Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in a series titled Lumberjack Flashback, highlighting some of the greatest spring sports teams, athletes and moments in Bemidji High School history. Stories on each of Bemidji’s seven spring sports programs will be released in line with this year’s originally scheduled state tournament dates.
To foreshadow the greatest run in Bemidji High School girls golf history, Jeff Nelson only needed three words.
“We’ll be back.”
After placing fourth at the 2003 state tournament, the longtime BHS head coach told the Pioneer that his youthful team, which didn’t graduate any seniors, would return the following season with more experience and more talent.
He called it.
The Lumberjacks raced to the Class AA state championship in 2004, defying all odds for a Bemidji team that hardly escaped the section field, let alone won state. But -- somehow, someway -- the stars aligned just right for BHS to dance with destiny.
“We were such a tight-knit team, and having Nelly as our coach, we were all so close to each other that we were like a family essentially,” said Alyssa (Williamson) Hobbs, a sophomore on the 2004 team. “All the hard work you put in for that finally paid off, so that was a surreal moment being able to have that with everyone.”
Bemidji High School’s most recent state championship may also be the unlikeliest of them all. But nothing -- come hell, high water, thunderstorms or Burnsville -- could stop the Jacks that spring.
“Statistically, it wasn’t very (likely),” said Brittany (Williamson) Carlson, a 2004 senior and Alyssa’s sister. “But I don’t know that our team ever doubted for a second that we would do it.”
Clearing hurdle after hurdle
If 2004 had been like any other year, Bemidji’s season would have ended after day one of the Section 8AA Tournament.
The tournament had always ended after a single round, and that season saw Moorhead leading the Lumberjacks by eight strokes through 18 holes. However, 2004 marked the first time that the tournament expanded to two rounds, giving BHS a shot -- albeit a long one -- to come back with a second day.
“I just remember thinking at the time that it almost seemed impossible,” Hobbs said. “But everything worked in our favor, and we were able to pull it off. I remember being incredibly shocked, but also super excited at the same time.”
On day two, all eyes were also on the radar at Thumper Pond. Nearby thunderstorms and lightning flashes threatened to end the tournament, along with Bemidji’s rally, right then and there. Moorhead would have been declared the winner had day two been axed, but all the golfers snuck in their rounds.
The Lumberjacks improved by 14 strokes, just enough to draw level with the Spuds. Their matching scores of 702 provided a bit more suspense, and the honor of section champion came down to a fifth-player tiebreaker.
Kelli (Dahle) Jensen fired a 98 for Bemidji, while Rachel Ruche of Moorhead carded a 106. Just like that, the Jacks were heading back to the state tournament.
“We were extremely lucky that that happened to be the year they started doing two-day tournaments,” Carlson said. “We were given that second day and knew all along that we would use it to be successful.”
‘A sneaky underdog’
Burnsville came in as the state tournament favorites and the darlings in the eyes of the local Twin Cities media. BHS, meanwhile, was mighty in its own right but flew under the radar.
“You’re not one of the big Cities teams that were expected to come out on top,” Hobbs said. “Being a sneaky underdog, as I think Nelly would probably say, allowed us to not mentally get in our (own) heads and just play the game we love. That, in the end, brought us to the top.”
Bemidji was in the lead after day one at Bunker Hills Golf Club in Coon Rapids, four strokes ahead of Burnsville with a team score of 335. Red Wing, the two-time defending state champion, lurked behind in fifth at a distant 356.
Carlson stood atop the individual leaderboard with a 3-over-par 76, while Hobbs found herself in a four-way tie for fifth with her opening 79. Elsewhere, Tara (Israelson) Delaney shot an 87 for the Lumberjacks, while Jensen and Amanda (Johnson) Lukes carded 93s and Amanda (Welle) Nelson a 95.
The course was soaked by day two, turned soggy from a night of rainfall in between rounds. None of the ensuing scores looked as pretty, but BHS was still just 18 holes from its championship.
The penultimate moment came on Carlson’s final hole. She had been grouped with Burnsville’s Lauren Huhnerkoch, and as they approached their final green, the team scores were unknowingly in a first-place tie.
“That hole is really the only thing I remember from that round,” Carlson said. “That was one of those rounds where I just sank into a hole and could not get out of it, and it was mostly a mental thing. I got to the end and, all of a sudden, that was obviously a very defining moment.”
Carlson sunk a 10-foot putt for birdie -- her final high school stroke -- while Huhnerkoch missed a three-footer for par and settled for bogey. Carlson, who had seven three-putts during the round, had made up for it in a big way.
“It’s never too late to make a birdie,” she said.
The team scores were added. Hobbs carded an 82 on day two for a two-day total of 161, tied for fourth overall. Carlson finished tied for seventh at 163 (76-87) and Jensen was 31st at 180 (93-87). Delaney also finished with a 186 (87-99), Lukes a 191 (93-98) and Nelson a 203 (95-108). As a team, the Jacks recorded a 689.
By a humble two strokes, Bemidji was crowned state champion.
“Gosh, it still gives me the chills,” Hobbs said. “The build-up of that was surreal. When the final scores were posted, it was just unbelievable. … To be able to have that moment with everyone, to be those underdogs who did come out on top and prove to those who didn’t think it was possible, that was just a pretty cool moment.”
Nelson’s emotions poured out through his tears and through his words to the Pioneer in 2004: “A lot of people work very hard at their jobs and never get a chance to experience something like this. I can’t tell you how very fortunate, and proud, I feel right now.”
Lumberjack supporters made a strong showing in the gallery, and all witnessed the culmination of a death-defying run to history. No team at Bemidji High School has earned the distinction of state champion ever since.
“The camaraderie that we had, it just really felt like a team,” Carlson said. “Golf is such an individual sport, and we made it into a team sport.”
LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK SERIES
Boys track and field: The 'glory decade' of BHS boys track
Girls track and field: The girl who vaulted into unrivaled ranks
Boys golf: The boys golfer with championship DNA
Girls golf: The death-defying run to a girls golf state title