The west metro — for our purposes, nearly all of Minneapolis and a large swath of suburban schools from St. Michael-Albertville to Chaska — has set a standard for athletic distinction. There’s a history of yearly success, with athletes and teams bringing home trophies aplenty.
In total, 30 winter state championships were brought home to the west metro — 10 team and 20 individual.
The area is the metro boys’ swimming capital. Breck/Blake won its first Class 1A team championship, and Minnetonka swam away from the field for a convincing victory in the Class 2A competition. The Skippers had five first-place finishes and set five state-meet records en route to their first team championship since 2011. West metro stalwarts Eden Prairie and Chanhassen finished second and third, respectively.
“It was an incredibly fast meet,” Minnetonka coach Dan Berve said.
This winter, we finally got to meet the state’s top-ranked swimmer in JohnThomas Larson. The 6-5 Bloomington resident had spent so much of his winter swimming for clubs in regional and national competitions that, until this past season, he hadn’t been able to swim for a high school team.
Larson, who signed with perennial NCAA power Texas, finally realized his goal this winter as a one-person team swimming for Minnesota Online High School.
“I’ve always wanted to go after the 500 freestyle record after seeing three guys go after it when I was in eighth grade,” Larson said earlier this season. “That’s the main reason.
He won two events in the Class 2A state meet, establishing state records each time. His time in the 200 individual medley was 1:46.30, more than 1½ seconds better than the previous record. And he not only went after the 500 freestyle record, he demolished it with a time 4:16.92, almost 10 seconds better than any Minnesota high school swimmer had done before.
The city of Minneapolis established itself as the hub of boys’ basketball as three teams based within the city limits brought home state championships. Minneapolis North won its second consecutive Class 1A title, Minnehaha Academy won the 2A championship and DeLaSalle extended its record string of titles with its sixth consecutive Class 3A championship.
In the process, North coach Larry McKenzie became the first boys’ coach in state history to win consecutive titles with two different teams. He guided Minneapolis Henry to four straight Class 3A crowns from 2000 to 2003.
While all three of those titles were expected, the Orono girls’ basketball team pulled off in 2017 what many expected of the Spartans one year earlier. With a new coach and just one starter returning from the 2015-16 season, Orono defeated section nemesis Hutchinson, then cruised through the Class 3A bracket, winning all three games by double-digit margins.
It wasn’t all about champions, however.
Eden Prairie’s Casey Mittelstadt returned to play hockey for his senior season, rather than graduate early, to get one last shot at winning a Class 2A state championship. The Eagles earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament. They rallied in the third period to defeat Wayzata in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Grand Rapids 3-2 in the semifinals. Despite falling short, Mittelstadt was named Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year and Mr. Hockey. He also earned a whole new following when he tweeted a heartfelt thank you to the hockey community and his team in particular in the wake of his final high school game.
We’d been seeing glimpses of what Hopkins basketball wunderkind Paige Bueckers could do as a seventh- and eighth-grader. But this season the just-a-freshman guard demonstrated the skill level that has many believing she could become the best girls’ basketball player in state history. Averaging 21.4 points per game, the lanky 5-10 Bueckers lifted Hopkins to a 31-1 record and into the Class 4A championship game, where it fell to Elk River 64-60.
“I’ve said all along, she’s a special player,” Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff said. “She’s the best freshman I’ve ever coached and she could end up being the best player I’ve ever coached.”