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SETTING THE STAGE: Things to watch when spring sports finally start

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It’s not going to be Saturday — and it might not be next week — but high school sports will be played this spring in Steele County.

When that day finally comes, there will be plenty of action to keep local fans engaged. Both individually and collectively, this could be a special couple months foe area squads.

Though initially its going to require some patience before things finally get going, here are a few preseason storylines to keep an eye on as teams gear up for what will prove to be a compressed and whirlwind spring sports campaign.

The OHS boys lacrosse team has enough talent to make a run at state

With a coach that has been with the program since its inception and an increased number of players taking part in offseason leagues and clinics, Owatonna has proven to be fertile ground when it comes to the blossoming sport of lacrosse.

The Huskies have displayed steady participation and an upswing in production over the last 4-5 years, but a section championship still eludes the program.

In 2018, that could change.

Though it will be without last season’s leading scorer, Tyler Wencl, Owatonna retains 21 letterwinners from last year’s team that finished 10-4 overall and tied with Northfield for the Big Nine Conference championship with a 9-1 league record.

Of the five players that scored at least 15 goals last spring, four of them return. This list includes Josh Nelson (33 goals), Walker Nelson (23 goals, 13 assists), Nate Smith (17 goals, 20 assists) and Tyler Johnson (18 goals, 7 assists). Add Landon Thurnau (8 goals, 7 assists) and it would be hard to find a more balanced offensive attack in the entire conference.

Mitch Wiese is a proven leader and will anchor the midfield along with Noah Brandt, who set a school record for faceoffs won in a single season last year with 172.

The Huskies also retain every key piece of its defense that allowed a conference-low 6.4 goals-per-game in 2017. Goalie Ryan Johnson will play behind a formidable and physically imposing back line that includes Kade Serbus (5-11, 235), Kadyn Mulert (6-0, 260), Dylan Meier (6-2, 235), Braeden Meier (6-2, 190) and college-bound Jacob Dub (5-10, 175).

“This group of seniors and juniors have been playing together a long time,” Owatonna coach Scott Seykora said. “This is one of the first groups that started back when they were in third and fourth grade. I feel our team unity will be strong and they work well together as a team.”

With the Big Nine co-champion Raiders graduating 14 seniors, Owatonna — at least on paper — will enter the season as the favorites in the conference. In order for the Huskies to qualify for state, though, they will undoubtedly need to take down one of three Section 1 teams from the South Suburban Conference in Farmington, Lakeville North and Lakeville South. According to maxpreps.com, Owatonna is winless in 10 meetings against the trio since 2011.

Medford baseball could win the Gopher Conference

If there is an area baseball team waiting to explode, it’s Medford.

Led by skipper Jon Chappuis, the Tigers have a dedicated coaching staff motivated to improving the quality of play throughout the entire program. This spring might be the year when the fruits of their steadfast labor — which includes re-igniting the legion program and focusing on youth development — finally bloom.

Medford enters the season with eight seniors on the roster, which is a massive number for a school with just 237 total students. It could be argued that Javis VonRuden (catcher) and Willie VonRuden (pitcher, centerfield) are the two best players at their respective positions in the entire conference while players like Ian Gillis, Alex Gangler, Cole Volkmann, Nate Meixner, Cael Kavitz and Ben Sutcliffe each have multiple years of meaningful varsity experience.

Bottom line, Medford is loaded and poised to dethrone three-time defending champion W-E-M in the Gopher Conference.

Last hurrah for two of Owatonna’s best female athletes ever

It’s hard to believe, but the esteemed high school careers of Margo Achterkirch and Syd Schultz will come to an end in the next couple of months.

The duo has combined for more than a dozen all-conference nods and boasts more than 20 varsity letters in basketball, volleyball, soccer, hockey and track and field.

Schultz is Owatonna’s all-time leading scorer on the hardwood with 1,932 points and was a devastating volleyball player with college-level skills. Achterkirch began playing varsity sports in eighth grade and served as a multi-year captain in both soccer and hockey.

Fittingly, the pair will spearhead the 4x100 and 4x200-meter relay squads and serve as two of the top individual sprinters on the team. 

What will Brad Staska’s encore be after an astonishing 2017 season?

In terms of raw numbers, there wasn’t a baseball player in the area that matched what Brad Staska accomplished for Blooming Prairie last spring.

Batting in the middle of the Awesome Blossoms’ lineup, the senior set a new school record in batting average at .530 and whacked 12 extra basehits to go with 23 RBIs. For his efforts, he was named all-area, all-conference, all-section and all-state.

Head coach Matt Kittelson says Staska’s impact on the program cannot be undersold.

“The younger kids look up to him and aspire to be like Brad,” Kittelson said. “It will be hard to duplicate the season, but I think being who is, it’s possible. He’s so humble and works hard every day. That’s what he brings to the table. He shows that you don’t have to be flashy to be successful.”

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on Twitter.com @OPPJonW

Award-winning Sports Editor for the Owatonna People's Press, Weisbrod has worked in daily newspapers his entire career. He writes a regular column called Beyond the Box that delves into local, regional and national sports storylines.

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