With the month of December coming to a close, the final chapter of the 2021 sports year comes to an end. Over the past 12 months, we’ve gotten to experience the highs and lows that come from the world of sports.

Whether it was coming together to support beloved alum, celebrating teams and athletes that defied the odds and celebrating major milestones, 2021 had it all. Here are eight of the top sports stories from the Owatonna People’s Press.

Former Huskies running back Jason Williamson is no longer a member of the University of Minnesota’s football program after taking a medical retirement through the NCAA due to injuries.

Football Media Day YEAR IN REVIEW

Owatonna High School graduate Jason Williamson, shown here in 2020, had recovered from a torn ACL sustained in April 2019, but later suffered a significant shoulder injury. He recently decided his injuries were too great to continue playing football. (Brad Rempel/University of Minnesota)

“My body had been through so much wear and tear in such a short amount of time, with multiple major surgeries, and I felt it was best for me to not play anymore for the sake of my body in the future,” Williamson said in a series of text messages about his decision to step away from football.

“I had made the decision by myself and thought about it for a long time. When I talked to people like friends and family, they were all not surprised with my choice. The coaches and trainers [at the University] were very supportive of my decision, too.”

Williamson was a two-time state champion and was named Minnesota’s Mr. Football in 2018 after rushing for 3,012 yards and 46 touchdowns as a senior. He was considered the third-ranked college recruit in the state in 2019, behind only offensive tackle Quinn Carroll of Edina (Notre Dame) and offensive tackle Bryce Benhart of Lakeville North (University of Nebraska).

Williamson, who wore No. 28 for the Gophers, graduated early from Owatonna High School and enrolled at the University of Minnesota in January 2019, but missed the entire 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL. He appeared in two games as part of the special teams unit during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his redshirt freshman campaign, registering one tackle. However, Williamson underwent shoulder surgery in February to address a “significant tear to his right labrum,” an injury that often requires nearly a year to fully recover from.

According to Williamson’s father, Rich Williamson, his son will stay on scholarship at the university, where he will be pursuing a degree in business marketing with a minor in communications.

The Owatonna Huskies boys basketball team entered postseason play as the No. 3 seed in Section 1-4A, which boasted three of the top 20 teams in Class AAAA — Farmington, Lakeville South and Owatonna — according to Minnesota-Scores.net’s QRF ranking system. To reach the state tournament, they would need to overcome both the Tigers and Cougars, in addition to a scrappy New Prague team, a task many — present company included — viewed as Herculean.

owatonna boys basketball YEAR IN REVIEW

The Owatonna Huskies boys basketball team qualified for the state tournament for the first time in a decade with their 94-85 upset over Lakeville South. (file photo/southernminn.com)

The Huskies proved everyone who doubted them wrong Tuesday night by overcoming the No. 1-seeded Lakeville South Cougars (13-7), 94-85, to clinch the team’s first state tournament appearance since 2011. (Note: Farmington were forced to withdraw from the tournament due to COVID-19 exposures.)

“No words can explain it. It’s easily our best game that I can remember in a long time,” Owatonna coach Josh Williams said after the game. “It’s amazing to get back to this point. It’s a credit to these guys and the work that [they’ve] put in in their career, not just this year.”

Owatonna put together their most complete 18 minutes of basketball of the season during the first half, building a 21-point lead that extended to as many as 30 early in the second half, by blitzkrieging the Cougars on both ends of the court. A three-pointer by Ty Creger moments after the opening tip set the crucial, aggressive tone that Huskies played with all night.

“Ty Creger hitting that first shot of the game [for us] was huge just to kind of get us going...and we just kind of fed off of that shot from that point on,” Williams said.

Creger finished the night with 20 points, all while directing the Owatonna offense flawlessly and providing stout perimeter defense. His backcourt teammates, Brayden Williams and Blake Burmeister, also played wonderfully, knocking down many clutch 3-point shots and grabbing key rebounds.

The Owatonna Huskies advanced to the Class AA state gymnastics tournament after throwing an all-around score of 146.50 — their second-best of the season, eclipsed only by their 147.025 mark in the Big 9 tournament — to claim their fifth section tournament title in school history.

lindsay bangs YEAR IN REVIEW

Owatonna’s Lindsay Bangs completes her floor routine as the Huskies took home the Section 1AA title. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)

Owatonna only claimed the top spot in a single event — unsurprisingly the balance beam, arguably the team’s strongest event, with a score of 36.925 — however, their 1.7-point margin of victory was more than large enough to overcome their close second-place finishes in the vault (37.450) and floor (37.550) as well as their bronze on the bars (34.525). (Farmington claimed the other three events and came in second on beam, finishing second all-around at 145.550.)

Four gymnasts — senior Lucy Macius, eighth grader Halle Theis, sophomore Kaitlyn Cobban and freshman Emma Johnson — also qualified for the individual state tournament after their strong performances. Theis and Macius finished fourth and fifth in the all-around, respectively, with scores of 36.575 and 36.450. Theis came in first on the vault (9.575) and Macius second on the beam (9.400).

Senior Lindsay Bangs — perhaps the front-runner to claim an individual state tournament bid entering the competition — was able to grit through three events, but was forced to withdraw after the vault due to an MCL injury suffered during practice earlier in the week. She finished 22nd overall and her status for the upcoming team state tournament was up in the air.

Johnson won all three of his matches en route claiming the Class AAA 160-pound individual state title, the 29th wrestling championship in Owatonna High School history and the first since Peyton Robb in 2018.

landen johnson REVIEW

Owatonna’s Landen Johnson embraces his coaches following his individual state title victory. (file photo/southernminn.com)

Johnson defeated Elijah Madimba of Coon Rapids by fall and Adam Cherne of Wayzata by 6-1 decision in his quarterfinal and semifinal duals, respectively, to setup a clash with Anthony Tuttle of Stillwater in the championship match. Johnson and Tuttle entered the competition as the first and second-ranked wrestlers in the 160-pound weight class of Class AAA.

“During the match I felt really good...I knew he was good, but I felt really comfortable the whole match. I was never worried or anything,” Johnson said calmly and without a trace of overconfidence. “I’ve never wrestled him either...it was a different feel. He had a weird stance and stuff. He’s tough but it felt really good to know that I beat the next best kid at my weight.”

The lanky junior won by 5-4 decision, his closest victory of the season.

“It was an exciting moment for him. I was happy to be a part of it,” then-coach Adam Woitalla said of Johnson’s triumph. “He’s worked so hard on and off the mat and ever since last season — taking second — he’s really put in the time to make sure that he can be a champion. Yesterday, he achieved that goal.”

Going into the 100-yard butterfly championship finals, Owatonna junior swimmer Logan Norrid held the top preliminary time of 57.57 seconds and was ranked as the top seed in the event.

Owatonna swim state REVIEW

Owatonna swim and dive sent junior swimmer Logan Norrid and freshman diver Mya Dutton Class AA Girls Swim and Dive state meet. Pictured left to right: head coach Isaiah Fuller, Norrid, Dutton and dive coach Kasey Anderson. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

When she dove into the pool, the first 25 yards of the 100 yard event were a breeze to her as she started to lead the pack of eight swimmers. Going back and forth from end to end, the burn started catching up to her as Rochester Century’s Emily Garrison was just split seconds behind her.

Flip turning into the final stretch of the event, 25 yards separated her and the pairing of a gold medal and a trip to the Class AA State swim meet. In a neck-and-neck race, Norrid beat out Garrison and finished with a first place time of 57.78 seconds for a section title.

The 100 butterfly isn’t the only event Norrid is going to compete in at the Class AA state meet, as the junior also finished in third place in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:06.24, which was seconds off Rochester Mayo’s Ava Gustafson’s 1:03.97 time for first place.

With her time in the prelims for the 100 butterfly (57.57) and her time from the 100 breast (1:06.43) both doubled down as new school records with both former records belonging to her.

Freshman diver Mya Dutton also punched her ticket to the state meet, her first ever appearance, after a top-five placing in the 1-meter dive.

“For Mya to be as consistent as she was, we knew she had a shot in the diving,” said Owatonna head coach Isaiah Fuller. “Nothing is ever guaranteed in this sport, so for Mya to go out and dive as consistent as she was and to qualify as a freshman in diving, and of course Logan is our perennial state contender, it’s very exciting.”

Dutton posted a semifinals score of 212.30 to move onto the 1-meter dive championship finals, where she recorded her final score of 279.70 that earned her fourth place and a spot in the Class AA diving championships.

On a beautiful, sunny afternoon, boys and girls cross country teams from all around gathered at the Brooktree Golf Course in Owatonna for the Big 9 Conference meet.

State qualifiers (Owatonna XC) REVIEW

Owatonna qualified four runners for the Class AAA state meet. Pictured from left to right: girls head coach Daniel Leer, Anna Cox, Carsyn Brady, Preston Meier, Connor Ginskey, boys head coach David Chatelaine. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

The Owatonna boys had plenty to celebrate with all seven runners placing in the top 25 en route to claiming their second consecutive Big 9 title and earning five All-Conference nods and two All-Conference honorable mentions. The Huskie boys finished the day in first place with a score of 38 points, which beat out Mankato East, who finished in second place with 51 points.

“We’re totally pumped,” Owatonna senior Preston Meier said. “This is what we’ve been building for all year. We won it last year, so we knew we wanted to be more successful this year, and we definitely were.”

On the girls end, the Huskies took fourth place, while earning an All-Conference honor and an All-Conference honorable mention, with a team score of 131, just edging out Mankato West (133) in fifth place. Mankato East (91) took third, Rochester Century (62) took second and the eventual Big 9 title winner Northfield (61) took first.

Just over a week after hosting the Big 9 Conference meet, the Brooktree Golf Course in Owatonna hosted teams for the Section 1AAA meet, which the Huskies participated in and had four total runners qualify for the state meet that was held Saturday, Nov. 6 at St. Olaf College.

The boys race was highlighted by Owatonna’s two state qualifiers: Preston Meier and Connor Ginskey.

Meier and Ginskey finished the day as the Huskies top runners with Meier speeding his way to a fourth-place finish behind his time of 16 minutes, 29.15 seconds, followed closely by Ginskey in sixth place with a time of 16:36.19.

The fourth and sixth place finish by Meier and Ginskey cemented them a spot in the Class AAA boys state cross country meet.

On the girls end, Carsyn Brady and Anna Cox grabbed qualifying spots in the Class AAA girls state cross country meet behind their top finishes for the Huskies.

Brady finished as the top runner for Owatonna behind her ninth-place finish with a time of 19:37.69, followed by Cox in 16th place with her time of 20:04.38. Both earned an individual qualifying spot into the state meet, with Cox snagging the final of the six spots reserved for individuals not on the two advancing teams.

7) Area athletes prepare to make the transition to the next level

Grant Achterkirch signing REVIEW

Owatonna senior linebacker Grant Achterkirch signs his Letter of Intent to play Division I football with the University of St. Thomas. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Spirits were high Thursday afternoon inside Owatonna High School as senior linebacker, fullback and captain Grant Achterkirch inked his Letter of Intent to play Division I football with the University of St. Thomas at the Football Championship Subdivision level.

The talks between Achterkirch and the Tommies started after his junior season with the Huskies, but the talks were best described as “here and there.” As Achterkirch manned a stingy Owatonna defense in its late season push and run to the Section 1-5A title game, however, St. Thomas started pushing harder and harder for the senior linebacker.

It was only two weeks ago that Grant and his family went to visit St. Thomas, where they met with Tommies head coach Glenn Caruso and defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski. But that visit was enough for Grant to know where he wanted to continue his football career.

Drew Kittelson (BP FB) REVIEW

Blooming Prairie senior quarterback Drew Kittelson walks back to the sidelines. Kittelson announced his commitment to play for Minnesota State Mankato on Sept. 19, 2021. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Blooming Prairie starting quarterback and cornerback Drew Kittelson made the announcement as to what his future holds in store, both for his football career and his education.

The Swiss army knife for the Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms made the announcement via Twitter that he was committing to play wide receiver for the Mavericks of Minnesota State University, Mankato.

At the collegiate level, the Mavericks are bringing in a big new wide out, with Kittelson standing at 6-foot-4 inches and 185 pounds.

Brayden Williams commit (Owatonna bball) REVIEW

Owatonna senior guard Brayden Williams commits and sign to Bemidji State University. Pictured: Owatonna boys basketball coach and father Josh Williams and Brayden Williams. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

With one more year remaining in his storied career with the Owatonna Huskies, senior guard Brayden Williams made his future transition to the college basketball ranks official after committing and signing his letter of intent to play for the Bemidji State Beavers.

The process of Williams landing with the Beavers first started in the spring when representatives from Bemidji State attended an AAU tournament he was playing in. After putting on a good showcase, the Beavers and Williams kept in close contact throughout the rest of the spring and summer.

In June, Williams attended a shooting camp at Bemidji State, where he met Bemidji State head coach Mike Boschee for the first time. Boschee and his assistant coaches kept the communication line open with Williams into the fall.

Fast forward to the middle of August, he made a trip up to Bemidji for his first visit, where he was met with an offer from the Beavers. A month and a half later, Williams announced his commitment. As most high school athletes looking to play at the next level do, he had kept his options open and looked at a couple other schools beforehand, but it was clear that Bemidji State was the right place for him.

Landen Johnson commit REVIEW

Owatonna senior 160-pound wrestler Landen Johnson commits to North Dakota State University. Pictured left to right: Landen’s father Dan Johnson, Landen Johnson, Owatonna head coach Derek Johnson. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Heading into his senior season for the Owatonna Huskies, senior Landen Johnson made a big decision about his future wrestling career and announced his commitment to join the Bison of North Dakota State University.

The future Bison comes back to Owatonna as one of its most storied wrestlers and one of its leading faces on a senior filled team heading into his final high school wrestling season this winter.

The process of NDSU landing Johnson’s commitment started back during summer 2020, where NDSU was among the first schools to contact Landen, who was preparing for his junior season with the Huskies. Per NCAA wrestling recruiting rules, Division I coaches are only able to contact wrestling recruits after June 15, following the recruits’ sophomore season.

Since that first call in June 2020, Landen and the Bison have stayed in close contact.

Landen was able to get a feel for the school after touring NDSU while visiting for a tournament in Fargo, North Dakota. His official visit to the school came in September, where he was officially made an offer by the Bison.

He took one more visit to another school, but the clear choice to Landen was nearly 300 miles away in Fargo, which paved the way for his commitment in early October.

Henry Grayson signing REVIEW

Medford senior Henry Grayson signed his Letter of Intent to run track for the University of South Dakota on Nov. 29. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Medford senior track and field standout Henry Grayson made his transition to NCAA Division I track and field official Monday, Nov. 29, when he inked his Letter of Intent to run for the University of South Dakota Coyotes.

For Grayson, the process of landing with the Coyotes started back in his junior season when he approached Medford High School principal Kevin Babcock — who has experience coaching Division I track and field — about the idea of running collegiate track.

Babcock helped reach out to schools on Grayson’s behalf and once the summer hit, they got into the thick of searching for his future landing spot.

Grayson visited multiple schools, but the University of South Dakota was the one that really stood out the most.

8) Owatonna and Blooming Prairie make runs at football section championships

(owatonna fb) Dylan Maas REVIEW

Owatonna senior tailback Dylan Maas (4) recorded four touchdowns in the Section 1-5A championship game for the Huskies. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Four. It’s the number that’s shown on the jersey of Owatonna senior tailback Dylan Maas’ jersey. It also doubles down as the amount of touchdowns he scored against the No. 1 seeded Rochester Mayo Spartans in the Huskies 38-33 loss in the Section 1-5A championship game.

Heading into the championship bout, Owatonna head coach Jeff Williams highlighted big play differential as what could be the biggest difference maker in deciding who gets crowned as Section 1-5A champs.

On Owatonna’s end, Maas was the one generating big play after big play to keep the Huskies hopes alive. By the end of the night, the senior tailback posted nearly 250 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, along with a five-yard touchdown reception.

(bp fb) defense REVIEW

Blooming Prairie senior defensive end Ezra Wiley (59) wraps up Maple River’s Boden Simon (9) during the Section 2AA Championship game. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

In their first season after bumping up from Class A to Class AA, the Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms seemed destined for a perfect season, crushing opponents in the regular season and playoffs.

It all came to a screeching halt with a 40-18 loss to Maple River in the Section 2AA championship game.

The Blossoms rolled through their regular season undefeated, and their confidence only went up after starting the section playoffs with a 43-0 win over Medford in the quarterfinals and a 47-19 win over St. Clair/Loyola in the semifinals.

In the championship game to decide who gets to move onto the state tournament, No. 1 Blooming Prairie was outrun and outsized by the No. 2 seeded Maple River Eagles, who are now the only team able to take down the Blossoms in three years. BP’s last loss was in the 2018 Class A state tournament title game against Bold.

Reach sports reporter Stephen McDaniel at 507-444-2375. Follow him on Twitter @OPP__Sports. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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