It’s been more than a year since I started covering athletics in Forest Lake, and I just finished one full season of adding coverage of North Branch and Rush City sports to the mix for the ECM Post Review. Covering three different school districts seemed daunting at first, but the challenge excited me and turned out better than I imagined with the help of all coaches involved.
Differences in the school athletics among the three are inevitable, especially when attending Class AAAAAA football in Forest Lake, Class AAAA football in North Branch and Class AA football in Rush City. But the important aspects of each sports stay the same. Sure, as the class size grows, so do the size and physicality of the opponents on the other side of the field or court, but each athlete is giving their all regardless of the competition.
After attending Ranger games for a full year, I grew accustomed to watching some of the toughest competition in the state with the Suburban East Conference. Forest Lake football went up against three state-ranked teams this fall in football — that’s a third of its regular season games. The soccer girls took on Mounds View, Woodbury and Park, all of whom were ranked in the top 14 in the state, while two girls swimming and diving SEC opponents, Mounds View and Stillwater, took top-six finishes at the True Team State Meet. Not to mention the unbelievable displays of athleticism and determination as the Forest Lake girls tennis team swept through its regular season despite tough play from Mounds View, East Ridge, Princeton and Elk River.
There were also plenty of times my heart lodged in my throat due to a high-level, nail-biting game taking place a little further north.
I remember walking into the Rush City High School gym for a home game against Braham. The stands were so packed I had to sit in the front row on the floor to take pictures. The student section was just as big as at Forest Lake, and the rivalry between the Tigers and Bombers caused that unmistakable mix of discomfort and intensity in the air. Although Rush City lost in four that night, I was impressed with the scrappiness of the defense and the craftiness of the hitters on both sides in the Great River Conference matchup.
The same goes in North Branch. There are two particular football games that stand out: a home game against Chisago Lakes and the first section game at St. Paul Harding. I remember the Chisago Lakes matchup purely due to the well-established, not-so-friendly rivalry between the two squads and fans. I even found myself pacing a few times during critical moments, and although North Branch lost, it was again a great reminder that good competition is found at all levels of play.
The biggest reason I will never forget when North Branch played Harding was the respect the Vikings showed for their opponent on Oct. 22. North Branch traveled an hour south to an inner-city St. Paul school, one of six, to play a section game against an opponent they had not encountered before. And while Harding may average more than twice the students per grade, its football program didn’t have the numbers to match.
The Vikings got to work and just minutes into the second quarter, they led 21-0 and ended up winning 35-14. I was happy for North Branch, but a little bummed for the Harding sidelines, since it was evident they were having an off game and a down season. They looked deflated. Rather than pounding it in their faces with taunting, the Vikings impressed me more than any other high school team I’ve covered. Yes, they still tackled hard and didn’t let their guard down, but after those tackles the North Branch defenders helped their opponent off the ground. And more than one time, I saw them give a Harding player a pat on the back or rear. To me, that is the definition of a competitor. Getting the job done, but showing respect to the game and its players with sportsmanship.
I also have to give kudos to the boys soccer and girls tennis teams in North Branch. Despite tough seasons for both, I never saw one athlete with a bad attitude during or after a game or match. They cheered on their teammates and maintained that same level of respect for their opponents and the game.
Last, I can’t recap the fall season without mentioning the matchups between Forest Lake and North Branch in volleyball. The Vikings came to Forest Lake on Sept. 12 and gave the Rangers a run for their money in a five-set, back-and-forth battle that lasted more than two hours with Forest Lake earning a 3-2 win by four points in the final set. Two weeks later, North Branch got revenge by winning, 2-0, at the Duluth East tournament. And with both squads ending their seasons in the Section 7AAA semifinals, there is no true way to determine the better team. All the more reason to be excited for next fall.
This fall was a learning experience. I enjoyed the small-town pride displayed by Rush City, the sportsmanship of North Branch and the competitiveness of Forest Lake. As I head into the winter season, I anticipate even more experiences to treasure.