North Iowa sports have provided a lot of exciting and dramatic moments over the past year, leaving us all with plenty of memories that we can reflect on during this time of state-enforced sports boredom.
Now that winter is done, and spring sports are on hold until further notice, it’s time to look back at the year we’ve had, with the most dramatic moments since the end of the 2019 state basketball tournament.
Track and Field
In each of his first three seasons at Garner-Hayfield-Ventura, Reece Smith finished in the top three at state in the 3200 meter run, but had never walked away with a title. Finally, at the state meet in his senior season, Smith set a state record, running the 3200 in 9:11.33 to win his first state championship.
Immediately after crossing the finish line, Smith walked over to the stands and happily hugged his family. They smiled and cheered with pride, each telling him how proud they were of his accomplishment.
Smith didn’t always believe that the moment would come.
“It’s really emotional,” Smith said back in May. “I got second my freshman, sophomore and junior year. Nobody comes down here to get second. It’s been really tough, and I kind of lost faith in myself. I got that back. I learned to never stop believing in yourself.”
Newman Catholic went into the 2019 baseball season with plenty of expectations, and exceeded nearly all of them. On a sunny summer day at Principal Park in Des Moines, the Knights won their third consecutive state title with an 11-1 win over Alburnett, clinching the championship on a hit-by-pitch from senior Merritt McCardle, who set a team record for HBPs earlier in the season.
Josh Fitzgerald provided the usual fireworks, hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning that nearly cleared the building beyond the outfield wall. The crowd ooohed in admiration, and Fitzgerald was mobbed at home plate by his teammates.
“It was a fastball on the middle part of the plate and I put a barrel on it,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “As soon as I hit it, I knew it was gone. I just let loose and it was awesome.”
The game-ending dog-pile out near first base was the finishing moment for the Knights’ heralded senior class, which proved to be the most successful in program history. Fitzgerald and Evan Paulus won four state titles in their five seasons on varsity.
“You wouldn’t want it to end any other way,” head coach Alex Bohl said. “For all those seniors, I’m just so happy. We’re going to enjoy this. I’m definitely going to miss them. It actually brings a tear to my eye thinking about what these guys have meant to our program.”
The Central Springs softball team clinched its spot at the state tournament on July 15 with a 6-0 win over East Sac County in the regional championship game. The Panthers hit four solo home runs in the game, one coming from senior starting pitcher Hannah Ausenhus.
Ausenhus pitched a complete game, and provided a memorable final moment, striking out Raiders left fielder Laryn Sharp to end the game and clinch the Panthers’ spot at state for the fifth state year.
"Five years in a row is quite an accomplishment for these girls," head coach Belinda Nelson said following the game. "They've worked hard, and have put the time in, so it's very, very well-deserved."
For football, we’ve technically chosen two moments, but they are going to be split into different categories.
MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT
Clear Lake wide receiver Nick Danielson has been through a lot in the past year. In February 2019, Danielson’s father died of cancer. With the memory of his father in the back of his mind, Danielson provided several memorable football moments. In the Lions' Oct. 4 game against Crestwood, Danielson hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass, the Lions’ longest play from scrimmage of the season.
Danielson missed the next three games due to a stress fracture in his foot, but came back in time for the Lions’ postseason opener, a 21-7 victory over Spirit Lake. On the opening play of the second drive, quarterback Jaylen DeVries threw a pass just out of the defender’s reach, which Danielson caught and ran into the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.
After crossing the goal line, Danielson pointed to the sky, as he did after every touchdown, in honor of his father.
“I always have him in the back of my mind, especially out here playing football,” Danielson said following the game. “We used to talk football. He’s definitely in the back of my mind all the time.”
MOST DRAMATIC WIN
The West Hancock football team pulled off a dramatic, nail-biting victory over Grundy Center in the state title game, as the Eagles beat the Spartans, 21-17, to win the program’s third state title.
With longtime head coach Bob Sanger watching from the stands, and son Mark Sanger leading the way on the sideline, West Hancock rode a 230-yard performance from senior running back Tate Hagen to a win.
After a 10-yard third quarter touchdown from Hagen gave the Eagles a 21-10 lead, the Spartans began to come back. The Spartans got within four points with an 11-yard touchdown reception by Nick Ascher, but with two minutes left, the Spartans turned the ball over on downs. After Hagen ran the ball 12 yards for a first down, the Eagles kneeled to seal the victory.
Bob Sanger was shown on the Jumbotron several times near the end of the game, to loud applause from the home crowd.
"I'm about as happy as anybody can be, but I guarantee you, there is nobody in this building happier than he is," Mark Sanger said. "That I can guarantee you."
On Halloween night, the Osage volleyball team pulled off a sweep of Lake Mills, clinching the game on a back-line serve from Meredith Street, to advance to the Class 2A, Region 2 championship game.
Street’s serve hit off of a Bulldog defender's arm and ricocheted off the ceiling, leading to an on-court celebration for the Green Devils. The win was Osage’s first over Lake Mills since 2008.
"It's a relief," Osage head coach Bryan Tabbert said following the game. "It's a big tradition there, Osage against Lake Mills, ... it was a big win for us, any time you go against Jim Boehmer, obviously a great coach. It's relief. I'm feeling very excited right now."
West Hancock senior Tate Hagen finished off a dream senior year with a 7-4 win over Lisbon junior Cole Clark, to win the 195-pound Class 1A state title. Hagen trailed Clark at the end of the first period, 2-1. In the second period, Hagen scored a take-down, and an escape, to tie the match at 4-4. In the third, Hagen clinched the win with a take-down at 23 seconds left.
As the match ended, Hagen leaped into the arms of head coach Mark Sanger. The title win was the Eagles’ first since Sanger won a state championship back in 2001. Hagen then hopped the fence, and hugged his family in the stands.
“It’s amazing,” Hagen said. “I’ve been working my whole life for this. Ever since I was little, going to wrestling every week, and just busting my butt all the time. It feels amazing.”
Forest City sophomore Carter Bruckhoff nailed a 3-pointer with just seconds left in overtime, as the Indians pulled off a 51-50 upset win over Osage, to advance to the substate finals.
The game was tight nearly the whole way through. At halftime, the Indians led the Green Devils, 23-17, and at the beginning of the fourth, the Indians lead had slimmed to one points, 30-29.
Regulation ended with the two squads deadlocked at 45-45. With seconds left in the overtime period, Indians junior Noah Miller passed the ball out to Bruckhoff in the corner. Bruckhoff had gone 0-for-8 over the previous two games from 3-point territory, but nailed the shot to put the Indians up by one point. After a desperation heave at the buzzer failed to go in for Osage, the Indians celebrated on the court.
"I'm just glad I took (the shot)," Bruckhoff said after the game. "I'm glad coach and my teammates trusted me. Noah Miller saw me in the corner, and I had to just let it rip."
The Bishop Garrigan girls basketball team ended its season in heartbreaking fashion in the state title game at Wells Fargo Arena. After getting out to a 33-30 halftime lead over Newell-Fonda, and a 54-40 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, it looked like the Golden Bears might be the ones to end the Mustangs’ 53 winning streak.
But Newell-Fonda outscored the Golden Bears, 25-9, in the fourth quarter, winning on a layup at the buzzer from senior Megan Morenz. The moment was a devastating finish to a fantastic season for Bishop Garrigan, and provided one of the most dramatic finishes imaginable, on the state’s biggest stage.
Freshman Audi Crooks scored 34 points in the game for Bishop Garrigan.
In the final minute of the North Iowa Bulls 782nd, and final, game at “The Barn”, the gloves came off, much to the delight of the home crowd. With the Bulls leading 8-3 over Alexandria, a fight broke out in the northwest corner of the rink. As the referees tried to break it up, Bulls’ goalie Evan Babekuhl dropped his gloves and challenged the opposing goalie, Ville Hytinnen to a fight.
After a few quick punches, Hytinnen fell to the ice, and Babekuhl skated off, waving his arms to the roaring crowd. The moment was a memorable ending for the Bulls’ near- 40 year stint at North Iowa Ice Arena.