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Personal bests and meet record times filled the air at Malosky Stadium last weekend, but in the action-filled afternoon of the Section 7A high school track meet, the most scintillating finish came in the girls 3,200-meter run. That’s two miles -- eight times around the 400-meter track -- which is a long race. And this one boiled down to a two-girl battle, as they ran off away from the field, and as they started the final lap, there was no way the little girl could possibly move up from her distant third.
As they went down the back stretch, the order held, and those of us at the finish got set up to see girl in blue would win. But when they came around the final turn, the little girl -- Gracelynn Otis -- had not only made up 40 yards to catch up, she passed the two startled leaders and sped down the final straightaway to win the event, with her arms thrust to the skies. She even surprised herself, after coming in with the fourth-best time.
But Gracelynn Otis is much more than just a “little girl” competing with bigger girls. A couple of observers near me discussed in expert terms how Gracelynn had played it perfectly, holding back and then timing her move to overtake the leaders. She would have gotten quite a laugh out of such lofty strategy.
“I felt dead with a lap to go,” she said. “I felt tired because I had just done my personal best in the mile. But then I saw that I had a chance, so on the last mile I went harder than I had been counting on.”
Her swift finish not only beat Lindsey Dahl-Holm of Carlton by a half-second, but her time of 11:51.50 was the best she had ever done at 3,200 meters. Her best all season was 12:02.
That’s what made it such a magical day, because Gracelynn was ranked third-best going into the 1,600, but she won that with a time of 5:17.22, almost 5 seconds under her previous best time, to beat Esko’s Kailee Kiminski by over 9 seconds.
“This is my second 7A meet,” she said. “I was fifth in the two-mile last year. But I’m just an eighth-grader.”
An eighth-grader? How old does that make you?
“Thirteen,” she said.
Remember the name, because Gracelynn Otis is off to the state track meet this week, and they might have to hold a parade in her honor at South Ridge -- if there was really a place named South Ridge. If you’ve heard of AlBrook, which was a combination of Alborn and Brookston, South Ridge is the new school that accommodates kids from Cotton, Alborn and Brookston, about halfway between Duluth and the Iron Range.
She wasn’t the only surprise of the 7A meet, just the biggest one. Some results weren’t surprises at all. Take the boys half mile and mile, which became the personal domain of Proctor’s Matt Welch. Welch won the 1,600 at 4:22.79, almost a second under the region’s best time of the whole season, and nearly 10 seconds ahead of teammate Romeo Benish, who was second. In the 3,200, Welch also pulled away from runner-up Benish and won at 9:46.19, and he was passing runners at the rear of the field on the last lap.
But it was Moose Lake-Willow River that captured the boys team title, beating Esko 87.5 to 82 behind hockey star Josh Cisar, who won the 400 and helped ML-WR relay teams set school records at 800 and 1,600. ML-WR held off Proctor to win the 1,600 relay by one second, with a 3:30.96, which was under their season-best of 3:31.4.
Esko, however, dominated the girls title with the usual herd of speedy blue-clad runners, finishing with a stirring victory over Mesabi East in the 1,600-meter relay, where both teams got under Esko’s season-best time of 4:11.1. Esko ran it in 4:08.31 and Mesabi East 4:09.76.
We’ll have to wait until this weekend to see if any of the Northland competitors can succeed at the state meet, which is at Hamline. As usual, however, it doesn’t matter. They all gave it everything they had at the 7A meet, which is what it’s all about. It’s even a neat day in the sun for the smaller-school athletes, because the 7AA schools have migrated south toward the Twin Cities, leaving the stage at UMD to the Class A competitors.
It’s the same story for baseball and softball. The softball tournament is this weekend, at Mankato, where teams can play on multiple fields at once. Cherry carries the Northern hopes in Class A, while Hermantown, the power in AA, was sidelined by Cloquet, and Denfeld and East gave it good shots but fell before a powerful Forest Lake team at Forest Lake.
Denfeld made a spirited run, winding up 18-5 for the season, with three of those losses to Forest Lake. Denfeld beat St. Francis behind Nikki Logergren’s pitching, while Forest Lake whipped East. Forest Lake, recalling it had only beaten Denfeld 1-0 late in the season, was loaded up and ready for the rematch, scoring eight runs in the first inning, and beating the Hunters 8-1 in the double-elimination tournament. That put St. Francis into the elimination game against East, and St. Francis ended the Greyhounds season 4-0. Sarah Hendrickson pitched Denfeld to a 2-0 shutout over St. Francis to regain the final pairing, but the Hunters still couldn’t solve Forest Lake’s powerful lineup.
Logergren pitched the first game, then turned the pitching over to Hendrickson, who pitched three straight games. Logergren was busy putting on a batting clinic. It seemed as though every pitch was either a ball or a line drive when Logergren was batting. She hit every ball hard through the first two games, and when she finally hit a short squib against St. Francis, she clearly beat the throw but was called out. Had instant replay been used to review that one, Logergren would have been 8-for-8 by my count. There was one questionable one, when she hit a low rocket through Forest Lake’s star second baseman, but if she could have seen it, she might have caught it, and it’s a hit in my book. Logergren also got two more hits in the final loss to Forest Lake, which means she went into the sectional tournament hitting something over .500, and was something like 9-for-11 in the four games at Forest Lake.
On the boys side, Hermantown was the favorite in 7AA, but it was Cloquet against Proctor in the Thursday night championship pairing. The Hawks, who lost only one game all season, looked solid in beating Aitkin and Mora last weekend to reach the double-elimination final flurry. But the Hawks collapsed when four players were suspended for violating team rules, and they fell 9-0 to arch-rival Proctor, then 2-0 to Cloquet later Tuesday, to end the season 19-3.
Is it possible for AMSOIL Arena officials to declare that corner area of the stands “Stewart Section?” Dick Stewart, the wonderful man who built Stewart Sporting Goods to the area’s mosts prominent sports store, had become a fixture at all UMD home games since retiring and selling his store. Both at the DECC and now at AMSOIL, Dick would respond to the urging of fans and stand up with his little flag and his big smile and wave, to the roars of approval of all the fans.
It seems like just a couple weeks ago when we got a chance to give Dick a big 90th birthday party at Heritage Center, but it was two years ago. Time goes by. On May 26, Dick’s wife Maxine, who always accompanied Dick to games, died. Nine days later, Dick Stewart joined her, dying at age 92 after a fabulous life of brightening the lives of all those he ever knew.
It was always fun to stop in the store, on 15th Avenue East and Superior Street, and joke around with Dick and the rest of his staff. The best Peewee and Bantam hockey teams in the area were invariably sponsored by Stewart’s. But the popularity of the man and his store were nothing compared to the adulation heaped on him by UMD fans, particularly throughout the 2010-11 season, when the Bulldogs gave Dick their first NCAA championship.
At his 90th birthday, an endless stream of people came by to wish him well. I said to Dick, “You know, you’re so popular with everybody, maybe you should open a store.” Dick got a big laugh out of that, and it felt good to see him laugh. That’s the way I’ll remember him.
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Game 4 of the most surprising Stanley Cup Playoff final was held Wednesday night, after this edition of The Reader went to press. But the Los Angeles Kings had already astounded the hockey-watching public by winning the first three games to take a stranglehold on the series. I was sort of hoping New Jersey could win Game 4, just to prolong the series, because as we all know, there’s no such thing as too much hockey.
The incredible goaltending of Jonathan Quick has been impenetrable for the Kings, even against the legendary Martin Brodeur of New Jersey. The Devils have played hard and played well, but through the first three games, both sides were tough, tenacious and unyielding, but only one of them has Jonathan Quick.
Apparently that feeling that hockey can go year-round for all most of us care, isn’t shared by the decision-makers at the News-Tribune. Remember when that paper ran an editorial urging people to come up with a proper nickname for the city of Duluth, to better show off how huge hockey is in this area? Well, all through the winter sports playoff season, the NHL has been one round ahead of the NBA, and, of course, nearly every NHL playoff team had a Minnesotan or two, or three. But News-Tribune has played the NBA larger than the NHL playoffs throughout. Last Sunday was the last straw. The NBA is in its conference finals, with another full round to go to decide a champion, while the NHL was midway through its final series, but the News-Tribune ran a night NBA game story from Oklahoma City over the top half of the sports page, 14 paragraphs-worth, and the Kings beating the Devils in Game 2 got only four grudging paragraphs from New Jersey.
Now, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has long been known as a basketball-leaning newspaper, but even the Strib played the two events quite evenly, both consuming the top half of facing sports pages, and the large hockey photo was in color, compared to the large black and white basketball shot. So maybe next time the News-Tribune decides to call out to citizens to come up with a nickname for this hockey-mad region, they should walk across the newsroom and mention that to the guys making sports-page decisions.