No one will forget this past fall for many of the unfortunate reasons.
A fall prep sports season that already was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic ended prematurely when Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in an attempt to slow the rising number of coronavirus cases across the state.
Whether the season finished as scheduled or not, teams and athletes were never going to have state tournaments. Dating back to the first COVID-related stoppage in March, it's the third straight season where some athletes were denied the chance to compete at the state stage.
There were moments when I wondered if we should be playing at all. It seemed like every other day programs had to reschedule or cancel their events because area teams or their opponents had someone either contact the virus or show symptoms.
Ultimately, I supported the resumption of the fall activities as long as everyone involved — athletes, coaches, administrators, officials, fans — took the necessary precautions to keep us all safe. I made it a priority to do my part, trying as best as I could to keep at a distance.
Despite a shortened season with no state tournaments and an early ending, the kids got to do what they loved: compete. And I enjoyed covering every bit of it.
Here are the five top events that I got to see this fall:
St. Cloud Apollo at Willmar
The first event I covered this fall was when the Willmar boys soccer team opened its season with a 3-1 home loss against St. Cloud Apollo.
The scene inside Hodapp Field that evening felt fairly normal with roughly 125 fans in attendance. But, many precautions were taken to protect everyone inside the facility.
Soccer matches for the Cardinals’ boys and girls programs were played on the football field at Hodapp, as opposed to the normal soccer field directly next to it. While the football field has smaller playing dimensions due to the running track around it, the bleachers inside offered fans the chance to be seated at a social distance.
Before spectators got to their seats, they had to present designated passes produced by the Central Lakes Conference in order to purchase the tickets. The passes were distributed to the players and were meant to be given to immediate family members.
As the spectators made their way to their seats, signs were placed along their path reminding them to maintain social distances of six feet. Families were allowed to sit together, but for those that didn’t keep a six-foot distance, they had to wear a mask or facial covering. Several reminders were given over the public address system through the course of the match.
For those unable to attend, Willmar live-streamed all home contests under the YouTube page “Cardinal View.”
Procedures were also put in place for the athletes in an attempt to mitigate the chances of exposure. Cones six feet apart were placed behind the bench area for the players to set their equipment.
Welcome to the new normal.
Le Sueur-Henderson at Litchfield
With all the changes to the fall sports season, there’s one thing that remained the same: Litchfield’s dominance on the tennis court.
Finishing the season with a 13-1 record, the Dragons captured their fourth consecutive section title by defeating Le Sueur-Henderson 6-1.
Litchfield, the top seed in Section 2A, won every singles match and took two of three doubles matches against the Giants.
At the top of the singles lineup, senior Avery Stilwell capped her spectacular career with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Greta Nesbit. Like the team, Stilwell only lost one match this season.
Ryanna Steinhaus, Karlee Prahl and Janessa Olson also came away with singles victories in the season finale.
The top two doubles pairings emerged with wins. At first doubles, the Dragons team of junior Britney Prahl and sophomore Kylie Michels captured a 6-1, 6-2 win over the team of Emma Seaver and Chloe Brandt. The No. 2 doubles team of seniors Kelsey Ballard and Emma DeWolf defeated Anna Pavlo and Mia Schwarz 6-2, 6-0.
State tournament or not, Litchfield ended another girls tennis season knowing it has one of the best teams in the state.
Elsewhere in the area, New London-Spicer can also make that same claim after bringing home the Section 5A crown following a 6-1 win at top-seeded Pierz. It is the Wildcats’ second consecutive section title.
Morris/CA at Paynesville
Cold temperatures the night before Halloween could not slow down two of the most explosive offenses in Class AA. In a match-up of undefeated teams, Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta held on to a 34-30 triumph at Paynesville.
Behind the brilliance of Zach Bruns, the Tigers raced to a 34-6 third-quarter lead. With rushing touchdowns of 52 and 7 yards, the senior quarterback accounted for 177 yards on the ground. He also had a 14-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Soderberg.
The Bulldogs nearly pulled off the comeback behind the play of sophomore quarterback Grayson Fuchs, who was just as impressive in his first career start. Fuchs had four total touchdowns, the last of which was on a 4-yard run with 38.7 seconds remaining in regulation.
On the ensuing kickoff, a bouncing onside kick fell into the arms of Morris/CA senior tight end Toby Gonnerman to secure the win.
The two teams met three weeks later in the Section 5AA championship game. The rematch wasn’t as tight, with Morris/CA using a 26-point second quarter to 45-26 victory. The Tigers finished the season with a 6-1 record. Paynesville ended the year at 5-2, its lone two losses coming against Morris/CA.
KMS at MACCRAY
A five-set Camden Conference volleyball match in early November was as much about the loser as it was about the winner.
Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg rallied from down 2-1 to emerge with a thrilling 3-2 win at MACCRAY.
The set scores were 24-26, 25-20, 23-25, 25-22 and 15-13. It was KMS’ first win at MACCRAY since 2014.
The Wolverines played their first match in three weeks after having their season halted due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests at the school. Meanwhile, the Fighting Saints were playing in their eighth match. Despite their differences in time on the court, KMS and MACCRAY put together a competitive and compelling match.
Grace Collins led KMS with 36 assists and 23 digs. Haile Nichols paced the squad with 35 digs. Lauren Krieger added a team-high 14 kills and 23 digs. Maret Gjerde chipped in 13 kills and 19 digs.
For the home team, Sydney Thein put up 29 digs, 21 kills and 17 assists. Ella Bourne had a match-best 37 digs.
The Fighting Saints finished the season with a 7-3 record. MACCRAY recovered from the KMS loss by winning their final six matches of the season. The Wolverines ended with a 6-3 mark.
Rockford at Litchfield
Two days after Gov. Walz issued his executive order that put a pause on youth sports, the final game I covered was Litchfield’s first section title since 2006.
A lot less competitive than some of the other events on my list, Litchfield’s performance during a 55-14 thrashing of Rockford was every bit as entertaining.
Zooming from sideline-to-sideline, the Dragons defense forced four turnovers in the first half and collected four sacks over the course of the game.
The Litchfield offense … well … was the Litchfield offense. For the fifth time in seven games, the Dragons piled up 35 or more points.
In his final game, Ben Alsleben finished 25 of 38 passing for 403 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Also in their final games, Tyson Michels and Bennett Lecher each had nine catches and four combined touchdowns. Michels had a team-best 137 receiving yards. Lecher had 124.
Litchfield ended the season with a 6-1 record and was sixth in the final state rankings.