Year in Review – Herald Journal Sports

The year 2020 will be one to remember for several reasons. Of course, the main reason is the global pandemic going on that seems it will trickle into 2021.

High school sports were no stranger to the changes and craziness that this pandemic touched. From not having a spring sports season to all the changes that have affected the fall and winter sports season, it’s been a crazy year to be a sports editor for sure.

I started this year by covering four schools by myself. Then I added two more schools in Dassel-Cokato and Delano as Brad Salmen and Matt Kane stepped down from their positions. That left six schools to cover by myself and that was a challenge. It was a challenge I welcomed. I always knew what was going on with D-C and Delano sports with doing layout for all the sports sections, but it’s been fun to be directly involved in the coverage. Still, six schools to cover by myself was a lot to handle.

Being a sports editor is the best job I could ask for. I truly enjoy trying to find the stories that go beyond the stats and the games themselves. Over the past 5+ years as sports editor for the Herald Journal, I’ve been able to develop some awesome relationships with players, coaches, and athletic directors in the area. I look forward to continuing that in 2021, especially with the D-C and Delano communities.

Covering six schools can be a lot for just two guys. We sometimes have the habit of getting through one week of coverage and then moving right on into putting together the next week’s paper. There’s so much going on that you really don’t have much time to look back and see what you did.

At this time of year, things tend to slow down a bit here in the sports world due to the holidays. This year is different. We’re eagerly awaiting the start of the winter sports season as the season has been put on hold by the pandemic.

Each year around this time I take the time to look back on the past year of coverage. This year is even more important for that. Instead of looking back and remembering all that was taken away or lost, it’s important to look back on all the memories that were made.

I want to thank everyone for following along with this crazy year of sports coverage and I hope you continue to do so in 2021. With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top high school sports moments from the past year.

W-M football snaps 29-game losing streak

This may be the best sports story in 2020.

It’s no secret that Watertown-Mayer football has had its struggles over the past few seasons. This year, despite playing in a global pandemic, the Royals broke through.

Taking on Glencoe-Silver Lake, W-M snapped their 29-games losing streak with an impressive 28-10 win over the Panthers, their first win since Sept. 1 of 2017.

“It was a big thing, especially for our seniors,” W-M coach Andrew Phillips said. “We have a small group of seniors and some of them have been there since they were freshmen. Some of them are brand new to football. They got a win. It’s the first win of their high school career. They’re never going to forget this night and that’s what high school football is about. They’ll remember it forever.”

The Royals weren’t satisfied with just one win. They picked up another win, this time against Holy Family in the regular-season finale.

Watching the Royals take a big step forward in the right direction was fun to see this year. I’ve been on the sidelines for many games where the final score was a 40-point win for another team. Despite all that, those kids kept working and saw their hard work pay off.

Mayer Lutheran’s Krueger returns to basketball

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever written is about Mayer Lutheran’s Riley Krueger. It was all about Riley’s journey back to basketball after beating cancer.

From having to sit out to being back for his senior year, Riley’s story is an inspirational one. In a time right now where things can be dark, Riley reminds us that there’s good out there. Even with things look down, there are brighter days ahead.

Watching Riley work his way back to play his senior season is something I’ll remember. Not only was he a talented player, but he was a great kid, too. His teammates and coaches loved him.

Heun’s magical season leads Royals to Section 6A title game

I’ll be the first to admit that soccer isn’t really my cup of tea. You won’t catch me watching it in what little free time I have.

Despite that, covering the W-M’s Maris Heun and the girls soccer team this year was one of the most fun teams I’ve covered in my sports writing career.

There’s something about covering a team that has so many players step up at big times for their team. That’s what the Royals did this season.

Heun, a junior, was also one of my favorite players to watch this year. I’ll never forget the hat trick she scored against Orono as the Royals knocked off their rival 3-2.

Heun’s season ended with her earning All-State honors, the first player in W-M program history to do that.

Red Devils breakthrough

After not having a spring sports season this year, I was desperate for some sports to cover. Amateur baseball delivered in a big way.

Although the season got started a bit late, there was plenty of action to remember for a long time. The biggest story of this summer’s season was the Watertown Red Devils.

After being a perennial contender the past few seasons, the Red Devils have struggled to get it done in the Region 7C Tournament.  Back at the Region 7C for a fourth-straight season, Watertown was just 1-5 in the Region 7C games heading into this year. They’ve also lost their past five Region 7C games.

This year was different for the Red Devils. You could see it from the very start. Instead of continued struggles at the Region 7C Tournament, Watertown won their first two games to clinch a spot at the Class C State Tournament for the first time since 2008. The ride didn’t stop there for the Red Devils.

Back at state, the Red Devils won their opening game at state despite some sloppy defense. Watertown committed five errors but did just enough to pick up a 5-2 win over Red Wing.

Watertown’s run came to an end with a tough 4-2 loss to Isanti in the second round.

It was fun to see this group come together and reach their goal this year. With a good group of young and talent and veteran leadership, the Red Devils will be a team to watch going forward for years to come.

CRVL All-Decade Team

Sticking with amateur baseball, putting together the Crow River Valley League All-Decade team this year was a lot of fun. Jeremy Stender, Chris Damman, Josh Monahan, and I met several different times virtually throughout the course of the project and it was a blast to look back on all the talent in the CRVL the past 10 years.

The CRVL is one of the best if not the best leagues in amateur baseball. With ranked teams every single year that feature perennial state title contenders, it’s an honor to cover such a talented league. The top-notch ballparks and concessions are just a bonus.

March Sadness?

There was plenty of heartbreak this past year for high school athletes. From not having a season at all to having seasons cut short, it was a year to remember.

Basketball is one of my favorite sports to cover. The section playoffs this past year was one to remember for sure. It was crazy the number of close finishes and heartbreaking losses I covered this past year.

Between the Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity boys basketball team and girls basketball team losing tight games in the final seconds and seeing the Mayer Lutheran girls unable to get past rival Heritage Chrisitan Academy in the section title game, it was a crazy year. There’s even more. The Watertown-Mayer boys basketball also suffered heartbreak at the buzzer. The Royals had two chances from 3-point range to tie the game but both wouldn’t fall as Blake held on for a three-point win.

While it would have been nice to see some area teams breakthrough this past winter, those games were pretty incredible and ones to remember for sure. It was a reminder that there are always two sides to March.

Gymnastics dynasty

The Watertown-Mayer/Mound Westonka gymnastics team is a force to be reckoned with. The Royals reached the Class A state tournament for a sixth-straight season after winning the Section 5A title once again.

“It’s so crazy,” sophomore Ella Blinkhorn said about getting back to state again. “It’s good to know as a team we were able to do it. We had a lot of people (wonder) if we’re going to be able to make it after losing all those seniors. It just felt really good to prove that we can do it.”

“It’s been a really rewarding year,” Royals coach Steve Hangartner said. “We started out with losing so many girls. It was kind of going to be a rebuilding year. Instead, we just kind of reloaded. From what they started out at to where they are now, that’s really rewarding. You see so much progress. They never gave up all year. They’ve been pushing it.”

The Royals didn’t settle for just getting back to state. They finished third as their young talent was on full display.

Covering the Royals at the state tournament has been a yearly tradition for me the past few seasons. The amount of talent they have is incredible. They also have a lot of fun together which is a fun part of covering them.

LP’s Hoof finishes season undefeated

The fall sports season was far from normal. That didn’t seem to bother Lester Prairie’s Addison Hoof. The eighth-grader had a season to remember as she won every single race she ran this season, including winning the Section 5A individual title.

Hoof has been a star in the making the past few seasons for the Bulldogs. With her still being very young, I look forward to seeing what else is in store for Hoof as she continues her career.

HLWW girls finish season undefeated

The Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted girls cross country team doesn’t rebuild. They reload.

Despite losing several key runners from their state meet teams the past few seasons, the Lakers had another big season this year.

HLWW won every meet this season they ran in, finishing the season undefeated. They also won the Section 5A title, their second section title in a row.

It came down to their sixth runner as the Lakers showed off their depth. That’s what’s fun to cover about HLWW. They know it takes a team to win and they did just that this season finishing the year undefeated.

Evan Lee’s big night

It was a day to remember for Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity’s Evan Lee for multiple reasons.

For one, the senior point guard for the Bulldogs found out earlier in the day a goal and dream of his was about to become a reality. Lee got the confirmation that he was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point, instantly changing his perspective on his future.

With all the pressure off and his future secured, Lee could simply do what he loves – play basketball. Lee was on fire early, scoring 25 first-half points for the Bulldogs in a huge 73-54 bounce-back win for the Bulldogs against Watertown-Mayer.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better day,” Lee said. “I think that really fueled how I played tonight. All the pressure was just off me. I just went out there and played.”

Lee was magical that first half for the Bulldogs and it was a ton of watch. He made the right play each time down the floor and led his team to a big win. There are not many performances like that each year, but I’m sure glad I was there to see that one in person.

Ben Borrell inducted into NSL Hall of Fame

After 20 impressive seasons with the Orphans organization, Ben Borrell was inducted into the North Star League Hall of Fame July 19 to honor his playing career and dedication to the game of baseball over the years.

“It’s truly an honor,” Borrell said in his speech. “When Bookie (Brian Larson) called, the word I used was thrilled. You don’t always get recognized for the work that you do over time. I’m really appreciative of everyone recognizing the time and effort I’ve put in. Thank you for that.”

Borrell’s amateur baseball career started with the Orphans back in 1998. It didn’t take him long to make an impact. He posted a batting average of .333 his first season, which was one of 10 seasons with an average of .300 or better in his career.

One of Borrell’s best seasons came in 2013 when he hit .484 with two home runs and 10 RBI. Over the course of his career, Borrell has been a key piece to the success of the Orphans, resulting in many state tournament appearances.

“There’s a quote that encapsulates how I feel about baseball and this wonderful game I’ve taken so much joy in,” Borrell said. “It goes like this. I’ve spent the majority of my life gripping this little white ball, only to realize it was the other way around all along.”

W-M’s Gabbert finishes second at state

Experience looms large at the state wrestling tournament. Watertown-Mayer junior Austin Gabbert had that on his side.

Gabbert, representing the Royals at 126, came in as the No. 5-ranked wrestler in Class AA at his weight class. He left as the Class AA state tournament runner-up, after taking second place at the state tournament this past weekend.

“Austin had an outstanding tournament,” W-M coach Kurt Becker said.  “His goal coming in was to make it to the finals.  He didn’t give up a point against his first two opponents.”

In the state title match, Gabbert took on the defending state champion in Simley’s Chase DeBlaere.  Gabbert found himself down 3-2 entering the final period in a tight match. Trailing, he was forced to be aggressive.

“Finishing my season in the finals was nice,” Gabbert said. “It was my one goal all season, and when I got there, I wanted to take home the first-place medal. I feel like I didn’t leave everything in my finals match, but it was a great learning experience for me.”

Gabbert recently signed with Augsburg University but will be looking to capture that elusive state title this year once the season begins.

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