Heading into the 2015-2016 Litchfield High School sports season, I sensed a consistent theme: roster turnover.
Across many of the Dragons’ fall sports rosters, talented, high-impact seniors were departing and there were numerous question marks about who would step up to fill the vacated spots.
Well, two months into the fall sports season that question is being answered by these teams’ youngsters.
There is a youth movement afoot in Litchfield.
I first thought about it as I watched the Dragon girls play in the team portion of last week’s Section 5A tournament in Sartell.
Last year’s team, which finished second in sections, was buoyed by the senior doubles duo of Kennedy Sommerfeld and Kalley Spreiter, who capped off terrific careers with a third-place doubles finish in the Class A state tournament.
This year’s team finished one match short of last year, losing 4-3 to Foley Oct. 13 in the section semifinals.
But what was most heartening about the Dragons’ section showing was the team’s youthful composition: the Litch lineup that day comprised two seniors, one junior, one sophomore, two freshmen, three eighth-graders and a seventh-grader, and the team’s three wins came from freshman Laney Huhner, eighth-grader Alyssa Ross and the doubles duo of eighth-grader Vaida Behnke and seventh-grader Avery Stilwell.
And this week, Huhner and fellow freshman Shanna Kinny teamed up to take second in the individual portion of the Section 5A tourney, punching their ticket to state.
“It’s definitely nice to have a couple of ninth-graders who have been through those situations,” said head coach Matt Draeger. “It’s only going to help in the long run — not only for themselves but to help out their teammates with leadership throughout the future.”
The strong performances by some of the team’s youngest players augured well for next season — and typified a fall season that’s seen underclassmen and junior-high athletes step up and thrive.
First-year activities director Justin Brown believes that Dragon coaches have laid the groundwork for success across such a wide-range of age levels.
“I think, number one, it goes down to our coaches having heavy influences all the way down to the younger levels,” Brown said, Litchfield Community Education and summer programs as examples.
And, of course, the younger crop must perform when given the chance — and Litchfield’s is, Brown said.
“Our younger kids are seeing opportunities and making the most of them,” he said.
Youth propels football
The Litch football team graduated 19 seniors from last year’s one-win team, and there was some uncertainty before the season started over how that void would be filled.
The Dragons received significant contributions from its senior class, of course, but this year’s roster was composed primarily of juniors and sophomores — and the team made huge strides, winning four regular-season games for the first time since 2011 and beating Glencoe-Silver Lake for the first time in a decade.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” said Litchfield head coach Jim Jackman, “ (But) it’s up to the kids now to keep working hard and preparing themselves.”
Freshman Logan Nelson was also one of the Dragons’ featured running backs, a rarity for varsity football, especially in the tough Wright County Conference.
Nelson was a member of a large freshmen class that only saw its size increase, Brown said.
“Our freshmen numbers went up as the season went on,” he said. “A lot of them saw the sophomores playing in front of them and thought, ‘Hey, that could be me next year.’”
In both girls volleyball and swimming and diving, Litch has also relied on its underclassmen: the Dragon volleyball team has three seniors this year, while the swim team has four, two of whom didn’t swim last year.
The Dragon swimming and diving team has had an infusion of junior-high and underclassmen athletes to bolster its veteran core, while the Litch volleyball squad has a deep, battle-tested group of juniors and sophomores complementing seniors Brynna Goraczkowski, Hannah Banks and Ashley Warren.
Similarly, in Tuesday’s conference meet the girls cross country team had only two upperclassmen — senior Jane Hulterstrum and junior Asjha Quade — and filled its varsity roster out with sophomore Savannah Joldersma, freshman Courtney Carlson and eighth-graders Ellery Jones and Ruby Radunz.
Pack of Dragons
The Litchfield boys cross country team has been one of the more striking examples of Litchfield’s youth movement.
Heading into the season, head coach Julie Dengerud knew that she had several seniors — namely Stan Ridgeway, Cody Schabert and Peter Hyberger — who would be in the mix for her top varsity spots and several junior-high runners and underclassmen who could potentially contribute.
But Dengerud has been thoroughly impressed by just how well her younger runners have performed.
“This has been an exceptional year as far as those younger kids stepping up,” she said.
Take Tuesday’s Wright County Conference meet, which was a terrific example of the boys’ youth movement: along with Ridgeway and Schabert, who finished first and fourth for the Dragons, respectively, the Dragons’ top five comprised sophomore Griffin Kinny in second, freshman Owen Boerema in third and sophomore Matthew Eggert in fifth.
The biggest strength of the boys’ team is their depth, however: though they didn’t place in the top five Tuesday, eighth-graders Carter Block and Tyler Peterson have been fixtures in the Dragons’ scoring group as well, finishing third and fifth, respectively, in the Litchfield Invite on Oct. 8.
Dengerud acknowledged that it can be hard juggling the lineup, but she lets the stopwatch determine the lineup — not years of experience.
“I’ve taken the approach that when you find those kids that fit well together and do well together, you just pick them as your seven varsity runners whatever their age,” she said. “If you show that respect to those younger kids, and the older kids respect them more.”
All told, it’s a wide-ranging group that’s gotten along well, Dengerud said.
“They’ve really supported each other. They’ve really meshed well together,” she said. “They are very happy with the team and they feel really good about the team, and you can see it this year with those top-seven runners.”
The boys cross country team — like all the fall sports teams — has made one thing abundantly clear: The future of Dragon athletics is in good hands.