The 2020-21 high school sports year was unforgettable, especially for the seniors who recently graduated from area schools.
The fall was an off-again, on-again scheduling nightmare as schools and leagues dealt with COVID-19. The football and volleyball seasons were pushed back to the spring, then flip-flopped back to the fall in a shortened timeframe with limited postseasons at best.
Once the winter sports were given the green light to begin in January, things began to stabilize, and by the spring sports seasons, things inched closer to normal as mask restrictions and gathering limits loosened.
The good news is that sports was able to provide other long-lasting memories for local athletes. The County News Review spoke to four seniors who were gracious enough to shares those memories.
• North Branch’s Paige Bauer was a three-sport standout, starting with soccer, which she played on the varsity starting as a sophomore through her senior year. In the winter she was on the Vikings gymnastics team since seventh grade, and in the spring she competed with the track team starting in seventh grade, missing only her junior season that was canceled by the pandemic. Bauer will attend Minnesota-Mankato and compete on the track team.
• Cambridge-Isanti’s Connor Braaten also played three sports in high school, starting with football, where he joined the varsity as a freshman. He also played varsity baseball starting as a freshman; he was on the varsity basketball team primarily as a sophomore throughout his senior year. He has signed to play football at Minnesota-Moorhead.
• North Branch’s Gavyn Jensen-Schneider was a four-year starter for the Vikings football team and played two seasons on the varsity baseball team, serving as captain this season and also playing as a sophomore. Jensen-Schneider will attend Carleton College.
• Cambridge-Isanti’s Jasmyn Sibell played on the hockey team from her freshman through senior year, while in golf she played on the varsity starting in eight grade and throughout her high school years, missing only the junior season that was lost by COVID-19. She will play golf collegiately at Bethel University.
Here are their thoughts and memories, along with the advice they would share to those just getting started in high school sports.
BAUER: “I finally made it to the state gymnastics tournament as a junior after just missing in the years prior by .025 of a point. I was beyond excited when I made it. My family was able to come and watch, and past teammates came to watch me as well. It was a surreal feeling. I learned that section was scarier than state. Once I made it to state, I just had a lot of fun. This past year, I made it with my little eighth grader, Dakota [Esget], and that was a lot of fun. We did gymnastics together when we were really little, so that was fun to reunite. At times she gets stressed out, so I was happy I was there to help calm her down at state.”
BRAATEN: “We were playing against St. Francis in the section football tournament my junior year, and we didn’t have many yards on offense in the first half. We didn’t want to get our butts kicked by them, so we came out and threw the ball a lot in the second half. I felt I missed a couple of throws, and after the game I was hard on myself. Then somebody asked me if I knew how many yards I had thrown for and I told them, ‘I don’t know how may yards I threw for – we lost.’ Then I found out it was 386 yards and a school record.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “I will always remember playing football with my older brother, Lucas. In baseball I played the bottom half of an inning with him, but in football I played outside linebacker as a freshman while Lucas played middle linebacker as a senior. It was a weird experience because we sometimes shared unspoken thoughts. Playing with Lucas was an awesome experience.”
BRAATEN: “Out of the eight games on our original football schedule my senior year, I think we only had one or two where we played the team we expected on the right day and time. Each week around Wednesday we’d find out we needed a new team to play. As a team leader, I knew that if I could get guys to watch film and take care of our work, we could do better than people thought. In our last regular-season game we found out on Wednesday that we were playing Tartan. A couple of guys looked up info on them and realized that they were ranked ninth in the state – they were good. I know people doubted us because I was getting messages and Snapchats saying we were going to lose. But I knew we were a good team and could win. We scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds, and we went for two to get the victory. After we scored, Adam Hamed made an interception to win the game, and when we got to him on the field, he said, ‘I’m cramping, I’m cramping!’ But we didn’t care because we had beaten a team nobody thought we could beat, and that was an exciting feeling.”
BAUER: “My sophomore year, we were playing our first soccer game on our new turf field, and I had an assist on the game-winning goal – and we scored in the final seconds of the match. We were all jumping and cheering, it was so cool. We had a big student section, and they were really excited, too. It was great.”
BRAATEN: “I don’t remember many tears in sports – except for my junior basketball season. We had just beaten Duluth East to get back to state, and we were so excited. We had barely heard of COVID-19 – we were making jokes about it. Then next morning we had a shoot-around, and one of our assistants told me the tournament was canceled. The energy in gym just left. I went to the locker room where our seniors were, and they were crying. I felt terrible for them. We never found out how far we could have gotten in the state tournament.”
SIBELL: “In our section tournament game my senior year, we knew we had to play our best game and Forest Lake would have to play badly for us to win. I think I kind of prepared myself for the worst. They scored right away, and I thought this could be a long game. But then I reminded myself that this might be my final high school hockey game, and I needed to enjoy every minute, every second of it. And I did. You always want to do good in the last thing you do. By the end of the game, I thought I had a concussion, though, so I was happy the game was over.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “In the section final my freshman year we’re playing Cloquet, a team we had lost to during the season. The game didn’t go well for us; we got trampled. After that game, everyone was sad because it was the end of the year. But it was the final game for Lucas, so I ran over to him – because it was my final chance to play with him. Fortunately, the fun we had that year outweighed the sad times. But this past football season we played Cloquet in the section tournament again, and it was going to be our last game of the year. And we had lost the previous two games on our schedule because of COVID-19 – we weren’t sure we were even going to get to play. We came back to practice on Monday for a game Wednesday. We had only beaten Cloquet one time in my career, and I had a vendetta against Cloquet. I had fire in my stomach and a chip on my shoulder. We won that game, and I think I had 12 tackles in the game. Winning that game, and feeling that feeling of redemption, put a massive grin on my face.”
BAUER: “The first time the state league announced football wasn’t happening in the fall was super-disappointing. When they switched it back, but we found out the limitations – there were limits on the number of people, and things like that – it was disappointing compared to other years. Especially for our senior year.”
BRAATEN: “We played our last football game against Coon Rapids, and we knew we were getting shut down the next day. I wondered if we were going to be happy if we won or sad because the season was over. Turns out we were both. Some people were crying, some were laughing because we had won our last game. But I don’t think we left the locker room until after 10 o’clock because there was such a mix of emotions.”
SIBELL: “We had a coach bus for a hockey trip up north, and I remember Meghan Gibb and Maddie Shaw grabbed the microphone the bus driver uses and started singing the most random songs and saying the most random things. They sang ‘Life Is A Highway’ and a bunch of other songs. It was a great beginning to a long trip.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “I thought I would be a backup for the first game as a freshman, and I was already nervous. The coaches told me that if we were on offense first, I was going to start on defense. So 15 minutes before the game, my knees were shaking. So there’s the coin toss – and we are going to start on offense. But on the kickoff we returned the ball for a touchdown, and the sideline is freaking out. I was on the kickoff team, so after we kicked off, I just stayed on the field to play defense. On the first drive, there’s a fourth-down play, and they’re going for it. The other team was Princeton, and they called a rollout pass to my side of the field. Their tight end, who is 250 pounds, is the guy I’m covering, and on the pass I knock the ball out of his hands. The sideline freaks out, and it was one of the most exciting plays of my career.”
BRAATEN: “I remember my sophomore year when we made it to state in basketball and played Hopkins in our first game. People were saying their players were big, and I thought, ‘They can’t be that big.’ Then we got on the floor, and I saw this huge player with a deep voice. Right away I realized it was a different breed of basketball. Now that guy, Zeke Nnaji, is playing in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, and I can tell my kids that I played against him.”
SIBELL: “After the first day of the section golf tournament this year, I remember taking my shoes off on the bus. Unfortunately, I’ve always had smelly feet, especially with my golf shoes. They just smell awful. But it was a long day and I was tired. Coach [Steve] Hanson looked at me, shook his head, and closed his eyes.”
BAUER: “We would play ‘duck-duck-gray duck’ during soccer practice, and our coaches would play with us. One time assistant coach [Sherri] Keller was playing, and as she ran around the circle, her feet completely slipped out from under her and she went flying. We were all laughing, watching her completely biff it.”
SIBELL: “When we had the combined hockey team with Mora and Pine City, Emma Schmidt – who is from Pine City – sat next to me for the entire year. And for some reason, I just could not stand her. I never said a word to her all season. The next year, we became best friends – and we still are great friends. I was a freshman, and she was older than me. I guess I thought she was going to judge me, or maybe take my spot. I think it’s funny that I sat next to her for an entire year and didn’t say a word to her.”
MEMORIES OF COACHES
SIBELL: “My relationship with my golf coach, Steve Hanson, is a love-hate relationship. But it’s joking hate. I call him my ‘grandpa,’ and I’ve looked up to him my entire golf career. I’m going to miss Coach Hanson now that my high school golf career is over.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “Everyone knows that I love Peanuts, and I wear Snoopy shirts all the time. For the final game against Cloquet, I brought a Snoopy shirt to wear on the ride home. Coach [Justin] Voss is very observant, and after the game he told me, ‘Keep wearing that Snoopy shirt. You’re special.’ I may be weird, but I’m an individual and I embrace that. And Coach Voss appreciated that.”
BRAATEN: “My dad [assistant coach Matt Braaten] coached me starting at 6 years old. Sometimes I admit it was hard; I would have spent the previous three hours with him, and when we got home I just wanted to be alone. He’s hard on me, and I know he expects a lot out of me, but I understand that he just wants to get the best out of me, and I love that about him. It will be different next year, knowing I won’t have him as a coach.”
BAUER: “I’ve build strong relationships with all of my coaches in high school, and they are people I felt I could come to with things. Soccer coach Josh Kopp helped me when I put together a powder-puff football game this year, and it was great to know he had my back. Chris Johnson, my gymnastics coach, did a lot for me. And [track coach] Norm [Nagel] has been with me since seventh grade. Honestly they are more than just coaches for me; they feel like friends. I had great coaches.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “My freshman and sophomore year, my linebacker coach was Dan Johnson. We were told that coach Johnson’s daughter was starting middle school and would be involved in sports, so he wanted to be there for her – and he would not coach football my junior year. A group of us were pretty upset about that. One day a few friends and I saw Coach Johnson, and we talked to him about how sad we were that he wouldn’t be coaching the next season. When my junior year started, he was back as our coach. And he told me later that if I and my friends had not talked to him, he would not have come back as a coach. He knew he had players who wanted him, so he came back.”
ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “The first thing I would tell the younger me is to listen to your older brother. He knows what he’s talking about, and you’re just a freshman. You don’t. And he drove me to practices and weightlifting, so I owe him more than I would like to admit.”
SIBELL: “I would tell anyone to just enjoy it – and don’t take anything for granted. I remember thinking as a freshman, ‘I have four more years of this?’ I wish I wouldn’t have complained then. I just would say, ‘Make sure you give everything you have to it.’ Because you never know when it will be taken away.”
BAUER: “When I was in seventh grade, I just missed qualifying for the state gymnastics tournament, and I was upset. People told me, ‘You can qualify next year.’ But eventually I learned that, just because you have another year, you shouldn’t lower your expectations. Don’t drop your expectations. Keep more mind focused and stay motivated.”
BRAATEN: “Everyone says, ‘Enjoy your time in sports,’ and you really need to do that. No one knew COVID was coming, and it cost us a whole spring season and messed up last fall. If something bad happens, move on and try to make the next day better than the previous day.”
JENSEN-SCHNEIDER: “I did a lot of things during high school, like becoming an Eagle Scout and keeping up my grades so I could get into the college I wanted. But I wish I would have joined more clubs and done a few more things outside of sports. I think I would have loved Mock Trial, but I never did it. I never competed in Math League, and I’m going to be an economics major, so that would be right up my alley. And when I was a freshman playing on the varsity, there was a little disconnect with my friends. I didn’t see them every day at practice, and that always a pain point for me. I wish I would have done a better job of spending more time with friends. It may have been difficult, but I wish I would have made more an effort.”