New Prague's Jake Deutsch (1) slides into home plate during the seventh inning to score the game-winning run in a Class 4A quarterfinal against Blaine last spring. Photo by Nicole Neri, Star Tribune
June is nearly upon us, which means under normal circumstances we'd already be turning our attention to the postseason.
But that's not in cards for 2020.
As a result, we bring you yet another article in a series of retrospectives the Hubs are producing to help fill the void left by the cancellation of the high school spring sports season.
Presented in this installment is an interactive look at our picks for the biggest surprise team performances from the 2019 spring sports season. We chose at least one team performance from each of the sports we'd normally cover during the spring season and provided an analysis so that you don't assume we were mailing this in.
Read through the picks and then vote for your favorite in the poll below, where we've also included an option for "Other." It's there for you to check if you think there's another team worthy of spotlighting, and to further your argument, please opine in the comments section below.
A reminder of our lone ground rule: Keep it civil! We don't mind if you disagree with our selections, or those of other posters, but we will mind if your comments are inappropriate. A good rule to follow: Don't type it in the comments if you don't want your grandma to read it.
When New Prague took the field against Blaine for a Class 4A state quarterfinal matchup a year ago, it represented the first time the Trojans’ baseball team had been to a state tourney since 1980.
The Trojans of 2019 were competitive but they certainly didn’t look like locks to make the trip to state. They carved out a 12-7 regular-season record but had lost six of their final eight games heading into the postseason, and then they had to play Lakeville North three times to win the Section 1 tournament.
The unseeded Trojans were bruisers, fighting off a tough end to the regular season to find their way to the state tournament. They eventually played and lost to East Ridge in the state championship matchup, but it was the Trojans’ surprise quarterfinal victory over Blaine which punctuates New Prague’s postseason run a year ago.
Through four innings of play against second-seeded Blaine, New Prague clung to a 1-0 lead before plating five runs in the top of the fifth inning. After carving out a 6-0 lead, the Trojans seemed in control. But in the bottom of the fifth, the Bengals roared back with six runs to tie the contest 6-6.
New Prague could have folded. It hadn’t been to the big show in nearly four decades, so the program had no contemporary recipe for postseason success. Mix in a tough end to the regular season, and some adversity to win the section, and it looked like the Trojans were in trouble. But the Trojans flipped the switch instead, showing their composure and they plated the game-winning run in the top of the seventh to keep their season going.
Spring in Minnesota has its share of foregone conclusions, but none proved to be as steadfast as Blake and Eden Prairie dominating the girls' lacrosse season.
These longtime powerhouses have become the de facto gold standard for the sport thanks to their sustained success in the regular and postseasons — and most notably by their state tournament supremacy.
At least one of the programs has played in the state title game every year since the tournament was sponsored by the MSHSL starting in 2007, and they have played each other in nine of the 13 championship games. The programs combined to win the tournament’s first 11 titles, with the Bears owning six of those championships.
But last year, Blake experienced what can only be described as a very un-Bears-like outing, and one that caught our eye — and possibly those of some of the state’s coaches and fans of the sport — as one of the biggest surprises of the season.
Blake began the year ranked No. 4 in the first coaches’ poll despite having a roster stocked with young talent (two eighth-graders, three freshmen and 12 sophomores). Such a high ranking was no doubt a nod to the program’s winning tradition, reputation and high expectations.
Early season struggles sank the Bears in the rankings, where they managed to hang on at No. 10 for a few weeks before ultimately dropping out for the remainder of the season.
They lumbered to a 7-9 overall record, the program's first losing season since the MN Lax Hub started tracking stats in 2011. It was also the first time the Bears failed to win at least 10 games, a feat they accomplished in each of the other eight seasons on record.
The team also went winless in league play (whether it was in its current conference, Independent Metro Athletic Conference, or its previous one, the Tri-Metro) for the first time in the last nine seasons.
Blake bounced back a bit in the Section 5 tournament, where it was the No. 3 seed and an underdog in all but its first game of bracket play. The Bears won their first two contests and reached the section championship, but their postseason run came to a full stop with a 15-11 loss to eternal adversary Breck — a defeat that also ended their streak of state tournament appearances at 12.
There’s something else about last season’s Blake team that stands in stark contrast to past squads: there wasn’t a senior — not one — on the 24-player roster. Without that experience, it’s no surprise the team seemed to be out of sorts.
But Blake-bashers and Breck-backers be aware: Had this season been played, it’s likely the Bears would have emerged from their hibernation ready, willing and able to turn last year’s blip into a boon and set their sights on reclaiming their status as one of the state’s dominant programs.
Maple Grove's Ava Dueck (26) smacks a home run against Stillwater in the bottom of the first inning of last year's Class 4A state championship game. Photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
It’s not that Maple Grove was expected to be bad at softball a year ago, but how the Crimson were able to steamroll through the back part of their season and later hold off then-defending Class 4A state champion Stillwater to win the big-school state tournament left some jaws agape.
The Crimson went a competitive 15-5 in the 2018 regular season, but they dropped two of their four Class 4A, Section 5 matchups and missed the state tournament.
Last year, Maple Grove rebounded with an 18-2 regular-season campaign and claimed the crown in the uber-competitive Northwest Suburban Conference before going undefeated through the section playoffs.
The result? The Crimson were winners of 15 straight games, and they looked like contenders to make it to the championship game. After shutting out Edina and taking down East Ridge in a two-run victory, the second-seeded Crimson looked poised to challenge reigning champion Stillwater, the tourney’s No. 4 seed.
The Ponies were primed to defend their state crown, coming off an eight-run victory over top-seeded Forest Lake in a semifinal matchup that set up a meeting Maple Grove.
Through five innings in the title game, Maple Grove had a 3-0 lead, which doesn’t seem all that significant, but for a team that posted 13 shutout victories a season ago, the three runs likely felt like a plush cushion. Stillwater, however, were resigned to keep the Crimson from getting comfortable.
The Ponies mounted their comeback, loading the bases twice in the top of the seventh inning and plating a pair of runs that cut their deficit to 3-2.
But with two outs, the Crimson found their groove, inducing a sharply hit ground ball that was handled and resulted in the final out of the inning. Maple Grove got to the bottom of the inning without surrendering any more runs and wrapped up a victory in their 18th consecutive game, which also happened to be the biggest game of the season.
Unfortunately, our second baseball nominee this week surprised us for the wrong reasons.
Rochester Century was cruising a year ago. The Panthers won 15 regular-season games and seized the Big 9 Conference crown. They also appeared to be in good position to fight for their first state tournament berth since 2011.
After a highly successful regular-season campaign, however, Rochester Century hit a wall in the Class 4A, Section 1 playoffs — ending its season after losing one-run games to Rochester Mayo and Rochester John Marshall.
Not only were the Panthers eliminated by crosstown rivals — foes they had defeated a combined four times in the regular season (with ease) — but they could not even manage a postseason victory, going 0-2 and making a quick exit from the double-elimination tournament after winning seven of their final eight games of the regular season.
The Panthers scored just five totals runs in their two postseason games after producing nearly 7.6 runs per game in the regular season. It doesn’t help that they were shut out by Rochester Mayo after scoring at least one run in every contest up to that point a season ago.
Red skies at night delighted Stillwater in a rout of Chanhassen last year, but the red could also have been seen as a harbinger of a hard stop awaiting the Ponies in the postseason. Photo by Korey McDermott, SportsEngine
Perhaps no team last year experienced more of a meteoric rise followed by a spectacular burnout than Stillwater.
The Ponies were ranked No. 12 in the final coaches’ poll of the 2018 season and were at No. 9 in the first poll of 2019. After opening last year's schedule with a 13-6 rout of No. 10-ranked Mahtomedi and crushing Suburban East Conference foe Cretin-Derham Hall, Stillwater climbed to No. 6.
The Ponies pounded opponents like a sledgehammer breaking up 2,000-year-old concrete — easily and often with what seemed like little effort.
Stillwater smashed Suburban East rival and No. 7-ranked East Ridge 13-6 and then crushed Forest Lake 17-2 a week before knocking out Lakeville South (which was No. 7 in poll at the time), propelling the Ponies to No. 3 in the rankings. One week later, the Ponies climbed to No. 2 after after ending No. 9-ranked St. Thomas Academy’s undefeated season with a 16-7 victory.
A 21-9 rout of Chanhassen and a 17-4 demolishing of Park of Cottage Grove preceded a matchup with a dangerous Wayzata squad in the regular season finale, and a five-goal game from Nelson Summary helped the Ponies pull out an 11-10 victory that not only kept their perfect record (13-0 overall, 8-0 in league play) intact but also solidified their position in the polls.
If not for Benilde-St. Margaret’s undefeated regular season, Stillwater may have reached No. 1, and both teams seemed like locks to ride that success through sections and into the state tournament (a first for the Ponies) as title contenders.
Stillwater rolled in the postseason owning an eye-popping edge in scoring (194 goals to opponents' 70) and plenty of momentum, and both were on display as the top-seeded Ponies destroyed eighth-seeded Hill-Murray 24-2 — yes, 24-2!
A semifinal matchup with No. 4-seeded Mahtomedi was next on the schedule, and despite the seven-goal margin of victory in their previous contest, this go-round proved to be much more difficult and, ultimately, a stunner.
The Zephyrs eked out a 13-11 victory, and with it, washed away the Ponies’ dreams of making the program’s first appearance at state. Stillwater’s perfect season also went down the drain (although a 14-1 record is awfully impressive), while Mahtomedi —buoyed by the victory — made the state tournament and came home as the consolation champion. It was a result that left many Ponies’ pontificators and lacrosse fans expressing wonder at what could have been had Stillwater made the state tournament.