Between rescheduled games and an array of varying sports, winter keeps reporters on their toes. And with the addition of North Branch and Rush City to my now 25-team coverage area, this frigid season was no different.
I’m never satisfied with how many games I am able to make it to — I always want more time. I was, however, at enough events to rack up some memorable moments of my first winter season with the Post Review.
Without a doubt, I was most impressed by the consistency and talent of the North Branch gymnastics team.
I first watched the team at an away meet at St. Francis, knowing I had to catch this team in action as it had broken its own school record for highest team score multiple times already just this year. In a dimly lit gym, the Vikings outshone the opponent despite senior captain Casey Hovland competing while feeling under the weather. Hovland stuck it out with her teammates, waiting with hugs and encouragement after each event.
North Branch then carried that spark all the way to the state meet, as they qualified as a team for the first time in program history, and captured fifth place on top of that.
Another top moment to witness was a home win by the Viking boys hockey team early in the year. This is a young team trying to build a program in an already competitive conference: the Mississippi 8.
The Vikings headed into a matchup against Moose Lake in late December on an eight-game losing streak. That didn’t stop them. The Vikings fought back from a 4-2 deficit in the third period to win in overtime, thanks to goals by junior Nate Runberg and senior Brandon Timm to tie in regulation, and senior Joey Courtright’s winning goal in overtime. Their sheer determination not to lose on their home ice was thrilling.
Admittedly so, with wrestling as one of my favorite sports to watch, the Tigers and Vikings were just plain easy to cover in terms of entertainment. Watching Viking seniors Aaron Senne, Tristan LaBelle, Seamus Hunter and Reid Johnson and Rush City junior Jacob Lynch’s paths to the Xcel Energy Center go down as some of my favorite journeys to track since I started covering sports.
Last, basketball holds a special place in my heart. My mother allowed me to skip school growing up to watch March Madness games with her, and now I’m grateful to say I get paid to watch some great teams in North Branch and Rush City. All four squads are competitive and tenacious with a never-say-die attitude.
The Viking boys lost to Chisago Lakes early in the season, 74-65, but refused to lose to the Wildcats again, beating them twice more, including during the first round of section play before falling to top-seeded Cloquet in the semis.
Rush City’s basketball boys hit their groove late in January, assisted by the return of senior Ryan Lind, and won seven of their last nine regular-season games. The Tigers defeated four Great River Conference opponents that had beaten them earlier in the season: Hinckley-Finlayson, Aitkin, Onamia and Pine City.
The North Branch girls discovered how tough of a conference they entered this season, having to face outright Mississippi 8 champs, St. Michael-Albertville, and runner-up Monticello who combined for a 45-12 record this season. The young team will graduate four seniors, but return the bulk of its top contributors to make for an exciting squad in the coming years.
Rush City’s basketball girls recorded its fifth winning season in a row this year (12-10) in a consistent showing under first-year head coach Joe Nelson. The Tigers defeated Ogilvie, Onamia and Pine City during both matchups against each team, splitting only with East Central and falling to the one-two-three teams in the Great River Conference: Braham, Isle and Aitkin.
While I wish I could list each team, I’d like to reserve space to showcase some photos of these area athletes who made my first winter up north a great experience.