High school sports don’t receive nearly the same ritz and glamor of collegiate or professional sports. When they do, Texas high school football, Indiana basketball and California baseball often come to mind as the paramount youth sports hotbeds. Turns out, the Midwest is home to its fair share of talent as well.
What they may lack in top-level talent, high school sports more than make up for with the level of energy and passion exerted by athletes, their fans and communities. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a fan-friendly environment: the school rousers from the pep bands, the ardent back-and-forth cheers between student sections, and the general noise from the fans.
March Madness may be known to most as the buzzword for the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament; however, for The Mac Weekly’s sports editors, it was a whirlwind tour that included a 10-hour bus ride (yes, you read that right; let’s just say the roads didn’t look too good that night) to Madison for the Wisconsin State Wrestling Tournament, three consecutive nights in the press box at the Xcel Energy Center and witnessing a 4OT game-winning shot from beyond halfcourt.
Location: Kohl Center
For Wisconsin athletic venues, it doesn’t get much better than the Kohl Center in Madison. The State Individual Wrestling Championships, in its 71st year, was headlined by strong gold medal match performances by a trio of seniors. Ellsworth’s Jens Lantz (126 pounds), a Wisconsin Badgers recruit, became the 13th wrestler in state history to win four individual state titles. In the longest match of the evening, Lantz’s teammate and fellow senior Gable Frandsen bested Sheboygan Falls senior Mitchell Lambrecht in their 160 pound bout. Meanwhile, Sun Prairie senior Jared Scharenbrock captured his 97th consecutive victory, ending his prep career with a gold medal at 145 pounds.
Apparently, Scharenbrock’s championship mettle rubbed off on teammate Wesley Schultz, who also earned a gold medal, telling the Wisconsin State Journal: “Jared took a scrub like me, who went out freshman year and tried not to get pinned and save some points for the team, and I ended up being a champion.”
As has been tradition, the pre-finals March of Champions captivated the crowd. With the Kohl Center lights off, strobes shown down on the mats as the gold medal match competitors faced off. As in years past, this drew the biggest turnout and applause of the tournament.
While the Kohl Center proves a perfect venue for Championship Saturday, it can be a bit depressing showing up to the earlier rounds and seeing the empty seats dotting the arena. If this continues to be an issue, the WIAA might consider shifting the first day or two of the tournament to the historic UW Field House, the more intimate venue where the Badgers Wrestling team competes.
Minnesota Boy’s Hockey
Location: Xcel Energy Center
Championship: Edina 8-2 Lakeville North
The state hockey tournament had it all; from standing room only crowds to future NHLers to former ESPN and ABC announcer Gary Thorne; what was billed as one of the country’s best state tournaments lived up to its title. The atmosphere at the tournament truly was remarkable.
The championship may have been a blowout (as were all of Edina’s games), but it was still an exciting affair that saw a very talented and well-coached Edina squad put on a show, as a very frustrated Lakeville North team spent 22 minutes in the penalty box.
Pep bands were one of the things that made this tournament so much more lively than a typical professional game. The team’s rousers and various other songs kept the fans engaged and made for a great environment in the rink.
The semi-final between Lakeville North and Eden Prairie was our nominee for Game of the Tournament. Lakeville took a 2-1 lead in the first period, before Eden Prairie scored three unanswered to pull ahead 4-2. Lakeville kept fighting, and the Panthers were able to find their answer in the final 100 seconds of the second period, where they scored twice to level the game at four. The deciding goal would not come until over thirty minutes later, when Lakeville North’s Nick Poehling sent his team to the championship with a power play goal, as fans were treated to two edge-of-your-seat, sudden death overtime periods.
RECORD ATTENDANCE: The hockey tournament is the most attended state tournament in the country, achieving a greater turnout than football in Texas and California, and Indiana basketball. Over 119,000 fans came to the X for the tournament’s 70th edition.
In recent year’s top high school players have been taking off early to play in junior hockey leagues. 41 of last year’s non-graduating players left to play for junior teams in 2014. If this trend continues, it could result in a significant reduction in the quality of play and the tournament’s prestige.
Minnesota Boy’s Basketball
Location: Target Center
Championship: Lakeville North 84-82 Hopkins
BUZZER BEATERS: Both semifinals concluded with game-winning shots, as Hopkins’ Amir Coffey sank a 60 footer to send the Royals into the final, and player of the tournament JP Macura knocked down an NBA three pointer for Lakeville North to send them into the final.
The buzz from the semi-final ending carried over to the championship, which saw No. 1 seed Hopkins face off against the Lakeville North Panthers and their superstar Macura. Despite a huge game from the Xavier-bound senior, which he finished with 43 points, the Panthers trailed by seven in the game’s final minute. Two three-pointers, including a contested, fadeaway from NBA range, cut the lead down to one, and an offensive rebound and finish from Connor Flack put them in the lead with 20 seconds to go. Hopkins missed on their attempted game-winner, and the team looked shell-shocked at what had occurred in the final 30 seconds.
After the devastating loss in the final, the Hopkins’ players and staff reluctantly stayed on the court as each name was called to collect their second place medals. Some of them even took the medals off immediately after receiving them. Then there was team manager Grant Petersen, a senior diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Upon hearing his name called, Grant threw his hands in the air and ran to get his medal, giving the crowd two thumbs up as he managed to put smiles on the dejected Hopkins players. Look up “Grant Petersen” on YouTube; it’ll make your day.
Although there was no lack of DI recruits playing in the tournament, it was still missing Minnesota’s two biggest stars. Rashad Vaughn, rated as the 18th best recruit from his class left his high school to play for Findlay Prep and he prepares for his collegiate career at UNLV. The biggest loss to the tourney was Tyus Jones, who has signed for Duke and has one of the greatest Minnesota high school careers of all time. Jones’s Apple Valley squad was upset in their section final, resulting in an abrupt end to their season.
Although Amir Coffey’s 60 foot launch was spectacular, those who saw the game will not forget the snoozefest that occurred prior to the shot, which made its rounds on national sports websites and onto SportsCenter. Minnesota has no shot clock for high school basketball, which hadn’t been too problematic prior to this game. For the closing minutes of regulation and the twenty minutes of overtime, the team with possession held onto the ball, waiting for the closing seconds of each period before attempting to score. While this may have been the best tactic in this situation, it would be nice to see some reforms that prevent future “ball hoarding.”