We now close the book on the strangest and, let’s be honest, the worst year of high school sports.

Like virtually every other aspect of human existence, COVID-19 has made navigating the high school sports world a nightmare.

No Minnesota high school sport occurred in 2020 without being affected in some way. Seasons started late. Teams had to quarantine. State tournaments did not happen. The entire spring season was simply canceled outright without a single official practice.

On the administrative side, things have clearly been difficult. Activities directors are used to forming schedules months in advance of a given season kicking off. This year, sometimes scheduling games one month out has been nearly impossible.

A huge amount of praise needs to go to the area’s new activities directors, Pine River-Backus’ Tim Tungseth and Pequot Lakes’ Byron Westrich. Both of them started in their districts right in the middle of this mess. They have had to change schedules on a near weekly basis, and often have had to operate with little direction from the Minnesota State High School League.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Despite all of this, there have still been reasons to celebrate for local athletes in 2020. In fact, I’m just grateful most of them had the chance to compete, as I assume many of them are as well.

Here is a brief rundown of the major points in Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus sports in 2020.

January

  • The Lightning girls hockey team started the year off right, going 3-0 in the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic Tournament, good enough for first place in the open division.
  • Patriot senior athletes Kenzie Lampi and Russell Pierzinski were selected to represent Pequot Lakes High School in the Academics, Arts and Athletics Award program.
  • Tiger guard Rylie Hirschey scored her 1,000th career point in basketball.
  • The Tiger girls had two high-scoring basketball games in a row, beating Laporte by 46 before beating Isle by 52 the next day.
  • PR-B guard Champ Howard led the basketball team with 19 points as the Tigers topped Laporte 60-54.
  • The Patriot boys basketball team’s defense clamped down on Park Rapids, allowing just six points in the second half of a 71-26 victory.
  • Down by one goal with three minutes left to play, Northern Lakes’ Hunter Nybakken netted two goals to lead the Lightning boys to a 4-3 win over Wadena-Deer Creek.
  • The Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus Road Crew wrestling team set a program record with 25 wins in a season after sweeping four matches at the Sauk Centre-Melrose Invitational

February

  • The Lightning girls fell to top-seeded Willmar in a 5-4 overtime loss in the section semifinals. Freshman goalie Kate Stephens made 59 saves.
  • Patriot forward Lola Rysavy scored a season-high 22 points as the Patriot girls basketball team won its fifth straight game.
  • The Road Crew was eliminated in the section semis by No. 1-ranked Detroit Lakes.
  • As individuals, Road Crew wrestlers Caleb Ruhl and Connor Tulenchik qualified for the state tournament.
  • The Lightning boys fell in the quarterfinals to Pine City, losing 4-1.
  • Senior Jocelynn Rothwell was named MVP of the Revolution dance team.

March

  • Connor Tulenchik finished second overall in the Class 2A state wrestling tournament in the 145-pound division. He was the first state finalist for the Road Crew in 18 years.
  • The PR-B girls basketball team was eliminated by Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the section quarterfinals.
  • After starting the season 1-8, the Patriot girls basketball team finished 16-14 and made it all the way to the section finals, falling to Duluth Marshall.
  • Both the Pequot Lakes and PR-B boys basketball teams fell in the quarterfinals.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic reached Minnesota, moving schools to distance learning and canceling the state basketball tournaments.

April

  • Statewide, including in Pequot Lakes and PR-B, the “Be The Light MN” movement honored the class of 2020 by turning on the football field lights at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 in military time) for 20 minutes, 20 seconds. This was done once per week until the end of the school year.
  • Byron Westrich was hired as Pequot Lakes activities director, taking over for the retiring Marc Helmrichs.
  • Five PR-B athletes - Brady Raph (basketball, golf), Louis Bueckers (basketball), Sidney Lodge (track), Jordan Cunningham (golf) and Keenan Dahl (golf) - signed letters of intent to play college sports.

May

  • Seven Patriot athletes - Cale Wolf (football), Zach Jorgens (football), Mariah Rickard (volleyball), Cassidy Chaney (skiing), Hayden Boelter (hockey), Lachlan Larson (golf) and Mirjana Ganley (track) - signed letters of intent to play college sports.
  • John Riewer resigned after six years as the PR-B boys basketball coach. He continued to teach physical education and coach softball at PR-B.
  • With the spring season canceled, local golfers still managed to compete in the Brainerd Lakes Area High School Golf League.
  • Brian Lempola was hired as coach of the Patriot girls basketball team, replacing the resigning Katrina Moody.

June

  • With the school year over, area activities directors Marc Helmrichs and Randy Schwegel officially retired from Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus, respectively.

July

  • After COVID-19 deprived him of his college baseball season, Pequot grad Austin Meister still had the chance to compete as a member of the Nisswa Lightning amateur baseball team.

August

  • The Minnesota State High School League board of directors voted to allow individual fall sports - cross-country, tennis and swimming - to begin as scheduled. Football and volleyball were moved to early spring.
  • The Patriot tennis team kicked off the season with a straight-sets victory over Crosby-Ironton.

September

  • Tim Tungseth was hired as Pine River-Backus activities director.
  • The Patriot boys and girls cross-country teams swept a triangular in Detroit Lakes, with Calia Chaney and Jesse Clausen picking up individual victories.
  • In a fundraising effort, the Pequot Lakes girls basketball team began selling facemasks.
  • The MSHSL board of directors reversed course, allowing football and volleyball to begin practice at the end of the month, with games to begin in October.

October

  • To avoid travel restrictions, the Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Tier II Hockey League agreed to play home games at Breezy Point Arena.
  • The Patriot tennis team finished the season with a perfect 11-0 record and its second consecutive section title.
  • The Patriot girls cross-country team won the section crown, as did freshman Calia Chaney.
  • The Pequot Lakes volleyball team began competition with wins over Sauk Centre and Detroit Lakes.
  • Not to be outdone by the girls, the Patriot boys cross-country team also won the section title.
  • The Tiger football team won its first game of the season, overwhelming Red Lake 48-0.
  • The Patriots and Tigers met on the volleyball court, with Pequot Lakes winning 3-0.

November

  • Pine River-Backus didn’t look too far in hiring basketball coaches, as 2010 PR-B grad Jordan Ackerman was hired as head coach of the boys and Backus native Tucker Sheley was hired as the girls' head coach. Both were assistant coaches on the girls’ team the year before.
  • Pequot Lakes’ Rita Ganley and Phoebe Glenn both reached 1,000 career set assists in volleyball.
  • The Patriot volleyball team improved to 10-0 on the season in a 3-0 win over Aitkin.
  • Gov. Tim Walz ordered a “pause” on sports, ending the football and volleyball seasons and delaying the start of winter sports.
  • Getting a few games in before the end of the season, the Tiger volleyball team picked up three victories.

December

  • The MSHSL voted on a number of plans to begin the winter sports season, depending on what the governor decides, so teams can begin right away once they are allowed to begin.
  • Pequot Lakes volleyball player Lydia Hubbard was named the Brainerd Dispatch All-Area Player of the Year.
  • Gov. Tim Walz allowed for winter teams to begin practicing on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
  • The Pequot Lakes trap shooting team finished the season with six shooters in the conference’s top 10, with Cooper Johnson leading the conference and finishing fourth in the state.

Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.