All section championships are satisfying, but, when the wait for another title drags on, there’s just something special about the first team to pull it off in decades.
It’s an exclusive club at Bemidji High School: only 13 teams have snapped a streak of 20-plus years, while seven of those broke the drought after waiting 25-plus years.
In part one of a three-part series, take a look back on some of the history makers in Lumberjack lore. All quotes are from originally published Pioneer articles, many of which may still float around as keepsakes or lay memorialized in old scrapbooks.
2011 baseball: 20 years
A lowly No. 7 seed meant nothing in 2011. Bemidji finished No. 1.
Despite being seeded seventh in an 11-team section, the Lumberjacks baseball team broke a state tournament drought of two decades in 2011 with an unlikely run through the Section 8-3A field, defeating Alexandria twice in the championship series for their long-awaited crown.
“Based on our seed nobody expected us to accomplish this, but at the start of the year we felt that we could do it,” BHS head coach Mike Fogelson said. “It’s been a goal of ours and we needed to do a lot of hard work to get this done.”
After falling to the Cardinals earlier in the tournament, Bemidji reversed the result with 14-1 and 4-1 victories in the championship series.
In the winner-take-all game, Collin Leif got the Jacks rolling with a solo home run in the first inning. BHS added another run in the second inning, and then Tyler Follis ripped a two-run shot in the third inning for a 4-0 advantage.
Alexandria mustered a lone run in the bottom of the fourth, but Zach Solheim otherwise shut them down over a complete-game effort, pitching Bemidji back into the state tournament.
“Zach and Collin (the catcher) worked very well together and they kept Alexandria’s good hitters off balance the entire game,” Fogelson said. “Zach was in command all the way but he saved his best for last.”
For its first state trip since 1991, BHS made its 19th all-time appearance in 2011. The tally tied the Minnesota record at the time despite respective 13-0 and 7-6 losses to Burnsville and Eden Prairie that ensued in the Twin Cities. But, in 2012, the Jacks danced all the way to the championship game during their most recent state appearance, backed by that 2011 experience.
“Tying for the all-time lead in state tournament appearances is neat,” Fogelson said. “And we’re happy to be the first Bemidji team in 20 years to get here.”
1994 girls swimming and diving: 22 years
Alexandria always seemed to get the better of the Bemidji girls swimming and diving team.
That changed in 1994.
The Lumberjacks, incorporated in 1973, finally ended 22 years of frustration over their rivals, upsetting the two-time defending champions in the Cardinals’ own pool for the program’s first Section 8 championship.
“Twice a bridesmaid the past two falls, Bemidji turned the tide on Alexandria, besting the Cardinals by 19 points in the Cardinals new Olympic sized eight-lane pool,” the Pioneer read.
The 19-team field was the largest in the state, but BHS marched forward nonetheless. The “Lumberjills” recorded 430 points to top Alex’s 411, while Brainerd was a distant third with 251 points.
Although Alex (1980-86, 1992-93) and Brainerd (1987-91) had combined to wear the previous 14 section crowns, the 1994 edition belonged to their counterparts from the north.
It was a banner day in more ways than one, as Bemidji broke two meet records and established six new school marks. BHS led for the bulk of the meet, but the Cardinals -- coached by former Lumberjacks coach Mark Storhaug, no less -- were on their heels all day.
Bemidji finally put the race out of reach in the second-to-last event. Irene Lundecker’s 1:08.22 time in the 100-yard breaststroke outpaced defending section champ Nicole Nelson of Alexandria. Lundecker, a Norwegian exchange student, recorded a 1:08.07 in the preliminaries to establish new school and meet records.
“Twenty years of patient waiting came to a happy ending Saturday when the Bemidji high girls swimming team annexed its first Section 8 title,” the Pioneer recounted.
The success didn’t stop there, either. All three relays and six individuals showed up for the state meet, led by Lundecker’s ninth-place performance in the breaststroke and Brook McKee’s 14th-place mark in the backstroke.
In all, BHS scored a school-record 12 points, six times more than the previous benchmark.
Third-year head coach Kristen McRae earned Section 8 Coach of the Year honors, as well.
2000 football: 22 years
Bemidji football dominated the middle of the 20th century, but around the time that a playoff system surfaced in 1971, the Lumberjacks couldn’t recreate the same magic.
Yet years of frustration and some still-fresh heartbreak came to a halt in 2000.
“How sweet it is!” the Pioneer exclaimed.
So sweet, indeed, because Bemidji defeated Brainerd, its heated archrival and the very team that crushed its state hopes two years prior. In the 1998 section title game, the Warriors upset the Jacks 35-33 behind a furious second-half comeback.
“Bemidji watched a 19-0 lead vanish in that game,” the Pioneer recounted, “but came within an eyelash of tying the game in the closing seconds.”
The top-seeded Lumberjacks led 27-13 in the third quarter, “but tragedy struck” when Brainerd scored 22 unanswered and then survived Bemidji’s unsuccessful 2-point conversion that would have tied the game in the final moments.
Nevertheless, the painful past vanished two years later at the Fargodome.
Led by running threats Matt Hendricks and Mitch Webb, plus the arm of Robbie Johnson under center, the 2000 edition of Lumberjack football was a force to be reckoned with.
Bemidji defeated Alexandria 21-7 in the Section 8-5A opener. The encore was a 26-20 overtime triumph over St. Cloud Tech, capped by a dramatic goal-line stand that clinched the win and booked a championship date with Brainerd.
“The setting is perfect, just like old times,” the Pioneer previewed.
This time for Lumberjack fans, the finish was perfect, too.
Though Brainerd was “rolling almost unstoppable” heading into the affair, Bemidji held its own. The Jacks marched 77 yards in four plays on their opening drive, finished by Hendricks’ 43-yard score. Bemidji then went ahead on Mike Peterson’s 1-yard rush, and, after the Warriors grabbed a 19-14 halftime advantage, the Jacks opened the third quarter on Johnson’s 9-yard score for a 20-19 lead.
The advantage grew to 27-19 on a Hendricks carry, later shrinking to 27-25 deep into the fourth, but Bemidji stopped Brainerd’s tying 2-point conversion attempt and then a final drive 31 yards shy of the end zone. And history was theirs.
“It was not a game for the faint of heart,” the Pioneer assured.
Bemidji’s season ended in the state opener at the hands of Wayzata’s 42-14 victory. But, with six state trips since that 2000 breakthrough, the Lumberjacks have started to make a habit of the same postseason magic that eluded them for so long.
2018 girls Nordic skiing: 22 years
The Bemidji girls Nordic skiing team certainly had to work in order to lift the section trophy for the first time since 1996.
After the first leg of the Section 8 meet, the Lumberjacks saw Alexandria up 14 positions. But in the afternoon session, BHS made up 15.
“I didn’t even want to look,” Bemidji head coach Mark Walters said of the scores. “I had heard some rumors with the unofficial results and we had done our own calculations, and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s just way too tight to think about.’”
The girls reached state the previous year, as the top two teams in each section qualify for the state meet, but, understandably, the 2018 triumph was much sweeter.
“They are pretty pumped, let me tell you,” Walters said. “They are very, very excited. To have them go to state as a team two years in a row -- history in the making. We hadn’t gone to the state as a girls team (before 2017) in probably 15, 20 years. And now back-to-back and an individual sectional champion is pretty impressive.”
Sadie Hamrin paved the way for the comeback. The senior was fourth after the first session, but she vaulted into first place within the opening kilometer of the second session. She finished in 32:54.2, winning the individual Section 8 title by 27.8 seconds.
Kinley Prestegard followed in seventh place for the Jacks with a time of 34:40.7, while Gwendoline Youso was 12th in 35:44.9. Alyse Stone (37:42.5, 23rd), Sarah Pollock (37.59.1, 24th), Demi Fisher (38.30.5, 27th) and Damaris Berg (39.18.9, 32nd) rounded out the team results.
The season culminated the next week at Giants Ridge in Biwabik with a 14th-place finish. Each of the four returning competitors at the state level -- Hamrin, Youso, Prestegard and Pollock -- improved their placements. Hamrin went out at the team’s top spot, taking 76th.
The program didn’t have to wait much longer for some more hardware. In 2019, the girls repeated as Section 8 champs. But that 2018 squad will be remembered as the one that finally broke through.
“(It was) just an incredible show of depth and integrity and courage,” Walters said of the section title. “It was really cool. It was a very inspiring performance.”
Part 2 of 3 of this series will be published in the July 25 edition of the Pioneer.