North metro athletes and teams led with their hearts in 2011, earning victories for themselves and for greater causes.
By now you've probably heard the story, which attracted national news attention. Andover cross-country runner Josh Ripley stopped midrace to aid Lakeville South's Mark Paulauskas, whom Ripley had found bleeding profusely from an ankle wound caused when another runner inadvertently spiked him.
Ripley carried Paulauskas a half-mile to his coaches and parents. The wound later required 20 stitches to close.
"I didn't think about my race; I knew I needed to stop and help him," Ripley said in a news release. "It was something I would expect my other teammates to do. I'm nothing special; I was just in the right place at the right time."Blaine outlasts Centennial
For the third consecutive time, the volleyball teams from Blaine and Centennial battled to a five-set match in which the team trailing 0-2 rallied for a victory.
Blaine won the latest showdown, edging the Cougars 24-22 in the fifth game to wrestle away the Class 3A, Section 5 title. Blaine trailed 11-1 in the fourth game before fighting all the way back.
"It had come from somewhere deeper than our athleticism and our training," Bengals coach Celeste Gorman said. "That was heart. That was courage and strength."Aleman named player of the year
In the literal sense, 5-2 Mario Aleman hasn't grown much since coming to the United States from South America five years ago.
But the spark plug of the Spring Lake Park/St. Anthony Village boys' soccer program has mastered the English language, learned to use his size to his advantage and elected to finish high school rather than play soccer with more distinguished national or international teams.
Aleman's maturity, tenacity and team leadership earned him the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year award in boys' soccer. The speedy playmaker tallied 42 assists in his final two varsity seasons.Anoka-Hennepin wins for teammate Lacie
After holding off St. Cloud Area 3-2 to win the CI (cognitively impaired) Division adapted soccer state championship, Anoka-Hennepin and its fans huddled around senior leader Tyler Kurkowski for a moment of prayer and dedication to a fallen teammate.
Lacie Bickford, a member of last year's state championship squad, died during the summer at age 17. In her honor, the Mustangs wore her number 16 on their left sleeves all season.
Anoka-Hennepin defended its soccer title and won its sixth consecutive team title (soccer, floor hockey and softball) overall.Columbia Heights ends 81-year tourney drought
Kay Mayer, a Columbia Heights booster and a fixture at basketball games since 1979, took home the net from the Hylanders' section final victory over DeLaSalle. After years of often-discouraging results, plus two consecutive losses in the section final, Mayer slept with the net under her pillow to ensure she wasn't dreaming.
After 81 years, the Hylanders returned to the state tournament, falling just short of a Class 3A title. Zach Lofton's three-point play with 3:52 remaining in the championship game cut Orono's lead to 70-66, but the Hylanders got no closer.Park Center softball team and sprinter shine on
It was another special spring at Park Center. The Pirates softball team won a second consecutive Class 2A state championship, and track and field standout Sasha Davis capped a stellar career with two more individual state titles.
In softball, Nicola Tade sparked the tournament run with a five-inning perfect game in the quarterfinals.
Battling through a sore hip flexor, Davis defended her 100- and 200-meter-dash titles.
In her career, Davis won five individual titles and added four more all-state finishes.Anoka football honors No. 7
Throughout the football season, Anoka honored a former teammate who lost a battle with cancer. Dylan Witschen, who died two years ago, would have been a senior this fall.
The Tornadoes brought Witschen's No. 7 jersey to every game. Inspired and talented, the Tornadoes reached the Class 5A state tournament for the first time since 2006.
After winning the Section 7 title in front of the home crowd at Goodrich Field, the Tornadoes took team pictures with the jersey in the celebration.Three athletes among wheelchair track pioneers
Wheelchair athletes got their first shot at varsity track and field this spring, and three North metro "wheelers" were among the six pioneers: Mark Braun (Irondale), Stacy Bates (Andover) and JoLynn Super (Spring Lake Park/St. Anthony Village).
Though Braun made qualifying marks in the three events offered -- the 800- and 1,600-meter races and shot put -- he missed the state meet because of a prior obligation. Super qualified for state in the 800 but elected not to compete.Great ending for Goodrich
Ben Goodrich built a memorable senior season on a philosophy of attacking rather than reacting. The strategy was important, given Goodrich is legally blind. Born without irises to help his pupils focus and with a condition called nystagmus that causes involuntary eye movement, Goodrich sees a world of blurred colors and shapes.
That did not prevent Goodrich, who wrestled for the Brooklyn Center/Concordia Academy of Roseville co-op team, from fashioning a 35-4 record and making his debut at the Class 2A state tournament. He lost his lone match in double overtime.Blaine boys' hockey: Unexpected success
Blaine boys' hockey coach Dave Aus did not expect his Bengals to challenge for a state tournament appearance this season. But when the team advanced to the Class 2A, Section 5 championship game, Aus made the expectation clear: He lined the hall to the Blaine locker room at the State Fair Coliseum with pictures of the Bengals' five previous teams, all of which celebrated section victories. A 4-3 overtime upset of No. 1 seed Maple Grove earned Blaine a sixth consecutive trip.
The last big-school program to match that feat was Hill-Murray (1983-88). Eveleth is the standard-bearer, going 12 consecutive times from 1945-56.
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574