The year 2020 will go down as one of the worst years for sports. From countless postponements to outright cancelations to even events held without any fans, few things were worth celebrating this past year when it came to sports.
But we here at the Brainerd Dispatch sports department did find a few things worth remembering. Here are the top 10 sports stories for the year 2020:
No. 1: A world series first
Don’t worry, we’ll mention COVID-19 soon enough, but we decided to start with something good and unforgettable.
Oct. 21 marked the first time a Brainerd High School graduate appeared in a World Series game. Nick Anderson, Major League Baseball’s top middle reliever, entered Game Two in the bottom of the fifth inning and struck out Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner to end the inning.
The Tampa Bay Rays pitcher went 1 1/3 innings and allowed one hit, one earned run and two strikeouts to earn the win to even the series at one game apiece.
In the bottom of the sixth, after retiring the leadoff hitter Max Muncy, he gave up a solo home run to Dodgers’ catcher Will Smith which trimmed the Rays’ lead to 6-3.
Anderson retired the next two batters, including a strikeout of Edwin Rios, to end the inning.
The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series and Anderson admittedly struggled during the postseason compared to his almost unhittable regular season.
That didn't stop MLB from honoring Anderson as one of the most dominant relievers in the game in just his second season in the league.
His stellar 2020 regular season earned him a spot on the All-MLB first team as one of the two relief pitchers. The All-MLB winners are selected with 50% coming from a fan vote and 50% coming from a panel of experts. It’s the second season MLB has announced an All-MLB team.
Anderson posted a 0.55 ERA in 16 1/3 innings in the 19 games he played in 2020. He struck out 26 and walked three.
He allowed one earned run all regular season and it came in his 15th appearance and 13th inning pitched.
For his two-year career, Anderson is 7-5 with seven saves, 22 holds and a 2.77 ERA. He’s appeared in 87 games with 12 games finished. He’s pitched 81.1 innings and allowed 25 earned runs on 57 hits and 21 walks -- four intentional. He owns 136 strikeouts.
When asked what it was like to pitch in the World Series, despite few fans being allowed because of the pandemic Anderson said: “Man, it was a lot of fun. I wish everything would have been normal, but it was still a great experience. We'll see what happens this next year, maybe be back there.”
No. 2: COVID cancels sports
It started March 12 and never got better.
The first remedy for COVID-19 was to limit spectators at the boys and girls state basketball tournaments.
“In a press release before 1 p.m. Thursday, March 12, the Minnesota State High School League wrote that attendance at tournaments will be limited to rostered participants, coaches, event staff, TV network partners, credentialed media and a small number of school-approved spectators of each participating teams.
Starting Friday, consolation and third-place games for state girls basketball and adapted floor hockey have been canceled.”
It went from bad to worse in a day.
“Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, The Minnesota State High School League announced Friday that effective immediately, the state high school girls basketball tournaments, the boys’ high school section tournament games and next week’s boys’ state tournament have been canceled.”
Then the news turned to spring sports and the speculation and wait might have been worse than the actual announcement that spring sports would be canceled.
“The Minnesota State High School League announced Thursday, April 23, that all activities and athletics that occur during the spring season are canceled for the 2019-20 school year.
This announcement comes from the MSHSL board of directors and comes on the same day Governor Tim Walz announced distance learning would continue for the rest of the school year.”
Restrictions were put in place for offseason contact and workouts. Gyms and weight rooms and pools remained closed. Speculation quickly turned to the fall sports season.
And the craziness ensued.
“The Minnesota State High School League announced Tuesday, Aug. 4, that fall sports like boys and girls cross-country, boys and girls soccer, girls tennis and girls swimming and diving will go as scheduled while football and volleyball will be moved to spring.”
That decision didn’t last long, however, as mounting pressure from parent groups forced the MSHSL to change course mid-fall.
“Football and volleyball are happening earlier than expected in the 2020-21 school year.
The Minnesota State High School League announced Monday, Sept. 21, after a meeting that volleyball and football will return in the fall and not play in the spring as initially decided in August.
Both sports will begin practice Monday, Sept. 28, with first games being possible Thursday, Oct. 8, for volleyball and Friday, Oct. 9, for football. Volleyball and football have already been holding practice, which was deemed OK by the previous plan laid out by the MSHSL in August.”
And while most got in a regular season, teams like the Brainerd Warriors and Pine River-Backus Tigers struggled to get in the allowed number of games. Brainerd couldn’t play its first game because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the school. The Warriors also failed to suit up for their final regular-season game because of a positive test on the team. The Warriors played in just four games last fall.
PR-B played in just two regular-season games, but did get in one postseason game where they upset Walker-Hackensack-Akeley in the quarterfinals.
The victory should have allowed PR-B to play at least one more game, but then COVID-19 made sure to add insult to injury by forcing all fall sports to end Friday, Nov. 20. It also postponed the start of all winter sports.
Some sections choose to forgo the section semifinal round and push the top two seeds into a section title game. That’s why PR-B’s season ended with them winning their last game. Pierz and Pequot Lakes were pushed into their respective section title games. Unfortunately, Aitkin, which enjoyed a 6-1 season and was the top seed in Section 7-3A didn’t get that luxury. They were forced to end their season with a 56-6 section semifinal victory over Virginia.
The area did see one section title as the No. 3 seeded Crosby-Ironton Rangers topped the only other two teams left in its Section 7-2A tournament to win the program’s first section title.
No. 3: The end of a winning era
In any other normal year, this news would have been No. 1 in sports and even on some news lists. But 2020 was far from normal and it started out that way.
“For the first time since 1975, a head coach other than Ron Stolski will be pacing the Brainerd Warriors sideline at Adamson Field in 2020.
Stolski, a head coach for 58 total seasons, the last 45 in Brainerd, informed the 2019 team of his decision to resign in a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 22, at Brainerd High School South Campus.”
Stolski retired at 80 years old and as the second-winningest football coach in Minnesota State High School League history.
On the day of his retirement, Stolski talked about why he coached for so many years.
“One of the lines I use in my speaking across the country is, ‘When you choose a life in teaching/coaching, you choose to try to make a difference in the lives you touch,’ Stolski said. “My fervent hope is that we have in some way accomplished that goal.”
Stolski finished with 389 career victories a few highlights were:
A 12-10 win over third-ranked Cretin-Derham Hall in the 1990 Class 2A state quarterfinals. A 36-35 regular-season win over Grand Rapids in 1992 when the Warriors rallied from a 20-point deficit halftime deficit. A 14-10 win in the final 65 seconds of the 2007 Class 5A state quarterfinals over sixth-ranked Wayzata. A 34-28 overtime win over sixth-ranked Centennial in the 2009 5A state quarterfinals, scoring 14 straight points in the final seven minutes of regulation. The biggest gem of them all might have been a 13-10 win over third-ranked Eden Prairie in the 2010 5A state quarterfinals.
Thanks to COVID-19 the Brainerd community has not been allowed to give Stolski a retirement party. The committee organizing the event, which was last scheduled for Sept. 19 at Cragun’s Resort, will meet later this month to pick an appropriate date and place.
No. 4: Warrior Dance team still makes history
Before COVID-19 ruined everything, the Brainerd lakes area did enjoy some athletic success.
For just the second time in program history, Brainerd advanced to the Class 3A state jazz finals and then posted a program-best fifth-place finish Friday, Feb. 14, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
“Our girls did great,” Brainerd head coach Cindy Clough said after the event. “We were really proud of them. Oh, my gosh, everybody in the finals was fabulous. There were kind of three teams vying for that fifth and sixth place spot and Lakeville North was the one that didn’t make it in. They were close.”
Brainerd finished fifth after the opening-round qualifying to advance to finals. Clough said Brainerd was ranked sixth going in, but topped Prior Lake, which finished sixth, and Lakeville North.
Brainerd also improved its score by 10 points in the finals.
A day later Brainerd was dancing in the Class 3A state kick finals and placed fourth.
“We performed way better at finals than we did at prelims,” Clough said at the time. “Our scores went way up. We performed way better in the evening and we were pleased with that.
“We placed fourth, which we are proud of. I think our kids were a little disappointed because they were so set on medaling. But with time they will look back and think it’s amazing what they accomplished.”
Prior to the state tournament, Brainerd repeated as double section champions in both jazz and kick Feb. 1 in Forest Lake.
Brainerd scored four rank points in both categories. They beat Anoka by four rank points in jazz and Blaine by six rank points in kick.
No. 5: 2 collect state titles in the nick of time
Owen Bjerga waited a whole year for redemption. Craig Orlando marked his place as one of the best to ever wrestle for the Raiders.
Staples-Motley Cardinals’ Bjerga and Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale’s Orlando captured Class 1A state wrestling titles before COVID-19 shutdown prep athletics.
“Bjerga at 160 pounds pinned Max Ehrich of Blue Earth in 1:58 in the semifinals to reach the finals. He then pinned Anthony Maher of BOLD in 1:55 to claim the title.
The state championship is extra special for Bjerga, who was the No. 1 seed for the 160 Class 1A bracket, since last season he finished second in heartbreaking fashion.
“It has not quite set in yet,” Bjerga said. “It felt pretty good to do it like that. It’s hard to explain the feeling. For all the years of hard work to pay off. It’s pretty cool.”
Bjerga finished his senior season with a 45-1 record.
Orlando came in with two state titles at 285 pounds. Seeded No. 1 in the 285 Class 1A bracket, Orlando pinned both of his opponents to reach the semifinals.
In the semifinals, he won by a 1-0 decision over Dylan Nick of Westfield. Orlando pinned Scot Edwards of Adrian in 3:07 in the finals to finish the season 50-0 and as a three-time state champion.
Aitkin’s Marshall Larson and Crosby-Ironton’s John Paul Fitzpatrick each wrestled back to earn third-place finishes.
No. 6: Silence not a good thing at BIR
It was inevitable with spectators not being allowed, but like all things in 2020 Brainerd International Raceway was holding out hope.
That hope didn’t materialize as the NHRA canceled the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals annually held Sept. 3 at BIR.
Originally scheduled for Aug. 13-16, the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHRA and BIR hoped to reschedule it this month but BIR’s location and climate this time of year presented scheduling challenges.
“We feel horrible having to deliver this news today because we have thousands of loyal fans who look forward to Nationals every year and plan their entire summer around it,” BIR Owner Kristi Copham said in a press release at the time. “We also feel for local businesses that rely on the added revenue from Nationals weekend. It’s been a difficult summer for everyone, but we appreciate everyone’s support and we hope to see everyone at next year’s Nationals.”
The one silver lining is that the NHRA is already scheduled to return next season.
Nitro-fueled NHRA drag racing returns to Brainerd International Raceway for the 39th Annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals on Aug. 19-22, 2021, the NHRA announced Wednesday, Oct. 7.
“We can’t wait for August 19th, and I know our fans will be really amped up for the race after having to take this year off,” Copham said. “We can’t thank our fans enough for being patient and understanding during last season. We felt horrible for having to cancel the race because our fans are the best drag racing fans in the world and deserve to get their annual dose of Nitro each year, not to mention some quality time in The Zoo. We’re looking forward to putting on a great event next summer as we welcome everyone back.”
In an interview last summer, Copham said the NHRA event accounts for 75% of BIR’s annual income.
No. 7: The beginning of the Jason Freed era
It probably wasn’t the start any first-year head coach would want, especially one replacing a coaching legend.
COVID-19 created multiple complications for new Brainerd Warriors head football coach Jason Freed -- from a canceled opening-season game to the premature ending to the season.
The long-time defensive coordinator for the Warriors was promoted to head coach Friday, March 6.
The Brainerd activities department received 12 applications and interviewed four candidates.
“This wasn’t a hard decision because we went through the process and Jason clearly separated himself from the rest of the pool,” Brainerd activities director Charlie Campbell said about the hiring. “His previous experience as a head coach, winning a state championship, but beyond that success, Jason really articulated a great vision for continuing on and advancing the foundations of a really strong Warrior football tradition that coach Stolski created.”
After having to cancel its opening game with Cambridge-Isanti, Freed and the Warriors finally took to the field against St. Cloud Apollo Saturday, Oct. 17.
The Warriors handed Freed his first victory as head coach of the Warriors with a 35-30 win over the Eagles.
Brainerd struggled against top competition the rest of the season before another case of COVID-19 forced the Warriors to end the season Thursday, Nov. 12. Brainerd was to host Sartell and then head into the playoffs.
“It’s a tough thing to swallow,” Freed said after informing his players of the news. “I told the kids, that you all have things in life we think we can control, but there are some things that we can’t control. We’ve been talking with the kids since this summer about ‘You control the controllables.’ This is one of those things where we can do our best to try and prevent, but when it comes to it you can’t control it. It’s tough and it’s hard to let it set in.
“Our mantra all year has been Warrior Pride and our core values of purpose and maintaining relationships, improving daily and discipline and effort. We just talked about those things and how they correlate with life and how it shows that we are a team.”
Brainerd finished the year 1-3.
No. 8: Running away from the pack
The abbreviated fall season wasn’t all bad.
In fact, it displayed some dominating performances in cross-country with both the Staples-Motley Cardinals and Pequot Lakes Patriots sweeping their sections.
S-M’s Emmet Anderson won the Section 6-1A individual title with a time of 15:51.1 as the Cardinals boys claimed the section championship Tuesday, Oct. 13.
On the same day, Ethan Johnson’s fourth-place finish paced the Patriots boys to the Section 7-1A championship in Cloquet.
S-M beat West Central by two points. Behind Anderson were Issiah Tabatt (fifth in 16:59.4), Lyle Brownell (9th in 17:32), Logan Robben (10th in 17:33.3), Luke Brownell (13th in 18:00.3), Tanner Robben (18th in 18:15.7) and Grant Johnson (19th in 18:22.4).
The Patriot boys topped defending state champion Geno Uhbrom’s Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin team by four points.
After Johnson’s fourth-place finish was Jesse Clausen (7th in 17:30.5), Dawsin Ackerman (15th in 17:54.5), Collin Yahn (18th in 17:59.1), Charlie Schiessl (23rd in 18:24.4) and Isaak Geroy (30th in 18:33.4).
Calia Chaney and the Pequot Lakes Patriots girls showed the boys team how it’s done Monday, Oct. 12, by winning the Section 7-1A title.
Chaney won the individual section title in 18:48.6 and the Patriots bettered Proctor by four points for the team title.
Following Chaney were Rian Zutter (4th in 20:01.8), Carly Chaney (6th in 20:28.7), Isabel Larson (43rd in 22:35.8), Emma Flaws (48th in 22:45.8), Lilix Gustafson (64th in 23:27.6) and Elisa Flaws (67th in 23:33.7).
The biggest winning margin belonged to the S-M girls team which captured the Section 6-1A title by 45 points over second-place West Central Thursday, Oct. 15 in New London. It is the third-straight section title for the S-M girls.
Kyanna Burton’s third-place time of 19:15.8 paced S-M. She was followed by Aften Robinson (4th in 19:28.1), Auddrey Brownell (7th in 20:22.2), Ashley Robben (9th in 20:54.8), Naila Mikhaeil (14th in 21:22.0), Addisyn Cichos (45th in 22:44.6) and Arabella Moore (109th in 24:41.4).
No. 9: Winners of their final match
Continuing with the theme that it wasn’t such a terrible fall sports season, the Pequot Lakes Patriots girls tennis team repeated as Section 7-1A winners.
Top-seeded Pequot swept the singles portion of the section final to defeat No. 4 Pine City 5-2 Monday, Oct. 12.
The Patriots’ other victory came at No. 1 singles where Afton Crocker and Morgan Lueck rallied from a first-set loss to win 1-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) to help Pequot finish the season 13-0.
Pequot dispatched Duluth Marshall 7-0 in the section semifinals and ousted Aitkin 7-0 in the quarterfinals.
Pequot posted a perfect 10-0 regular-season record to help them win the Mid-State Conference title.
There was no individual tournament nor state tournament this season.
No. 10: Haeg signs on for a Super Bowl ring
Here’s hoping next year’s top story is the first Brainerd High School graduate to play in a Super Bowl.
Brainerd grad and former Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Joe Haeg signed a one-year, $2.3 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Friday, March 20.
“I think a lot of things came into play with Tampa,” Haeg said following the signing. “My former O-line coach Joe Gilbert, who was with me for two years in Indianapolis, he’s there now. They also provided an opportunity that I was excited about. Going into it I know they were interested in me. It all piled up with a perfect storm and I was very happy to end up with the Bucs.”
Haeg and the Bucs are 10-5 heading into the final week of the regular season. The Bucs have already clinched a Wild Card spot in the upcoming NFL postseason.
Haeg has played in 11 games for the Bucs and started three of those. In Tampa’s 47-7 victory over Detroit Dec. 26, Haeg played 17 offensive snaps and eight special teams plays.
In his five-year career, the former North Dakota State University grad has played in 66 games with 38 starts.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.