Recalling it all: The good, the bad and the wild of 2020-21 Bemidji High School sports

So many moments, plays and athletes brought Bemidji to life on the field, court and rink, and all that came in the midst of fighting off the uncertainty and unpredictability of a global pandemic.

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The Lumberjacks run onto the field for the final game of the year on Nov. 20, 2020, against Sartell-St. Stephen at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Calling it strange may not do it justice. Neither would calling it historic.

One way or the other, though, the 2020-21 school year was all that and more in Bemidji High School athletics.

The Lumberjacks won section championships in four sports: girls tennis, boys cross country, boys Nordic skiing and boys tennis. That inches the school closer to the double century mark, as BHS has now claimed 192 region or section titles all-time.

What’s more, though, is how so many storylines were packed into the year. And those stories only began with the box score. So many moments, plays and athletes brought Bemidji to life on the field, court and rink, and all that came in the midst of fighting off the uncertainty and unpredictability of a global pandemic.

Here’s a look back on all that was -- and only a portion of all that will be remembered -- from Bemidji High School this year.



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Bemidji’s Nathan Alto runs ahead in the Section 8AA boys cross country meet on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2020, at Greenwood Golf Course. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The fall sports grappled with competing in the most rapidly changing season, often bending to the will of the pandemic.

The football and volleyball seasons were postponed until March, brought back last-minute, and then faced elimination when state restrictions shut down the playoffs. Many teams had to adapt to ever-changing schedules when opponents faced COVID-19 outbreaks, and the Minnesota State High School League didn’t offer state tournaments.

When the athletes did get to compete, though, it was a sight to behold.

The girls tennis team kicked off the year with a bang, winning the Section 8AA team championship. It felt almost inevitable after the team defeated Brainerd 4-3 in the semifinals, a major reversal from a 6-1 regular-season loss. The Jacks then knocked off St. Cloud Tech 5-2 in the championship match , joining title teams from 1989, 1999, 2007 and 2008. Bemidji finished the year 13-1.

Just hours after girls tennis won the section crown, the boys cross country team did the same. Nathan Alto was a double champion, as his medalist time at the Section 8AA meet pioneered BHS to a first-place team finish . Alto was Bemidji’s first individual section champ since 2013, and his Lumberjacks placed first in every meet they competed in. The 17th section title in team history was Bemidji’s first since 2016.

Plenty of other sports made deep runs, as well. The football team earned a 21-6 win in the Section 8-5A semifinals , their final game before the pandemic cut off the rest of the postseason. The girls soccer team also reached the Section 8A title game , only bowing out to Sartell-St. Stephen after penalty kicks and coming just shy of becoming the section’s first-ever four-peat champion.


Mady Schmidt’s unbeaten diving season headlined the girls swimming and diving team’s fifth-place finish at sections, while boys soccer surged in the postseason and reached the Section 8A semifinals. Volleyball won its final two matches of the season and had a 1,000-assist performer in Emily Wade , and the girls cross country team placed seventh at sections behind Mia Hoffman’s eighth-place time .


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The Lumberjacks cheer from the bench during the Section 8-3A championship game against Alexandria on Friday, March 26, 2021, at Alexandria. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The winter season returned us closer to normal, with one major caveat. How strange it was to watch basketball and hockey games with masked players, as individuals huffed and puffed through fabric while playing. Still, state tournaments returned, and so did a landscape safe from pandemic-related bombshells and unforeseen restrictions.

Free of masks outdoors, the boys Nordic skiing team won the section for the first time since 2008. Logan Jensen claimed the individual title and was one of four Lumberjacks inside the top 10, while Nick Youso placed 14th at the state meet for Bemidji’s best individual finish at state since 1999.

The wrestling team saw its reign atop Section 8-3A come to an end at the hands of rival Willmar, but that didn’t stop eight individuals from competing at the individual state tournament. Barrick Nelson reached the state quarterfinals to finish in the state’s top eight, and the season even included a raucous regular season win over third-ranked St. Michael-Albertville .

Girls basketball also reached the section championship game for the second consecutive season, turning a foreign concept into the norm. Boys basketball had a tougher go, falling in the opening round, but they hosted eventual state runner-up Alexandria for a regular-season overtime thriller in a game for the ages .

The gymnastics team continued to rewrite the record books, as now only one program record predates 2020. The team also had its best state performances ever , as Lauren Berg tied for fourth on vault, Mady Schmidt tied for fifth on floor and Tatum Offerdahl placed 11th on bars.


The boys swimming and diving team was also well represented at state, with Brooks Matetich’s 11th-place mark leading the way, while the girls Nordic skiing team finished third at sections and sent Mary Beth Mathews and Ella Simula to state .

And it’s tough to forget hockey in Minnesota, as the BHS boys turned their season around and had eventual section champion Moorhead on the ropes and into overtime during the postseason opener . A young girls hockey team got 729 saves out of Division I-bound goalie Nettie Kimble , which was third-most in the state.

And, not to be missed, longtime assistant activities director Sheila Guest retired from Bemidji High School in December after 36 years on the job.


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Bemidji junior Lauren Berg runs in the 300-meter hurdles during the Class AA track and field meet Saturday, June 19, 2021, at St. Michael-Albertville High School. (Joe Ahlquist / Forum News Service)

Spring sports by themselves were a season-long celebration, as the 2020 season had been canceled due to the pandemic. Their return was met with plenty of success in Bemidji, again with more steps toward the normalcy of the pre-pandemic world.

Boys tennis won an inspiring section championship by beating Alexandria 5-2 in the finals. Six months after longtime coach Mark Fodness died, his son, Kyle, led the program to its first known state berth in 48 years . The next day, Filippo Buffo also won the section’s individual singles championship -- perhaps Bemidji’s first-ever -- as the program had one of its most successful 24-hour stretches in history.

The softball team completed a miraculous turnaround for a winning season and came within one run of reaching the Section 8-3A championship series . The baseball team loaded the roster with talent and was one of the strongest teams in the state for much of the year, largely in part to moments like Isaiah Biehn’s perfect game .


Lauren Berg thrice shattered the 300-meter hurdles program record for the girls track and field team, and she was joined by Mady Schmidt and the 4x400 relay team at state. On the boys side, the 4x800 relay team took second in all of Minnesota as part of a 14th-place state finish as a team .

The boys golf team brought a group of freshmen and sophomores into the Section 8-3A Tournament and walked away in sixth , while the girls golf team was eighth and got Nicki Son within six strokes of state as an individual.

BHS seniors playing college sports

Nathan Alto, men’s cross country and track at Northern State

Jenna Anderson, volleyball at UW-Superior

Isaiah Biehn, baseball at Bemidji State

Courtney Bullie, softball at Itasca Community College


Liberty Dickerson, women’s soccer at Minnesota State Moorhead

Will Falldorf, football at Bemidji State

Aaron Heger, baseball at Augustana

Colton Hinrichs, football at Bemidji State

Logan Jensen, men’s Nordic skiing and fishing at Paul Smith’s College

Nettie Kimble, women’s hockey at Franklin Pierce University

Lexi Leitner, women’s tennis at Bemidji State

Brandon Lussier, baseball at Bemidji State


Ethan Maish, men’s cross country at U-Mary

Sophie Morin, women’s soccer at Lawrence University

Peyton Oelrich, women’s soccer at the University of Jamestown

Sam Schulze, men’s track and field at Gustavus Adolphus

Emily Wade, volleyball at Bemidji State

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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