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THE ROARING TIGERS: As school grows, Medford athletics department has started to make some serious noise

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When Kevin Werk took over as the Activities Director at Medford High School, he saw a hill in front of him and took his first step in the fall of 2012.

From there, he’s only continued to climb.

In fact, the long-time educator and Morris, Minnesota native hasn’t stopped trekking toward his goal of transforming the MHS athletics program into a consistent winner. Sure, there have been some lean years, and the department continues to evolve, but at least now Werk can peek over his shoulder and see some major progress.

It hasn’t been easy, but boy has it been worth it.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Werk said. “You have to be willing to find people that are willing to go through the ups and downs and stick with it, and I think we have done that. I felt we were intimidated by some of the teams we played (in 2012), and I don’t feel like that anymore. We know we can compete.”

In order to fully appreciate where the Medford athletics department is right now — a state finalist in volleyball, undefeated conference champion in girls basketball, conference champion in cross country and owner of two state finalists in wrestling — one must first understand where it has been.

Situated almost exactly halfway between “two big towns” according to Werk, the city of Medford is home to 1,300 residents. It’s 7.3 miles from downtown Owatonna (population 27,000), 8.4 miles from Faribault (23,000) and has the feel of a residential neighborhood with a high school shoe-horned into the middle of a new development on the east end of town. “Downtown” consists of a few small locally-owned businesses, and outside of an outlet mall off the highway that technically bears a Medford address, no major industry calls the city home.

The lifeblood of the community truly is the high school, which was built in 2003. That year also marked the beginning of what has been a decade-long transition from a tiny 9-man football program and Class A school, to a Class AA-sized institution with a steadily-growing enrollment.

Despite an infusion of students that came from families wishing to attend the new school by open-enrolling from Faribault and Owatonna, things still hadn’t turned the corner when Werk stepped in as AD in 2012. Most of the larger classes were at least three years away from having a major impact at the varsity level, and the Tigers took their lumps.

Due to low numbers, the school was unable to field a varsity softball team in the spring of 2012 and failed to post an above-.500 record in football, boys basketball, girls basketball, volleyball and baseball during the 2011-12 academic year. In 2012-13, those five sports, plus softball, posted a combined winning percentage of just .428.

Through the storm — which included multiple coaching changes in boys basketball, volleyball and softball in a five-year span — Werk never wavered. He had established roots in the community and believed, if not downright knew, good things were on the horizon.

“I knew what I was getting myself into when I took the job,” Werk said. “It’s been a fun process to be a part of. It’s been fun to watch the coaches go through it and has been a blast to watch the athletes.”

When the larger classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 finally stepped foot on campus, the impact was felt immediately. Scholarship-level basketball player, Emma Kniefel, has given the girls basketball team a major shot in the arm and the team has only rocketed upwards since she started playing on the varsity team in eighth grade. One year later, classmate Willie VonRuden began making an impact in three sports — football, wrestling and baseball — and has established himself as one of the most accomplished small-school athletes in southern Minnesota, if not the entire state.

But a few talented individuals is never enough to change the fortunes of an entire department. With numbers finally on their size, complimentary athletes — especially in girls basketball, volleyball, track and field, baseball and wrestling — have elevated a number of teams and individuals into conference, section and state-title contention.

But with growth, there have been challenges.

With an enrollment that has doubled in the last 13 years, MHS teams have been forced to elevate from the smallest classifications in every sport up to Class AA in most. Werk still feels like Medford is a “small school,” and, technically, it still is with only 237 students according to the MSHSL. Only instead of consistently competing against opponents of relatively its own size, MHS has been swimming in the same pool with much larger schools in most sports and is often one of the five smallest schools in its classification.

Because of this, playoff success hasn’t been easy. The baseball team earned a home game in the opening round of the Section 2-AA tournament this past spring, but was sent home by a school (Belle Plaine) with exactly 200 more students, which is a lot when it comes to Class AA.

In girls basketball, the Tigers entered their second round playoff game with a 24-0 record, but lost, 46-33, to a high school with 502 students, St. Peter. For comparison, that’s just 190 fewer students than Red Wing High School of the Big Nine Conference.

In fact, every team besides volleyball and football during the 2018-19 school year was eliminated by an opponent with a larger student body.

“Quite honestly, that’s been a major challenge,” Werk said. “I was on the Region 1 committee a couple years ago and was one of the few people that voted against adding a classification in baseball (and softball) because I knew we were going to probably be forced up. I would rather be a big Class A school than a small Class AA team.”

Despite the inherent growing pains that have come with being one of the smallest schools in its postseason level of competition for most sports, Medford has flourished when competing against schools of its own size.

With just three classifications in volleyball, the Tigers were situated in Class A this past fall and manufactured one of the most memorable seasons in the school’s history for any sport. Despite entering the postseason outside the state’s top 10, MHS ran the table all the way to the state championship match before losing to No. 1-ranked Minneota, 3-0. Along the way, though, they defeated perennial state juggernaut, Faribault Bethlehem Academy, No. 6-ranked Mabel-Canton, defending state champion Mayer Lutheran and No. 10-ranked B-B-E. All of those wins came in the postseason alone.

“We knew the history with BA and we just couldn’t get past them,” Werk said. “We knew coming into the season this might be the year, but no one expected the run we had at state. Looking back, we thought we should be in the section title and if we can beat (Mabel-Canton) our thought was lets just go have some fun at state. Once we beat Mayer Lutheran, oh my gosh, that whole week was great. We were trying to keep track of how many kids we were going to bus up to state and it became so many that we just said: ‘show up and we will get you there.’”

The success didn’t stop in the fall.

In wrestling, eighth grader Charley Elwood captured the Class A state championship at 113 pounds while VonRuden finished in second at 152. The boys track and field team finished in second place at the conference meet and claimed a pair of individual state titles in the wheelchair discus and shot put from Luke Johnston. This came roughly six months after the cross country team won the conference title.

In the winter, the girls basketball team manufactured an historic regular season under Mark Kubat, who Werk said has become a shining example of what has helped the athletics department gain momentum.

“He’s been here for 7-8 years,” he said. “If you’re are going to have a stable program you have to have stable coaches, and that’s hard to find. Boys basketball and softball we are going through that right now and trying to get that consistent coach that’s willing to go through the ups and down like Mark Kubat.”

In 2018-19, Medford finished 17 games above .500 with a .565 winning-percentage in girls basketball, boys basketball, football, volleyball, baseball and softball, which is a far cry from 2012.

Moving forward, Werk — who is also an assistant the football coach and the head track coach — expects each class to remain steady at roughly 85 students, which would leave Medford’s enrollment at roughly 340. In 2015, it was 218 before jumping to 237 before the 2017 academic year. With the building at capacity — roughly 900 grades K-12 — open enrollment has been closed, meaning most athletics teams will be allocated comfortably within Class AA. The final team sport that competes in Class A, volleyball, will be slotted into Class AA starting in the fall of 2020.

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on @OPPJonW

Award-winning Sports Editor for the Owatonna People's Press, Weisbrod has worked in daily newspapers his entire career. He writes a regular column called Beyond the Box that delves into local, regional and national sports storylines.

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