Remembering 2020: Martins make area sports history with state crown
FAIRMONT — For the past three decades, the final week of December has been jam-packed with holiday high school basketball and hockey tournaments.
In a non-pandemic year, I’d probably be chatting with Blue Earth Area point guard Austin Thielfoldt about the Bucs’ strategy of defending Truman/Martin Luther/Granada-Huntley-East Chain’s 6-foot-6 center Adam Heckman in the championship game of the Holiday Classic in Blue Earth.
Or I’d be reminiscing about great games from past Bethany Lutheran College invitationals with Greg Abel, asking Kevin Mertens where Luke is playing football next season, receiving area Twitter updates from Chirp, reading Julie Becker’s Facebook notes from hockey in Morris or getting stat-filled texts from a handful of area basketball coaches.
But in these mask-wearing days of our coronavirus-confined culture — combined with Iowa prep basketball on holiday hiatus, I fully understand why newspapers dedicate the final issue of each year to a Top 10 list of memorable stories.
Since five months of Minnesota prep athletics this calendar year were wiped out like grocery stores’ toilet paper shelves during the spring, and three more months in the fall were manipulated beyond recognition like a Congressional testimonial, I opted to select a Top 3.
While Randy Kuechenmeister’s Blue Earth Area football team producing an undefeated season and a Section 2AA championship — along with Konny Wolff’s Bucs girls tennis program netting a sectional crown — were both incredible and memorable, making historic strides proved the deciding factor.
Unfortunately, neither athletic program had the opportunity to compete at the state level due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving area sports fans to proverbially ponder, “What if?”
#1: Fairmont Martins win Minnesota Class ‘C’ amateur baseball state championship.
With nearly every position being filled by a current or former collegiate baseball player, Fairmont steamrolled to its first ‘town team’ crown in 61 years via a 12-0, seven-inning thrashing of the St. Patrick Irish on Labor Day at Riverside Park in Springfield.
Windom Pirates draftee Ross Ackerman recorded 11 consecutive outs after a second-inning single en route to firing a three-hit shutout over 6 innings to earn the win for the Martins. Closer Adam Schmidt struck out two in working the seventh inning to seal the historic victory.
Luke Becker, a former Fairmont High School and Kentucky University standout and San Diego Padres minor leaguer, produced three hits and scored three runs for the Martins in the Labor Day finale to solidify being selected as the tournament’s MVP.
Jack Waletich — a current MSU-Mankato outfielder and former FHS all-stater, joined Martins teammate Jon Traetow — a former St. Cloud Tech & Community College and Martin County West diamond standout, on the 2020 Class ‘C’ all-state tournament team.
From a historic context, Fairmont defeated Bloomington for the 1959 Class ‘A’ championship via a 14-2 rout on the strength of shortstop and No. 3 batter Don Dahlke’s three RBIs and two hits, including a home run, on Sept. 20 in St. Cloud.
Ironically, three days later, the Martins defeated Class ‘B’ champion Shakopee, 8-1, in Shakopee to earn bragging rights as Minnesota’s overall state champion.
Fairmont, only under the Cardinals’ moniker, also captured the 1930 state amateur baseball championship. Fairmont edged Northern Pacific by a 10-8 decision at Lexington Park — the home of the St. Paul Saints — in St. Paul.
^ Many thanks to Star Tribune sports guru Joel Rippel for researching the Martins’ rich history.^
#2 (tie) Martin County Red Bulls place second in Class AA team competition & Blue Earth Area Bucs finish third in Class A team portion of the Minnesota State High School League’s state wrestling meet.
The Red Bulls, a co-operative program between Fairmont and Martin County West high schools, earned runner-up accolades for the second time in the last three years during the one-day team competition during the last weekend in February at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Under head coach Adam Williamson’s tutelage, the Red Bulls opened with a 53-15 Class AA quarterfinal win over Orono before squeezing by Foley in the semifinals by a 32-30 decision. No. 1-ranked Simley then downed the Red Bulls, 48-10, in the championship dual meet.
In the individual competition, Red Bulls senior Payton Anderson pocketed the 152-pound state crown by posting a 3-2 win over Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield’s Jude Link in the final showdown. Even more incredible, Anderson finished with an impressive 47-2 seasonal record to complement his gold-medal performance — all while grappling with two torn ACLs.
Miles Fitzgerald, who is a current teammate of Anderson’s on Augustana’s collegiate wrestling squad, earned the silver medal at 160 pounds for the Red Bulls, while current Red Bull seniors Jaxson Rohman and Connor Simmonds each pocketed bronze medals at 126 and 138, respectively.
Rohman, who enters his final prep season as the Red Bulls’ all-time career wins leader with 227, and Simmonds, who eclipsed the 150-win career plateau last season, have both committed to wrestle for Augustana as collegiate freshmen.
In the Class A state meet, Randy Wirtjes was named as the Coach of the Year after guiding Blue Earth Area to a third-place team showing at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Nick Frank’s 7-0 winning decision at 182 pounds mathematically clinched the Section 2 team championship for the Bucs.
Blue Earth Area’s 39-23 final margin of victory over four-time defending sectional champion Kenyon-Wanamingo on Feb. 15 in St. Clair ended the Bucs’ 18-year absence from the team portion of the state meet.
Blue Earth Area, which won the 2002 state team championship, opened the 2020 state quarterfinals with a 34-32 triumph over Grand Meadow/LeRoy-Ostrander/ Southland before falling to eventual Class A state champion Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Browerville via a 39-18 semifinal decision. The Bucs rallied for a 36-26 win over Tracy-Milroy-Balaton/Westbrook-Walnut Grove in the third-place dual meet.
Max Ehrich later placed fourth at 160 pounds in the Class A individual state meet for the Bucs. Ty Peterson (113), Jaxen Klinkner (138), Koby Nagel (145), Davis Sunken (120), Caleb Beeler (132) and Luke Mertens (195) also qualified individually for Blue Earth Area. Ehrich, Nagel and Klinkner all advanced to St. Paul on the strength of winning sectional championships.
Now, we can only hope that there are no shortages of games — or toilet paper — in 2021, and I’ll be covering holiday tournaments in place of writing this column.