Elk softball heroics lead area’s sports stories of 2013

by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

The Elk River softball team, with abundant drama, some captured on film and beamed around the country, garnered its second state championship in June. We’ll start the list of top area sports stories of 2013 with that adventure.

Elk outfielders Jaime Langbehn and Kathi Opsahl whooped it up after Langbehn made a big catch in the state finals. (Photo by Bruce Strand)
Elk outfielders Jaime Langbehn and Kathi Opsahl whooped it up after Langbehn made a big catch in the state finals. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

In the finals, freshman center fielder Jaime Langbehn robbed Prior Lake of home runs in the sixth and eighth innings with leaping grabs over a waist-high mesh fence at Casswell Field in North Mankato, saving a 4-3, eight-inning win and landing herself on ESPN Sports Center’s daily highlights. She tumbled over on the first of those, but bounced back up leaping and beaming with the ball in her webbing.

Equally dramatic was the home run crushed by Kathi Opsdahl in  the seventh against Orono with the Elks down 1-0 in the quarterfinals. The Elks won that one 2-1, then beat Forest Lake 9-3 to reach the finals.

Anna Pipenhagen pitched all three state wins and had 19 overall in the Elks’ 21-3 season. Langbehn hit .444 at state with a three-run homer and two game-winning runs, both on hits by Courtney Jensen. Opsahl capped the best season ever by an Elk with a .540 average and 32 RBIs (both team records), five homers and 16 doubles.


Stacey Sheetz became the first Elk River coach to capture two state championships as her 2013 team joined her 2009 team at the pinnacle in Class 3A. What these two charmed seasons had in common was that the coach was pregnant each time. “I told my husband, let’s do this again,” Sheetz said. She’ll have most of her lineup back for another bid in 2014. By the way, that’s actually four state titles for the coach. She was the shortstop for Stillwater when the Ponies won in 1995 and 1996.


Denis Bardashevskiy was the Russian Rocket (actually, he was born in the Ukraine, but whatever) of Elk River football for two monster seasons. As the featured back in coach Steve Hamilton’s infantry offense that’s fueled by fakes and misdirections, the 6-foot, 164-pound fullback bolted for 1,738 yards (9.5 average gain) this fall. He holds Elk yardage records for career (3,723), single season and game (1,938 and 370, last year) and touchdowns in a game (six vs. Monticello this year, tying a 1928 record). His 36 touchdowns,10 of them between 50 and 90 yards, was one short of the 37 by wide receiver Paul Martin, now a Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman.

The terrorist bomb at the Boston Marathon in April left nine Star News area participants among the thousands shaken profoundly by the outrageous act that killed three and injured almost 200. “It was such a change from the sheer joy and excitement, to … just sadness,” said Tina Ostroot, who finished 14 minutes ahead of the bomb that exploded two blocks away as she gathered her bags in the chute. Added Katie Eberly, “I’ve been crying, off and on, all day.” Theresa Lensing vowed to return for another Boston “just to honor it” and not let the bombers be her last memory of the great event. Also there were area residents Joni Busch, Lynette Capatano, Jeff Rapasz, Amy Visci, and wheelchair athletes Sam and Tracy Tabaka.

Nick Jensen, of Rogers, had a prodigious college hockey season at St. Cloud State, earning first-team All-America and WCHA Defensive Player of the Year honors while helping the Huskies reach the Frozen Four for the first time, where they lost to Quinnipiac. Jensen, 22, a junior, had plus-22 rating, four goals and 27 assists. Jensen then turned pro with the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted him when he was 18, joining their Grand Rapids farm club.

Emma Bates of Boise State was All-American twice in NCAA Division I track. The junior from Elk River placed third in the 10,000 meters (first team All-American) and seventh in the 5,000 meters (second team) at Eugene, Ore., in June.

Kaylee Jondahl, Elk River senior gymnast, was state champion in vault, earning 9.8125 for a layout tsukahara that was “as good as I have ever done it” in February. Jondahl, also a state silver medalist on floor exercise, is now competing for Wisconsin-Stout.

Former state champion diver Laura Ryan, of Elk River, helped University of Georgia capture the NCAA championship in swimming and diving in March. Ryan placed fifth in platform diving and 12th in 3-meter diving at Indianapolis.

Spectrum’s outdoor teams have a home field for the first time as Spectrum Sports Complex opened in September with two soccer and football fields playable and baseball and softball fields under construction. Danielle Hennies had the honor of making the new scoreboard record its first point as she booted the first goal of the soccer game Sept. 3 that started the new era for the Sting. The eighth-year charter school previously played at other facilities in the Elk River area.

Zimmerman High School athletes played a big role in Elk River-Zimmerman boys soccer’s excellent season (13-4-3 and a trip to state) as Storm Heyer (13 goals, six assists), Joey Benz (four goals, six assists) and Jordan Griffin (five goals) were the top three scorers. Heyer made all-state. He and Benz each made all-NWSC and were the top two scorers for the second straight year.