, it was great. I couldn’t believe it. It was just shocking. I’m just so proud of everyone because we worked so hard for this.”

As the final team standings were announced virtually more than seven hours after the W-M/ MW finished competing, there was a heart-stopping moment for many of the Royals. Although everyone else in the room knew what they accomplished, the members of the team refused to check the scores as they came in. When the second-place finisher was announced with a score of 146, all eyes began to look at each other as they held on for the next number which proved to be the difference.

“It was a moment of wow,” Anna Mielke said. “I thought that second would be cool, but also first would be really cool. We knew Pine Island definitely could get that 146. We were watching and we knew it was going to come down to tenths by the way we saw them competing. When I heard that zero, it was like the world kind of stopped for a second. I kind of just froze. I wasn’t sure. I just stared at my sister and smiled. We all just jumped up and it was a really amazing feeling. It’s a feeling that I’ve dreamt about since I first started gymnastics.”

The score of 146.025 was announced for Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa, meaning the Royals were the state champions.

“A lot of us were getting really nervous,” Reagan Kelley said. “It took so long but it was so worth it in the end. We were just trying to hold it together. Then once we heard our name, we could celebrate. It was so fun.”
Gabbert captures state title in senior season

While the W-M/MW gymnastics team was waiting to see if they won a state title, W-M senior Austin Gabbert was busy winning his own.

Wrestling at 132 in Class AA, Gabbert finished his magical season with a state title after beating Hancock’s Davin Rose via a 4-3 decision in the state title match, securing that elusive state title he’s been looking for.

“Ever since high school started, all I dreamed about was getting a state title,” Gabbert said. “As you can imagine, that long desire to win felt good.”

Gabbert found himself in a battle as he was just one win away from his ultimate goal. Trailing 2-1 after one period, Gabbert found himself down 3-1 after an escape from Rose. With just under a minute left in the second period, Gabbert delivered with a takedown to tie the match. An early escape in period three was the difference as Gabbert’s state title dream became true.

“The feeling felt so unreal and still does now,” Gabbert said. “Seeing the people supporting me was the most immaculate part about it all.”

Crusaders breakthrough with section title
There was one poster hanging on the wall in the Mayer Lutheran gymnasium. It’s of senior Morgan Chmielewski. A senior who has seen it all and endured all the heartbreak the Crusaders have had the past few seasons.

Not this time.

As the lone senior on the roster this season for the Mayer Lutheran girls basketball team, Chmielewski and her squad broke through in a big way capturing the Section 4A title on their home floor with an 80-55 win over Heritage Christian Academy.

“It’s really special,” Chmielewski said. “This is the last time I will play on this court. It’s a pretty great way to end it. It’s just a really special moment.”

The win for the Crusaders was a long time coming. After coming up short in the previous three-section championship games against the very same team, this was the group that broke through.

“We spent a lot of time talking about that it’s just another game,” Mayer Lutheran coach Kris Gustin said. “Sure, everybody is nervous about the past four years, but here’s the reality. They are different this year. We are different this year. While there is that piece in the back of your mind, I feel like we really worked on the mental aspect of understanding what happened last year, what happened the year before that, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the play in front of us. That’s the mindset we’ve worked really hard at. I think that came through tonight. What I saw from the girls today was excitement and not nervousness. They just wanted to go get it.”

A night to remember at Timber Creek
The best part of covering high school sports is you never know what’s going to happen. That was taken to an extreme on a Friday evening in May. The final round of conference play for Wright County Conference girls golf teams will go down as one the most memorable ones for many reasons. Between girls running to their next shots, Tik Toks being made in the dark, and headlights of vehicles illuminating the 18th green, memories were made.

A late start with tee times forced players and teams to beat the dark. After just a few hours, it was clear the final groups wouldn’t finish before dark. Begin the memories.

Even with a furious pace of play over the final few holes, the coaches knew it was going to be dark before everyone would finish. I remember talking with W-M coach Tyler Finkelson while out and about taking photos. It was about 5:30 p.m. and he was already worried if they would finish before dark. As golfers began coming in, Finkelson along with other conference coaches began discussing what to do. There was talk of counting just the first 15 holes but the problem with that was the effect it would have on All-Conference selections. After some discussion, the coaches agreed they needed to finish no matter what. The final group coming in was the No. 1 group, a majority of who were seniors including New London-Spicer’s Ava Hanson. Hanson is the top golfer in the conference, and all the coaches agreed she deserved to finish all 18 holes and try to make this a good experience.

Shortly before 9 p.m., I was standing next to the 18th green as a group approached. One player hit a 30-yard approach shot and I never saw the ball until a few seconds after it stopped on the green. It was already getting dark and something needed to be done. I was standing next to HLWW coach Bernie Lueck and he suggested we park our vehicles facing towards the green to give them at least some light to putt. A few minutes later the 18th green was illuminating in the night as I and several other people turned our brights on to give the golfers a chance to see the green. The headlights only did so much. The last two groups were combined into an eightsome to help speed things up. With that more help was needed. Parents and coaches used whatever light they could find to help each golfer find the ball. Once their ball was found, they held the light there so they could take their next shot.

“This is something I will never forget,” Lueck said. “The way that everyone pulled together to make sure the last eight girls finished was something to behold. Coaches assisted in finding the player’s golf balls. Parents, coaches, and even our reporter pulled their vehicles up to the green to shine their lights to illuminate the green for these girls. Then, having all the girls gather around the green as a gallery and cheering for the incoming players was incredible ”

With every putt that sank from the final eight golfers, a small roar came from the crowd surrounding the green. At that moment there were no teams. There were just kids cheering each other on.

“It really was one of the neatest things that I’ve seen on a golf course,” Finkelson said. “As coaches, we all just kind of jumped on board and I can’t say enough about how much respect I have for all of the coaches in our conference. We were cheering on each other and the girls from rival schools were cheering on each other. All in all, I guess that is how golf is meant to be played.”

The round at Timber Creek Golf Course was the final round of conference play. It won’t be remembered for that. It will be remembered as the night the entire conference came together along with fans, coaches, and others to make sure everyone could finish. In the day and age of winning at all costs, that took a back seat to create a moment that these kids and everyone else there will remember forever.

“The ending of conference play this year was a once in a lifetime experience,” Dassel-Cokato coach Jon Ring said. “Having the coaches, parents, and other players gather around the 18th green while the final two foursomes joined together to finish was surreal. The headlights, flashlights from phones, along with the energy from players who had already completed their round made for a special atmosphere of cooperation, along with respect for the game of golf. As each player completed the round, they were greeted with applause from the whole group. It warmed my heart to see all of these people rally around those who still needed to finish their round. I think everyone present at the 18th green knew that this was an extraordinary event, one that they will remember for perhaps the rest of their lives.”

HLWW’s furious comeback win over Holy Family
I can only describe it as one of the craziest games I’ve ever covered. There were so many times I thought the game was over. Well, there was no never any quit in the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted baseball team.

The message for the Lakers was the same all season long. It was about dealing with adversity. The Lakers dealt with plenty of adversity in their Section 5AA matchup with the Holy Family Fire. Down 10-1 after four innings of play, HLWW was just one run away from being sent home for good via the mercy rule. Instead, the Lakers battled. They rallied back to not only tie the game but keep their season alive with a 13-11 win in nine innings to knock off the Fire to keep their season alive.

“We talked about our core values all year and how there’s going to be moments that all hope seems to be lost,” Lakers coach Tyler Maher said. “We also talked about what our options were on how to respond. Well, down 10-1, I told the guys that we have two options – roll over and be done, or fight for what we want. It was up to them.”

HLWW chose to fight. The Lakers scored two runs in the fifth to give them some life, but the rally really started in the top of the sixth.

“Putting together quality at-bats, our bottom of the order doing what they have to to get on base, and our top of the order producing allowed us to have a chance,” Maher said. “Sometimes it just takes a spark. Sparks come in different forms. The game was 10-3. I came in from the inning telling our guys we’ve been here before and we know what can happen.”

With two outs, back-to-back singles from Bennett Anderson and Bennett Paulson loaded the bases for Noah Bush. On the third pitch he saw, Bush delivered for the Lakers with an inside-the-park grand slam to bring HLWW within three at 10-7.

“We started off the game a little shaky,” Bush said. “The body language wasn’t where it needed to be, but after our senior leaders talked to our whole team, we realized it wasn’t over and one thing led to another. They gave us an opportunity and we took advantage of it.”

Bush’s big hit gave the Lakers life heading into the top of the seventh. Then it was time for another player to step up, although this time a freshman. Singles from Jake Zander and Anderson set up a pair of runners. With two outs, Holy Family opted to walk Bush this time around and load the bases. That gave Colton Long a chance to deliver for his team. With two outs and the Lakers down by three, Long cleared the bases with an RBI double, tying the game at 11.

“It feels really nice seeing our younger kids stepping up and taking charge,” Bush said. “Those younger guys stepping up is what our team and program needed. It is all due to everyone staying calm and playing our game.”

A tie game all of a sudden, the Lakers leaned on Anderson on the mound. A quiet bottom of the seventh inning for Holy Family sent the game into extra innings as Anderson continued to give his team a chance by eating up innings on the mound.

“I appreciate the coaches and team believing in me throughout the game,” Anderson said. “I’m also confident in my abilities because I’ve been in many tough situations before.”

Anderson threw the final seven innings for HLWW, allowing just two runs over the final six. After neither team could get anything going in the top of the eighth, HLWW grabbed their first lead of the game in the top of the ninth. Jack Stutsman and Anderson opened the inning with back-to-back singles and a walk to Paulson loaded the bases once again for Bush. This time, Stutsman scored on a passed ball, giving HLWW a 12-11 lead. Holy Family then elected to walk Bush, loading the bases again for the Lakers.

It was Long who delivered once again. This time with a sacrifice fly to score Anderson and give HLWW a two-run cushion. Those two runs would be proved to be enough as Anderson retired the Fire in order in the bottom of the ninth, sealing the thrilling comeback win for HLWW.

“This whole game was surreal and we never got down on ourselves,” Anderson said. “We were confident in our abilities the whole time no matter the score. Our bench guys were a huge part of the comeback as they were rooting us on and encouraging everyone the whole time.”

Bush wins Mr. Baseball Award
It’s hard to put into words the season that HLWW senior Noah Bush had for the Lakers this past spring. His stats speak for himself.

After helping lead the Lakers on a deep postseason run, Bush was named the winner of the Mr. Baseball award.

Bush was second in the state in home runs with 10, second in RBI with 43, and 19th in batting average, hitting an even .500. All of those stats led his team, and under head coach Tyler Maher in his first full season at the helm, HLWW went 16-9 and lost to the eventual Class AA champion Glencoe-Silver Lake twice in the section tournament.

Bush also tossed more than 60 innings and struck out nearly 120 batters, posting a 1.24 ERA. He received the Mr. Baseball award at a banquet at Target Field June 20, and was announced at the game July 24.
Not only was it fun to see Bush and the season he had in person, but it was also nice to see him win the award coming from a smaller school. There’s a lot of talent that sometimes gets overlooked by bigger metro schools, but Bush’s incredible was worthy of this award.

Watertown tops Carver in a 16-inning thriller
From high school baseball action to amateur baseball action, the drama didn’t stop in May. In what might have been the game of the year in amateur baseball, Watertown and Carver treated fans to a thriller. Pitching was dominant all game long as it was the Red Devils who outlasted the Carver Black Sox for a 1-0 win in 16 innings.

If you’re a fan of pitching, the matchup between the Carver Black Sox and Watertown Red Devils was made for you. Pitching had the upper hand all game long as base runners were hard to come by. In the end, it was Watertown who outlasted the Black Sox with a 1-0 win in 16 innings Sunday night at Highland Park.

“We were expecting a tight game,” Watertown manager Jared Duske said. “I wasn’t expecting 16 innings though in a makeup game. It was a heck of a game. They’re a heck of a team and probably going to win the south. That’s a game we needed to have for confidence and hopefully provide a spark for the rest of the season.”

Ryan Hangartner played the hero for the Red Devils. After being held to just one hit in the first nine innings, Watertown began to threaten in extra innings. In the bottom of the 16th, Hangartner came through with two runners on and two outs. A single to left field scored Mitchell Kelzer, giving the Red Devils a thrilling 1-0 walk-off win.

“It felt pretty darn great,” Hangartner said about his game-winning hit. “I think that was probably the longest game I’ve ever played in. It was fun. I haven’t been seeing the ball well all year. It was about time. Just started seeing it better today and I felt good.”

“That’s one of the things with Ryan,” Duske said. “We’re kind of moving him in and out of the lineup this year. We have a full roster of guys we feel comfortable putting out there. He’s one of them. Coming into the games, they know it could be anyone’s spot but they have to come ready. He was ready and I felt comfortable up there with him.”

I’ve never seen a game where pitching was so dominant. The two teams combined to strike out 54 batters in the game. That’s a number I would be surprised to ever see again in person.

Watertown’s run to the Class C state title game
There was never any doubt that the Watertown Red Devils had the talent to make a deep postseason run. It was just a question of, would they?

Well, they did.

Even when it looked like their season was going to come to an end against Eagle Lake, the Red Devils rallied late. Watertown rode that momentum from the comeback win all the way to the state title game.

Just one win away from a state championship, Watertown gave perennial powerhouse Sobieski all they could handle and more. Although the Red Devils came up short in extra innings, it was one of the best state title games I’ve seen in a long time when it comes to amateur baseball.

The journey as a whole for the Red Devils was fun to cover. It’s been a blast to see them grow and mature over the years and I don’t think you’ve heard the last from them yet.

WCH 2021
This year’s state amateur baseball tournament was some of the most fun I’ve ever had covering amateur baseball. Not only did we have local teams make deep runs, but I was also privileged enough to be a part of the board that helped put the tournament on.

WCH 2021 set a new attendance record, breaking 20,000 for the tournament. It was awesome to see all the fans turn out and see the hard work of the board pay off in the biggest way possible. WCH 21 knocked it out of the park and I’m so proud to say I was a small part of the reason why.

Mayer becomes title town
What a fall sports season it was for Mayer Lutheran. After winning the Class A state title in volleyball, the Crusaders followed that up with another state title in football, beating Minneota once again.

Both state titles were a long time coming. Both teams were dominant last year in a season that was cut short. They used that as momentum and fuel this past fall and capped it off with a pair of state championships.

A look ahead
As we enter 2022, I can’t wait to see what it’s store. We’ve taken a step forward to getting back to normal and I can’t wait to tell more stories about our area teams and athletes. You never know what is going to happen but I can’t wait to find out.

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