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Brandon Veale column: Our hopes for a better year

Several of the early stories from the 2022-23 season have shown that student and adult leaders can build trust in high school athletics throughout the Northland.

Brandon Veale
Brandon Veale
We are part of The Trust Project.

We’re well enough into September now that just about everyone has a couple games, classes or both under their belts, whether it’s the Minnesota Vikings or the Moose Lake/Willow River Rebels.

As much as summer 2022 was memorable, I remind myself that this is the way of things. Starbucks is selling pumpkin and (much superior) apple-flavored coffee drinks and I have heard the word "frost" mentioned on television. The Minnesota Wilderness have already played six regular-season hockey games this season.

With that comes a new school year. For Minnesota students in particular, this is week three of classes. Obviously, there’s a long way to go but as we sail away from the summer shore, I just hope that this 2022-23 voyage is smoother than last year.

The world of youth sports in the Northland got very complicated in 2021-22. The Proctor football sexual assault case was first revealed a year ago this week. The investigation of that case wound its way through the entire school year, with charges in January, a guilty plea in mid-May and a sentence in June. It remains ugly and abhorrent regardless of the location, but the fact that it happened inside a school locker room cast a pall over the entire world of high school sports in the Northland.

When the winter blew in, the hockey season was marred by a violent incident in the Duluth East-Duluth Denfeld game that led to injuries, suspensions and a heavy dose of bad blood.

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It’s one thing to come to grips with this behavior by a student against another student, but when persons in places of authority are exposed as predators, such as the state and federal charges against Superior youth gymnastics coach George Deppa that have come to light over the past months and years, it’s easy to feel unsafe around even people who purport themselves to be authority figures.

It may seem like 2021-22 was a lost year for Northland sports. But even dark clouds pass over.

Best of the Preps for September
For the first time in eight years, the Tigers don't have a soccer-style kicker.

Just a couple weeks into the school year, we’ve had the chance to check in with Northwestern football stalwart Tanner Kaufman and his tag-team partner Adeline Pooler, who makes sure the running back/linebacker/kicker has the right shoe for the job, whether it’s chasing down the ballcarrier or booting the ball through the uprights.

Last week, we had a chance to meet Alissa Boyhtari, a former Wisconsin-Superior student-athlete who realized that she still had something to give to other young athletes and found a unique way to do it, taking an assistant coach position with the football team at Duluth Denfeld. And it just so happened that in the same week, the Hunters got themselves into the win column for the first time in awhile.

And down the road at Proctor, the football program is being recast into something their community can be proud of again. The ball bounced their way in a Week 2 home win over Hibbing, but in this season, the true measure of the wins and losses will be coming from the citizens and leaders that come off the field when the season is done.

Don’t worry, we’ll still be there to talk about the great performances, like elite cross country runners Cameron Stocke of Rock Ridge and Tayler McMeekin of Superior, and we’ll do our best to collect everything that goes on in our area from the first kickoff of the season to the final finish line. But more and more, it becomes apparent to me that this job is not about scores, it’s about the ways we can observe the process of the making of young people and bring those milestones to you.

We recognize that most of the athletes in the Northland are good kids, just trying to have some fun, get some exercise and learn some skills. So much of this process is about building trust, between athletes and athletes, between athletes and coaches, between programs and communities. Some of the incidents of the previous year have brought into stark relief the hurt caused when that trust is violated. But some of the developments we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks show that things are not perennially trending downward.

So as we dig deep into a new season, here are my hopes that we can build on the good stories that have already developed and inspire new ones.

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Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at bveale@duluthnews.com.

Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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