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Winter not just about the cold

Winter is the price paid for those million dollar days that flash before us the other three seasons. But sometimes the dark months can provide bright moments hard to duplicate. Consider this from a reporter's notebook: Clutch in Cold Spring: Due ...

Winter is the price paid for those million dollar days that flash before us the other three seasons.

But sometimes the dark months can provide bright moments hard to duplicate. Consider this from a reporter's notebook:

Clutch in Cold Spring: Due to deadlines and distance, we don't often get to Willmar away games. But sports editor Scott Thoma figured the Rocori game at Cold Spring shaped up as big story worth the trip.

It turned out to be one of the best-played games this reporter can recall and remarkable for its double-barrel explosive ending.

Bob Brink's Spartans were 48-4 against Central Lakes Conference games competition the past three years with three conference titles and three section championships. Not as deep in talent as a year ago, they have the lankiness and skill-set typical of a Rocori team.

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Willmar was the CLC leader but had lost four straight to the Spartans and 8 of 9 going back to the start of the 2004-05 season.

It was a tight, well-played game that held the fans attention. In the final minutes, it looked like Brink's Spartans would prevail again. Rocori had the ball and a 51-46 lead with 1:00 minute left.

"I never thought we were out of it," senior guard Michael Dunham told me this week.

Dunham made a lay-up at 42 seconds and Jordan Smith a 3-pointer with :08 left to send it to overtime.

Willmar fell behind again but with 14 seconds left Smith drove the lane to tie it up 57-57. The Cardinal fan section was on its feet cheering wildly when Dunham stole the inbound pass and went in for the go-ahead lay-up, followed by a free throw, for the 60-57 final.

Asked about the trip home, Dunham replied: "We were all pretty worn out but I guess you could say it was one of our better bus rides."

Pond hockey: Brian Nelson graduated in 1984 and remains the all-time leading scorer in boys hockey. He signed with UM-Duluth and played on a line with the great Brett Hull. A knee injury ended his career early.

Now with a young family, he's built an ice rink on a slough in front of his house. Brian and Lisa Nelson live on the east side of Elkhorn Lake, which is between Willmar and Spicer.

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Their children go to New London-Spicer Schools. They'll probably be fine athletes like their dad and grandfather, Roy Nelson, who's in the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame.

Nelson and neighborhood friends have built side by side ice rinks. They've rigged up their own "Zamboni" using a farm tank and spray pipe on a wagon pulled by a 4-wheeler .

On Sunday, three little boys and an over-the-hill hockey-wanna-be played a game of 2-on-2 pond hockey. The rink glowed in the soft light of the setting sun -- a Minnesota scene worthy of a painting.

Nelson coaches mite hockey in the NLS-Paynesville association. The level of enthusiasm reminds him of his youth hockey days in Willmar in the 1970s. He wants to see the hockey numbers grow at two schools famous renowned for basketball and wrestling.

Fact: it's eight miles from the Willmar Civic Center to Nelson's house by the twin rinks. The Paynesville indoor rink, Brian said, is a 19-mile drive.

Closer to nature: Willmar Nordic held its first ever meet at Sibley State Park on Monday. The snow that came last November with only dustings since has clung like white asphalt to the trails. It was 38 degree, calm -- great for spectators. For one day, it was winter without annoyances.

For the first time in eight years, Willmar didn't have to get on a bus to go to a ski meet. They were the home team. It was a small meet -- five teams -- but in every meet there's always the challenge of the clock.

There were a lot of exhausted smiles at the finish line, which was on the road leading into the upper campground.

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Carl Fixsen, a senior, was first on the Willmar team and fifth overall. He's a soccer player in only his second year of Nordic. "I'd probably be home watching TV if I hadn't come out," he said.

He credits Phil Cleary, now at Gustavus Adolphus, with helping him get started. Nordic coach Brad Haugen, also an assistant soccer coach, urged him to give the sport a chance.

"It's a beautiful sport when it's done right," he said. "You watch the form of the top skiers, like the (St. Cloud) Tech guys, and it's wonderful to see."

Also a snowboarder and snowmobiler, Carl likes the way skiing gets him close to nature.

"When I practiced out here yesterday, the woods was quiet and beautiful. I had three deer hopping down the trail in front of me."

On the fly

- Swimmer Jackson Roberts has always had a great start in the 50 free, said his swimming coach Carl Shuldes. His shortfall in the big races has been the last 10 yards. Not this time as he set a True-Team state record of 22.12. Only Brad Lewis (1986) and Scott Hagemeyer (2003) have gone faster. Andy Johnson swan outstanding anchor legs in both freestyle relays (49.4 split in the 400).

- The ninth-grade wrestling team finished 10th in the Freshman State Meet at Hasting. The young Cards beat Coon Rapids, Forest Lake and St. Francis. The losses were to Apple Valley and Albert Lea. It's the second best finish by Willmar in the 9th-grade event.

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