A year ago, these championships weren't. But this week, five state tournaments for Minnesota high school spring sports will crown individual and team champions from Wednesday through Saturday.
The flurry, culminating a school year rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, includes four-class softball and baseball tournaments. Boys and girls will compete separately in lacrosse, three classes of golf and two classes of track and field. Boys' tennis held its state tournaments last week. Reflecting the pandemic's loosening grip, sports that began the spring season with masks required are concluding without them.
Venues for golf and softball remain the same as in past years while baseball, but lacrosse and track and field have shifted.
The top-end talent this year in the Suburban East Conference could become even more evident in the Class 4A tournament.
Three of the conference's top teams — Stillwater, Mounds View and Park of Cottage Grove — advanced to the field of eight. All boast a top-line pitcher who could vault them into the semifinals.
The Suburban East has captured four of the past seven state championships. Stillwater won the state crown in 2018 while Mounds View went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. East Ridge added the most recent title in 2019.
In Class 3A, the Metro East Conference is home to the only two metro schools in the field: Mahtomedi and St. Thomas Academy. The Zephyrs won the state title in 2018, and the Cadets did the same in 2019. The conference has won three of the four state championships since the Minnesota State High School League expanded to four classes in 2016.
The first round of the Class 3A girls' tournament Tuesday features a super foursome even with the state's best not participating.
With 2019 individual state champion and top-ranked Isabella McCauley of Simley relegated to being a fan after deciding to play in the U.S. Women's Open instead, her freshman sister, Reese, finds herself in elite company.
Reese is one of four of the top eight players in the state — not one a senior — who make up a foursome that tees off at 9 a.m. Tuesday for the first round at Bunker Hills Golf Club in Coon Rapids. No. 1-rated sophomore Kathryn VanArragon of Blaine heads the group, followed by McCauley at No. 3, No. 6 sophomore Olivia Salonek of Roseville and No. 8 junior Madi Hicks of Chanhassen.
The top-rated boys' player in the state, Northfield junior Nate Stevens, will get his round underway at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The two-day event in all three classes will conclude Wednesday, 2A at Ridges at Sand Creek in Jordan and 1A at Pebble Creek Golf Club in Becker.
A wealth of new state tournament qualifiers brings excitement to both the boys' and girls' brackets.
Among the new girls' teams, No. 6 Rosemount and No. 7 Benilde-St. Margaret's offer top-10 ranking credentials. Andover and Hill-Murray also are making state tournament debuts.
The veteran half of the girls' bracket includes 2019 state champion Prior Lake, which knocked off top-ranked Edina in the Section 6 final. All-state first-team selections Payton Bloedow and Meghan McGowan lead the Lakers. No. 3-ranked Lakeville South boasts three such players in Lauren Sheets, Emily Moes and Lindsay Wirfs. Second-teamer Brielle Fannin leads the state with 63 assists.
Stalwart Eden Prairie offers no All-State first-team selections. No matter. The 10th-ranked Eagles qualified for their 14th state tournament in as many tries, upsetting fifth-ranked Chanhassen in the Section 2 final.
Prior Lake holds the top tournament seed, followed by Lakeville South, Rosemount, Benilde-St. Margaret's and Eden Prairie.
Four fresh faces reside among the boys' teams as well: Chanhassen, Chisago Lakes, Moorhead and Stillwater. No. 2 seed Chanhassen, led by attackman Tyr Christianson, handed top-seed Benilde-St. Margaret's its only regular-season loss.
Motivation comes in many forms for the Red Knights, runners-up in 2019. They return a plethora of talent not often seen in high school sports. Five players earned first-team All-State honors, led by midfielders Paddy Burns and Jackson Leischow as well as faceoff specialist Drew Nylander.
No. 3 seed Prior Lake won the 2019 state title. Earlier this season, Benilde-St. Margaret's dispatched the Lakers 13-6. Prior Lake's winning culture, along with the formidable defensive presence of Matthew Kallberg, make the program a tough out in the postseason. Case in point: the Lakers' overtime upset of third-ranked Edina in the Section 6 championship game.
Home team Stillwater earned the fourth seed, one spot ahead of St. Thomas Academy.
Caswell Park in North Mankato, site of the softball state tournament, will be bustling once again after a year off.
The 32-team field for the state tournament, which runs Tuesday and Wednesday with eight teams in each of four classes, looks particularly strong this season. Most likely because the talent more easily rose to the top after missing an entire season.
In Class 4A, No. 1-ranked Stillwater plays Forest Lake, the only team to defeat the Ponies, in the quarterfinals.
The other three large-school matchups bring intrigue of their own. Chanhassen vs. Elk River is a top-flight pitching duel between Chanhassen's Sydney Schwartz and Elk River's Annie Volkers. Centennial's emerging pitching star, Helene Krage, hopes to shut down Hopkins' hot-hitting tandem of pitcher Signe Dohse and catcher Lauren Granger. And Rosemount and Lakeville North add another chapter to their South Suburban Conference rivalry. The teams split a pair of regular-season games.
In Class 3A, No. 1-seeded Mankato West hopes it is battle-tested enough after surviving the Big 9 Conference. The Scarlet have five losses but avenged two of them by defeating rival Mankato East in the Section 1 finals. One-loss St. Anthony, the most potent offensive team in the field, gets Benilde-St. Margaret's in the first round. The Red Knights handed the Huskies their only loss, 3-2 on May 25.
Class 2A has Kentucky-bound senior Taylor Hess in the circle for No. 2-seeded Maple Lake, which is seeking its second title in four years. Class 1A features three undefeated teams — Randolph (24-0), Badger-Greenbush-Middle River (26-0) and Browerville (23-0).
Track and field
Sweltering temperatures at track and field section championship meets last week brought performances to match.
Those results, as compiled by MileSplit Minnesota editor Ryan Kotajarvi, feature Stillwater senior Analee Weaver clocking a record 3,200-meter time of 10 minutes, 34.22 seconds in Class 2A, Section 4. Weaver, chosen as the Gatorade Minnesota Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, faces a strong contender in St. Michael-Albertville junior Ali Weimer. Her 10:33.32 mark established the Section 5 meet record.
Concordia Academy of Roseville's Shaina Zinter posted Class 1A, Section 4 meet records in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles. She put herself into the state's career top 10 for 300 hurdles by running a 43.10.
A pair of outstate field event specialists also impressed.
Clearing 16 feet shot Pine Island's Jarod White to third all-time for Minnesota boys pole vaulters. And Nyalaam Jok of Annandale holds top-10 girls' career marks in the high jump (5 feet, 10 inches) and long jump (19-5).
No preliminaries will be held for the meets, the last before the sport shifts to three classes next year.
RON HAGGSTROM, PAUL KLAUDA, DAVID LA VAQUE and JIM PAULSEN