BERNADEAU: I got five on it, my top five winter events moments

Area basketball, Willmar gymnastics and hockey all reasons to reminisce

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Willmar junior Abby Coquyt looks over to the judges after sticking her landing on the uneven bars during a Central Lakes Conference meet against Brainerd on Dec, 20, 2019 from Willmar High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Another day, another time I pull out a chair and plop down at the kitchen table.

But as I turn to my right and stare out the window, the conditions outside appear to be picturesque.

There isn’t a cloud in sight. Additionally, birds are continuously chirping to their tiny hearts’ delight, serving as a soundtrack to this beautiful day.

Coming from a state packed with sunshine and palm trees, the temperatures still don’t match up. But in the middle of my third year as a Midwesterner, I can’t knock the unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced this spring.

Yet, I’m yearning for the days of negative temps where I can barely feel my face. The snow, the icy roads, the layers upon layers of clothes, I miss it all. Safe to say, the winter was the last period of normalcy that we’ve all experienced.


The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted life as we once knew it. On the more serious scale of issues, the coronavirus has devastated lives and families around the globe. On the less serious side of things, I have stared at my blank apartment walls for an obscene amount of time while being stuck at home during this self-quarantine.

I’m grateful that, for the time being, I’m still able to work from home and still provide for myself. Not everyone can say that, and that’s something that isn’t lost on me. However, it’s hard being a sports writer when there’s no sports. I miss the competition. I miss the action. I even miss frantically trying to make deadline.

Coronavirus has temporarily taken away our ability to look forward to what’s next on the schedule. But it hasn’t taken away our ability to reminisce on the excitement from the past.

With that said, here are my five favorite events I got to cover during the previous sports season:

Willmar Cardinals Class A state gymnastics team championship meet Sights from the state championship meet Friday afternoon at Roy Wilkins Auditorium

Dec. 20: Brainerd at Willmar gymnastics (Abby Coquyt’s return)

After back-to-back trips to state, the Willmar gymnastics team opened the 2019-20 campaign needing to fill 12 of its 20 spots from the previous season.

While a couple of those vacant spots were due to graduation, the team would get a bit of a lift from the return of Abby Coquyt. The junior, who was named a captain for the season, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury during the summer. She was cleared by her doctors six weeks ahead of an expected January return.


After talking to Abby for my season preview, I had consistent communication with Cardinals co-head coaches Doug Rossum and Jodi Mottinger in an effort to know when she’d make her season debut.

December 20 was the chosen date during a home meet against Brainerd. The Warriors earned the win that evening, but much of the attention turned to Coquyt, as the fans in attendance, her teammates and many of her opponents showered her with the loudest cheers of the night.

Coquyt competed in two events, beginning with the uneven bars.

As I found a seat in the stands to take photos of her performance, an older gentleman in the crowd asked me if I knew who Abby was. He wasn’t trying to figure out who she was, he clearly already knew. He was trying to see if I recognized why this moment was a big deal. I responded: “Yeah, I have a good idea.”

With a huge brace on her left knee, the junior landed her dismount and let loose a smile that expressed joy and relief. With Rossum pumping his fist in the background, snapping her reaction was my favorite photo of the winter.

Coquyt finished the evening with a better performance on the balance beam. Afterward, we chatted on the bleachers for a few minutes as she tried to not let the emotions get to her.


Coquyt would eventually return to form and help Willmar make state for the third year in a row. But it was the meet before Christmas that started it all.

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Willmar junior Abby Coquyt looks over to the judges after sticking her landing on the uneven bars during a Central Lakes Conference meet against Brainerd on Dec, 20, 2019 from Willmar High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Feb 11: Northern Lights at Willmar (Girls hockey Section 6A semifinal)

For full disclosure, I didn’t stay for the entire game.

With a full slate of activity on the sports calendar, I could only stay for the first period of play before leaving to help out in the office. What I saw was top-seeded Willmar jumping out to a 2-0 lead in front of a raucous home crowd before the Northern Lights made it 2-1 prior to intermission. What I missed was a thrilling Cardinals comeback that ended in double overtime.

The visitors surged ahead 4-2 with one period to go before Willmar tied it in the third. As I worked on other items in the office, I turned up the ringer on my cell phone and turned on all notifications to the Willmar Athletics Twitter account, meaning everytime it sent out a tweet, I’d immediately know.


I grew unreasonably angry every moment my phone buzzed and it wasn’t a game update. My friends were particularly text-happy that evening. Let’s just say the tension was that high, and I wasn’t even the one on the ice.

Audibling to the radio broadcast being played online, I listened in as junior defender Tanna Christensen sent Willmar to the Section 6A title game with a wrist shot following an offensive zone faceoff 32 seconds into double overtime.

Days earlier, I spoke to a few Cardinals about entering the section playoffs as the favorite and the chances of snapping a 17-year state drought. These players were extremely honest and admitted to feeling nervous leading up to their postseason opener. I can only imagine how they felt down 4-2 with just a period left in their season. Yet, they overcame it.

And two days later, the drought was over.

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Central Minnesota Christian sophomore guard Case Mulder makes a layup during Camden Conference contest against MACCRAY on Feb. 18 from the CMCS gym. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Feb. 18: MACCRAY vs. Central Minnesota Christian boys basketball

Both MACCRAY and Central Minnesota Christian finished toward the bottom of the Camden Conference North Division during the 2018-19 campaign.


The 2019-20 season was a complete reversal of fortunes for both programs as the Bluejays and Wolverines battled for the regular-season division crown on this mid-February Tuesday night.

And there were plenty of people to see it.

Seating on the home and away stands was packed to the gills. Each baseline featured hoards of students cheering on their teams. As for fans unable to get a seat in the bleachers, they had to stand in the corners of the court to catch a glimpse of the game.

With all the people seemingly filling every inch of the CMCS gymnasium, my job of taking photos was made a tad bit more difficult. But to be in that environment for a high-school basketball game, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

The Bluejays dominated the second half, pulling away to a 60-50 victory. CMCS went on to win the Camden the following week. En route to a 24-5 record, the conference champs finished their season in the Section 3A title game.

MACCRAY’s best highlight game late in the first half as senior forward Blake Wadsworth nailed a free throw to reach the 1,000th-point mark for his career. Despite the loss, MACCRAY finished with a 20-7 record to capture its first 20-win season in seven years.

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Minnewaska head boys basketball coach Phil Johnsrud talks to his team during a timeout in the second half of the Section 3AA-North championship game against Redwood Valley at the R/A Facility in Marshall. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune


March 7: Minnewaska vs. Redwood Valley boys basketball

With my teammate Joe Brown riding shotgun, I drove down to the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University for a marathon day of section boys basketball.

After I stood behind the lens and Joe pumped out a story for CMCS’ Section 3A-North title win over Lac qui Parle Valley, we switched roles for our second assigned game of the day between Minnewaska and Redwood Valley.

In easily the most dramatic contest of the four games played inside the R/A Facility in Marshall that Saturday, the Lakers rallied from a four-point deficit in the final minute to come away with a 51-50 triumph and win the Section 3AA-North crown.

Junior guard Peyton Johnsrud got the Minnewaska to within 50-49 with a 3-pointer in the corner before senior guard Grant Jensen stepped to the line with 2.8 seconds remaining. He tied the game by drilling the first of a pair of free throws. The Cardinals called timeout to try and ice the senior, but Jensen calmly nailed the game-winner. As he put it following the game: “We didn’t come this far for me to miss.”

That was the highlight on the court. Off the court, from the seat on the scorers’ table, fan behavior was borderline abhorrent.

I get that there’s passion, but the rage in the eyes of some people in the crowd over calls on the floor was terrible. I’m not even a big ref guy; there’s a good amount of them that stink, but the absurd things shouted and swore at the referees was ridiculous.

A quick fan tutorial on how to watch a game, a high-school game no less: Every dribble doesn’t result in a travel. Not all contact is a foul. The team that you cheer for is capable of committing these things as well. You don’t have a better view of the call than the officials standing a few feet away from the play on the floor.

Forgive me for my rant some three-plus weeks later, but after hearing people scream “three seconds” for hours, I had to vent.

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New London-Spicer's Ava Kraemer takes a shot in the post during the second half of a Class AA state quarterfinal game against Duluth Marshall on March 11 at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

March 11: New London-Spicer vs. Duluth Marshall (Class AA state quarterfinal)

This state quarterfinal featured one of the elements that makes basketball my favorite sport to watch.

New London-Spicer rolled into state with just a single loss on its resume. Carried by its defense, its frontcourt play and solid guards on the perimeter, the Wildcats were a dominant team, arguably the most dominant team of any in the area over the winter.

They were worthy of their No. 3 seed. While it was the more complete team during its state opener, NLS did not have the best two players on the floor.

Duluth Marshall senior Grace Kirk and junior Grace Kneepkens were spectacular, particularly down the stretch. The duo lifted the Hilltoppers to a 60-56 victory. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

I enjoyed watching the Wildcats system in action. Mike Dreier, by no surprise, had a well-oiled machine to work with this year where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. However, the Hilltoppers had two college-level talents that more than equalized any NLS advantages.

The Duluth Marshall duo worked the top of the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone before slithering into the lane for a variety of floaters or drives to the cup.

Kneepkens was consistent throughout, finishing with game-highs of 26 points and 15 rebounds. Kirk only had five points in the game’s first 18 minutes, but scorched the Wildcats for 20 in the second half.

It’s fun to see two different styles clashing against one another.

Unfortunately, the fun on the court would be short-lived. During halftime, I read on Twitter that the NBA was suspending its season indefinitely for the coronavirus. The rest of the sports world soon followed.

NLS bounced back the next day for a 59-54 victory over Sauk Centre in a consolation semifinal from Concordia University in St. Paul, avenging its only regular-season defeat of the season. Unfortunately, sports hasn’t returned since.

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Patrick Bernadeau

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