NWC earns 1st ever state victory
By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
Three games in three days can sometimes get the best of your emotions – especially when you’re talking state tournament games.
The North Wright County hockey team made its second appearance at state in three years and this year’s team was looking for a better fate than the 0-2 showing they posted in 2011.
Senior captain Dani Sibley did her part early to make sure the River Hawks started on a good note. She would open the scoring against Lakeville North last Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. The game was tied 1-1 until late in the first period when sophomore forward Rachel King darted down the left wing boards and fired a wicked wrist shot that beat Panthers goalie Abby Cooper. The Hawks took a 2-1 lead into the intermission.
NWC got a scare to begin the second period after NWC leading scorer, Sibley, had to be helped off the ice on the opening shift after taking an awkward fall on her knee. She would later return, but the Panthers had stolen the momentum and eventually built a 3-2 lead.
“It’s a momentum swing when you lose one of your best players and leading scorer,” said head coach Jason Johnson. “It’s tough. We’ve been playing with a shorter lineup. She came back, but obviously was not playing at 100-percent.”
“My team needed me and I knew that,” Sibley said. “I didn’t want my season to end there. It was painful, but I was going to play through it and be there for these girls.”
Lakeville North’s Megan Skelly scored early in the third period to double the lead and just when it looked like the Hawks were down and out, it was another captain stepping up to the plate.
With four minutes left in regulation, senior Maddi Sjelin cut the lead to 4-3 slamming home a rebound off a shot from senior Rachel Heiber. Moments later, King fired a shot from the side of the net and junior Kaleigh Hamann whacked at a loose puck, tying the game 4-4.
“We weren’t ready to go down,” Heiber said. “We stepped it up and that gave us the momentum to keep going.”
The Hawks had a golden opportunity to win in regulation. Sophomore Amanda Dorholt was robbed on a 2-on-1 rush with King setting her up for a one-time shot that was stopped by Cooper. With all the momentum leaning towards NWC, a costly penalty in overtime proved to be the difference.
With junior defenseman Mackenzie Johnson in the box for checking, Panther forward Christi Vetter was left all alone and fired a shot past junior goalie Alex LaMere for the game winner in a 5-4 defeat.
“You hate to see a power play on either side end it in an overtime game,” Johnson said. “They came in on a rush and we left a girl all alone and that girl makes a nice shot. We were almost out of that penalty kill, but we didn’t finish. It’s unfortunate.”
Thursday’s loss set up a consolation semifinal matchup with Irondale at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis.
Sporting the new uniforms the Hawks wore in all three section playoff wins – all coming the way of shutouts – NWC got goals from Heiber, King and Sibley and advanced to the championship game with a 3-0 win over the Knights.
Heiber opened the scoring in the first period at 6:53 with an even strength goal. The Hawks led 1-0 through most the contest, but a solid defensive effort only allowed eight shots towards senior goalie Dayna Duncan through two periods.
King scored a third period insurance goal and Sibley made it 3-0 with an empty netter. Heiber said the emergence of King and the second line of Hamann and freshman Greta Stanton had really made a difference down the stretch.
“Without them doing what they do the shift before and the shift after us, we would be nowhere,” Heiber said. “With King stepping up like she has, it’s been incredible.”
Duncan made 17 saves earning the shutout. The victory was the first ever for NWC at the state tournament.
“We lost that second game two years ago and it was so unsatisfying,” Heiber said. “It’s like yeah, we make it here, but it’s what you do here is what really matters.”
Wolfe takes bite
out of Hawks
In Friday’s consolation title game with Eagan, a terrible first period led to a 4-0 Wildcats lead. Three of the four goals were scored by Ms. Hockey finalist and future Golden Gopher Megan Wolfe.
Duncan – who started the game – was pulled after the fourth goal. All four goals were the results of breakaways or NWC turnovers.
“They definitely took advantage of our mistakes,” said Sibley, who came into the contest needing one point to tie Kasey Blomberg’s team scoring record of 171 career points. She was also two goals from tying Blomberg’s single season goal mark of 40. “In the second and third we did better of cutting down our mistakes and capitalizing on theirs.”
Hamann gave the Hawks life in the second period when she converted a beautiful pass from King on a 2-on-1 break. Skating down the left wing, King drew the defender towards her and at the last second, sent a behind-the-back pass to a streaking Hamann.
“I saw it in the Hill-Murray game and I was like, I have to try this sometime,” said King, on describing the pass. “That was a perfect opportunity to try it and I was so glad Kaleigh put it away.”
In the final period, Wolfe used her speed to split the defense and bury a forehand shot past LaMere for her fourth goal of the game. A late goal from Sjelin closed out the scoring in a 5-2 defeat.
“I would say this was one of my better games,” Wolfe said.
While her high school career came to an end at Ridder Arena, next season will be the beginning on the same surface skating for the Gophers. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be so fun,” she said.
The River Hawks finished the season 24-6-1.
“It’s awesome. I wouldn’t change anything that happened this year,” said Sibley, on being on the first Hawks team to win a state tournament game. “I thought Coach Johnson did a great job coming in his first year, making us feel like a family again.”