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Rubado column: The standout Detroit Lakes moments from the 2021-22 athletic year

This is an opinion column written by Jared Rubado. Opinions expressed do not specifically represent the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Any feedback can be sent to jrubado@dlnewspapers.com.

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The Detroit Lakes girls basketball team celebrates its 71-67 double-overtime win over Alexandria in the Section 8-3A semifinals on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES – My dad used to tell me I should start keeping a journal of the things I get to do in this job so I could turn it into a book when I'm older.

I don't think I will do that, but the idea got me thinking about ways to memorialize the moments that stick out. In this job, it's easy to move from game to game or season to season without taking a step back to appreciate what happened. It's go-time all the time.

Last weekend marked the end of the 2021-22 Minnesota State High School athletic year. It was a nine-month period that included state berths, empowering moments and a shiny new gym that the Lakers will call home for decades to come.

Before I get into the whole point of all this, I would like to express my gratitude. It'd be silly of me not to recognize that your sports coverage changed from years past. When I took this job, I had no idea what it would turn into me taking over the sports sections for the Perham Focus and the Wadena Pioneer Journal. Despite a lot of long nights, extended road trips and short weekends. I'm genuinely thankful for the opportunity to take on all three.

When we get fully staffed, the sports coverage isn't going to change. There's just going to be more of it. But, right now, it's physically impossible to do that. A lot of plans for stories fell through this year just because of time. I wholeheartedly believe that every athlete deserves coverage, and it kills me that I can't be everywhere at once.

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Right now, all I have to offer is my appreciation for you, the reader. I appreciate your patience. I'm giving my best effort, but I know I can do better. I can promise that when we find the right sports reporter, we will stop at nothing to have the best sports coverage this state has to offer.

So, without wasting any more of your time, take a step back with me and read about the year that was 2021-22 in Detroit Lakes High School Athletics.

“I’m not worried about my regular-season record”

The Detroit Lakes volleyball team finished the regular season 9-16 and earned the fifth seed in the Section 8-3A tournament. The 4-5 matchup in a section quarterfinal round in any sport is usually a toss-up, but that wasn't the case at St. Cloud Tech High School on Oct. 28, 2021.

The Lakers beat the fourth-seeded Tigers 3-0 in what was honestly a blowout. Typically, there isn't anything remarkable about a first-round playoff win. That is until I spoke with head coach Lynnsey Machakaire.

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The Detroit Lakes bench celebrates a third-set point on Oct. 28, 2021 in the Lakers' 3-0 win over St. Cloud Tech in the first round of the Section 8AAA tournament. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

She said a line in the interview I haven't forgotten about since. "I'm not worried about my regular-season record."

When the playoffs start, many coaches and athletes view it as a new season. I've never subscribed to that thought because I've always believed the baggage from the regular season, good or bad, sticks with you. In this scenario, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Lakers took on top-seeded Alexandria in the next round and gave the Cardinals a legitimate upset scare, and they did it without a senior on the floor. Even in a loss, it felt like they had turned a corner. It takes a lot to put 16 losses in the past, but they did.

Down goes Rocori

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rocori football team had a state championship run of nearly two years. That ended on Oct. 31, 2021, in a 21-20 loss to Detroit Lakes.

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The Lakers came back from a two-touchdown deficit to knock off the defending section and state champions in the 8-4A semifinals. On the surface, it looks like a typical seeding upset. However, it took a lot for the Detroit Lakes to be in that game instead of St. Cloud Apollo.

In the final week of the regular season, Detroit Lakes won a wild shootout against undefeated Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 42-29 . It boosted the Lakers’ QRF rating enough to solidify the third seed, avoiding top-seeded Becker in the second round.

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Gavin Smith (14) strips Owen Leach leading to a scoop-and-score touchdown on Oct. 20, 2021 in Detroit Lakes' 42-29 win over Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

St. Cloud Apollo arguably had a better resume heading into the last week of the regular season, but the Lakers’ big win set up a date with the defending state champs. Rocori punched in two touchdowns before the Lakers outscored the Spartans 21-6 in the final three quarters.

One of the most underrated parts of that game came on special teams. Rocori failed its final two-point conversion, putting them ahead 22-14. Junior kicker Evan Thomas, who’s also the goalkeeper for the boys soccer team, went 3-for-3 on PAT attempts, including the winning kick.

The Gerdes’ go to state

Madi and Lexi Gerdes are identical twins going to the same college and competing in the same sports. Why wouldn’t they go to the state girls swim meet in the same events?

This was a fun story to dive into (pun intended) because I love the idea of siblings competing against each other despite being on the same team. How competitive do you really get? Where does the love stop and the competition begin?

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Madi and Lexi Gerdes finished first and second in the 100-yard breaststroke at the Section 8A girl swimming and diving meet at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. Madi also took second in the 200-yard IM and was part of the 200-yard first-place medley relay team. Lexi was also on the medley relay team and took first in the 100-yard butterfly. Submitted by Christine Gerdes

Each set of siblings it’s different. The Gerdes sisters relish being able to share these experiences together. They talked about the 10 years of swimming competitively together and what it meant for them to reach that goal of going to state in the same event.

Oh so close

You know that feeling when you know you're right about something, and then you get to see it come to fruition? That's how Detroit Lakes boys hockey coach Ben Noah had to feel about his team playing East Grand Forks on Nov. 27.

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The Lakers had been preaching they were a different group of Laker hockey players, and it didn't take long for them to prove it in a 5-4 overtime loss against the Green Wave. It took four goals and an assist from star forward Jaksen Panzer to send EGF home with a win in the second game of the season, but it was the start of a historic run for Detroit Lakes.

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Beau Boehne (middle) Tommy Suckert (left) and Cole Deraney celebrate Boehne's game-tying goal during Detroit Lakes' 5-4 overtime loss against East Grand Forks on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at Kent Freeman Arena. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

The Lakers put together one of the best seasons in team history that ended a game shorter than they hoped. Despite beating Thief River Falls in the regular season, the Prowlers were too much in the Section 8A semifinals.

Both the EGF and 8A semifinal games had some things in common. Injuries played a huge factor. Detroit Lakes lost senior captain Rian Solberg against the Green Wave and rolled three defensemen for nearly two periods. Senior Beau Boehne didn't play in the section playoffs due to complications from COVID-19.

Another thing that stuck out was the Lakers felt close to getting over that hump for good in both games. They're right there, and there shouldn't be anybody else that sleeps on this team as long as this coaching staff is at the helm.

Big John Gulon

When I think of my favorite stories of the year, my feature on senior John Gulon comes to mind.

Committed doesn’t even begin to describe this kid. I don’t think I can even call him a kid. Gulon is a mammoth of an athlete and has worked his butt off to make the most of it.

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John Gulon (right) gives a fist bump to a Bemidji swimmer after the 100-yard backstroke on Dec. 21, 2021 at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center on during the Detroit Lakes boys swimming and diving home opener. Gulon set his season-best time at 58.81 after a rigorous offseason training regimen. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

After missing the state swim meet by a fraction of a second in 2021, Gulon decided to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. He started boxing to help train for the backstroke. Not only did he go to state, but he also won his first boxing match on June 11 in Perham.

What impressed me so much about Gulon was his willingness to be a leader for a team that needed it the most. The Detroit Lakes boys swim team was down in numbers with a new head coach. It’s not easy to ask seniors to be excellent in and out of the pool, but he’s the kind of kid that does it whether he’s asked to or not.

A new home

Nobody told me about Lakeshirts Fieldhouse when I started working here.

I remember walking into the Ralph Anderson Gym the first time and thinking it was a cool place to watch a game. I liked the vintage feel of an old gym. Then you walk into Lakeshirts Fieldhouse, and it’s easy to forget about that stuff.

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The Laker boys basketball team (pictured) and girls basketball team broke in the new Lakeshirts Fieldhouse with their home games on Jan. 4, 2022, the first to be played in the new facility. An official grand opening celebration for the fieldhouse is tentatively planned to take place later this month or in February. (Contributed / Detroit Lakes High School / Tribune)

The opening night of the new gym was great, but I enjoyed getting a deeper look into how it came about in my conversation with activities director Rob Nielsen. It truly is stunning when compared to other high schools around the country.

The Jan. 4 soft launch was definitely a moment that stuck out this year because I don’t remember a whole lot from either girls or boys basketball games that night. When I got in my car that night, I called my dad and told him I couldn’t believe I got paid to watch games in an arena that nice. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

The Brick Wahl

Without a doubt, my favorite story of the year came from Detroit Lakes girls hockey.

Admittedly, I’m biased towards this one because I used to play goalie growing up, but Emma Wahl’s willingness to step between pipes for the first time during her senior season is beyond remarkable.

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Emma Wahl falls down on the puck in the second period during the Detroit Lakes girls hockey game against Fargo North-South on Jan. 11, 2022 at the Kent Freeman Arena. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

It takes years of practice to play most positions across all sports at a high level. But, when the Detroit Lakes girls hockey team didn’t have a goalie, Wahl decided to give it a shot without ever having played in high school.

It takes a lot of guts to step into a position like that. To want to step in front of pucks being flung at you without knowing how to stop them is pretty bold.

Over a decade in the making

One of the overarching impacts of this year was the MSHSL's section realignment. Many sports had classes added, pushing the bigger schools like Moorhead, Bemidji and Sartell out of the Lakers' section.

The Laker Dance team was a huge beneficiary of this.

When I spoke with head coach Britton Ramsey before the season, she knew that her group of girls had a real shot to go to state for the first time since 2010. On Feb. 5 at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, they ended the drought.

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Detroit Lakes head dance coach Britton Ramsey, left, and Tori LaFriniere cry tears of joys after finding out the Laker jazz team is headed to the state tournament for the first time since 2010. The Lakers took third at Sauk Rapids-High School on Feb. 5, 2022.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

The Laker jazz team took third at sections to clinch a state berth for the first time in 12 years. I was covering it alongside Brian Mozey, a sports reporter for the St. Cloud Times. We were waiting for the results when one of the people at the judge's table pulled Brian aside.

Brian came back to where I was standing and said, "get your camera ready." Being able to capture that emotion was pretty special.

What made that day one of my favorites of the year is what it meant for the dance community in Detroit Lakes. That's a group of girls that had vague memories of watching the 2010 team compete at the Target Center. Any dancer younger than them hadn't seen it until this year.

When kids in sports see their role models accomplish a goal like going to state, it makes them believe they can do that same thing when they get to high school. Success is the ultimate determinant of culture change in athletics.

Back on top

I'm genuinely sorry for those who didn't make it to the Section 8A gymnastics meet at Lakeshirts Fieldhouse on Feb. 12.

Some years it feels like a section is unfairly stacked with how many state championships level teams are at the top. Detroit Lakes, Melrose and Perham make 8A gymnastics feel like that yearly.

History would make it hard to say that nobody believed Detroit Lakes would win the team section championship that day, but it's true. Being around the gym all day–listening to the other reporters and fans–that day was Melrose's to lose.

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Detroit Lakes Jordan Ehnert celebrates her beam routine at the Section 8A championships on Feb. 12, 2022 at Lakeshirts Fieldhouse.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

It came down to the vault. I stood in the back next to Steve Zamzo, somebody who's much smarter than me when it comes to gymnastics. I enjoyed picking his brain in what was inevitably the season's biggest moment.

Elsie Ratz, Jerzie Horner and Gabby Whitworth all hit huge vaults. It clinched another Section 8A championship and a trip to the Roy Wilkins Auditorium a week later.

Detroit Lakes gymnastics is such a storied program that's accomplished everything there is to achieve. For this group to get back to that level after two years without a section championship speaks volumes about their will to battle through adversity.

Turning people into believers

Where do I even start with the Detroit Lakes girls basketball team?

If you want to talk about a team nobody believed in, including me, look no further. After Detroit Lakes narrowly escaped a first-round upset with a 39-29 win over sixth-seeded Little Falls, I was pretty confident that I wasn’t going to make a trip to Minneapolis.

One of this year’s most significant challenges was figuring out how to be at every Perham and Detroit Lakes girls and boys playoff basketball game. Thankfully, the Detroit Lakes girls basketball team threw a wrench into everything.

Every time I counted on them losing to a team perceived to be better, they made me eat my words. It started in Alexandria with a double-overtime win over the second-seeded Cardinals. Even then, I didn’t think there was a chance they’d beat top-seeded Willmar.

Detroit Lakes lost to those two teams by a combined 41 points in two regular-season games. Obviously, a different team showed up in the postseason.

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The Detroit Lakes girls basketball team celebrates with the student section on the court after the Lakers' 46-43 win over Willmar in the Section 8-3A championship game on Mar. 10, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

I’m not sure if there was ever a point against Willmar where I fully believed Detroit Lakes would win that game, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be wrong. Even at state in the consolation semifinals against Grand Rapids , I thought Detroit Lakes was outmatched. I was wrong again.

The Lakers put their season on the line four times. They won each of those games. Watching young athletes find ways to push through that pressure time and time again is what makes this job so fun. It made the ensuing scheduling nightmares and metaphorical egg on my face well worth it.

Most importantly, the Detroit Lakes girls basketball team was part of history. Dance, gymnastics and girls basketball all went to state in the same year and were all led by female head coaches–a first for Detroit Lakes.

Rached Johnson, the Laker girls basketball head coach, said it best: “Empowered women empower women.” I will never know what it’s like to be a woman in sports, but I’m not naive enough to believe it isn’t different from men’s sports.

Like I said about the dance team, success defines a culture. Young female athletes saw their role models accomplish things they hadn’t seen before this year. Young athletes need to have people in their sport to look up to, and there are a whole bunch of them on those three teams.

Load up the bus

Track and field was another beneficiary of the section realignment. Because the MSHSL added a third track and field class, the Lakers saw more kids on the podium at sections than ever before.

For the first time since 2016, a Detroit Lakes girls athlete qualified for state. For the boys. It was the first since 2019. The Lakers sent 10 track and field athletes to St. Michael-Albertville, with only two of them being seniors.

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Detroit Lakes' Ella Paulson gears up to run the first leg of the Lakers' 4x200-meter girls relay at the Class 2A state prelims on June 10, 2022 at St. Michael-Albertville High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Before the season, girls head coach Maggy Doll said the goal was to compete at state true team and bring a bus full of Lakers to STMA. Now, with that experience under their belts, the kids coming back in 2023 know what it takes to get there. An experience like that will work dividends for themselves and when it comes to pushing their teammates.

Best of the rest

There are so many other moments from this year that deserve recognition. To name a few, Rob Ullyott’s retirement , adapted bowling headed to state and senior night for the Detroit Lakes baseball team.

I had a fantastic time covering Detroit Lakes sports this season, and I can’t wait to look back on all of the great things that will happen in 2022-23. I believe there’s a lot to be excited about in local athletics. Thank you for your continued support in local media.

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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