As some program continued to stockpile the trophy case, others at Bemidji High School watched and waited.
But, for these teams, the triumphant day finally arrived as they celebrated a section championship after a generation of waiting.
In part two of a three-part series, learn of the heroics that ended some of the longest droughts in Lumberjack history, and rediscover the stories from those who made it happen.
2011 girls soccer: 23 years
After waiting 23 years for a title, Bemidji had just 1.5 seconds to spare.
But sophomore Erin Booth, one of the greatest scorers in BHS girls soccer history, had perhaps her most important strike when she delivered a championship goal in the 2011 Section 8A title game.
“I can’t describe the feeling when the goal went in. It was awesome,” Booth said. “The ball seemed to be in slow motion on that play and it just trickled in. That was an amazing finish to a section championship game.”
Two-time defending champ East Grand Forks appeared to dodge defeat with an equalizer in the last two minutes, drawing even at 2-2. Overtime seemed inevitable, but Booth had other plans.
“Since we only had a few seconds left, I just sent it toward the net,” said Kiah Hartung, who had the assist from midfield. “My kick fell just in front of the net. Then I saw Erin give it a header, the East Grand Forks players swarm the net and the ball trickling past their feet.”
The title was the first in Bemidji soccer history, boys or girls. Both programs began in 1989, and the 2011 ladies were the first to make the unprecedented run.
“We were underdogs in most of our section games,” said Josie Spry, the team’s second-leading goal scorer behind Booth. “But we showed that if we put our hearts into something, everything is possible.”
EGF drew first blood in the fifth minute, but BHS answered in the 21st minute as Caitlin Blotske slipped a shot into the net for a 1-1 deadlock.
Spry went down with an injury late in the first half, but her replacement, eighth-grader Rachel Bitter, stepped up big time by scoring the go-ahead goal just out of halftime.
And although the Green Wave nearly sent the game to overtime, scrambling for a 2-2 tie with 1:58 remaining, the Lumberjacks wouldn’t be denied the program’s first state appearance.
“If any team was going to make history I’m not surprised it was this team,” head coach Kelly Schoonover said. “… There is something special about this group of girls, and that has made the team something special.”
2012 boys cross country: 23 years
In 2012, the Bemidji cross country teams hosted the Section 8AA meet for the first time in 11 years. And the BHS boys brought home the title for the first time in 23.
“Making state has been a process,” head coach Ryan Aylesworth said. “We’ve been very close many times but the difference this year is that the boys put in the work during the offseason much more than some of the previous teams.
“That extra work gave us the boost we needed and believing in ourselves provided the final edge.”
The top two teams qualify for state, and the Lumberjacks had placed third in four of the past six seasons. But the drought finally ended with their first state trip since 1999 and their first appearance as section champions since 1989.
Sam Carlson won top individual honors at sections with a 16:32.3 first-place finish. Elias Hendrickson (17:05.5) joined him in the top 10 with the last spot, while Kyle Sagedahl placed 13th (17:14.4), Adam Lewis 16th (17:22.0) and Billy Freyholtz 19th (17:31.4). Shortly behind, Caleb Appleton took 24th (17:34.7) and Seth Neubeck took 28th (17:43.0).
“We were looking to win the section and that meant that every place was important,” Carlson said. “… The goal was to win this meet as a team. And to do that my job was to finish in first place.”
“Having all five runners in the top 19 was huge,” Aylesworth added. “Sam led the way and our pack runners ran excellent races like they have all season.”
Carlson placed 23rd overall at state, and the team’s sixth-place finish sparked the start of a dynasty. Bemidji repeated as Section 8AA kings in 2013 and added three more titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“We were the favorites going in,” head coach Ryan Aylesworth said of the 2012 section race. “We knew that if we ran like we are capable of running we should win, but we still had to go out and perform.
“And that’s exactly what we did.”
2000 wrestling: 27 years
With butterflies and bleached hair, the Bemidji wrestling team completed the most successful season in program history during its 2000 run.
The Lumberjacks were on the state stage for the first time since 1973, but that didn’t keep them from a successful showing at the Target Center.
“Your eyes get big, you’re really nervous,” 103-pounder Joe Miller said. “We’re used to wrestling in front of a little hometown crowd and you come here and wrestle in front of thousands.”
That shock and awe didn’t last, though, as BHS rolled over Centennial in the first round of the team tourney.
“When you first step out on the mat at the state tournament, it’s pretty intimidating,” 112-pounder Caleb Thunem said. “Then you start wrestling and realize it’s just another big gymnasium.”
Bemidji won 10 of 13 weights to dominate the quarterfinal bout 38-13. The result followed a similar 38-15 victory over Elk River in the Section 8-3A finals, the Jacks’ championship breakthrough after three straight seasons as the runner-up.
“Our team wrestled the best they wrestled all year,” BHS head coach Jim Carlson said after the section win. “It was a great team effort.”
The Cougars came first at state, and they proved to be no match for Bemidji. The fourth-ranked Jacks cruised to an easy victory. Mike Peterson had the lone pin -- needing 5 minutes, 59 seconds, but a pin nonetheless -- as BHS fell shy of matching its 57-9 regular season win over Centennial but advancing all the same.
“Our strength all year has been our balance, and that’s what we showed today,” Carlson said.
Bemidji’s championship hopes fizzled with a 33-21 semifinal loss to Cambridge-Istanti, and Hastings defeated the Jacks 36-17 in the third-place match as BHS finished 18-4.
Apple Valley won the Class 3A title, its second in a string of six straight and part of 18 state championships in 19 seasons.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Carlson said of his team. “We had a heck of a year and an exciting season. They did a nice job in the state tournament.”
2016 boys track: 28 years
The Bemidji boys track and field program took third place at the 1988 state meet. Prowess turned into patience as the Lumberjacks waited another 28 years for a section title, but the 2016 contingent finally returned the team to its former glory.
BHS won the 16-team gala in Alexandria with 97.5 points -- 10 ahead of second-place Moorhead -- and qualified four individuals and two relay teams for the state meet.
“It was a great day for us,” said head coach Steve Sneide, who also won Section 8AA Coach of the Year honors. “A great all-around team effort. Our top kids performed where we thought they would perform, and we’re sending quite a few kids to state. Then winning that section title is just icing on the cake.”
Caleb Appleton took first in the 800-meter run, while the 4x800 relay team of Appleton, Linaes Whiting, Alex Vollen and Isaac Berg was also first in 7:56.49. The 4x400 quartet of Payton Christofferson, Cody Roder, Michael Quall and Vollen claimed first at 3:28.59, as well.
“It was a tough day in general. The weather wasn’t perfect, but the kids performances were awesome,” Sneide said. “(The section title) was a big deal for the kids.”
At the state meet, the Lumberjacks recorded 14 points to finish 24th. Wayzata’s 75 points earned the Class AA team title.
Bemidji’s 4x800 relay team cracked the top five, placing fourth with their improved showing of 7:49.52, which came within 1.60 seconds of the school record.
“It was a great day for us,” Sneide said. “(The 4x800 team) ran their fastest time of the year. I think they had either the second or third-fastest time in school history so it was kind of a fast, crazy day for every event.”
The 2016 success was only foreshadowing what was to come. The 4x800 relay team, with Roder replacing the graduated Appleton, finished in 7:52.90 at the 2017 state meet for Bemidji High School’s most recent state championship.
2016 boys soccer: 28 years
A dazzling finish was a fitting end to an unprecedented postseason.
The Bemidji boys soccer team reached new heights in 2016, capturing its first-ever section title with a dominant 4-0 championship win over Hillcrest Lutheran Academy.
“It’s surreal,” longtime BHS head coach Rick Toward said. “It’s hard to imagine how excited and happy you are, mostly for the kids obviously. It’s been a long time coming.”
Even sweeter, the Lumberjacks did it on their home pitch. Under the familiar lights of Chet Anderson Stadium, senior Leo Spry netted two goals and assisted on another to cap off a four-game Section 8A run in which Bemidji outscored opponents 23-0.
“It’s amazing,” Spry said of the win. “We’ve been working for it all season.”
The opening goal came in the 13th minute, as Spry ripped a shot past the keeper for the early lead. Brandon Wright scored from the edge of the 18-yard box in the 39th minute, finding the upper left corner and putting the Jacks on the brink of history.
Linaes Whiting and Spry added second-half goals, finalizing the 4-0 score and becoming the 28-year-old program’s first team to take home hardware.
“It’s number one,” Wright said of where the section triumph ranks for him, “because it’s one of the team records, and it’s the first time we’ve gone to state.”
The win was the team’s 18th on the year, good for a new program record (which has since been bested by the 2018 team that finished 19-3-1). Additionally, Spry’s 79 career goals ranks first all-time in Bemidji history, and his then-benchmark of 100 points still stands second.
The season ultimately ended in the state quarterfinals on a heartbreaking loss to top-seeded Mankato West after nine rounds of penalty kicks. But it was just the beginning.
The Jacks built on with section titles in 2017 and 2018, the latter of which culminated with a state championship game appearance.
Spry called it in 2016.
“I’m so proud of the boys. Everything they’ve done,” he said. “Hopefully they come back next year just as hot and make it to the tournament again.”
Part 3 of 3 of this series will be published in the Aug. 1 edition of the Pioneer.