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2019 was another year of great success on the local level

2019 was another year of great success on the local level 2019 was another year of great success on the local level

Matt’s Bleacher Shots

So here we are at the end of a year and the end of a decade all at the same time.

Has it really been 20 years since the Y2K hysteria? Simply unbelievable.

As usual, I didn’t have the time or the interest in ranking the top 10, 15, 19 or whatever local sports events of the year that was 2019. The last 365 days provided its usual share of big wins, upset wins, upset losses, amazing individual accomplishments, surprise teams, championship teams and, you know, those teams that tried their best.

It’s just that, in many cases, the names and teams changed roles.

When it comes to the high school level, there is nothing that tops a state championship and we saw an individual one of those at the end of February when Medford’s Jake Rau became the school’s first WIAA wrestling champion since Josh and Jordan Crass in 2004. He took the Division 2 220-pound title with a 4-2 win over Jackson Linsmeier of Valders in the title match at the Kohl Center.

I remember thinking at the time, had it really been 15 years since the Raiders had a state champion? Yes it was. They’ve had some near misses individually and some ups and downs as a program since that ’04 run. It’s good to see the program at one of its peaks again.

Rau, a senior, is off to another great start at 17-1 and how the next two months unfold for the Raiders is going to be a story worth following in early 2020.

A week after Rau won his state title, the Medford gymnastics team reached a new level, participating at the Division 2 state meet in Wisconsin Rapids. Unfortunately, the team had very few healthy bodies left by the time the meet started, but fuel was added to the fire this season. Through three meets in their 2019-20 season, the Raiders look noticeably better than last year and, with added depth, are much more prepared to handle an injury or two if need be down the stretch. It would be a shock if the Raiders don’t return to Rapids in early March.

The Gilman softball team broke through in June, winning its first Cloverbelt Conference title in seemingly forever and reached the WIAA Division 5 state semifinals in Madison where base running was really the only difference between the Pirates and, at the time, undefeated Blair-Taylor in an 8-3 loss.

The Pirates bring almost everyone back this spring, so look out Eastern Cloverbelt Conference and the rest of the Division 5 teams in northwestern Wisconsin. This same group of girls was also largely responsible for Gilman’s first Cloverbelt championship since the early 1980s, a title they shared with Columbus Catholic. The top local story for 2018 was the WIAA Division 2 state championship won by Medford’s girls cross country team. The Raiders entered 2019 with many of the same faces, with the exceptions of Grace Kelley and Lauren Meyer, and a couple of key freshmen additions. Hopes were high in August and the Raiders had another big year, winning Great Northern Conference and sectional titles. But Shorewood wasn’t going to be beat this year at state and the Raiders settled for fourth. Certainly something to be quite proud of.

The fall of 2019 also included a couple more of what I would consider to be major prep stories for Taylor County.

The Medford Raiders 11-game winning streak in football was one fun ride before it finally ran out of gas in Menomonie in Level 3 of the WIAA Division 3 playoffs. The Level 2 win over River Falls will be one that will be remembered here for a long time. The dominance of the defense on a weekly basis was really something to watch. The Raiders lose some key pieces, most prominently all-state honorable mentionees Ean Wilson and Zac Breneman, but this 11-1 team was actually juniordriven on a lot of levels and will be another team to watch in 2020.

The fall produced Medford’s first-ever GNC boys soccer championship game and a WIAA Division 3 regional final game that will become legendary in time for those who played in it. Technically it went down as a 4-4 overtime tie with Fox Valley Lutheran, who won the shootout, but coaches Nate Bilodeau and Chris Reardon have something going there.

Speaking of Reardon, he’ll be the head coach this spring of the girls team, which made its deepest run ever last June, making it to a WIAA Division 3 sectional final, which it lost to a very good Ashland squad.

The Prentice-Rib Lake girls cross country team didn’t make a lot of headlines during the regular season, but the Hawks found themselves in the right sectional in late October, taking second place at South Shore and earning their first girls state berth since the schools merged their cross country programs in 2007. The visions of the Hawks runners reaching the finish line at state in the middle of a snow burst will be unforgettable.

Medford sent Erin Bergman and its 200-yard medley relay team to the girls state swim meet in November.

And back to football, the Gilman Pirates ended their 11-man legacy –– at least for now -- with a solid 9-3 season and a run to Level 3 in the Division 7 playoffs. Early in 2019 it became official that Gilman is switching to eight-man football. The first Pirates’ game I cover this fall will be the first eight-man game I’ve ever seen. I wonder what it will be like.

Taylor County had its largest representation at the WIAA state track and field meet that I can remember and medals were won by Medford’s Leah Leonard, Desirae Weissmiller, Katie Phillips and its girls 3,200-meter relay team. If the weather is good, the state meet remains one of my favorite annual events.

The Medford baseball team’s Great Northern Conference championship last spring was its first since the league was formed in the 2008-09 school year. Medford’s Legion team made its second straight appearance in the Class A state tournament. Both squads were a blast to cover.

From a state perspective, it was another big year. We’re fortunate to watch MVP-type talent on a regular basis with Christian Yelich, Aaron Rodgers and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Packers’ rise from 6-9-1 a year ago to 13-3 this year is a huge story no doubt. But I would have to rank the rise of Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks as the state’s number-one sports story of 2019. No the Bucks didn’t quite make it to the NBA Finals last spring. But the thought of an NBA best 60 wins in 2018- 19 and an NBA best 30-5 record in the current season certainly would’ve been laughed at just two or three years ago.

Matt Frey is the Sports Editor at The Star News.