Winter sports tourneys always bring excitement

By: 
Chuck Kajer, The New Prague Times

This weekend’s adapted floor hockey state tournament will bring an end to the winter sports season at New Prague High School.

This is the 26th full winter season I’ve covered for The Times, and it was an interesting one. New Prague sports has changed since I started working here in 1990. the school has more than doubled in size, with an enrollment of under 500 students when I started to more than 1,200 now. The first two years I was here, the basketball team was in the old District 13 in a two-class system, playing games in St. Peter against the likes of Cleveland, Bethlehem Academy and Le Center. The Trojan girls defeated Isle to go to state in 1992. We soon moved back to Class AA and a strong Trojan boys team kept running into tougher, larger teams in the playoffs until 1997, when the state went to a four-class system and New Prague was assigned to Class AAA. The boys went to state that year and placed second, while the girls went to state in 1998 and 2000, when they won the championship. Both the boys and girls had repeated trips to state in the years since, but making the trip to state became more difficult four years ago when the teams were moved into Class AAAA.

Hockey has changed a great deal during the past 30 years. From 1990 until about 2006, the boys team was paired with Montgomery-Lonsdale, until the schools grew to the point that the combined enrollment would have put them into Class AA. In the early 1990s, the team had no arena, practicing and playing games in Le Sueur, and they struggled for the most part, losing early-round playoff games in the one-class system. By the mid-‘90s, a two-class system was put in place for boys hockey, but New Prague continued to struggle. It wasn’t until a sheet of ice went up in New Prague and players had more ice time as youth that things started to look up. By the early 2000s, the team started playing at or above .500 with some regularity. They became contenders by the late 2000s and finally made it to state in Class A in both 2014 and 2015, going 2-1 at state each year. Two years ago, however, growth led to the inevitable and New Prague was moved to Class AA. They were placed in a section that produced last year’s state champion Minnetonka and this year’s runner-up Eden Prairie.

The Trojan girls hockey team wasn’t formed until 1999 and I was not working for the Times from 1999 to early 2002, so I missed covering the first three years of the program. In 2003-04 a group of talented eighth-graders joined a handful of strong veterans and started a run of four state tournament teams in five years, with the highlight a second place finish in 2004. The team remained strong for most of the years since, but like their male counterparts, moved to Class AA last year and have found the going tough against the larger schools.

The Trojan wrestling program was a strong one in the early 1990s. In 1992, the team qualified for state for the first time, finishing third, and sent what was then a state-record eight individuals to state. The team has since gone to state two other times and sends individuals to the tournament nearly every year. Two yearsago, the team was moved up to compete with the largest schools in Class AAA, and this year’s team might have been one of the toughest the school has ever had, ranked as high as No. 6 in the state, but had the misfortune of being in the same section as perennial power Apple Valley and state champion Shakopee.

The Trojan gymnastics team was an annual state contender in Class A, winning several state championships and qualifying for state every year but one over a 14-year span before being moved up to Class AA four years ago. Since then, they have been ranked in state each year, but haven’t been able to get past several tough teams in Section 2AA. They have, however, continued to send individuals to state each year but one since making the move.

And that brings us to the adapted floor hockey team. Adapted floor hockey is an activity for special needs students. The program began in New Prague in the mid- 2000s and gained traction, qualifying for its first state tournament in 2010 and advancing every year but one since then, highlighted by a state championship in 2014. The team is 10-0 and looking to earn its second state title this week.

I’ve enjoyed covering each of these teams and athletes over the years, and I’ve logged miles going to places such as Le Center, Chaska, Minneapolis North, St. Paul Washington, Winona, Faribault, Rochester, St. Peter, Richfield, St. Paul Aldrich Arena, Henry Sibley, Owatonna, Eagan, Rosemount, Minnetonka, Waseca, Watertown, Prior Lake and Shakopee, among other places, to cover these section events. Tournament time is always exciting, no matter the sport and the venue.

I’m sorry to see it end for another season, but look forward to covering the spring sports, some of which start practice this week.

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