Unprecedented. Chaotic. Surreal.
There are lots of clichés to describe 2020. The sports scene nationally and in Jefferson County endured the COVID-19 pandemic just like all other aspects of life.
Even though sports seasons everywhere were cut short because of the pandemic, 2020 still brought us unforgettable sports moments in Jefferson County. Some to celebrate, others to mourn.
Here are the top 10 sports stories Jefferson County had to offer in 2020:
10. Kent sweeps
Mason Kent owned the Fort Atkinson City Golf Tournaments this year.
Kent won the Fort Atkinson City Medalist Tournament in June and backed it up by winning the Fort Atkinson City Golf Match Play Tournament title in August.
In the medalist tournament, it was Kent topping Jim Majewski by two strokes in the two-round tourney. In the match play tournament, it was Kent defeating Dan Roloff 5/4 for the championship. Maybe most impressively, the sweep of titles comes after the Fort Atkinson native won the 2019 city medalist tournament.
The three championships in two years do not have Kent complacent, however.
“In golf, there is always room to improve,” Kent said. “Nobody is perfect.”
9. ‘Heck’ of a finish
Lakeside Lutheran’s Maya Heckamnn saved her best for last.
The senior golfer tied for sixth place at the WIAA Division 2 girls state golf tournament, the best placement in Heckmann’s three state appearances. Maybe even more impressive, Heckmann was the No. 1 golfer on the Warriors’ first-ever state tournament team.
Lakeside finished their first-ever state tournament with a total score of 632, finishing sixth overall. Junior Kaylea Affeld, sophomore Ava Heckmann, junior Lauren Lostetter and senior Ella Butzine were all part of the history-making Lakeside team.
“When I started this program the goal of making it to state didn’t always seem possible but it’s something we did,” Lakeside Lutheran head coach Kyra Lostetter said. “The girls worked hard. As a school and as the coach, we are super proud of them. We are definitely going to miss Maya. It was bittersweet when she putted out her final hole. A great four-year career.”
8. Front runners
Two teams dominated the local cross country scene in 2020: The Lake Mills girls and the Deerfield/Cambridge boys.
The L-Cats finished fourth at the WIAA Division 2 state meet behind performances from seniors Lauren Winslow and Brooke Fair, freshman Ava Vesperman, senior Jade Pitta and sophomore Jenna Hosey.
“It’s hard to argue that these senior ladies are not the greatest class of runners Lake Mills has ever seen,” said Lake Mills head coach Dan Zaeske before the state meet. “They’ve re-written the record books. They are four-time conference champs, three-time sectional champs.”
The Deerfield/Cambridge boys earned the highest finish in program history with a seventh-place performance at the 2020 WIAA Division 2 state cross country championships.
Junior Zach Huffman, seniors Jack Nikolay and Liam Brown, freshman Martin Kimmel and junior Carter Brown led the co-op team to a point total of 147. It topped last year’s ninth-place finish, which had been the best finish in the program’s two previous appearances.
“Last year we were really hoping to get to state, that was the main goal,” said Nikolay going into the state meet. “Going into this season we expected to go to state because we had everyone coming back. We don’t just want to go to state, we want to excel at state.”
“I think we definitely had that type of finish in mind, if not even higher, heading into the season,” said D/C head coach Matt Polzin. “The top six (teams) were probably better than us, so in my mind I thought sixth or seventh place. We’re really happy with our finish.”
7. Fort Atkinson’s finest
Only two Fort Atkinson athletes made state tournaments in 2020: Mika Gutoski and Thomas Witkins.
The Blackhawk wrestlers both advanced to the WIAA Division 1 state wrestling meet. Gutoski was able to transform into a state-bound wrestler in just a few years and was eventually named one of the two Athletes of the Year at Fort Atkinson.
Gutoski fell short of the podium, but the two-year growth was amazing for the now UW-Whitewater football player.
“To any of his know-nothing critics, he did not get gored this weekend,” Fort Atkinson head coach Ryan Gerber said the week of the state tournament. “He draws a bracket that starts with the runner-up in the state of Wisconsin. Apply that to any other wrestler in the state of Wisconsin. If your first match is a guy who is going to be the runner up in the state, how do you think that’s going to go?
“In his second match, he got beat by two points. Do we feel bad that he didn’t do better? Yes. There are guys who went up there and look wide-eyed, scared and they get beat up. I’m impressed with his poise and resolve. I’m impressed with the way he fought.
“If Mika Gutoski finds his way on the podium as a second-year wrestler, he would go down as one of the all-time great stories in Fort Atkinson sports history.”
For Witkins, his junior campaign ended at state with a podium finish, placing sixth.
“We talk about needing to get a guy in the state tournament every year,” Gerber said. “That’s important, but if we want to take the next step as a program, we need to be getting a guy on the podium. That’s big for him and as a junior doing it, it’s big because other people can see it and know that a Fort kid can do it if we’re resolute in our technique and stick to what we have to do.
“Having two guys wrestling at the same time on the Kohl Center floor is as exciting as it gets. We had a big group of high school kids that came to watch. They weren’t just watching one kid, they were watching multiple. That’s important from a program standpoint and it’s important for our younger kids to see and realize that if they commit to technique and putting the time in, they can get to that level too.”
6. L-Cat turnaround
Four years ago the Lake Mills girls basketball team finished with a 2-21 record.
In 2020, the freshmen of Lake Mills High School that saw that two-win season watched as their L-Cats advanced to their first-ever WIAA Division 3 state tournament.
The team made plenty of history during the 2019-2020 season: From winning both a Capitol North and regional title in the same season for the first time to playing in and winning their first sectional final to being ranked a program-best No. 2 in the Associated Press Division 3 poll.
The L-Cats ended up falling to Wrightstown in the state semifinal game.
“We played our tails off like usual tonight,” Lake Mills head coach Brandon Siska said. “We’ve dealt with injuries all year long, we had two go down early. We stepped up, kept battling, handled adversity like we always do. It’s been a great season, we just came up a few possessions short. We played as hard as we could and just came up a little short.”
Forward Jade Pitta was able to put the season in perspective following the state semifinal loss, which put Lake Mills at 24-3 on the season.
“This season has been very long. We practiced and worked hard in the summer and in the offseason,” said the now senior. “It’s fun being with the team and the bus rides home and stuff like that. There are a lot of memories that we’re never going to forget.”
5. Warriors fall in title
The motto was ‘Brick by Brick.’
With it, the Lakeside Lutheran volleyball team built a run to the WIAA Division 2 state championship game. The Warriors lost to Luxemburg-Casco in the title game, but what a wild ride it was.
Like many teams, Lakeside Lutheran’s volleyball team started the season not knowing if there would even be a state tournament.
The entire team had to then undergo a two-week quarantine after a team member tested positive for COVID-19.
Once the Warriors got to the postseason, there were some losses to rewrite. Lakeside lost to McFarland in a five-set sectional final last year.
This season, the Warriors swept Lake Country Lutheran in the sectional semis before topping Catholic Memorial to reach state for the first time since 2017.
Luxemburg-Casco won the state championship match in three sets. But sometimes it’s more about the journey.
“They pulled together. I loved their humble attitudes,” Lakeside Lutheran head coach Jenny Krauklis said. “We didn’t have one person that saw themselves as better than anybody else. It was a team before anything else. Their work ethic was incredible. Those ladies are going to make really awesome moms one day and employees one day. I can’t wait to see what God has in the future for them.”
4. Neff: ‘One of the best’
Jefferson’s Dean Neff had his eyes on the WIAA Division 2 state wrestling title at 160 pounds.
However, Neff lost in a controversial 5-4 semifinal, but the senior wrestler bounced back the next day to win a pair of matches to finish third at 160 pounds at the state tourney.
The wins helped Neff cap off one of the best wrestling careers Jefferson has ever seen.
Neff left Jefferson as the school’s career wins leader with a record of 172-33. He finished with a season win percentage of 96 for his 47-2 senior record. His career win percentage of 84 percent is second only to Quintin Gehrmann.
He earned three trips to state, placing sixth as a sophomore, fifth as a junior and third as a senior
“(Dean is) arguably one of the best wrestlers to ever go through Jefferson,” Jefferson co-head coach EJ Pilarski said. “People can argue that, and I’m sure a lot of them have valid points about who was the best wrestler to go through Jefferson, but if you don’t bring Dean into that conversation, you’re not right. You’re wrong not to bring him into the conversation.”
Becoming an all-time great Eagle was never a part of the plan, just a result of the process.
“Wrestling has taught me a lot of things,” Neff said. “Determination. Self-perseverance. Sacrifice. Strength and conditioning go hand in hand. Competing is the easy part.
“All the sacrifice of practices, extra workouts, making weight and all that, is the hard stuff. Competing is the easy part. I just went out and did what I do.”
3. Houwers defends, again
Ella Houwers knew what it took to defend a title.
The Whitewater senior swimmer won the Division 2 100-yard breaststroke as a sophomore and successfully defended it as a junior.
In her final season, the Whippet added some flair to the title defense.
Houwers not only defended her 100 breaststroke crown for the second straight time but also added another state title in the 200-yard individual medley.
Houwers won the 100 breaststroke in 1:05.27, which was nearly three seconds ahead of runner-up Evan McNally (1:08.23) of Shorewood. In the 200 IM, Houwers won in 2:06.9 despite being seeded third coming in. Top-seeded Amie Barrow of Shorewood was second in 2:07.91.
The Northern Michigan swim commit also helped the Whippets finish eighth in the 400-yard freestyle relay and ninth in the 200-yard medley relay.
“I’m super happy with my results, especially in the 200 IM,” Houwers said. “I was pretty confident coming into the breaststroke, but winning the IM made it extra special. It was more a sense of relief.
“I wanted to get under 1:05 in the breaststroke and almost got there, but still getting out of that pool knowing I won and that it was my last (individual) race was a great feeling.”
2. Rivals come together
The Jefferson and Fort Atkinson communities were brought together by a tragedy, by lives taken too soon this year.
In January, Kaden Johnson — a 16-year old student-athlete at Jefferson High School — and his father Brian died in a car crash. Four days later, the Blackhawks and Eagles came together in a boys basketball game for their annual Battle for the Paddle.
But this time it was more about coming together to heal.
The teams observed a moment of silence to honor the memories of Kaden and his father, Brian, prior to their rivalry game on Jan. 28 at Jefferson High School. Both teams wore hooded sweatshirts with Johnson’s surname and his No. 5 on the back for warmups.
“For our student body, I’ve never seen a student section like we had today coming out to support each other,” Jefferson head coach Greg Jefferies said. “The JV had a great student section. It’s good to see a community come around a situation like this and be together at a time of need like this.”
Jefferson beat Fort Atkinson, but it was the night that was much bigger than the game itself.
“I feel for the Jefferson community, for Greg and all those kids,” Fort Atkinson head coach Mike Hintz said. “People want to ridicule coaches for wins and losses, but you don’t coach high school basketball for wins and losses. You coach because some of these guys don’t have fathers; some don’t have mothers; some are in split homes, some are from great families; some have never dealt with death, some have. It’s our job to be a great resource to guide them through it; be the trusting voice that they can lean on.
“Some might forget that a few years ago we had a kid, who didn’t play basketball, pass away from cancer right before we played Jefferson. He was a big hunter and we were able to flip around some camouflage stuff. Of all the nights up to that point that I coached here, that was the most together these communities were.
“We told the kids, in death, everyone’s role is to help whoever has to suffer.”
1. COVID crushes sports world
While there are some great sports memories in 2020, the most memorable one is the time when they weren’t being played.
In girls basketball, the state tournament has just kicked off, while the boys teams were still deep in postseason runs. It was on March 12 that high school sports in Jefferson County were halted.
High school seniors competing in the spring never got that last opportunity.
Student-athletes spent the summer wondering if they would get any chance to play during the 2020-2021 season.
On Aug. 20 — 161 days from March 12 — high school sports returned in Jefferson County with a golf match featuring Fort Atkinson and Lakeside Lutheran.
“It means everything,” Fort Atkinson head coach Joe Leibman said. “We talked about how this is a privilege. We’re just lucky to be in this situation to actually play, compete and represent our school and hometown.
“We thought people would be looking forward to this. Not only the players, the coaches and the parents but just as a community.”
Some schools opted out of the fall season. But in the winter of 2020, all eight of the Daily Union’s local teams returned to competition in some capacity.
It reminded us all, that sports are the ultimate escape.
“I think the girls needed it physically and mentally,” Lakeside Lutheran golf coach Kyra Lostetter said. “It’s the best thing for them. They’ve been cooped up for almost six months. It’s awesome for them to be able to see their teammates and friends and just to get out and forget what’s going on in the world around them.”