Class A Section Preview
Class A coaches ruminate on running three lines, reflect on the regular season and assess their team’s chances as playoffs begin
Thursday, February 9, 2023
As do-or-die games begin, coaches are formulating strategies that they feel will optimize their team’s chances at victory. One such strategy revolves around weighing the ability to consistently skate three lines, thus spreading out a team’s depth while preventing top players from becoming fatigued late in games.
Jeremy Gunderson, coach of Section 1A top seed Dodge County feels three lines gives his team an edge against two seed Albert Lea. “We’re a little deeper; we can run three lines and five D,” he said. The Wildcats and Tigers are a near certainty to play for the 1A title on Feb. 16 in Owatonna.
“You live and die with your top players this time of year. Of course you want to play three lines but it just depends on the game situation.”
--South St. Paul coach Dave Palmquist
While rolling three lines may be the norm among much bigger Class AA teams, having three lines is something of a luxury for smaller Class A squads. “For Class A we get to play three lines and that helps a lot,” says Fergus Falls head coach Tim Lill, whose Otters are hoping their depth will be the difference against defensive-minded challengers Willmar and River Lakes in Section 6A.
Mankato East coach Amber Prange, whose Cougars advanced to the state tournament last year, is hoping a third line will help her team take the next step. “Last year we mainly had two lines,” she said. “This year we really wanted a third line. We had four players competing for those spots and that’s really helped. Last year we didn’t have that third line.”
But skating three lines at the expense of having a team’s top scorers on the ice as much as possible is the delicate calculation every coach must make. “You live and die with your top players this time of year,” says South St. Paul head coach Dave Palmquist. “Of course you want to play three lines but it just depends on the game situation.”
One thing’s for certain: whether playing two lines or three, when time gets short and a trip to the state tournament hangs in the balance, you can count on every coach having their very best players on the ice.
Class A Section Preview
In Class A this year the section favorites are pretty clear. Other than a couple of darkhorse candidates and a stacked 5A, the top two seeds in most brackets appear destined to face off for a ticket to the XCel in St. Paul.
Wildcats and Tigers in Section 1A
With three byes and just five teams, Section 1A can be quickly boiled down to a championship matchup pitting the top seeded Dodge County Wildcats (#12 in Class A) against the second-seeded Albert Lea Tigers (#13). The teams met once this season and DC came away with a 4-2 victory. “It was on their ice and we played well,” said DC head coach Jeremy Gunderson.
DC is in their first season in Class A but still had 14 AA games on the schedule, and went 7-6-1 in those contests. The Wildcats also feature Ida Huber in goal, a U15 National Camp player who has five shutouts and a .923 save percentage.
The defending section champion Tigers, who are 16-7-1, are also led by youngsters. Sophomore Mika Cichosz has 29 goals and 39 points, followed by middle schoolers Haley Austinson and Morgan Goskeson, each with 30 points.
Albert Lea finished the regular season on a 9-1-1 tear and begins the playoffs with confidence.
Janjet predicts: Dodge County 5, Albert Lea 3
Cougars look to repeat in 2A
Mankato East forward McKenzie Keller leads the Cougars in a bid to return to the state tournament. Photo by Arnie Hamel
The Mankato East Cougars (#11) are 18-6-0, but just 5-3 since mid-January. In addition, second seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (#22) beat the Cougars 3-1 back in early December, so East’s return trip to the X is no guarantee.
“Their goalie played really well,” recalls East head coach Amber Prange. “ And they did have some puck luck; they got a crazy bounce 17 seconds into the game and we were playing catch-up for almost 54 minutes.”
LDC juniors Krista Tormanen and Camryn Iverson lead the Dragons’ offense but it will again come down to sophomore netminder Kira Kuechle if LDC is going to pull off the upset.
For Mankato East, senior forward McKenzie Keller leads the way with 51 points and recently became the school’s second all-time leading scorer. Junior forward Jess Eykyn has 18 goals and just surpassed 100 points for her career.
Senior goalie Anna Rader has eight shutouts and recently became the winningest goalie in East history.
“Hopefully that individual success leads to team success,” said Prange.
Janjet predicts: Mankato East 3, Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato 1
Cardinals and Eagles circling again in 3A
400-point scorer Kamryn Van Batavia will try and lead the Cardinals back to state for the third year in a row.
Once again, it looks like the 3A title will come down to a battle between the Luverne Cardinals (#13) and New Ulm Eagles (#15). The Cards have prevailed the past two seasons and will hope to give 400-point scorer Kamryn Van Batavia one last trip to state as a graduation present.
Luverne has a pair of 4-1 victories over the Eagles but New Ulm has steadily improved this season. After a 5-6-0 start, the Eagles have gone 11-2-1 since the holidays. New Uim concluded the regular season with an impressive 5-1 win over Litch/DC.
Third-seeded Marshall stands as the section darkhorse, having gone 8-2-1 to close out the regular season, which included a narrow 4-2 loss to Luverne on Jan. 26. The Tigers also skated to a scoreless draw with New Ulm on Jan. 5.
New Ulm sophomore goalie Ava Brennan’s seven shutouts and .937 save percentage gives the Eagles a slight edge. Juniors Michelle Smith and Afton Hulke lead the offense, both with 26 points.
Janjet predicts: New Ulm 3, Luverne 2
A neighborhood scuffle in 4A
Simley senior forward Mackaylan McGown is tied for the state lead in assists with 52.
Photo by Arnie Hamel
The Simley Spartans (#2) are the hottest team in Class A this side of Warroad.
With 18 wins in their past 19 games, the Spartans have shown they can score in bunches, play smothering defense and skate right with top-ranked AA teams.
But can they overcome their seasoned rival South St. Paul (#5) and get to their first-ever state tournament? Though they recently beat the Packers 4-1, Simley still needs to prove to themselves that they can win when it matters most.
Leading the way for Sparty is the dynamic duo of Ella Tuccitto and Makaylan McGown, who have combined for 135 points this season. That explosiveness presents obvious challenges for SSP. “You need goals but you can’t let them break free,” said Packers head coach Dave Palmquist. “If they get up on you they make it tough to come back.”
For the Packers, the bulk of the offense comes from three 40-point scorers. Sophomore defender Lily Pachl leads the state in points from the blueline with 49. Up front, sophomore Bailey Vesper (47) and senior Sara Wincentsen (43) lead the charge.
Janjet predicts: Simley 3, South St. Paul 2 (OT)
Three worthy teams in 5A
Orono goaltender Celia Dahl has nine shutouts and a .927 save percentage.
Photo by Mike Lieb
The deepest, strongest section in Class A is without a doubt 5A, with three of the top seven ranked teams and six of the top 20. Leading the pack is Holy Angels (#7), by virtue of their 5-0 record within the section.
The Stars’ top line of Bella LaMere, Audrey Garton and Taylor Lesnar have combined for 100 points this season. But the offense struggled to end the season, scoring just once in losses against AA teams Hill-Murray and Eden Prairie.
Two-seed Orono (#4) boasts a recent 2-1 overtime victory over Class AA power Holy Family. Remarkably, Larry Olimb’s squad is 9-0-1 this season against Class AA competition. Sophomore forward Zoe Lopez is a 30-goal scorer and the Spartans average nearly five goals per game. Celia Dahl is having an astounding season, with nine shutouts and a .927 save percentage.
But don’t discount Mound Westonka/SWC (#6), who are 17-8-0 and feature high scoring forwards Sydney Leonard, Gretta Pioske and Camryn Hargreaves.
Both Mound Westonka and Holy Angels defeated Orono by identical 2-1 scores earlier this season.
Janjet predicts: Orono 4, Holy Angels 2
Otters offense favored to prevail in 6A
Fergus Falls senior forward Maddie Hulter leads the Otters with 54 points.
Photo by Melissa Babolian
Top-seeded Fergus Falls (#9) is a solid favorite in 6A but Otters head coach Tim Lill remembers the last two seasons very well.
Lill has seen River Lakes goaltender Kaydence Roeske almost single-handedly end the Otters’ season the last two years. “She’s so good,” Lill says. “We had 12-15 grade As (chances) and we just couldn’t score.”
Lill, in his ninth season with the Otters, likes his junior goaltending tandem of Lexi Metcalf and Ana Jyrkas, who have rotated evenly all season.
Senior Maddie Hulter leads the offense with 54 points and classmate Tyra Skjeret has 43.
“We’ve had a really good forecheck this year,” Lill says. “We just gotta get it deep and go to work.”
Two seed Willmar (#19) has sophomore goaltender Erin Eilers and three seed River Lakes has Roeske, but Fergus will find a way this year and return to state for the first time since 2019.
Janjet predicts: Fergus Falls 4, Willmar 1
‘Topper hockey' eyes Mirage in 7A
Proctor/Hermantown forward Hannah Graves leads the Mirage with 33 points.
Photo by Hope Carlson
In the Duluth area, it will potentially be the girls game of the year when Proctor/Hermantown (#3) meets Duluth Marshall (#8) in the 7A championship game in Cloquet on Feb. 15.
The Mirage can play with any team in the state, as evidenced by their impressive 3-2 home win over AA contender Gentry Academy on Jan. 17. They concluded the regular season with a dominant 5-1 road win over #7 Mound Westonka, and defeated The Marshall School 4-3 on Jan. 24.
“It was back-and-forth all game,” recalls Hilltoppers’ coach Callie Hoff. “They outshot us but it was 3-3 with two minutes left.” Proctor/Hermantown’s Izzy Fairchild then settled things with the late game-winner for the Mirage.
The Hilltoppers started just 2-4-1 this season, but have gone 16-2 since and the offense is averaging over five goals per game over the past ten games. Hoff credits a tough early-season schedule with helping Marshall find their ‘A’ game in time for playoffs. “‘Topper Hockey,” Hoff called it. “We have to stick to our system, play hard and keep it simple.”
Marshall junior forward Ilsa Lindemann leads the offense with a whopping 66 points. “Teams try to focus on her, but she’s so fast,” says Hoff. “She’s really stepped up big.”
For perennial contender Proctor/Hermantown, junior Hannah Graves leads a balanced offense with 33 points, followed by senior Reese Heitzman with 26 points and Fairchild with 23. The ‘21 state champs and ‘22 runners-up have tons of big-game experience, and roster depth on par with the best teams in AA.
Janjet predicts: Proctor/Hermantown 4, Duluth Marshall 2
Defending champs look unbeatable in 8A
Warroad senior forward Talya Hendrickson has 82 points on the season. Photo by Arnie Hamel
Ranked number one in Class A from the first puck drop in November, the Warroad Warriors (#1) would be legit contenders in the Class AA state tournament. With the top scoring line in Minnesota, Warroad is a big favorite to defend their state title.
Division I-bound seniors Kate Johnson, Talya Hendrickson and Rylee Bartz combined for 247 points in the regular season, leading the Warriors to a 21-3-1 record. On the blueline, Seniors Abby Chamernick and Cahlilah Lindquist trigger Warroad’s counter-offensives. Lila Lanctot has 14 goals, Kaiya Sandy a dozen.
Repeating in Section 8A will require a championship game victory over the Crookston Pirates (#10), who themselves are an impressive 16-6-2. But Crookston was unable to slow the potent Warroad attack in 8-1 and 6-1 losses to the Warriors in December.
The Pirates have good balance with six players averaging over a point per game, led by Reese Swanson with 21 goals and 36 points. But the powerful Warriors will not be denied a chance to defend their state title in St. Paul.
Janjet predicts: Warroad 6, Crookston 2
|8.||Centennial / SLP||7.800|
|10.||Benilde - St. Margaret's||7.704|
|3.||South St. Paul||7.533|
|5.||Proctor / Hermantown||7.433|
|6.||Mound Westonka / SWC||7.111|