Pierce County: An ideal location for a sports reporter
Every sports reporter wants to land a job in a thriving sports community where their assigned teams are not only made up of talented athletes, but where those teams are also followed by an enthusiastic fanbase.
And that's what any sports reporter will find when they come to Pierce County.
All five Pierce County schools have contributed to a thrilling year of state championships and new school records in 2017, and it's only right to assume that better things are yet to come in the upcoming years.
Here are the top 10 sports stories from 2017 that the Herald had the pleasure of covering.
1. Ellsworth wrestling: Eighth state championship and nine individual state qualifiers
The first thing that makes its way on a new PCH sports reporter's radar when they come to Pierce County is the Ellsworth wrestling team—rightfully so. The Panthers squad continued its long history of dominance in 2017 by claiming their eighth state title in 12 years and sending nine wrestlers to the individual state tournament. Two of those wrestlers, Sam Stuhl and Jacob Sigler, brought home the program's 31st and 32nd individual titles. Charlie Stuhl, Sawyer Strom, Owen Matzek, Jared Lansing, Cole Skelton, Anders Lantz and Mike Freund were the other seven Panthers to experience what it's like wrestling under the lights of Madison's Kohl Center in March. Aside from Sam and Sigler, Charlie (runner-up), Strom (fourth), Matzek (fifth), Skelton (fourth) and Lantz (third) also finished their trip as place winners. Seven state place winners set a new school record.
Lantz, who graduated in 2017, is currently a freshman wrestler at South Dakota State University where he studies fish and wildlife biology. The new Jackrabbit is enjoying his new team, and said his season is going very well.
"I love the town and the team like a family," Lantz said. "I've had my ups and downs throughout the season so far, but I feel like that's expected."
Lantz said his last year with the Panthers team was a great time, but the transition from high school to college is difficult.
"You go from being the top dog all the way back to the bottom of the totem pole," Lantz said. "If these boys want to win a state title again this year, which I think they can, they will have to work hard and stay disciplined."
That shouldn't be a problem for Mark Matzek's team.
The Panthers have their sights set on claiming their third consecutive state championship, but before that, they're focused on taking down each opponent that comes their way.
So far in the 2017-18 season, the Panthers have a 2-0 dual record, won their home invite by a wide margin, and finished in the top half of the MN Christmas Tournament where they competed against some of the best teams in the Midwest.
Charlie, the team's 120-pound sophomore, is 12-3 on the season; Matzek, the 132-pound senior, is currently 11-2; and Lansing, a 145-pound junior, has started off with a 15-2 record.
Sam Stuhl, now a senior, is now 13-1 in his last year as a Panther and will continue his wrestling career at North Dakota State University where he hopes to be a four-year starter.
Even after graduating eight starters from the 2016-17 roster, Panther fans can expect more big things from their favorite wrestling team in the new year.
2. Prescott dance: Second consecutive Division 2 jazz title
2017, Samantha Schoen's second year of coaching the Prescott dance team, turned out to be a another successful season for one of the most prized teams in Pierce County. Schoen coached her dancers to the team's second consecutive Division 2 jazz title and a second-place finish in Wisconsin Association of Cheer/Pom Coaches State Dance's pom competition.
Two 2017 seniors, Paige Payne and Kaitlyn Timmins, also received all-state honors for their individual solo performances.
Payne, now a freshman at Winona State, shared her thoughts on last year's trip to state with the Herald.
"One of my favorite memories from state last year was when my co-captain Kaitlyn and I went from room to room in the hotel knocking on our teammates' doors to dance around and get pumped up for the afternoon," Payne said. "We ended up going to our coach's room last with the whole team dancing around on the beds."
Payne said this memory reminds her of how close her former dance team got, and that it made the whole state experience less stressful.
"In general, I just loved state day because it was kind of the last big bang of our season and we always have so much fun together no matter the outcome."
According to Schoen, last year's team chemistry has carried on into the 2017-18 season and has produced an even tighter-knit group of dancers. This year's strong bond has already produced early, positive outcomes for the Cardinals who took first place in both jazz and pom at the Menomonie Holiday Classic. The team also traveled to Little Chute where they continued their winning streak in jazz and took second in pom.
In Little Chute, the team faced the toughest teams in their division, Waupaca and Little Chute. Following the competition Schoen told the Herald, "The kids have a whole new drive to work harder now that they've seen what they will be up against at the end of the year."
Ellsworth's dance team also qualified for the state dance competition and placed 12th in pom. Maggie Harrington, a 2018 graduate, earned all-state honors as a soloist along with Payne and Timmins.
3. Prescott boys basketball: Runners-up at WIAA state tournament
The Prescott Cardinals made their way to the WIAA Division 3 prep boys basketball state championship for the first time in program history during 2017's March Madness season. There, the Cardinals suffered a brutal 73-47 loss to Appleton Xavier, but the final game of the Cardinals' 2017 season did not properly represent everything the team had accomplished prior to their last game at the Kohl Center.
Prescott earned a 24-4 season record and their fourth consecutive Middle Border Conference title in 2017, and the Cardinals' success was largely due to the team's 7'0" senior Owen Hamilton.
Hamilton averaged 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game; was named Wisconsin Sports Network's post player of the year; and earned a spot on Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association's Division 3 all-state team for the second year in a row.
Not a bad way to go out.
The former Cardinal is now a Northern Illinois freshman, and he's averaging 6.5 points per game as a Husky.
Hamilton also set a WIAA state tournament record for highest field goal percentage in the Cardinals' semifinal 74-67 win over Lake Mills where he shot 14-of-15 from the field and tallied up 33 points. Hamilton's semifinal performance will go down in the record books, but the Cardinals may not have advanced to the finals had it not been for one 2017 senior: Nick Simon.
Simon hit two late three-pointers to tie Lake Mills in the semifinal game, and was arguably one of Wisconsin's best shooters in his senior year as a Cardinal.
"I think the one thing that stood out the most about state was how close our team was," Simon said. "We were all super close friends, and I think that's a huge reason why we were so successful."
Simon also recalled the season-long support the Prescott community provided his team.
"Another really cool part about making it down to Madison was how it really brought our entire community together," Simon said. "To see all the Prescott fans in the stands at the Kohl Center was just the icing on the cake."
Simon is now a freshman at UW-Eau Claire where he's leaning towards studying diabetes education.
Along with Hamilton and Simon, the Cardinals graduated six other seniors—Luke Murphy, Marcus Sterud, Bo Smith, Cameron Holte, Keaton Roeder and Jake Block. This hit in the roster had many spectators questioning how well the Cardinals would bounce back in their 2017-2018 season, but head coach Nick Johnson and his returning Prescott players have made it loud and clear that they're not going anywhere this year.
Prescott is currently 5-0 in the 2017-2018 season, and ranked No. 9 in Wisconsin Sports Network's state standings.
This year's standout Cardinal: Peter Brookshaw.
The senior is averaging 31 points per game in his fourth varsity season, and has already received statewide recognition for his point guard play. But the Cardinals would not be undefeated if it weren't for Brookshaw's fellow teammates including Parker Nielsen, Joe Roosen, Brian Tayson, Westy Bartsch and Dylan Rieken — all of whom have showed the state of Wisconsin that doubting Prescott's 2017-18 potential is nothing but a foolish mistake.
4. Spring Valley/Elmwood wrestling: Fourth straight trip to team state, and five individual qualifiers
In his 26th year and most likely final season as the SVE head wrestling coach, Carter Turner brought his Cardinals team to Madison for the Division 3 state wrestling tournament for the fourth year in a row. Turner's team was ultimately defeated by Fennimore 54-18 in the semifinals of the state tournament, but also made some noise in the individual state tournament where five Cardinals competed.
Three of those five wrestlers were seniors: Cruze Hurlburt, Seth Schlegel and Dylan Bune. All three seniors finished as place winners in their final of four state tournament appearances as Cardinals.
Schlegel, who now studies at UW-River Falls, said he was just glad he got to finish his career of his favorite sport with his favorite teammates and friends.
"Being down [at the individual tournament] with those four guys was another awesome experience for me," Schlegel said, "and it was really special getting to go down with my team all four years of high school."
The UW-River Falls freshman said he still stays connected with Spring Valley High School sports by watching his younger brother, Santana Schlegel.
Carter Merth and Nick Hofacker were the other two Cardinals to qualify for state in 2017. Both were eliminated in the preliminary round of their tournaments, but with some state experience, Hofacker and Merth are already this year's designated leaders for Bill Hofacker's new Cardinals team.
In his first year as head coach, Hofacker has admitted that the road to the 2018 team state tournament may be a bumpy one for his young Cardinals team, but he's confident that many of his wrestlers will travel to Madison as individual qualifiers come March
As for Turner, he does miss wrestling but is still pleased with his decision to step down as head coach.
"It has been a long time since I haven't coached during the winter months," Turner said. "Life certainly is less hectic at school and home and I don't think about wrestling 24-7 now."
Turner's son Adam, his wife Erin and their three kids just got back from South Africa on Dec. 17 after five weeks of finalizing their adoption of three-year-old Ayazi. Turner and his wife Ann plan on flying out to Ashland, Oregon the last week of January to meet their new granddaughter and spend some time with the rest of their family.
"I'm looking forward to spending more time and traveling a bit over the holidays," Turner said. "Ann and I haven't been able to travel over Christmas break for 30 years because of wrestling commitments."
5. Tyler Leach ties for third at the WIAA Division 3 state golf tournament
Spring Valley's Tyler Leach nearly golfed a perfect 2017 season. Up until his last tournament at University Ridge in Verona, the junior hadn't golfed a round above par all season. With his stellar season performance, Leach won player-of-the-year honors in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference, and returned to the state tournament where he had claimed a state title the year before.
But the final tournament of the 2017 WIAA season didn't result how Leach had hoped. The junior shot a 4-over 76 on both days of the 36-hole tournament and tied for third place just two strokes behind Mathew Higley of Eleva-Strum, who carded a 150.
Most high school athletes would be thrilled with a third-place finish at state, but not Leach.
"I'm obviously disappointed that the week didn't turn out how I wanted it to, but that's golf and that can happen," Leach told the Herald following his state performance. "I still have the rest of the summer left to compete in tournaments and I'll use this as motivation to play well in my upcoming events."
The soon-to-be-senior followed through with his post-state plans, and bounced back by earning himself a victory at the Wisconsin Junior Masters in Racine and a runner-up finish at the Wisconsin State Golf Association Junior Boys Championship, which led to a fourth-place ranking on the Wisconsin PGA Junior standings.
Leach's summer performance gave him an extra boost of confidence coming into his senior year, and made an even bigger name for himself amongst Division 1 recruits. One of those D1 schools was Marquette, Leach's future home-away-from-home where he'll continue his golf career after his time at Spring Valley.
Leach signed his letter of intent with the Golden Eagles on Thursday, Nov. 9 and told the Herald that he's excited to play for Marquette's head golf coach Steve Bailey, but he's determined to take care of unfinished business before moving to Milwaukee.
"My goal for my final year of high school golf is to win every event that I play in," Leach told the Herald in November. "I've definitely improved a lot since [last year], and I'm looking forward to the opportunity of heading back down there and competing against the best golfers in the state and hopefully bringing home another title."
6. Prescott wrestling: Two juniors qualify for individual state with new coach
Prescott's wrestling team has been overshadowed by the town's basketball team and opposing, local wrestling squads for some time now.
But the Prescott wrestling team surprised many by taking third at their regional meet, sending six wrestlers to sectionals where the team claimed a fourth-place finish, and by concluding their year at the Kohl Center with two state qualifiers—Ty Sanford and Ethan Tulip—all under the direction of first-year head coach Jordan Poirier.
As juniors, Tulip picked up one win at the state tournament, and Sanford finished in fourth-place in the 195-pound weight class. Now as seniors, the two co-captains have high expectations for their Cardinals team that returned four of its six sectional wrestlers.
At the beginning of the season, Tulip told the Herald that he thought the team was capable of finishing with a winning dual record.
"I think that's reasonable, too," Tulip said. "We should be able to beat most of the teams we face."
Poirier agreed with Tulip. "I don't think we'll surprise anybody this year," Poirier said. "I think people are going to expect that when we come in there we're going to be competing. We're not going to come in there and lay down. We're coming to wrestle."
So far, the Cardinals have dropped all three of their duals in the 2017-18 season, but Poirier said the team's current record isn't representative of how they're wrestling early on in the season.
"The final scores of our dual meets do not do justice to how well we are wrestling," Prescott's head coach Jordan Poirier said. "We are starting out 12 points in the hole before the dual even starts."
Aside from his two co-captains, Poirier has also been pleased with what he's seen from 182-pound wrestler Joe Schulte and 152-pounder Cody Atherton. Schulte claimed a first-place finish at Ellsworth's season-opening invite, which helped land his team in fifth place in Ellsworth. Atherton has wrestled some of the toughest competition in the 152-pound weight class, and Poirier is pleased to see his confidence grow as he picks up wins against high-caliber opponents.
2017 was a memorable year for Prescott wrestling, and no matter the outcome of the 2017-18 season, Poirier just wants to see his wrestlers leave it all out on the mat every single night.
"My goal for them is to win all of the duals, obviously, but it's more about competing in all of them," Poirier said. "If we go in and we lose by a point, but we did everything right and it just didn't go our way, that's what I want. That's where we're trying to get."
7. EPC's Kassye Todd finishes ninth in state cross country meet, and fifth in individual track races
Kassye Todd closed off her outstanding high school cross country career by running at her third and final WIAA Division 3 cross country state championships meet on Saturday, Oct. 28.
Prior to the state meet, Todd expressed hopes of making her way onto the awards podium, and she left the meet with a ninth-place finish and an accomplished goal.
The senior runner put EPC on the map after finishing ninth with a time of 19:50.46 in her last high school cross country meet held at Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids.
Todd told the Herald that her strategy for her last high school race was just the same as what it had been in all of her other races—to run her own race.
"I accept just having my best race and running my own race," Todd said. "I just have to run my own race and take it in strides."
The back-to-back-to-back state runner used her acquired runner's knowledge to maintain a seventh-to-ninth place spot throughout the 5k.
Kristel Flesberg, Todd's varsity coach, held her star runner in high regards.
"[Todd] is by far the most successful runner we've ever had," Flesberg said. "It'll be sad to see her graduate and go, but hopefully we'll have some middle schoolers step up and fill her shoes."
Flesberg started EPC's cross country program 12 years ago, and said that the team has sent runners to the state before but that Todd is the first to qualify for the meet in three consecutive years.
Todd said she'll miss her teammates the most now that her high school cross country career is over, but that she is also thinking about running cross country in college.
And the senior's high school running career isn't over just yet. Todd will continue her running success on the track come spring of 2018 where she'll try to qualify for the state meet at Memorial Stadium in La Crosse once again. As a junior, Todd took fifth in both the 1600- and 3200-meter races. She also was a member of the second-place EPC 3200-meter relay team.
With Todd's track record, it's expected that she'll have more big things coming her way in the new year.
8. Erica Feuerhelm makes program history with state score of 188
In her first state appearance, Ellsworth's junior golfer, Erica Feuerhelm, recorded a two-day score of 188, which set a new record for the Ellsworth girls golf program.
Feuerhelm's score of 188 landed her an 18th-place finish—not too shabby for golfing at University Ridge Golf Course for the first time.
Stepping onto the Wisconsin Division 2 Girls Golf State Championships course for the first time prompted some nerves for the junior on day one of the two-day tournament.
"I got super nervous at the beginning," Feuerhelm said. "I had two bad shots right in a row, and I didn't let it go like I should have."
Feuerhelm said she had a rough six holes at the beginning of the tournament, but after a birdie on hole seven she became herself again and only went eight over par through the last 12 holes. She finished tied for 21st place at the end of day one.
"On Tuesday she came out firing right out of the gate," Carson Huppert, Feuerhelm's coach, said. "Her ball striking was right there with some of the best in the state."
"On the second day I just went out and tried to have fun," Feuerhelm said of her day-two performance, which ended with a score of 92. She said it helped that she started day two with day one's back nine and saved the holes she struggled with on day one for the end.
"I wasn't as nervous on day two, but there were still two holes that got me," Feuerhelm said. "Overall, it was a great experience."
Feuerhelm tied for 18th-place overall with Abby DeMoe of Colfax who also shot a 188. She was pleased with her state tournament finish, but hopes to return to the state meet next year to "prove herself."
"I want to be in the top two for conference and make it to state as an individual and place in the top-10 or -15," Feuerhelm said.
Feuerhelm also plans to bring her teammates along to next year's state tournament not as spectators but as competitors in the team state championships.
As for putting her name in the Ellsworth girls golf record books, Feuerhelm said, "It feels pretty great."
9. Feuker sisters finish third at WIHA equestrian show
In October, the Feuker sisters returned to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Horsemanship Association show for another shot at showing off their talents in a sport that most aren't too familiar with. Hannah and Katie Feuker, Elmwood's equestrian duo, finished third at the state show after winning the District 5 championship in Eau Claire.
The Feukers are Elmwood High School's lone equestrian participants, and they've done a top-notch job of representing their school statewide throughout their riding careers. Their trip to the WIHA state show Oct. 27-29 was the Feukers' third career appearance at the Alliant Energy Center Way show in Madison.
"You can't just be someone who says, 'I like to ride horses from time to time,' which is great, but there's a skillset that you have to have," Kristel Flesberg, the equestrian team's staff volunteer, said about competing at the WIHA level. "[The Feukers] show in eight or nine different classes at a competition, and that's like going to a track meet and competing in eight or nine different events."
Flesberg said it's very seldom that you find kids who not only have the wide variety of equestrian skills that the Feukers have, but who also own their own capable horses, which is why equestrian is not a popular sport in Elmwood.
The Feuker sisters' third-place finish was a mere four points short of first place, and was a large improvement from their prior trips to WIHA state.
"We just try to do the best that we can with the horses and compete to the best of our abilities," Hannah said. "That's always the goal."
Hannah will graduate in the spring, and although the Feuker sister duo will no longer be able to compete for Elmwood in the WIHA, the senior plans on riding for the rest of her life.
"It's different from other sports where you have to turn in your jersey at the end of the season, but I get to keep my horse," Hannah said.
Katie said that the two will continue to compete in non-school-affiliated shows after Hannah's graduation. "It's not the end."
EPC sports fans can also catch the duo on the basketball court where after five games, Hannah is averaging four points per game Katie holds an average of 5.1.
10. All Pierce County track and field teams send individuals to state meets
All four Pierce County track teams were represented at the 2017 WIAA state track meets by at least one participant. Some of those who qualified for the previous state meet will return for another season to put their talents to the test once again. Others are off to new things after completing their time as high school track and field participants on the biggest stage of their careers.
D3 track and field:
Elmwood/Plum City Wolves:
3200-meter girls relay team (second place, 9:45.68) - returns two runners, above-mentioned Todd and Katie Feuker, but graduated their first and second legs of the relay, Josie Tiffany and Kylee Sabelko.
Both 2017 senior relay runners were available for comment on their last state appearance.
"2017 state track was a memorable one, because I had the honor to be a state-runner up with some of the best teammates I have had," Tiffany said. "It was a good way to end my senior year of track."
The former EPC runner is now a student at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire.
Sabelko, a freshman at UW-Stout, said she still runs for fun in her free time. As for last year's state meet, Sabelko said her team's trip to state in 2017 was "amazing."
"I had amazing teammates that made the trip fun, and it was the second year in a row that we were state runner-up," Sabelko said. "It was the best way my track career could have ended."
Todd also qualified individually in the 1600- and 3200-meter races and finished in fifth place for both.
1600-meter girls relay team (15th in prelims, 4:21.57) - just returns Feuker, and graduated Sabelko, Tiffany and Emily Pickerign.
"It was an honor to run at La Crosse last year with such amazing teammates and even better friends," Pickerign told the Herald.
The 2017 senior sprinter currently attends the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where she studies international business and marketing. She also continues to run most days of the week and is a member of the U of M's running club.
Spring Valley Cardinals:
800-meter girls relay team (10th place, 1:50.48 in finals, 1:50.46 in preliminaries (new school record)) - returns three relay members—Erin Stans, Maddie Jacobson and Brianna O'Brien—but said goodbye to 2017 senior Tatum Huntress.
The 2017 team ran faster than the former 2012 team's record by almost a full second.
"It feels super good. It's unbelievable," Huntress told the Herald after the state meet in June. "I didn't think we were even close, but then we looked at the record and it was incredible."
D2 track and field:
Girls 800-meter run: Julia VanWatermeulen, now a senior, ran a 2:25.58, which earned her a 14th-place finish in the state race.
Boys 400-meter dash and long jump: Wyatt Roed, a 2017 graduate, ran a time of 52.40 in the 400 for 14th place, and finished ninth in the long jump with a mark of 20 feet, 4.5 inches, which was his personal best jump. 2017 was Roed's first year of competing in the long jump.
Since then, Roed has joined the U.S. Army Reserves and is working two full-time jobs. The 2017 grad said that his senior year of track was the best year of his life.
"Track in high school was the thing that got me through until the end of the year," Roed said. "Track was my life, and I was truly in love with it. After I get back from basic I hope to get into a college and get into track. I miss it that much."
Girls 800-meter run: Sam Ritter, who graduated in 2017, finished in 17th place with a personal-best time and new school record of 2:29.42 for in her last high school race.
When I qualified for state last year, it was the most amazing feeling in the world," Ritter told the Herald. "On top of qualifying, I also got our school record which was definitely the best way to end a senior year."
Ritter is carrying on her running career at UW-Stevens Point as a member of her new school's cross country and track and field teams. Ritter is majoring in environmental law enforcement.
Boys shot put: Westy Bartsch recorded his personal-best mark of 49 feet, .25 inches at the D2 WIAA state track and field meet. Bartsch's performance earned him an eighth-place finish as a junio.
Boys 800-meter run: As a junior, Cody Hauenstein ran a 2:01.56 800-meter time at the state meet to secure a 12th-place finish in his race.
• Ellsworth's softball team tied with Baldwin-Woodville for its first Middle Border Conference title since 1994. The Panthers finished with a 17-5 record before losing to Onalaska in the WIAA Division 2 regional finals. All three Kummer sisters, Morgan, Mackenzie and Clarity earned first-team MBC honors along with teammate Avery O'Neil. Morgan, along with Brookshaw, Leach and Stuhl, will be heading to a Division 1 college, George Washington University, where she'll continue her softball career.
• Prescott's baseball team finished just shy of the state tournament after losing to West Salem in the WIAA Division 2 sectional final on June 6. The Cardinals finished with the school's second-winningest season in history with a 23-6 record. To get to the sectional final, the Cardinals defeated their MBC rivals, the Ellsworth Panthers in a 6-4 decision. Prescott's former senior Jake Block, who currently plays football at UW-River Falls, had two big hits in his team's win over the Panthers, but said most of his memories from last season revolve around Peter Brookshaw, the all-state Division 2 player of the year. "I would just say that all around we were a really close team. We had a lot of fun playing with each other, and I think that's why we had success because we all trusted each other," Block said. "A lot of our teams success had to do with Petey, though. He for sure made our season memorable. I've never seen anyone play like he does." Brookshaw finished the season with a .583 batting average, 23 doubles, 39 RBIs and 40 runs scored. Brookshaw will return for one more season in 2018 before joining North Dakota State's Bison herd.
• The Spring Valley Cardinals football team only won one playoff football game in 2017, but surprised a lot of people by finishing the season with an impressive 9-2 record. "We were picked to be in the bottom half of our league to start the year, and to compete right to the very end ... they have a lot to be proud of," head coach Ryan Kapping said. The Cardinals graduated eight seniors who tallied up 38 wins during over the course of their varsity careers.