This past year has been a roller coaster ride for the ages, with unprecedented times hitting students hard. Yet through tough times, the Waconia student athletes have shown their resilience. After a strong start to 2020 was derailed by COVID-19, the Wildcats returned in the Fall to finish the year off with plenty of success.
The ‘Cats didn’t waste any time in making history in 2020, with their first achievement coming on New Years day. The girls hockey team, in it’s second year as a program, earned their first ever trophy on Jan. 1, winning a shootout at the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic.
“It’s a huge deal because we are having a lot of firsts this year,” forward Annika Mielke said. “We’re having a lot more wins, we have our first trophy - a lot of firsts.”
Mielke scored the winning goal in the shootout, while senior goaltender Kylie Kurtz stopped all three attempts against Waconia. The Wildcats finished the tourney with a 2-1 record and a third place trophy.
The Wildcats continued their run of success in the winter months. The boys hockey team peaked at the end of the season with a four game win streak in the penultimate week of the season before Waconia sent numerous athletes to compete at state tournaments.
Eighth grader Emily Gustafson advanced to the 2020 State Alpine Ski Championships after finishing in 12th place in a very competitive MSHSL Section 5 competition. The Waconia boys swimming and diving team sent a pair of swimmers to the state meet as well. David Sinclair qualified for state in the 50 and 100 yard freestyle events, while Samuel Sinclair qualified in the 200 individual medley.
“It’s not too surprising given their background,” said coach Jeff Hackler. “They’re super talented and versatile swimmers and they work extremely hard. Those things usually lead to good results.”
While Waconia’s growth has meant new teams (like boys swimming/diving, tennis and girls hockey), it also meant moving up to the top class in the state to take on bigger schools. Yet the success continued as the dance team, the gymnastics team and wrestling team all were represented at the state level in their first year in the upper class.
Dancers Gabrielle Erenstein, Rachel Hissam and Elizabeth Kuntz danced at the MADT (Minnesota Association of Dance Teams) All-State 2020 Dance Event and Dani Miller qualified for the state gymnastics meet.
The wrestling team went up to the top class in Minnesota, and though injuries and bigger schools threatened to derail their year, the Wildcats only went out and qualified for state as a team, sent eight individuals to the state tournament and produced two more state champions.
The Wildcats kicked off the state meet with a 2-1 record and fifth place finish as a team, then had Alex Torres, Riese White, Josh Wagener, Alex Riley, Gage Mueller, Max McEnelly, Sam McEnelly and Bennett Weber compete as individuals. Weber and Max McEnelly would end the weekend at the top of the podium, both with unbelievable wins.
Weber faced an undefeated No. 1 ranked wrestler who had defeated him twice that season. The senior heavyweight thrives in the role of underdog and pulled out a stunning move to go from nearly being pinned to pinning his opponent with 1 second left.
“It’s a move that I haven’t really done much this year,” Weber said. “Usually when I do it, coach Hackman shakes me off and he shook me off in the finals. I already got taken down, so I let it fly and he wasn’t ready for it.”
Max McEnelly was also facing an undefeated No. 1 ranked wrestler, one who had not lost in 2 years. The defending state champion, 2 years older than McEnelly, entered the bout 41-0 after going undefeated last season. McEnelly won in overtime despite being an underdog with a 53-1 record.
The hits kept coming when both basketball teams won conference championships and appeared in the section championship games. The boys trio of PJ Hayes, Connor Schwob and Spencer Swanson were all first team all-conference for their efforts and made the KDUZ/KARP All-Area Team, helping the Wildcats appear in the title game in March.
The depth of the girls team made history, winning their first section championship with a roster boasting atleast 10 players who could be in the starting lineup. Waconia was avenging a loss from 1 year ago, when the Wildcats lost the section championship at the buzzer to Robbinsdale Cooper and a loss to Marshall, their section opponent earlier in the year.
“100 percent [this win is based on those losses],” said Natalie Meath. “Both of those games, we felt terrible afterwards and we used that as motivation for this game.”
Waconia entered the game as the underdogs having lost to the Tigers previously. Marshall, an undefeated team ranked No. 4 in AAA faced off against a Waconia team that dropped out of the top 10.
Waconia appeared at the state tournament and won their first game and learning of the devastating news that would change everything. Their third-place game was cancelled and all activities would be put on hold for several weeks due to COVID-19.
At first it seemed as if the sports world would be on a short pause before the Spring season. Many student athletes were still planning on competing in the Spring 2020 season and were finding creative ways to workout under the stay at home order in place across the state. Then the coaches had to deliver the tough news to the kids still holding out hope they could get back out on the field this spring. Waconia baseball coach Mark Grundhofer told his players midway through a Zoom workout video that all Spring sports had been cancelled.
“You could just see in their faces, it was just awful,” Grundhofer said.
While sports eventually made a comeback, that was of little solace to the senior class.
Return to sports
While sports were cancelled or limited during the Summer months, the Waconia athletes were biding their time until they could return to competition. Once sports resumed, the Wildcats made the most of their opportunities, winning three conference championships in the Fall.
Both the girls and boys soccer teams had their eyes on the conference crown as it was the last time they would compete in WCC, and they both achieved that goal. The boys got an early stunner at Orono that would help them achieve a share of the title with the Spartans and eventually fought their way to the section championship. The girls went undefeated and won their third section championship in 5 years and would have appeared at the state tournament in a normal year.
The girls cross country team would also have made an appearance at the state tournament, winning the conference and the section championships. Aubrey Mair, Kate Ulrich, Adorisa Kaeding, Maya Lindstrom, Emily Gustafson, Amelia Herold and Madeline Lage took home the championship title by finishing five runners in the top 25 and defeating the section runner-up Chanhassen by more than 25 points.
Adding to more success was the girls swimming and diving team, as the 200 yard medley relay team of Jerica Warrington, Ella Swanson, Abigail Voelker and Jordyn Grotbo earned a state-cut time when they place fourth with a finish of 1 minute, 51.68 seconds. Warrington also earned a state-cut time in the 200 freestyle and the 100 backstroke, placing second in both events with times of 1:56.94 and 58.83 respectively.
And in their first ever home meet, the newly formed girls tennis team achieved a win when Ashley Bryfczynski and Avery Heyer earned the first ever victory for the ‘Cats, defeating a Jordan opponent 2-1 (6-3, 5-7, 6-1).
The final two sports of 2020 were delayed, but the volleyball and football teams both saw success when they returned to play in mid October. The volleyball team finished third in the conference, defeating every WCC foe atleast once and the football team not only won their first home game on the turf field, they put together a three-game winning streak on the field that they had previously been 0-6 at. Playing in unusually cold temperatures and snowy weather, the tough Wildcats thrived in those conditions with a hard-hitting defense and punishing run game. Running back Max McEnelly ran wild on opposing defenses with nearly 1,000 yards on the ground in a shortened season (992 yards).
So while 2020 did it’s best to keep the Wildcats from achieving their goals, Waconia’s student athletes made the most of their time together with some remarkable accomplishments.