Winter arrived last week for athletes competing in boys' hockey, girls' basketball, gymnastics, Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing. Practices began and teams embarked on new journeys sure to include special memories — and a few victories and some postseason success wouldn't hurt. Here's a look at teams hoping to build on successful campaigns last season.
Hill-Murray will remain among the state's top programs and is the favorite in Class 2A, Section 4. But Stillwater and White Bear Lake will challenge the Pioneers.
Section 5 figures to be Centennial's to lose. Defending section champion Maple Grove suffered greater losses to graduation and the Cougars return their ace in senior forward Lucas McGregor.
In Class 1A, Section 4, both defending champion Mahtomedi and St. Paul Academy must retool their lineups.
North and east metro teams Andover, Elk River, Park Center and White Bear Lake made up half of the Class 4A bracket in last season's state tournament. The Elks took all the glory, defeating favored Hopkins 64-60 for the championship. Graduation hit all four teams hard, but each can build on extended playoff runs.
Park Center will have trouble just returning to state with Centennial and Champlin Park also residing in Section 5. Both teams feature strong returning players. Centennial boasts Division I-bound Claire Orth (North Dakota) and Sydney Stapleton (South Dakota State). Champlin Park features Gabby Mocchi (Montana State) and Amanda Pollard (Wagner).
In Class 1A, No. 3 Maranatha Christian Academy of Brooklyn Park battled all the way to the championship game.
The Stillwater boys' team qualified for the state meet as the runner-up in Section 7 and finished fourth at Giants Ridge in Biwabik. Sophomore Parker Smith paced the Ponies by placing 25th.
Among individual state qualifiers, Mounds View sophomore Karl Damberg was 12th.
The Stillwater girls' team also competed at Giants Ridge. The Ponies, also the runners-up in Section 7, took eighth. Junior Madison Neubauer led her team with a 24th-place finish.
In the individual competition, Roseville junior Elizabeth Kiresuk placed fifth, and St. Paul Academy sophomore Bailey Donovan 18th.
The Forest Lake boys placed fourth despite taking second at the Section 4 meet to Stillwater and not having a senior on the state meet roster. Andrew Haines (17th overall) led the way, followed by Ryan Mead (19th) and Spencer Kotys (21st). Stillwater placed sixth and Champlin Park 10th.
On the girls' side, Stillwater finished fourth and Forest Lake sixth. The Ponies, who featured just one senior, were led by Siri Bohacek (17th), Rana Kraftson (30th), Libby Tuttle (38th) and Emma Albrecht (43rd). Forest Lake graduated just one senior from its state roster; top finishers Regan Duffy (ninth) and Jennifer Parent (15th) return.
The Andover girls' team placed 14th and Maple Grove 15th.
Champlin Park eighth-grader Chaney Neu, 13, became the youngest gymnast in state history to win an all-around championship. Neu executed a Yurchenko layout, scoring a meet-best 9.8 on her second of two vaults, lifting her to the all-around title.
In team competition, watch for a great Section 4 meet battle between defending champion Stillwater and traditional power Roseville. The Raiders missed the Class 2A team competition for the first time since 2005. They made 11 consecutive state meet appearances, winning eight championships, from 2006 through 2016. Stillwater, led by Gretchen Sharp and Isabel Bartosh, ended the streak.
Cambridge-Isanti took fourth in Class 2A on the strength of solid performances by MollyAnn Harvey, Char Morke and Madi Douglas. Mahtomedi finished fourth in Class 1A.