Playing the roles of David and Goliath in their respective sports, the Stillwater softball and boys’ cross country teams each captured state titles to highlight the biggest local sports stories in 2012.
The Ponies flew under the radar much of the season and carried eight losses into the state tournament, but reeled off victories over Farmington (11-0), Mankato East (6-2, 11 inn.) and Maple Grove (6-2) to capture the team’s first state title since 1998. Hannah Heacox picked up the victories in all three games, including a no-hitter in the quarterfinals over Farmington.
Unlike the softball team, the Stillwater boys’ cross country team rolled into the state meet as a heavy favorite to repeat as state champions and the Ponies delivered with an 46-80 victory over Edina. Senior Wayde Hall led the way while becoming only the program’s second individual state champion.
Here is a look at just a few of the many other memorable moments and events from the past year.
Senior Nora Gilbertson collected an individual state title in girls’ Nordic skiing while helping the Ponies to a fourth-place finish at the state meet. The team also won conference and section titles. The Stillwater boys’ alpine ski team used a balanced lineup to place third at the state meet and the Ponies also qualified for state and placed eighth in gymnastics. Branden Madsen enjoyed a stellar state tournament on the wrestling mats, falling to undefeated Mark Hall of Apple Valley in the finals at 145 pounds to finish his prep career with 108 victories — good enough for eighth on the team’s all-time list.
It was a successful spring season in sports other than softball for the Ponies, including state tourney appearances in girls golf (second place), synchronized swimming (second) and girls lacrosse (fourth). Deeg placed third to lead the Ponies at the state golf tourney. Wayde Hall finished third in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races at state for the boys’ track and field team while the Stillwater girls received runner-up finishes from its 4×200 (Bethany Adkins, Kelcie Kempenich, Alex Crain and Natalie Phippen) and 4×400 (Fiona Montie, Phippen, Maria Morley and Kempenich) relay teams.
In addition to the individual and team titles in boys cross country, the Ponies were represented at state by the boys’ soccer team (third place) and girls’ tennis team (fifth), led by fourth-place state finisher Natalie Phippen, who ended her remarkable prep career with a staggering 129 victories. The Stillwater girls’ swimming and diving team also extended its dual meet winning streak to 101 in a row while placing third at True Team state and fifth at the MSHSL state meet.
The year included a handful of coaching retirements and departures, plus the continued professional success of former Ponies standouts Glen Perkins as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins and Jessie Diggins for Team USA on the World Cup stage in Nordic skiing. Mike O’Rourke coached girls golf at Stillwater for more than 32 seasons and he stepped down after last spring’s runner-up finish. Nathan Schwarz has been named O’Rourke’s successor. Hall of Fame coach Phil Johnson, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sanneh Foundation, also made the 2012 season his last as leader of the Stillwater boys’ soccer program. New faces in the Stillwater coaching department include Kathy Henderson, who replaces long-time coach Judy Luzaich, whose contract was not renewed after leading the Ponies to a 281-13-2 record with 18 state championships and 21 runner-up finishes in 39 seasons. Gerard Coury is the midst of his first season as head coach for the girls’ basketball team, replacing Deb Van Klei, and the Ponies also featured new head coaches this fall in Jamie Suapaia (volleyball) and Mike Huber (girls soccer). Veteran Stillwater swim coach Brian Luke was inducted into his sport’s hall of fame last spring and former Ponies coach Ricky Michel was inducted into the baseball coaches hall of fame in the fall. Former Stillwater football coaching legend George Thole was also the recipient of the inaugural John Gagliardi Minnesota Legacy Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation. The St. Croix Valley Athletic Hall of Fame inducted individuals Don Campbell, Glenn Harris, Kevin Klancher, Walt Kress, Tanya Schuh Modelli and Jill (Junker) Stimson in September. Also inducted were the 1975 state championship football team and 10 of Stillwater’s state champion synchronized swim teams (1978-85, 1988 and 1991). Another highlight this summer was the successful hosting of the Special Olympics Minnesota Summer Games, which drew more than 1,300 athletes to the St. Croix Valley in late June.