Normally during this time of year, a banquet at Litchfield High School would celebrate the school's top senior athletes, including recognition of athlete of the year, scholar athlete of the year, and Dragon Award.

But with everything going on, Activities Director Justin Brown and the athletic department used a virtual conference to announce the winners.

Female Athlete of the Year

Neriah Lara is the 2020 Female Athlete of the Year.

In the fall, Lara made it all the way to the state tournament in tennis with her doubles partner Vaida Behnke. Head coach Matt Draeger complimented Lara as the “ultimate teammate." She had a “willingness to sacrifice her own personal accomplishments for the good of the team, and her ability to help every player in our program become successful will always be remembered,” Draeger said.

Following her success on the tennis court, Lara moved to a different court in the winter, basketball. Coach Ian Anderson called her a great shooter, as she is top-10 in school history in 3-pointers made, attempts, percentage, and free throw percentage. Lara was the captain and leader on the Dragons basketball team.

“Every girl in the basketball program could look to 'Ner' as a mentor and role model,” Anderson said.

Although there was no spring season, Lara had already established herself as one of the top players on the softball team. The four-year starter was also the leader of the team where she lettered all four years and was voted captain last year.

“Ner, I will miss all the excitement and positive energy you brought to our team,” head coach Luke Braaten said. “You always made things fun in the dugout: from the handshakes, to the music, to all the random conversations. I will miss it all. I have enjoyed coaching and watching you improve over the last 10 years. You are such a great competitor and leader. Every day you brought that competitive spirit and positive attitude to the field. You always included everyone, no matter their age, and made them feel a part of the team. Everyone respects you and has so much fun being on your team. You and this senior class have positively changed the attitude and culture of Litchfield softball and have helped raise the expectations of the team. I am truly grateful for that."

The COVID-19 pandemic ruined a lot of athletic dreams this spring, including the memories that Lara might have made on the diamond, Braaten acknowledged.

"I feel absolutely terrible you didn’t get the chance to wear your Dragon softball jersey again, defend the (Wright County) Conference championship, or have the opportunity to compete for a state tournament, because this was 'the year,'" Braaten said. "I will always enjoy looking back on the summer league championships and national tournaments you were a part of; it was so much fun. All of those hours and summers have paid off. Your determination and attitude will make you successful at whatever you do. You make me proud to be your coach. As you look back on your softball career, please remember all of the amazing memories you have created with your teammates. Thank you for everything. I will miss you.”

Lara did not expect to win the award, but was thankful for recognition. A lot of friends were nominated, she grew up playing with many of them as well.

“To be named as Athlete of the Year is incredible,” Lara said. “I can say from personal experience I work very hard and give my all in the sports I am competing in, and I am dedicated from start to finish. I would not be the athlete or person I am today without the help of my teammates and coaches. They always pushed me to be better and to never give up. I know that this is a privilege to have this honor of being Female Athlete of the Year.”

Logan Graphenteen came out blazing in the fall for the Dragons football team that came close to reaching the state tournament, setting the stage for a standout senior season of sports.

Graphenteen set a new school record with 771 receiving yards, and his 32.1 yards-per-catch was also a school record.

“It is enjoyable to watch kids grow and mature into a senior leader,” coach Jim Jackman said. “Logan demonstrated his leadership skills through his consistent efforts in practices, his positive remarks to underclassmen during individual drills and never giving up attitude.”

Like Lara, Graphenteen played basketball in the winter, where coach Draeger lauded him as someone “teams need to be successful.”

“Every team needs an athlete who plays harder than any other player on the court,” Draeger said. “Teams need a player who doesn’t care who gets the credit when things go well. Teams need a player who will constantly encourage their teammates during practice and games. Teams need a player who will do whatever his coach asks of him because he knows his team will benefit. These are all attributes Logan has brought to our Dragon basketball team.”

In tennis, head coach John Carlson said that “his leadership skills grew each season he played.”

Graphenteen also was quite shocked to win the award and knows that he wouldn't be where he is without all the help that he's gotten along the way.

Scholar Athlete of the Year

Three-sport athlete Sydney Braaten earned the female honor. Braaten held a 3.99 grade-point-average while trying to keep up with three sports.

Volleyball coach Darin Swenson called Braaten someone who could “do it all.”

“The level of focus and energy that she would bring to all drills and activities was really something to see,” Swenson said. “As a coach, one of the things that you ask of your senior athletes is set an example for the younger athletes. Sydney did an excellent job in this area.”

Braaten has been a “mainstay” on the blue line for Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato girls hockey team all four years. She logged more ice time than anyone in that time and was named defensive player of the year by her teammates multiple times. Braaten was also an all-conference honorable mention this season.

“Sydney’s ability to train, study and excel on and off the ice have made Sydney successful in high school and will continue to serve her well into the future.” coach Brett Damerow said.

In softball, Braaten lettered all four years and was on the Wright County Conference all-academic team in those years. She earned her first all-conference selection last season.

“You are a great player and you have always had that winning attitude,” her coach and father, Luke Braaten, said. “You were never satisfied with 'good,' it always had to be better. I am so proud of you. As you look back on your softball career, please remember the many fun softball memories you have created with your teammates. I know being coached by your dad wasn’t always easy and definitely not always fun, but you handled it well, even though your coach did make you carry the equipment a lot. It has been my honor and privilege to be your coach. I will miss you so much.”

"Being named Scholar Athlete of the year is an honor that I’m very proud of," Braaten said. "I have always tried to do my best in both academics and athletics and to receive the award recognizes the dedication I have put in to balance both."

The 2020 male recipient of the Scholar Athlete was Ben Ammermann.

Ammermann participated in both cross country and track and field. In his senior year for cross country, Ammermann advanced to the state meet where he finished in 68th place out of 175.

“He is self-motivated to always do better than the day before, whether it was a practice or a meet,” coach Julie Dengerud said. “As he became the senior on the team, he continually worked hard and pulled his teammates with him. He was always at the finish line congratulating each runner as they came through the chute.”

Track and field coach Shane Satterlee had no doubt that Ammermann would have made it to state in the 800-meter run if there had been a season this spring.

“Ben has been a great leader and a fabulous role model for the youth,” Satterlee said. “Thanks, Ben, for all the wonderful memories.”

Ammermann always made it a priority to excel in the classroom, but he also couldn't believe that he won the award.

DRAGON AWARD

Alyssa Olson was the fifth annual recipient of the Dragon Award, which is given to the two seniors who made outstanding contributions to their teams and displayed true Dragon spirit.

“The Dragon Award is an award that comes with much humbling pride,” Olson said via email. “I am honored to have receive this award and am thankful for the support I have continually received throughout the years. I had the opportunity to play along with many teammates who would be deserving of this award. Because of so many selfless teammates, the programs I was a part of had success. This award provides acknowledgment for all the hard work and dedication put into your athletic career, and I’m grateful to have received it.”

During her freshman year, Olson broke her femur during the hockey season. It took her a year of surgery and physical therapy to get back to playing sports. It wasn't easy, but her coming back to the volleyball court is what showed who she truly was.

“Lys worked hard to get back on the court and become a contributing member of the program again,” Swenson said. “Through her actions and her words, it was clear to her coaches and teammates that Lys would always put her team first. At times this came at a personal cost, but Lys would give up any personal accomplishment and honor if it meant that her team would succeed. She is a true Dragon!”

On the ice, Olson improved every year on and off the ice according to Damerow. She was an important goal scorer and was named an all-conference honorable mention her senior year.

“Hard work and dedication are key characteristics that have helped make Alyssa the player and person she is today and what will make her successful in the future,” Damerow said. “Alyssa will be missed in the LDC program.”

Like the other female winners, Olson played softball. She was a captain and all-academic for three years. Coach Braaten said he “never heard one complaint from her” about recovering from a broken femur.

“There were never problems in our dugout, because you took care of them behind the scenes,” Braaten said. “It was like having another coach in the dugout. You are dedicated and trustworthy.”

The male winner of the Dragon Award was Cade Marquardt.

Marquardt was the holder for the football team. Jackman said that he never complained or “show disgust, or frustration when things don’t go his way.” But he brought the effort everyday at practice and sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

“Cade, you exemplify what a student-athlete is supposed to be,” boys hockey coach Bryce Berggren said. “In the locker room and on the ice you were the player who would lead by example. Many times your actions spoke more than your words. Cade, you showed your commitment to your team by never missing a practice or a game. You put your teammates before yourself and resourcefully found ways to lead the team to success.

"... (Y)ou proved to be a hard working, positive, motivating, valuable member of the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato varsity hockey team," Berggren continued. "Your strong character was very evident this past hockey season as you never made a complaint about playing time and you continued to work hard to prepare yourself for any situation needed by your team. You stepped into the starting goalie role as we neared the end of the regular season and the start of the intense playoffs, where you proved to everybody that you were ready for the challenge. Your coaches and teammates witnessed your hard work throughout the season and your 'big game' personality. Everybody felt comfortable with you in the nets and we all knew we had a great chance to win with you between the pipes."

Marquardt earned the respect of teammates and coaches through work ethic and positive attitude.

"These traits of yours have provided you with a great foundation in life," Berggren said. "Continue to set new goals, reach new heights, and always remember that hard work and dedication pay off. Cade, thank you for a great hockey season and for being a leader on and off the ice. You are very deserving of this award. Congratulations on earning the distinguished Dragon Award.”

Baseball coach Jeff Wollin also noticed that about Marquardt watching him prepare during baseball.

“While his baseball skills are excellent, he is also able to make his teammates better by leading with both his words and his actions,” Wollin said.

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