by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Football prowess at the local and area levels, and gymnastics gems at the state and national levels, were the biggest sports stories of 2011 in the Star News realm. Also making prominent headlines were Rogers golfers and an ambitious diver from Elk River. Following are the sports editor’s picks for top 10 stories in no particular order.
The top five newsmakers of the year in area sports are all pictured below — gymnasts Jessie DeZiel of Rogers and Twin Cities Twisters and Sabrina Hoover of Rogers, football coach Steve Hamilton of Elk River, diver Laura Ryan of Indiana and Elk River, and golfer McCabe Buege of Rogers.
Elk football breaks shackles
Elk River football had posted six wins in six years and was riding a 16-game losing streak but the Elks broke off the shackles in 2011 with a 6-3 campaign, guided by new coach Steve Hamilton and sparked by rampaging fullback Moses Saygbe. Highlight was a delirious 17-14 upset of Rogers (to whom they lost 50-0 last year) with over 4,000 fans rocking Schempf Field for both sides., Michigan native Hamilton got it started last summer by drilling four primary running plays into his troops.The Elks averaged 321 yards rushing and 31 points, with Mississippi 8 MVP Saygbe rolling up 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Elks completed only 12 passes all year but two of them set Austin Larson’s game-winning field goals against Moorhead and Rogers.
Rogers gridders first, again
The Rogers Royals were stung by the loss at ERHS on Oct. 14 but coach Marc Franz’s charges forged ahead to capture the Mississippi 8 and Section 5AAAA crowns, each for the third straight season. With QB Matt Weber and linebacker Clayton LeVasseur leading, the Royals went 9-2, and their 25-14 state loss to Rocori marked their third straight year of falling to the state champion.
Thunder football nabs first crown
Zimmerman left the Mississippi 8 to join Granite Ridge Conference this fall and became the first football champion of this new loop with a 6-0 run highlighted by a 24-14 conquest of St. Cloud Cathedral in the title clash Oct. 14, the same night as the Royals-Elks duel. Coached by Tom Kish and led by QB/linebacker Ethan Lunning and interior lineman Jake Antolak, who was league co-MVP, the Thunder rolled to their best season at 8-2.
Gym dandy I: DeZiel dazzles
Jessie DeZiel, 18, of Rogers repeated as USA Gymnastics Level 10 all-around champion in May with a 38.825 score in Las Vegas and was just getting started. The Spectrum graduate, Twin Cities Twisters member and current Nebraska Cornhusker then earned Elite status in June, competed in VISA Senior Nationals at the Xcel Center in St. Paul in July, earned a Team USA spot at invitation-only tryouts in Texas in September — and was top scorer for the Americans when they won the Pan Am Games team golf medals in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.
Gym Dandy II: Hoover’s hat trick
Another 18-year-old Rogers gymnastics star, Sabrina Hoover, competing for Elk River-Rogers-Zimmerman, garnered her third state high school all-around championship in February. Now at Winona State, Hoover scored 38.425 to win in an extremely close competition, giving her two Class AA titles after one Class A crown in 10th grade. Her three all-around golds rank second in state gymnastics history behind one girl who had four in Class A.
Ryan reigns — in Big Ten diving this time
Laura Ryan, 19, former Elk state champion diver, joined national swim power Indiana this year and made an immediate impact, capturing the Big Ten platform diving championship in February, also placing second in one-meter and third in three-meter. Ryan, eyeing the 2012 Olympics, then won her second USA Diving Winter Nationals synchronized diving title with Hoosier teammate Amy Cozad at Knoxville, Tenn., this month, beating a duo from the 2008 Olympic team. They’ll compete at World Cup in London in February.
Royal golfers share state crown
The Rogers boys golf team under coach Dan Bursheim was the best in the state throughout the regular season for the second straight spring. The Royals, who placed second at state behind Wayzata in 2010, this time tied the Trojans at state for the championship with 592’s at Bunker Hills in June. McCabe Buege, top-ranked, was runner-up with 144, while Jordan Rykal and Corey Muenzhueber tied for 10th with 149. Buege NO plays for Central Florida, and Rykal and Muenzhueber have signed with South Dakota and UM-Mankato, respectively.
Elk girl skaters 5th at state
Elk River girls had a spotty 2010-11 regular season but came alive in playoffs, capturing the Section 7AA title and placing fifth at state, beating North Wright County and Lakeville South after falling to state champion Minnetonka 3-0, finishing 22-9. There was a sweet ending for Sam Geissler, fifth-year goalie who lost her starting job to junior Tori Herrmann late in the regular season, but got the nod from coach Joe Heasley to play the two consolation games and sparkled, stopping 46 of 47 shots. At year’s end the Elks were 9-1-1 and New Hampshire signee Jonna Curtis was about to become the program’s all-time scoring leader.
Elk tennis remains top-notch
Elk River tennis made two more state appearances in 2011 as the boys team under Randy Ronninq qualified for the fifth straight year and placed fourth, and the girls under new coach LaRoyce Chapman went for the sixth straight year and placed third. The girls (23-5), led by Michaela Schulz, were not a top-ten team but faced only one powerhouse (state champ Edina, who beat them 7-0) in post-season, while winning all the winnable matchups, most of them very close. The Elk boys, meanwhile, are loaded for a serious run in 2012.
Big leap for Spectrum sports
Spectrum, fifth-year charter school in Elk River, had a pivotal year, opening its new school in September and its spacious new gym on Dec. 9 with the Sting girls losing to Cambridge Christian and the boys beating Math & Science Academy before a full house. The Sting this year are also going solo, or are about to, in all of their sports for the first time. It’s still a very small school that plays other tiny schools and doesn’t win much but 2011 is a turning point in its athletics programs.