Albert Lea boys basketball success tops year in sporting news

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, December 30, 2020

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2020 has thrown the sporting world into a frenzy. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been cancellations and postponements of professional, collegiate and high school leagues across the globe.

While the negatives of the year might stick out further than the positives, there was still plenty to be celebrated in the sports world.

Here is a list of the top local sports stories from 2020:

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Albert Lea boys basketball puts together one of its best seasons in two decades

The Albert Lea boys’ basketball team had been building toward a special season for multiple years. With much work put in during the offseason and hard work throughout the regular season, the Tigers ultimately put together its  best season since 2004-05. Led by numerous seniors, the team accomplished much of what they set out to do at the beginning of the year.

The Tigers finished the season 13-13, the first time they have been .500 or above since 2004, and they defeated rival Austin for the first time since 2005. Austin was also ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game.

Despite stumbling into the Section 1AAA tournament on a three-game losing streak, Albert Lea dominated its first two opponents in the tournament and were scheduled to square off against Austin in the section championship for their first trip to state in over 15 years. However, the final game of the section tournament was canceled due to the pandemic and started what would be a five-month long break of high school sports in the state.

Despite the season ending in an inconclusive way, the basketball team takes pride in a season well played.


COVID-19 pandemic shuts down sports across the state and country

There is no doubt that the  COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the everyday lives of everyone across the globe. The high school sporting world was no exception.

From the beginning of March until the end of August, high school sports in Minnesota were put on hold.

The final full season allowed to be played was wrestling, leaving boy and girls basketball and boys and girls hockey without a sense of finality to their seasons.

After the cancellations of the remainders of the winter seasons, it was decided there would be no spring seasons at all. The decision to cancel the seasons left high school seniors involved in baseball, softball,  boys and girls golf, boys and girls track and field, and  boys tennis without a final season.

After a summer away from sports, the Minnesota State High School League was still on the fence about allowing all sports to return to play in the fall.

It was deemed that boys and girls soccer, girls swim and dive, boys and girls cross country and girls tennis would be allowed to play, while football and volleyball would put their seasons on hold and resume in the spring.

However, midway through the fall season, the league reversed its decision and allowed football and volleyball to play condensed seasons. The decision left many teams scrambling to throw together a six-week season in a short amount of time.

While football and volleyball continued into November, the other fall sports ended their seasons with section tournaments, but no state tournaments were held. Toward the end of the football and volleyball seasons, many schools were transitioning back to distance learning and were unable to compete in the final weeks of their respective seasons. The football season was canceled with a week left to play and the volleyball seasons ended before the section tournaments could even get started.

The abrupt end to the fall seasons led to the beginning of the winter seasons being delayed until the start of the new year.


Albert Lea hires new football coach

In May the Albert Lea football team announced the hiring of new head football coach, Paul Dunn.

Dunn came in after being the head coach at Springfield High School for 18 seasons, compiling a record of 125-72 during his time there. He coached Springfield to four state tournament appearances, one of which led to a state championship in 2005.

Dunn replaced previous head coach Corey Black, who had led the Tigers to a 6-31 record in four years at the helm.

Dunn’s first year with the team was blurred by COVID-19 shutdowns, which allowed the team to only play three games of its six-game schedule and ended their season without a section playoff game.

Area wrestlers earn trips to state tournaments

Albert Lea freshman Aivin Wasmoen was the only Tiger to make it to the state wrestling tournament in 2020. Wasmoen lost his opening-round match and came up short in his wrestleback. Tyler Julson/For the Albert Lea Tribune

If there is one thing that remains a constant every year, it’s area schools sending numerous wrestlers to the Minnesota and Iowa State wrestling tournaments, and 2020 was no different.

Freshman Aivin Wasmoen was the lone wrestler from Albert Lea to earn a trip to the state meet. Wasmoen lost his first match and came up short in his wrestleback to end his tournament run.

United South Central junior Bryce Sonnek and NRHEG sophomore Ralph Roesler also made the trip to the Xcel Energy Center to compete in the tournament.

Both Sonnek and Roesler drew the No. 7 seed in their respective weight classes and were defeated in the first round. Neither earned a wrestleback. All three will surely be gunning for another chance at state again in 2021.

NRHEG sophomore Ralph Roesler was defeated in the opening round of the Class A state wrestling tournament. Tyler Julson/Albert Lea Tribune

In Iowa, not only did Northwood-Kensett and Lake Mills see individual successes, the Bulldogs also sent the entire team to the state tournament for the state duals for the fifth consecutive year.

The Bulldogs finished in fifth place as a team, defeating Denver and Woodbury Central after being beaten by Logan-Magnolia in the opening round.

Three Bulldogs also made it to the state tournament as individuals, Dalton Thorson, Casey Hanson and Elijah Wagner.

Lake Mills junior Elijah Wagner competes on the second day of the Iowa state wrestling tournament held in Des Moines. Lory Groe/For the Albert Lea Tribune

Wagner placed fifth and Hanson placed fourth, while Thorson missed getting onto the podium.

Northwood-Kensett senior Gideon Rollene came in seventh place at 220 pounds.


Lake Mills boys’ basketball team makes state tournament

The Lake Mills boys’ basketball team made the 2019-20 state basketball tournament with a season record of 23-3. The Bulldogs lost the opening-round game to Wapsie Valley 49-45. Lory Groe/For the Albert Lea Tribune

The Lake Mills boys’ basketball team played a stellar season in the 2019-20 school year.

The Bulldogs finished the season 23-3 and earned the No. 1 seed heading into the state tournament.

The Bulldogs dominated through most of the season and defeated multiple opponents by double digits.


Area basketball players score their 1,000th point

NRHEG player Sophie Stork is the 12th player in NRHEG girls’ basketball history to reach the milestone of 1,000 points. – Tyler Julson/Albert Lea Tribune

Three basketball players in the area scored their 1,000th point  in 2020.

Albert Lea senior Sam Skarstad and NRHEG sophomore Sophie Stork scored their 1,000th point toward the end of the 2019-20 season, while Lake Mills senior Dashawn Linnen scored his 1,000th point at the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

Each of these athletes has worked hard to etch their names in the history books at their respective schools. While Skarstad has graduated, both Stork and Linnen continue to build upon their totals, as they climb the leaderboards at their respective schools.


Albert Lea Anglers compete in national fishing championship

Will Utpadel and Caden Stevens stand with their fish that earned them a spot in the High School Fishing World Finals and National Championship. The team came in 31st place at the tournament with a total weight of 9 pounds, 1 ounce.

Six Albert Lea Anglers earned their right to compete in the High School Fishing World Finals and National Championship in June this year.

Three teams of two, Griffin Thompson and Thomas Lundell, Will Utpadel and Caden Stevens, and Ian Latham and Jaeger Larson, all earned their spots in the national championship by qualifying at various tournaments throughout the summer.

Held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the tournament had many prizes up for grabs.

Stevens and Utpadel were the top finishing team with a total weight of 9 pounds, 1 ounce, landing them in 31st place overall. Thompson and Lundell came in 62nd place with a weight of 7 pounds, 15 ounces, and Latham and Larson came in 154th with a total weight of 6 pounds, 5 ounces.

Nearly 300 teams from across the country competed in the tournament.


Lindsey Kozelsky swims in Hungary

Albert Lea graduate Lindsey (Horejsi) Kozelsky joined the International Swimming League and swam for the DC United in Budapest, Hungary. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

2020 started in a rough way for Albert Lea graduate Lindsey (Horejsi) Kozelsky. Not only was her senior season at the University of Minnesota taken away from her due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were put on hold.

Kozelsky was devastated to learn she wouldn’t be able to compete in the NCAA national championships but was determined to make the best of the situation.

Kozlesky ended up swimming in the International Swimming League in Budapest, Hungary. She swam for the DC Trident team and said it was great to be back in the water swimming competitively for the first time since February.

Kozelsky still has hopes of making the 2021 Olympic team as well, using her international experience to her advantage.


Albert Lea volleyball wins first game in three years

The Albert Lea volleyball team won its first game in over three years in the shortened 2020-21 season. The victory came over Austin in the fourth game of the season. The Tiger’s last win came in 2017 on the road against Minneapolis Henry. Tyler Julson/Albert Lea Tribune

The Albert Lea volleyball team came into the 2020-21 season just grateful to be back on the court. After the back-and-forth on the decision to even play the season, the Tigers were ready to hit the ground running when the MSHSL gave them the green light.

The Tigers played well to open their season and gave them enough momentum to topple Austin in their fourth match of the season. It was the first victory by the Tigers in over three years.

The previous victory came on Oct. 13, 2017, in a tournament game over Minneapolis Henry. 


N-K volleyball wears ribbons to honor fallen classmate

The seniors of the Northwood-Kensett volleyball team chose to wear ribbons on their shoes this season as a way to honor the memory of Cassidy Stehn, a classmate who died in 2012. – Tyler Julson/Albert Lea Tribune

The Northwood-Kensett volleyball team dedicated its season to the memory of Cassidy Stehn, who would have been a senior in 2020-21.

Stehn, who died as a result of a car accident in 2012, has remained in the hearts of her classmates and has a lasting impact on them to this day.

The team wore purple and blue ribbons, Stehn’s favorite colors, on their shoes for every game.

Honorable mentions:

1. Albert Lean Andy Peterson wins Shortstop Tournament.

After playing in the annual Shortstop Tournament for over 20 years, Peterson grabbed his first victory in the tournament over Chris Baas.

2. Ed Stalker inducted into Legion Baseball Hall of Fame.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Stalker coached the Albert Lea American Legion baseball team from 1971 to 1978 and again for one season in 1984. The team won the District 1 championship in 1977 and 1978, when it also finished third and fifth respectively in the state tournaments.

Stalker’s son, Mark Stalker, accepted the award on behalf of his late father.