Wildcat sports year in review

A+SEASON%E2%80%99S+END%E2%80%94With+the+school+year+coming+to+a+close%2C+the+official+sign-off+from+sports+is+here.+The+season+might%E2%80%99ve+ending+abruptly+for+winter+and+spring+athletes%2C+but+there+were+highlights+from+this+season+to+look+back+on.+Pictured%3A+senior+swimmer+Rachel+Helm+%28left%29%2C+junior+skier+Kjetil+Baanerud%2C+sophomore+goalie+Nolan+Kent+and+junior+guard+Alec+Fruin.+Photo+courtesy+of+NMU+Athletics.

A SEASON’S END—With the school year coming to a close, the official sign-off from sports is here. The season might’ve ending abruptly for winter and spring athletes, but there were highlights from this season to look back on. Pictured: senior swimmer Rachel Helm (left), junior skier Kjetil Baanerud, sophomore goalie Nolan Kent and junior guard Alec Fruin. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics.

Travis Nelson

WOMEN’S SWIMMING

For the first time since 2002, the NMU Women’s Swim and Dive team was named the GLIAC champions back in February.

It was the first time that Head Coach Heidi Voigt’s team won the title after she led  the Wildcats for a decade. After last year’s tough finish for the men, Voigt felt it was even more special that the women were able to win it this year.

“Oh man, it was such an amazing moment. I’ve had 10 years of watching other teams jump in a pool after conference, and especially last year being so close on the men’s side, it was really hard to watch that,” Voigt said. “This year knowing that we could do it with the women, they just never looked back. With such a young group, they just believed every minute that they could do it, so having that moment and finally being a part of that is surreal.”

Senior Rachel Helm broke many NMU and GLIAC records over her time as a Wildcat. After battling injuries in her final year, she was able to defend her 200-yard backstroke title and end her career as a GLIAC champion.

“Looking back, it’s still such a special moment,” Helm said. “When they announced that we’d won and just seeing everybody’s faces, and everyone coming together and jumping into the pool, that’s so special. I’ll never forget that.”

The Wildcats broke an 18-year drought to win the conference championship, and will be looking forward to defending the title in 2021.

MEN’S BASKETBALL

It was a rollercoaster season for the NMU Men’s Basketball team, which finished 13-17, and snuck into the eighth place in the GLIAC with a conference record of 9-11.

The record doesn’t sound good on the surface, but for Head Coach Matt Majkrzak’s first season, it was a success. The Wildcats were projected to finish dead last in GLIAC out of 12 teams, and despite the odds, the team made the GLIAC Tournament Semifinals.

“I thought we had a successful season. I don’t think you’re ever happy with how it ends, and certainly long term, I hope that we can improve as a program, but this year I was proud of what we did,” Majkrzak said.

Describing the season as a rollercoaster is an accurate way to put it, as NMU tripped up against DIII Ripon College in December, and only won four of seven games against the bottom four GLIAC teams. However, Northern had road wins over three top-five GLIAC teams in Grand Valley State, Michigan Tech and Davenport. But its biggest win of the year was knocking off first-seeded Ferris State in the GLIAC Tournament Quarterfinals when the Wildcats were forced to play without injured GLIAC First Team center Myles Howard.

“It was the best feeling because we worked all year long, and we had played them close both times. We felt both times we played them that we should’ve won, and it was the perfect revenge to knock them out,” junior guard Alec Fruin said. “The locker room after was so fun, everybody was jumping around, we were all screaming. We were just so happy. Going through what we went through all season long, a lot of ups and downs, it all kind of came full circle in that moment and that’s what made it the best.”

Despite losing its next game to Northwood, NMU picked up a big postseason win in year one of the Majkrzak era, and now the goal is to win more.

HOCKEY

There were a lot of ups and downs for the NMU Hockey team over the course of the 2019-20 season, which ended in heartbreaking fashion in a home triple overtime loss to Michigan Tech in the WCHA Tournament Quarterfinals.

The Wildcats started off hot. They went through a tough stretch in November, including a road loss to last place Alabama-Huntsville. However, NMU rebounded in December, knocking off No. 1 ranked Minnesota State-Mankato at home heading into the holiday break. After starting off in January on another winning streak, Northern fizzled down the stretch, losing six of its final eight games.

Inconsistencies showed throughout the season, and the Wildcats were injury-ridden in February with several key players having to be sidelined. However, what they couldn’t get over was the team’s youth and inexperience.“We were a young group this year, we had a lot of sophomores and freshmen [playing],” sophomore goalie Nolan Kent said. “A lot of us were learning what it’s like to play at the college level, but heading into next year, we’re just going to try to find a way to be more consistent.”

After being projected fourth in the WCHA coaches poll, NMU not only jumped into third, but scored 92 goals on the season despite only returning 40% of its offense from the year prior.

“Overall, I think finishing third [in WCHA standings] was a big step for us in the process, but going forward the goals are different and my expectations are different,” Head Coach Grant Potulny said. “I think we’re in a different spot than probably for the first three years.”

After only losing three seniors, the Wildcats team returns most of its productive players, and is looking for more than third place in the WCHA.

NORDIC SKIING

Even before the NCAA championships were cancelled after one day, the NMU Nordic Skiing team’s trophy case wasn’t empty this season. The team won the U.S. Nationals and the NCAA Central Regional championship.

Despite the season ending on a bad note due to events out of its control, the team came together to win its two biggest meets of the year. The Wildcats were dominant over the season stretch as well, winning multiple other events such as the NMU Open and the CCSA championships. 

Junior Kjetil Baanerud was a catalyst on the men’s side with his performance over the course of the year, but he said he knows that he wasn’t alone.

“Being such a good group that’s working together everyday at practice, and that the chemistry is working so well like it’s been doing, also has given us the opportunity to get the results that we’ve got,” Baanerud said. “We won the U.S. Nationals, and most of the weekend, we were the best college team combined men and women. We were really proud of that.”