Athletics: 2021 provided many sports highlights for lakes area
The Brainerd Dispatch sports department selected its top 10 stories for 2021.
Despite still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brainerd lakes area was treated to a number of compelling and exciting sports stories in 2021.
The pandemic and its restrictions still affected what happened from a sports point of view, but area athletes took the necessary precautions to make sure they could compete and show off their talents on the field, court, ice, pool and whatever other surfaces could be imagined.
From the biggest stage in sports to the little personal accomplishments the lakes area enjoyed a good season of sports in 2021. Here are the top 10 stories according to the Dispatch sports department.
A super Super Bowl
Joe Haeg became the first Brainerd High School graduate to be part of a Super Bowl winning team after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 Sunday, Feb. 7.
Haeg, an offensive lineman, almost caught a touchdown pass from Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady in the first half. The trick play resulted in an incomplete pass.
Haeg was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2016 NFL draft, after graduating from North Dakota State University. After spending four seasons with the Colts, he signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay before the 2020 season. He appeared in 12 games and started three for the Bucs.
In the offseason, Haeg signed a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
An NHL debut
Brainerd High School graduate Cole Smith made his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators Thursday, Jan. 14, when they topped the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1. Smith became just the third Warrior to play in an NHL game and was Brainerd’s second active player as he joined Josh Archibald of the Edmonton Oilers. Carl Sneep was the first Warrior alum to find ice time in the NHL as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Smith was called up to the big stage again this season because of COVID-19.
Smith, who signed as a free agent by Nashville, March 19, 2020, has played in three NHL games. He’s attempted four shots and owns a plus/minus of -1.
The 26-year-old lefty is currently playing for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. In 22 games, he has five goals and eight assists. His teammate is fellow Brainerd graduate Mitch McLain, who has six goals and four assists in 27 games.
Smith, McLain, Chris Pohlkamp and Joey Frazer teamed up this offseason to form the Lakes Hockey Academy, which was conducted at Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd.
A class of her own
Central Lakes College Raiders head volleyball coach Jane Peterson notched her 700th career victory Wednesday, Oct. 20, after her team knocked off nationally-ranked Minnesota State 3-1 in Brainerd.
Peterson entered her 31st season, which included last year’s COVID-19 canceled season, with 682 career wins to go with 285 losses. The Raiders entered the Oct. 20 game with a 17-9 record and topped the Spartans 3-1 for the victory.
Peterson becomes just the 10th coach in NJCAA history to reach the milestone and the first from Minnesota.
The big win was made even more enjoyable as both the Raiders and Spartans would advance to the NJCAA Division III National Tournament in Rochester.
Following the game, second-year player Sarah Bennett said: “It was like Ken (assistant coach Ken Miller) said to Haley (Schleper) and I during practice, this was like a trial run for nationals because this is a nationally ranked team. We just knew that we had to trust each other and to push each other to be better at every point.”
“We are more of a mellow team so we just like to take a deep breath before every game and go over our goals and in this game, we achieved that.”
Ten days later, the Raiders eliminated No. 2 seeded Northland 3-0 from the Region 13-B playoffs to advance to the program’s 17th national tournament.
Before the national tournament, CLC’s Haley Schleper was named the Northern Division Player of the Year. She was joined by Bennett, Grace Peabody and Megan Rinicker as members of the North All-Division team. Teammate Jaime Johnson was named to the second all-division team.
CLC stumbled out of the blocks for nationals, losing to No. 5 seeded Suny Broome in the quarterfinals. The Raiders rebounded in the consolation bracket with back-to-back 3-0 wins over Rowan College and Butler County to finish fifth in the nation and conclude with a 23-10 overall record.
The sounds of summer returned
The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals returned to Brainerd International Raceway after a year off because of COVID-19 Friday, Aug. 20.
Racing resumed for Top Fuel and Funny Car, but BIR fans missed the Pro Stock division, which chose not to compete in the lakes area.
The raceway still enjoyed nitro-fueled excitement as Matt Hagen defeated Cruz Pedregon to win the Funny Car class. Hagen knocked off top-seeded BobTasca III in the semifinals and earlier topped Paul Lee and Dale Creasy to face Pedregon.
Steve Torrance clipped Clay Millican for the Top Fuel title. Torrance, who had not won at BIR before despite having 50 career wins.
He eliminated Terry Totten and Justin Ashley before defeating Millican in the finals.
The lack of Pro Stock was not a surprise as it was announced before the 2020 season. Pro Stock cut its events to 17 from 24. Sadly, Duluth native Greg Anderson was a fan favorite in the Pro Stock class.
Moving on u p
Charlie Campbell resigned from his position as Brainerd Warriors activities director July 16 to accept the position of associate director of the Minnesota State High School League.
Campbell started at Brainerd on Aug. 1, 2011. During his 10 years at Brainerd Campbell hired 20 of the current 31 varsity head coaches including first-year head boys hockey coach Howie Borden. He helped design and implement the Lower Site improvements, including adding synthetic turf to the stadium field in 2014.
He implemented the “Why We Play” coaching curriculum focusing on education-based, character-based and purpose-centered coaching.
He helped add two new sports to Brainerd in boys and girls lacrosse in 2017.
Brainerd head dance team coach Cindy Clough said upon hearing of Campbell’s resignation: “I loved working with Charlie,” Clough said. “I always felt like I had an advocate and could talk to him about anything. I feel like it’s a big loss to our district, but I think he’ll do super at the state high school league. I can see why the league wants Charlie Campbell. It’s a great opportunity for him, but he’ll be missed.”
He became just the 14th director in the 105-year history of the league.
Campbell’s successor Jack Freeman was announced Aug. 9. The former Brainerd High School graduate came back to the lakes area two years prior to coach the Brainerd/Little Falls girls hockey team. Freeman quickly had to find a new head gymnastics coach, which he did with Jessica Lofrano-Larson.
To fill Freeman’s role as the head girls hockey coach, he hired his assistant coach Tate Rusk Sept. 17.
The Staples-Motley girls’ cross-country team saw three runners earn all-state honors leading to a team state title Nov. 6 in the Class 1A state meet at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
S-M scored 103 points to better second-place Perham, which finished with 109 points.
Kyanna Burton placed fourth followed by Aften Robinson in 10th and Audrey Brownell in 13. Those three earned All-State honors which is given to the top 25 runners in each class. Ashley Robben finished 64th and Naila Mikhaeil was 80th for the Cardinals.
On the boys’ side, S-M placed fifth as a team with Issiah Tabatt’s ninth-place time of 15:49.08 leading the way.
Pierz’s Ethan Kowalczyk also earned All-State honors with his 10th-place showing.
In the Class 2A state meet, Pequot’s Calia Chaney finished third to earn all-state honors and the Pequot Lakes boys team finished 15th.
Thomas Ruhl led the Brainerd Warriors boys cross-country team to a 15th-place showing at the Class 3A State meet.
Ruhl finished 29th followed by Adam Cady in 107th, Braden Capelle in 127th, Bennet Capelle in 128th and Michael Howe in 136th.
S-M running down titles
Emmet Anderson got his state title.
Although it came in track and field and not cross-country is no matter as the Staples-Motley High School graduate and current University of Minnesota Gopher won the Class 1A state 3200-meter title June 17.
The Cardinal senior missed his chance for state glory in cross-county as the season ended after sections.
He won the 3200 with a time of 9:17.11. One day later he added a sixth-place finish in the 1600 run.
Other Class 1A track and field highlights were Pequot Lakes’ 4x800 relay of Dawsin Ackerman, Isaak Geroy, Jesse Clausen and Ethan Johnson that placed fourth. Crosby-Ironton’s Nick Nierenhausen placed seventh in the pole vault.
The Pequot Lakes’ girls 4x800 relay also placed fourth. The team of Veronica Broskovets, Carly Chaney, Lydia Hubbard and Calia Chaney posted a 9:50.41. Pierz’s Ashley Kimman finished third in the high jump.
Class 2A track and field highlights included the Brainerd Warriors foursome of Molly Hagelie, Myah Nelson, Madi Genz and Brenna Deason posting a third-place time of 48.83 in the 4x100-yard relay June 19.
Deason also finished eighth in the 100 dash and 12th in the pole vault.
Hannah Caughey secured a sixth-place in the shot put and a seventh-place in the discus helping Brainerd to an 11th-place team finish.
Brainerd’s 4x800 boys relay of Baden Bastian, Brandon Stark, Ethan Klisch and Thomas Ruhl placed sixth with an 8:04.35. Dylan Gross also finished sixth in the shot put with a 51-0.75 effort.
Almost title town
Staples-Motley senior Beck Erholtz was one shot away from winning the Class 2A state boys golf tournament. This despite recording his first-ever hole-in-one during the final round June 16 at Ridges at Sand Creek in Jordan.
The current North Dakota State University golfer started Day Two three shots off the lead, but quickly made up ground on Cloquet’s Sam Baker. A big swing came on the 90-yard par 3 15th hole. With a 54-degree wedge in hand, Erholtz recorded an ace.
“I was kind of hitting the ball all over the place until that happened,” Erholtz said. “It was nice to get myself back to even-par and reset with 12 holes to go.”
Erholtz finished with a two-day 142 that missed a share of a state title by one stroke. His strong finish helped the Cardinals boys team to a seventh-place finish.
Erholtz’s No. 1 competition during the regular season, Tyler Seeling of Pequot Lakes finished 23rd to earn All-State honors.
Fellow Pequot Lakes player Morgan Krieger tallied a two-day 167 to place ninth on the girls’ side of the tournament to also earn All-State honors. She led the Patriots team to fifth place.
In the Class 1A tournament at Pebble Creek Golf Course in Becker, Pine River-Backus’ Hannah Barchus placed sixth for All-State honors. She posted rounds of 89-82 for a 171.
There were three All-State finishes in the Class 3A tournament at Bunker Hills in Coon Rapids as Brainerd’s Anna Krieger tied for seventh, Erik Stoxen tied for 15th and Izzy Olson tied for 24th.
Stoxen fired rounds of 74-72 for his 146. It was his second state tournament appearance.
Krieger opened the tournament with an even-par 72 and followed it with a 77 for a two-day 149. Olson finished with 76-84-160.
Current senior Kaite Foley finished just out of all-state honors as she placed 31st with a two-day 163.
Stoxen advanced to his second state tournament with a fourth-place finish in the Section 8-3A Tournament. He posted a two-day 147.
The Brainerd girls saw Izzy Olson place third in the Section 8-2A meet with a 152. Katie Foley was fifth with a 157 and Anna Krieger seventh with a 162 to advance.
The Little Falls Flyers’ boys hockey season ended with a 4-1 loss to Dodge County in the Class 1A State Semifinals April 2.
The Flyers opened the state tournament by defeating Delano 2-1 in the quarterfinals and advanced to state with a 2-1 victory over Fergus Falls in the Section 6-1A championship game.
It was also the last game for retired head coach Tony Couture, whose final team finished with a 14-5-1 overall record. Couture’s retirement didn’t last long as he is now the goalie coach for the Brainerd/Little Falls Warriors girls hockey program.
The Flyers held a 1-0 lead after current senior George Moore scored 16:40 in the first period. The goal was assisted by Matt Filippi and Nicholas Stevens.
The Flyers weren’t the only lakes area hockey team to advance to state. Making their state debut was the Northern Lakes Lightning, which qualified for state with a 6-3 pounding of Monticello in the Section 5-1A title game.
The Lightning ran into a hockey juggernaut and eventual state champion in Gentry Academy in the quarterfinals and fell 8-0. Gentry asked to move up to Class 2A this season. The Lightning finished the season with an 18-4 record.
Little Falls and Northern Lakes matched up against each other Tuesday, Dec. 28, with the Flyers pulling off the victory. Weirdly, the Flyers, the defending Section 6-1A champs moved to Section 5-1A after the two-year section realignment. The Lightning, the section 5-1A defending champs, moved to Section 6-1A.
Little Falls is currently ranked third in Class 1A and owns an 11-0 record before Thursday’s game with Windom.
The Aitkin Gobblers finished the 2020 school year with an 8-4 victory over Plainview-Elgin-Millville in the third-place game of the Class 2A state baseball tournament June 16 in St. Cloud.
A few hours before, the Gobblers fell to Belle Plaine 4-2 in the state semifinals to drop them into the third-place game. Against PEM, Joey Simonson pitched the victory, which was Aitkin’s 23rd of the season. He struck out four and allowed no hits in 3.1 innings. Caiden Kjelstrom, Hunter Nissen and Jake Ince all tallied two hits and Landon Janzen collected three hits for Aitkin.
In the state quarterfinals, Aitkin right-hander Logan Olson struck out seven and allowed just two hits over seven innings to pitch the Gobblers to a 2-0 victory over No. 2 seeded Albany.
“It was unbelievable,” Olson said after the win. “I wouldn’t want to play with a different team. It was just a surreal moment to be out there. It was so cool.”
Aitkin wasn’t the only lakes area team in the bracket as the Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines defeated Perham to win the Section 8-2A title.
The fourth-seeded Wolverines ran into Conner Schumacher in the state quarterfinals. Schumacher pitched for PEM and silenced W-DC’s hot bats for a 3-1 loss
W-DC ended the season with a 25-4 record.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.