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Top 10 sports stories of 2015

1. Red Wing girls golfers make a splash

It had been four years since the Red Wing girls’ golf team got to dive into the pond at Ridges at Sand Creek. After overcoming a seven-stroke deficit to three-time defending state champion Detroit Lakes, the murky water made for a refreshing dip after clinching a state title.

The Wingers won their fifth state title in school history after posting a two-day score of 634, winning the Class 2A state championship by three strokes over the Lakers.

“It’s hard to gain seven shots. I didn’t know if we’d be able to make that up,” Red Wing golfer Stephanie Herzog, who earned All-State honors after taking fourth place overall.

A strong front-nine helped Red Wing cut Detroit Lakes’ lead down to three strokes. And as the scores kept coming in, the Wingers’ three-through-six golfers helped give the team its first state championship since 2011.

“Honestly, we’re the type of the team that’s oblivious to stuff like that,” then-senior Reagan Haley said about the comeback. “We just went out and played. Mr. Herzog tells us that the course is our big competition. The other teams are not the competition.”

The top-ranked Wingers came into state battled tested. Getting to Jordan was never a shoo-in with Red Wing battling fourth-ranked Lake City all year for Section 1AA supremacy. Ultimately, the Wingers’ depth prevailed over the Tigers as they advanced to state by 25 strokes.

­— Joe Brown, sports editor

2. Connelly overcomes injury to win at state

Red Wing’s Hunter Connelly managed to turn rust into gold.

For his junior season, it was doubtful that Connelly would even compete after suffering a knee injury at the tail end of his sophomore campaign. But the Wingers standout swimmer got cleared before the Big Nine Conference championship and came into the Class 1A state boys’ swimming and diving championships as the top seed in the 100-yard backstroke.

“Missing state with the knee injury last year, being told I’m not going to swim this year, being told I wouldn’t be able to come back at 100 percent … people telling me I can’t do thing, I go out and try to do ’em,” Connelly said. “That’s just who I am. I don’t give up; I’m going to go out and do it.”

In just his third meet of the year, Connelly won a state title with a time of 50.53 seconds, beating St. Thomas Academy’s Sam Johanns by .83 seconds.

“I can’t believe it right now. It’s just a miracle that I’m swimming,” Connelly said after walking off the podium with his first-place medal around his neck.

Connelly, who will swim collegiately at the University of Minnesota following his prep career, was also a member of the fourth-place 200 medley relay team with Ben Schaffer, William Meacham and Chris Byrne (1:39.02).

­— Joe Brown, sports editor

3. Wrestlers bring home the hardware

Shane Siewert and Paul Fitterer highlighted the area’s wrestling scene last spring as both came home state champions. Throw in team efforts from Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Ellsworth, and local grapplers were a bright spot among all sports and seasons.

Siewert, a three-time state entrant, beat the best the state could offer in the Class 1A, 152-pound bracket. Ranked No. 2, Siewert defeated both the No. 1 and No. 3 wrestlers in his weight class on the way to a championship. In response to being asked what it was like to hear someone call him a state champion, Siewert said, “It sounds great. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Fitterer, a Randolph native wrestling for the Cannon Falls co-op, won his town’s first state wrestling title with victories over wrestlers ranked second, third, ninth and tenth. Fitterer, however, was the favorite, having entered the tournament as the top-ranked 126-pound wrestler in Class 2A.

“It’s hard to even think about, I’m just soaking it in,” Fitterer said after winning his final high school match. “It’s great just knowing hard work and dedication throughout the season paid off.”

Z-M’s final dual came a week later than expected. After bouncing second-ranked Kenyon-Wanamingo in the Section 1A finals, the third-ranked Cougars rode the momentum to a state title showdown with top-ranked Minneota. Z-M beat West Central Area, 34-18, and second-seeded Frazee, 33-25, to gain entry into the final dual of the season.

The Vikings would prevail, 31-30, but the Cougars knew what they had done was a bit unexpected. “It’s really a great end to a senior year,” said then Z-M senior Seth Tupper. “First would have been nice, but if you look at what we accomplished – going to state championship with your best buddies, in front of 200 of your friends and family – I don’t have the words for it.”

Ellsworth, with eight individual state qualifiers, placed second in Division 2 after a 34-15 loss to Freedom Irish in the championship dual. The Panthers beat Amery, 52-13, and Melrose-Mindoro/G-E-T, 64-6, to win a section, then topped Wisconsin Lutheran, 37-27, in the state semifinals.

­— Kyle Stevens, sports reporter

4. Goodhue football reaches state

As area teams know, Minneota is tough. Defending state champions in both football and wrestling, the Vikings dispatched two local teams during state tournament competition. Like Zumbrota-Mazeppa’s wrestling team before them, Goodhue’s football squad saw firsthand the dominance of Minneota in the Class 1A semifinals.

A 27-19 loss to a team that would win another state championship a week later was nothing for the Wildcats to hand their head over.

“We threw everything we had at them,” said Goodhue head coach Tony Poncelet. “We started off slower than we wanted to, and it took some time to adjust. But we threw it all at them. We went down swinging, and as a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”

­— Kyle Stevens, sports reporter

5. Lindhart's tosses yield top honors

Soft-spoken, even on the state’s biggest stage, Zumbrota-Mazeppa’s Maddie Lindhart was more than happy to let her performance speak for itself.

During the Class 1A state track and field championship meet at Hamline University in early June, Lindhart won two state titles: in the discus on Day 1 and shot put on Day 2.

In her second trip to state, Lindhart’s discus toss of 130 feet was enough to secure top honors, beating Pine River-Backus’ Megan Porta (127-5) and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial/Nicollet’s Alayna Theissen (126-6).

She was hardly done.

The next day, Lindhart clinched her second championship in the shot put with a throw of 41-8.25, besting Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin’s Seri Geisler (41-3.5) and International Falls’ Savanah Olson (38-11.25).

­— Joe Brown, sports editor

6. Another year, another third-place finish at state for girls' hockey

At the beginning of the season, Scott Haley wasn’t sure 20 wins was a realistic goal. But the Red Wing girls hockey team won 25, including the final one of the season to take third place in the Class 1A tournament.

It was the third-straight year that Red Wing came home with a third-place trophy, prompting Haley to say, after beating South St. Paul 3-2, “We are the master of the third-place game.”

Senior forward Reagan Haley and senior goaltender Ashley Corcoran, were named to the Class 1A All-Tournament Team.

­— Kyle Stevens, sports reporter

7. A season 30 years in the making for Wingers volleyball

The coach called it a “big deal.” And that might be a huge understatement.

For the first time in 31 years, the Red Wing volleyball team played in a section final. The Wingers had nine total wins in the three previous seasons, but had 10 during the 2014-15 regular season alone. Add in three playoff victories, and the season was a resounding success.

Even though Stewartville ended the magical run in the Section 1AA finals, the team put a permanent stamp on the program.

“It is a big deal,” said head coach Jackie Braithwaite. “I’m so proud of these girls. They worked so hard, and I know right now it stings and burns a little bit because no one wants to end their season with a loss. But there is so much to be proud of; they put Red Wing volleyball back on the map. Credit to the seniors for helping us get there, but all 13 together worked so hard, I’m so proud of them.”

­— Kyle Stevens, sports reporter

8. Top of their class: three Wingers going Division I

A lot of talent has walked the halls of Red Wing High School the last few years, and 2015 was no different. Three Wingers all signed National Letters of Intent this fall to continue their careers at the Division I level.

Hunter Connelly, a defending state champion, will swim for the University of Minnesota next year. Connelly won the 100-yard backstroke in March, and that same pool, the Aquatic Center on the Minnesota campus, is where he will compete in 2016-17.

“Honestly, all along I knew I was going to go to the Gophers,” Connelly said after signing his NLI. “Minnesota kid, Minnesota town, home team, and I’ve always been a Gopher fan.”

Kiana Stewart’s path to college took an unexpected turn a couple years ago, but it might be the best decision she made.

Instead of playing volleyball, Stewart, a distance runner for the track team, decided to give cross-country a try. That led to an 11th-place finish at the Class 2A state meet, and, later, Stewart signing on the dotted line to attend, and run for, South Dakota University in Vermillion.

“Just thinking about if I didn’t decide to go out of my comfort zone and try something new and where I would be, it would be totally different,” Stewart said after signing. “I’m so happy that I decided to run cross-country. It really helped make decisions in the future better. I really have a passion for running.”

The third Red Wing senior to sign an NLI was wide receiver Travis Toivonen, who will play football for the University of North Dakota this fall.

Toivonen was the main offensive weapon for the Wingers, piling up 67 catches for 1,287 and 10 touchdowns in 10 games. Red Wing finished 6-4, and came within seven points of playing for a section title.

Toivonen, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound target, was simply bigger, stronger and faster than his competition.

“The guys in my grade and the grade below me, we are a really tight group that worked hard,” Toivonen said. “All of my fellow seniors pushed me and I pushed them back. It was a great feeling to accomplish what we did this year.”

— Kyle Stevens, sports reporter

9. Red Wing girls' cross-country wins first section title

After a strong spring season in track and field, the Red Wing girls’ cross-country team had high hopes for what it could do in the fall.

Once the leaves starting falling, the Wingers reached unprecedented heights.

Led by the trio of Kianna Stewart, Grace Johnson and Jasmyn Armstrong, Red Wing clinched the Big Nine championship, won its first-ever Section 1AA championship in late October and reached state for the first time since 1998.

At the Class 2A state cross-country championship meet, the Wingers placed sixth out of 16 teams with a team score of 207 points.

At state, Stewart (fourth, 18 minutes, 22.0 seconds) and Johnson (25th, 18:44.3) secured All-State honors while Armstrong was named honorable mention All-State (18:46.3).

“We ran one spot better than our ranking coming in,” Red Wing head cross-country coach Jesse Nelson said after the state meet. “If you ask the girls, a few of them would say they could run better. Considering the state meet, coming in ranked seventh, we ended up sixth and the girls are still unsatisfied with that, I think that’s still a positive. I’m very proud of these girls. It was a heck of a year for us to end up sixth in the state. I think that’s absolutely outstanding.”

­— Joe Brown, sports editor

10. Cannon Falls Bears end strong

A 21-22 record may not be eye-catching, but few teams were a tougher out in amateur baseball than Cannon Falls. And the mix of veteran ballplayers and fresh-faced rookies helped the Bears reach the final eight of the Class C state tournament.

Reaching state as the third seed out of Region 4C, Cannon Falls opened state with wins over Roseau (6-2) and Bertha (2-1). The signature state win came against the Luverne Redbirds where left-handed ace Keith Meyers threw the 23rd no-hitter in state history, striking out 12 on the way to a 4-0 victory.

“Keith is a robot. He is amazing,” Bears’ catcher Taylor Pagel said back in September. “I told him before the state tournament started that, ‘I had a dream and you pitched every single inning in the entire state tournament.’ And he wasn’t far off. I just wish he had a little bit more in him.”

The Bears’ postseason run came to an end in the Class C state quarterfinals in Watkins in an 8-5 loss to eventual state champion Plato.

­— Joe Brown, sports editor

RE Sports

The Red Wing Republican Eagle covers local sports in Goodhue County and surrounding areas. 

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