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Tourneys offer holiday treat for fans

Call it Holiday Madness, Kandiyohi County style. The annual Bremer Bank Classic at Willmar and the West Central Tribune/WildCard -- this year at New London -- feature tantalizing possibilities as the double-zilch decade comes to a close.

Fans and, yes, sportswriters can be forgiven for anticipating a New London-Spicer vs. Willmar showdown in each.

The Willmar boys and girls are both rated in the middle of the Class AAA top ten while the Wildcat juggernauts are at the top in Class AA. All four teams head to Christmas undefeated.

The Bremer Classic starts 6 p.m. Saturday with NLS (7-0) playing Fond du Lac, followed by Benson and Willmar.

Haven't heard of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Ogichida (Warriors)? Neither had I, but the Warriors were the only team to bite when Willmar activities director Jamie Thompson advertised the opening the previous school year. Thompson said it's getting harder to find teams willing to travel during the break and many tournaments advertised one or two openings.

Fond du Lac is a reservation school for American Indian students established in 1980. The high school enrollment is listed at 34 on the Minnesota State High School League website. The Warriors (2-4) average 73 points per game.

Benson (Class AA) has posted victories over Ortonville and BOLD and has lost by 31 points to MACCRAY, No. 1 ranked in Class A.

New London-Spicer and Willmar have faced off in the last six tournament finals with the winner alternating each meeting. Following that trend, this is the Wildcats' turn since the Cardinals prevailed 70-65 in 2008 in Willmar.

The Wildcats are enjoying peak years athletically. Practically every player that shows up in the box scores made substantial contributions on the football team that won the Class AA football championship at the Metrodome on Nov. 28. Names like Jayme Moten, Aaron Johnson, Justin and Brandon Zylstra, Jake Essler and Erik Tengwall.

Willmar has less size overall, but is well-rounded and it does have one of the more exciting ballplayers in recent Cardinal basketball history. Taylor Filipek, a 6-6 senior, is averaging 26 points-per-game and 10 rpg. Junior Brian Reeves has scored 52 points in his three games played this season.

Willmar's early success has rested, too, on the play the perimeter people, none of whom had extensive varsity time last season. Sam Esboldt, Andrew Bangen and Sam Spaulding have stepped confidently into starting roles. Esboldt, a forward who has been striking from three-point range, has twice hit double figures. Bangen has been solid handling the ball and Spaulding has shown up well on defense while posting highs of 10 rebounds and seven points.

The WildCard

The West Central Tribune/WildCard Tournament, which alternates home floors between the neighboring school districts, dovetails with the boys event by starting Tuesday and ending Wednesday with the championship game starting around 7:45 p.m. in New London.

Fact: the head coaches of the co-hosts have a combined 1,262 wins -- New London-Spicer mentor Mike Dreier has 706 (most in Minnesota girls history) and Brad Atchison of Willmar has 557.

The New London-Spicer Wildcats (7-0) placed third in Class AA last year and are ranked No. 2 today.

Cassie Ziemer has been on the varsity five years, while Karli Wendlandt, Taylor Thompsen and Justine Dammermann are in their fourth year playing together on varsity. Abbey Knisely, a junior, has been on the varsity since her freshman season.

The same student/athletes had prominent roles in the Wildcats reaching this fall's state volleyball tournament.

To score just 30 points against the Wildcats' defense this month has been a feat. Five teams have not reached 25 points.

Benson is off to a fine start. The Braves are 6-1 heading to the holidays with a talented team headed up by 1,000-point scorer Abby Fragodt.

Willmar meets Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg in the first round. The Fighting Saints, who will be playing up two classes, won its first four, but since have dropped two straight.

It's not a big surprise Willmar is off to a 5-0 start. The Cardinals start an all-senior lineup with a tall front line.

Senior 6-4 post Alex Lippert has become a scorer, averaging in double figures. And like the Wildcats' Knisely, Lippert is a menacing shot blocker. Jen Knake has made an impact in her first season playing a regular varsity role. Jena Thompson has an all-around game. The two-time All-Conference choice averages about 10 points and nine rebounds and is the team's assist leader. Mariel Aamot is averaging 10 points and Hannah Smith is a force at both ends of the court. There's good depth, too, this year.

NLS and Willmar have met in the last three finals, NLS winning twice, including 47-32 last year.

Hockey on road

Coach Dan Tollefson insists his team is still in its formative stage and he won't know what he's got until mid-January.

But the 5-1 start matches a 5-1 start in 1999 under John Wilson, a stretch that included wins over Alexandria and Roseau (yes, Roseau). The loss was to Lake of the Woods.

This run's most impressive win was 3-2 over Alexandria, a team with high expectations after just missing out on state a year ago.

As anticipated, the all-junior first-line of Gabe Amon, Liam Johnston and Grant Schow is carrying the scoring load so far, accounting for 16 of the squad's 22 goals.

The defense has allowed less than two goals per game. Goalies Keifer Dahle and Ben Leitch have split starts and have near identical save percentages of .935 and .928.

The Cardinals play three games at the Koronis Arena in Paynesville, starting with a Central Lakes Conference game against the host team River Lakes, at 8 p.m. Monday. On the second day of the three-day play down, Willmar will meet either Luverne or Pierre, S.D.

The girls hockey team (7-4) meets Albert Lea (4-6) in the first round of the eight team Austin Merchants Tournament at Riverside Arena Monday through Wednesday. In Willmar's opposite bracket are Northern Edge (Wis.) and New Prague.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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