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WINNING WAYS: Good times continued for Winona sports teams, athletes in 2017

December 30, 2017 GMT

The good times continued for Winona-area sports teams in 2017.

Winona Senior High School finally crowned a state champion. The Winhawks football team had another memorable year. This year, however, it had to battle the Winona State Warriors for the town’s attention in the fall. And a cross country phenom picked up right where she left off a year ago, as her younger sister burst onto the high school sports scene as well.

Here’s a look at the top 10 local sports stories from 2017.

1. Winona High softball wins a state title

After several other Winona High teams knocked on the door of winning a state title the past couple years, the softball team was the one to bring home the school’s first state title in 12 years and the first by a girls team since 1989.

The Winhawks, fittingly, were led by their four seniors — pitcher Ashton Hoeppner, shortstop Katie Block, second baseman Rhiannon Reinardy and catcher Justine Schultz.

Hoeppner was particularly dominant in the postseason, racking up 40 strikeouts in three state tournament games. Winona beat Thief River Falls 10-0 in five innings, Totino-Grace 5-0, then Hermantown 9-2 in the state championship game.

Hoeppner, Block and Schultz were named first-team all-state by the coaches association, while Reinardy, Hoeppner and Schultz played in the All-Star series.

All four are playing in college, but the cupboard isn’t dry. Coach Scott Halverson should have a pretty good team on his hands next year — and for the foreseeable future.

2. Winona football wins district title

As good as the Winona High football program was in 2015 and 2016, the 2017 team did something the Winhawks hadn’t done in quite a while: Win a league title.

Winona won the Big Southeast-Blue district championship, the first conference or district title for the program since winning back-to-back Big Nine Conference titles in 1988. The Winhawks did so in dominating fashion, winning their eight regular season games by an average margin of 30 points.

Led by Winona Daily News player of the year Nick Waldo, the Winhawks repeated as the section champs and held off Fridley 17-14 in the state quarterfinals to return to U.S. Bank Stadium for the second year in a row. But Winona lost a 26-22 heartbreaker to Holy Angels in the semifinals, and it will have to wait to win the program’s first state title.

3. WSU football back in postseason

A decade-long drought came to an end at Winona State, as the football team, behind All-American safety Andrew Spencer — the NSIC-South defensive player of the year — returned to the Division II playoffs for the first time since 2007.

The Warriors started the season 8-0 — including a 31-13 pasting of then-No. 6 Sioux Falls on its home field — and hosted a postseason game for the first time since 2004. They lost, however, 20-6 to a Texas A&M-Commerce team that went on to win the national championship; the Warriors were the only team to hold the Lions to less than 31 points since Week 1 of the season.

4. Back-to-back runners-up

Led by a pair of Division I recruits in Eden Nibbelink (Fairfield) and Danneka Voegeli (North Dakota State), as well as two others who will play basketball in college in Maria Appicelli (Bemidji State) and Abby Winter (Saint Mary’s), the Winhawks girls basketball team brought home a second consecutive runner-up trophy.

Along the way, the team won the program’s first Big Nine Championship in 17 seasons, thumped Northfield in the section final, outlasted DeLaSalle in a thrilling-but-draining state quarterfinal win then somehow came back the next day to exact revenge over Holy Angles in the state semifinals.

The most remarkable thing about the team, however? The fact that its nine seniors stayed together since they were fifth-graders in the YMCA Pacer program.

5. Wolner doubles up on gold

The Winona swimming team went 30 years without a state champion. In one afternoon, Griffin Wolner did it twice.

The Winhawks junior won the 200- and 500-yard freestyles at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center in Minneapolis in early March. He helped Winona finish fifth as a team.

Wolner won the 200 in 1:41.63 and the 500 in 4:39.62.

The Winhawks qualified a total of 11 entries for the state meet, the biggest contingent in more than 15 years.

6. Grace Ping returns, Lauren Ping emerges

After spending a year in Utah, the Ping family returned to Winona. Grace Ping, now a freshman, picked up right where she left off as a Class A state cross country champion, while her younger sister, seventh-grader Lauren Ping, emerged as another top talent. The duo immediately made Cotter one of the strongest cross country teams in the state; a billing the Ramblers backed up with a section title.

The state meet, however, didn’t go as planned. A nagging injury kept Grace Ping from winning another state title; she instead finished third. Lauren Ping had a terrific state meet, finishing second in 18:19.7. Cotter finished second as a team, one agonizing point behind champion Perham.

Lauren Ping continued to run well into December, finishing 11th at the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore., in 17:58.9. She was one of the few seventh-graders to compete in the national race.

7. WSU’s Jackson wins national title

Eboni Jackson added to her already sterling collegiate list of accomplishments by winning her second national title at the NCGA Division III meet. Jackson scored a 9.850 to win the floor exercise; the year before, the junior from Lawrenceville, Ga., won an all-around title.

Jackson also earned All-America honors in the all-around and on the balance beam.

8. Ortega takes third at state

Ryan Ortega’s legacy at Cotter is one of success.

The senior finished his Ramblers boys tennis career with 129 wins, the most in program history. The 129th came in the third-place match of the Class A state tournament in Minneapolis earlier this month, a 4-6, 7-6, 6-1 win over Rochester Lourdes’ Justin Bobo.

Ortega placed fourth as a sophomore and junior. In 2015, he ended a nine-year drought for Cotter boys tennis at the state meet.

9. Carlson picks track — and Michigan

Noah Carlson dazzled and wowed on the football field and the jumping pit — and he wasn’t bad on the basketball court, either.

The Rushford-Peterson star had plenty of options for college, but in the end he chose a track and field scholarship from the University of Michigan. Carlson, the AP state player of the year in football and a five-time state track and field champion, had several football offers from Division I FCS schools and preferred walk-on offers from Big Ten schools, including Minnesota.

10. Alec Brown wins gold

Alec Brown, a Winona Senior High School graduate and professional basketball player, was on the 12-member USA Men’s AmeriCup team that won the tournament held in Uruguay and Argentina.

The U.S. rallied to win the gold medal game 81-76 over host Argentina on Sunday after trailing by as many as 20 points early in the third quarter. The game was played in Cordoba, Argentina.

Brown is currently playing for Estudiantes in the top Spanish league. He’s averaging 11 points and four rebounds per game.