Otters Winning Big
Small-town Fergus Falls getting noticed
Sunday, January 16, 2022
Being from a small town of 12,000 people nearly three hours away from the Twin Cities can make it hard for a hockey program to get recognized, but for the Fergus Falls Otters, they’re doing just that—earning recognition.
“There’s always been the thought that if you want to go play at the college level and gain a Division I scholarship, you have to be in the metro area where scouts are all the time… but I’ve always said if you’re good enough, they’ll find you,” said Otters head coach Tim Lill.
Lill’s team appears good enough, currently ranked No. 12 in Class 1A and putting together an 11-0-1 record from Nov. 20 through the New Year. On the season, the Otters have held opponents to an average of only two goals per game, while the offense is averaging five.
“A lot of teams underestimate us because we’re just small-town Fergus Falls,” senior defender Gabby Brimhall said. “But I think they noticed that we were really good once they started playing with us.”
Happy Holidays in the Twin Cities
Senior Gabby Brimhall is the leader of the Otters' defense. Photo by Melissa Johnson Babolian
The Otters made people notice at the Armstrong/Cooper Holiday Classic near the Twin Cities on Dec. 29-31, against their toughest competition of the season thus far. Fergus Falls won the entire tournament against much larger schools from around the Twin Cities metro area.
First, Fergus Falls took on 15th ranked Two Rivers/St. Paul and defeated the Riveters 5-0 after a four-goal outburst in the first period. The Otters then beat 2A school Osseo/Park Center 4-2 in the semifinals with two power play goals and a game-clinching open-netter.
“That was the best game we played all year; I had a lot of fun watching the girls work hard in that game,” coach Lill said.
“It was a great time and our goalie was phenomenal all three games,” Lill said.
Sophomore goalie Ana Jyrkas has 13 wins and a .912 save percentage. Photo by Melissa Johnson Babolian
The team’s goaltender, sophomore Ana Jrykas, has earned some recognition of her own this season as well. Jyrkas has 375 saves and a .912 save percentage thus far, and recently earned a Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Hub top performer award following her showing at the holiday tournament. She also has three shutouts and has the second most wins (13) in the state as a goaltender this season.
“It’s kind of almost uncanny and weird how much this kid has put into it,” Lill said of Jyrkas. “It’s been really fun to watch, and it has paid off because she has gotten to be a really good, consistent goalie.”
Brimhall agrees with her coach’s sentiment that Jyrkas’ performance this season has helped the Otters’ success. “She is doing crazy-good. Last year, she was good as well, but you can tell she put in the work,” Brimhall said. “She’s confident, and that’s everything we need because when everyone’s confident, we're playing our best.”
Brimhall said that her, and most likely many of her teammates’ favorite moment of the first half of the season was winning the championship of the Armstrong/Cooper tournament.
Spreading out the talent, creating depth
Senior Marilyn Karsnia is part of the Otters' strong defensive group. Photo by Melissa Johnson Babolian
Lill enjoyed the tournament because it was a chance to learn how his team stacked up against bigger teams with a lot of depth. In Lill’s experience, larger schools can play multiple lines and it can be difficult to determine which is the first line because they’re all so good.
However, Lill’s team has some depth of their own—something else that has contributed to his team’s success.
His first two offensive lines include senior right wing Piper Andrews and junior right wing Maddie Hulter.
“They’ve been big contributors the whole time they’ve been in the program. They're both really strong players and they help us a lot,” Brimhall said.
Andrews has 23 goals and 16 assists and earned a spot in the Otters’ 100 career points club on Dec. 3 after scoring a hat trick in a 5-2 win over East Grand Forks. Hulter has 17 goals and 17 assists and recorded her 100th career point after scoring two goals in the Armstrong/Cooper championship game.
Andrews is committed to play both hockey and soccer at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.
Lill had nothing but accolades for the two players and described them both as “relentless.”
“In comparison to other years, we definitely have the best chemistry we’ve had so far, and everyone is playing for each other rather than playing for themselves." -- Gabby Brimhall
“Piper loves to score goals more than anyone I know,” Lill said. “If she gets a loose puck, she’ll go to the net and if she’s not scoring, she’s drawing penalties.”
As for Hulter, Lill describes her as being the fastest player he has seen on the ice the entire year.
“She’s got a lot of speed and a lot of great hockey sense,” Lill said. “She gets very emotional in games now, which is a good thing because that shows that she cares and how much winning means to her.”
Because the team’s top two goal-scorers do not play on the same line by design, this allows Lill’s first two lines to be a threat at any time. “When you’ve got two lines that can score and a third that doesn’t get scored on, maybe that’s how you get 12 wins,” Lill said.
Beyond his team’s hot offense and impressive goaltender, Lill said he has three senior defensemen who have been strong for him as well this season.
“The D has been pretty good,” Lill said. “We’re giving up under two goals a game.”
One of these seniors, of course, is Brimhall, who is a two year captain for the Otters.
“We’ve been playing really strongly and really aggressively, and I’d say that’s a contributor to the few goals per game,” Brimhall said. “We’re playing really well with our partners and our defensive coaches are really helping us.”
Brimhall is one of 10 seniors on the team this season in a program with a total of 39 players, including 13 young eighth graders. “Having those numbers really breeds competition,” Lill said. “Everyone kind of feeds off each other, and it’s a good leadership group.”
Brimhall agreed with her coach and said that having so many young girls “helped the competition this year” in having so many older girls put in work during the offseason.
The Otters celebrated a goal in a recent game against St. Cloud. Photo by Melissa Johnson Babolian
One way that the Otters put in the work during the offseason is by competing for “The Ultimate Teammate” award.
Lill created an individual player competition where if a player shoots 10,000 pucks, gets 60 lifts in and spends 20 hours stickhandling on their own, they get their name on a plaque on “The Ultimate Teammate” board in the locker room and a t-shirt to go with it.
“Gabby has set all of the records for that, so she’s put a lot of time in and it has improved her game a lot,” Lill said. “I can’t imagine having a better leader … she’s pretty awesome.”
Brimhall and the nine other seniors have been playing hockey together for a long time during their five high school seasons and some of them have been playing together since their youth days.
Fergus Girlz Rock!
Lill understands the importance of starting girls on hockey from a young age to keep them going, so he created a free program for youth girls in Fergus Falls.
“I started this mentorship program, and I call it the ‘Girlz Rock’ program,” Lill said. “They come out for a week … and I have all my high school girls out there, so there’s one-on-one teaching for them.”
The young girls are provided free equipment and get to skate and do crafts with the players and coaches to keep them interested in hockey, instead of straying off to play other sports. Lill’s first group of “Girlz Rock” girls are now eighth graders, and they have kept 13 of the initial 20 girls in the class.
“I had more fun actually coloring than I did on the ice with some of those 5 or 6-year-olds,” Lill said with a laugh.
Senior defender Gabby Brimhall has 14 points and three power play goals on the season. Photo by Melissa Johnson Babolian
Otters relish time on the road
This season, the Otters will play a majority away schedule with 14 away games of 23 total, but Lill says that it is a good thing.
“We play better on the road,” Lill said. “We’re more focused when we show up to the rink… there’s distractions at home. When it comes to competing, I don’t mind being on the road at all,”
Most of the Otters’ games are 1-2 hours away, so they spend a lot of time on the bus doing homework and bonding as a team. Although Brimhall says sometimes the long trips on school nights can be difficult, she enjoys them because of the quality time spent with her teammates.
“In comparison to other years, we definitely have the best chemistry we’ve had so far, and everyone is playing for each other rather than playing for themselves, so that has contributed to a lot of our wins,” Brimhall said.
Cam Kauffman can be reached at email@example.com.
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