By Rob LaPlante
Winning the Mississippi 8 Conference has become a usual pre-season expectation for the North Wright County River Hawks girls’ hockey team. Four of the past five conference titles belong to the co-op team from the schools of St. Michael-Albertville, Monticello and Annandale.
Returning for her senior year is all-conference forward Dani Sibley. Sibley’s 27 goals and 42 points led the Hawks in scoring and finished second in the conference to Buffalo senior Katie Rooney’s 30 goals and 55 points.
Both Sibley and Rooney will play college hockey next season. Sibley has verbally committed to play Division-III hockey at UW-River Falls. Rooney is taking her game to the D-I school of RPI next season.
“That should be a fun little battle between the two players,” said first-year head coach Jason Johnson, who takes over for the departed Tim Hanson. “”Dani is a talented player and we’re going to lean on her a lot. We’ll need others to contribute.”
Besides Sibley, the Hawks are returning nine seniors, including five of their top six leading scorers. Senior forwards Maddi Sjelin (30 points) and Rachel Heiber (13 pts.) played some last year on the top line.
Other key players are sophomore forward Annie Boeckers (24 pts.), junior forward Kaleigh Hamann (14 pts.), and senior defensemen Halie Gudmonson (18 pts.) and Emily Achterkirch (12 goals, 23 pts.).
“This team has had great tradition and success over the years and that is something I look to maintain,” said Johnson, whose twin brother Jerremiah coaches the boys’ varsity team. “When I interviewed for the job they asked me what my goal was and I said, ‘To win a state championship,’ and that’s something I see attainable with the group we have.”
“At first it was pretty difficult and all the girls were pretty emotional,” said Sibley, referring to their previous head coach stepping down. “Being out here we see (Johnson’s) a great guy, great coach and we’re all getting used to him.”
While plenty of scoring returns for the Hawks, the team still has its share of question marks heading into the season. Besides a new head coach, gone from last year’s varsity squad is 16 goals from forward Paige Voight, who transferred schools. Five seniors graduated, including all-conference starting goaltender Amanda Koep.
Koep finished last season with an 11-4-1 record and 2.45 goals against average and is a red-shirt freshman this year at the University of North Dakota. Look for both junior goaltenders Alex LaMere and senior Dayna Duncan to both see action between the pipes.
When asked about the goaltending situation, the Hawks’ returning captain said she has no worries. “They’re both solid goaltenders,” Sibley said. “They both do a lot of summer hockey and a lot of advanced stuff. I’m not worried about our goaltending.”
NWC kicked off its season with a convincing 7-0 win last Friday against Sartell/Sauk Rapids at Moose Sherritt Ice Arena. The Stormin’N’Sabres ended the Hawks season a year ago with a 6-2 victory in the Section 8AA semifinal game.
Achterkirch paved the way, scoring twice and assisting on a goal by junior forward Maddi Young. Jade Ye, Rachel King, Sibley and Heiber were the other goal scorers. LaMere made only five saves earning her first shutout win, as the Knights outshot its opponent 47-5.
“It was a big section game right away to start the year,” Johnson said. “Our schedule this is very challenging. Roseau and NWC usually finish 1-2 every year in the sections and we play them up north this year. I think the girls always have Buffalo circled on the schedule as well.”
The Hawks and Bison clearly is the four-team conference’s most competitive and top rivalry.
“It’s always a good game with Buffalo,” Sibley said. “We’re looking to beat them twice this year. We have a lot of new faces, but we have a lot of talent and returning starters back and our goal is to make it back to state.”
NWC last made it to state two years ago when they lost 6-1 to Coon Rapids in the quarterfinal matchup at Xcel Energy Center. Besides having high team goals, Sibley also has lofty expectations for herself this season.
“My personal goal is to score 41 goals,” said Sibley, who is trying to re-write the record books from former teammate Kasey Blomberg. “That would break the most goals in a season. I like to set records and for me, it’s scoring 41 goals this year.”
The Hawks hit the road Friday night for a 7 p.m. matchup at Chaska.