LUVERNE, Minn. — Despite all the strangeness in 2020, and the unforeseen cancellation of the college hockey season on March 12, Minnesota Gophers forward Jaxon Nelson is getting his second taste of the playoffs in the past five months.
As a freshman last season, Nelson played 33 games and had two goals for the Gophers. That included a trio of playoff games in the first round of the Big Ten postseason, when his team rallied to beat Notre Dame and advance to the conference semifinals. Then it all went away, abruptly, as efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 meant that the conference playoffs, the NCAA playoffs and the NCAA Frozen Four were called off.
While many hockey players are reputed for spending their off-season time on the golf course, Nelson returned to his roots in mid-March, finishing his first year of college remotely at his parents’ farm outside tiny Magnolia, Minn., and returning to the baseball diamond in the summer.
Where northern Minnesota towns take pride in their hockey rinks, the local ballpark is often the focal point of the community in southern Minnesota, and Luverne is no exception. The Redbirds are the local town ball team, and with Nelson playing first base and in the outfield this summer, they are one playoff series win from a second consecutive trip to the state amateur baseball tournament.
“The Redbirds games are an event. It’s a community thing, a lot of people show up, and they always have a really good team,” said St. Cloud Cathedral boys’ hockey coach Derrick Brown, who coached Nelson and the Luverne Cardinals to their first state hockey tournament appearance in 2015.
The Redbirds start a best-of-three playoff series versus the Hadley Buttermakers on Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the state tournament. Hadley, a dot on the map with four streets and an official population of 61, nonetheless can be an enjoyable and intimidating place to play ball.
“It’s a really small town, but their fans kind of get into it with the players, which makes it kind of fun,” said Nelson, who skated twice a week in Sioux Falls, S.D., in June and July, and has begun skating four times a week as it gets closer to the traditional start of hockey season.
Known as a power hitter in high school, he has not cleared the fences for the Redbirds this season, but is making a positive impact in the field and in the batter's box.
“He’s someone that you can rely on when you put him in the lineup. Good fielder, and a tough out at the plate,” said Brooks Maurer, the Redbirds’ manager and Luverne High School’s softball coach during the school year. “He’s the type of kid who, the more at-bats he gets, the more comfortable he is, and with the shortened season it’s been tough to get in a rhythm. But he doesn’t strike out much, he makes contact a lot, and when he gets rolling he can drive the ball to the gaps for sure.”
Going 12-2 in the regular season, with Nelson playing in roughly half of their games, the Redbirds beat neighborhood rival Adrian in a recent playoff series. It has been an abrupt return to rural Minnesota life for Nelson, who left the Twin Cities as soon as the season was cancelled, returning to his family’s farm and taking online classes from there.
“It was definitely a change. I’d say I’d rather be in the classroom,” Nelson said. “It was probably harder to do when I was at home, because you’re not really in the learning mood when you’re at home.”
In addition to skating, playing baseball and taking classes, Nelson helped out with the family’s large-scale farm operation. In the dog days of August, that work slows down and the main activities currently are mowing, raking and bailing hay. While Nelson is the first Gopher hockey player to come from southwestern Minnesota, the sports prowess is nothing new for his family.
“His dad and his uncle had some pretty amazing exploits,” Brown recalled. “His uncle is one of the better football players and his dad has the all-time home run record at Luverne High School, so you just knew Jaxon was gifted in hockey but he was gifted in pretty much anything he did.”
Maurer said Nelson, who was a quarterback for the Cardinals in the fall and batted around .600 in his final spring on the high school diamond, likely could have played college football or baseball if he had chosen that route instead of being an on-ice pioneer. With all of the changes and restrictions due to the pandemic, the Redbirds seem to understand that every time they can play a game, it is a gift.
“We just feel fortunate to even be able to play at all,” Maurer said. “With all of the different sports that have gotten cancelled and seasons that have gotten cut short, it’s been refreshing to have any kind of season and have a little bit of normalcy to the summer.”
And as for Nelson, the Redbirds say that one winter living in the Cities, skating on national TV and enjoying the charter flights and first-class hotels that come along with being a Big Ten hockey player haven’t changed the farm boy from Magnolia.
“Jaxon’s the same kid he’s always been,” Maurer said. “Still one of the guys.”