Two years ago, the North Wright County Riverhawks made the program’s inaugural state tournament appearance.
This year, with a third of its roster still intact from that original appearance, they’ll look to earn the first state tournament win.
“For any program, the first time you get down there is an eye-opening experience,” said first-year coach, Jason Johnson. “Now with this group coming back, we got into the section tournament, we wanted to win three, and now we’re going in, we want to win these [next] three.
We’ll take it one step at a time, and right now our focus is Lakeville North. But, honestly, I told our girls we need to pack for Saturday.”
Lakeville North (20-6-2) is North Wright County’s (23-4-1) first round opponent. The Hawks earned the fifth-seed in a coaches’ vote Saturday morning, keeping them from being randomly drawn to play one of the top three teams, and pitting them against the fourth-seeded Panthers.
“I think it was huge for us to get that seed,” said Goaltender Alex LaMere. “The fact that we’re a No. 5 seed gives us some confidence.”
With no common opponents, they know very little about Lakeville North. The coaches are making connections and working to find every detail they can. But in the meantime, it means the focus has to be on NWC’s own game, rather than their opponents. And that’s the way Johnson prefers it.
“At the end of the day, we’re worried about our 20,” said Johnson, in reference to his own players. “We’re worried about controlling what we can control.”
In recent weeks, the Hawks have been excelling at excerting that control over their opponents.
“This is kind of the first year where we feel in charge of the game,” said Sibley. “We control the play, we control the speed and the tempo. It’s really building our confidence going into the state tournament.”
The confidence built up by the five seed, by the three-game postseason shutout streak, by the control they’ve exhibited, will be huge as NWC tries to shake the memories of an 0-2 state tournament in 2011. They’ll be trying to get past it against a team that has plenty of big game experience. Lakeville North was at state last year, and built an impressive regular season resume this year, knocking off powerhouse programs such as Breck and Eagan, as well as earning a come-from-behind 3-2 win over a talented Dodge County team in their section final.
But the Hawks bring plenty of experience of their own. Seven players were on the team that went to the ‘X’ two years ago for state. And most of the rest, including LaMere, contributed to the Riverhawks’ U14 team that won state two years ago.
“We’ve all had that big game experience,” said LaMere. “[Thursday is] just another game.”
Coach Johnson expects the team to play similar styles. But when looking at stats, there are a couple of noticeable differences. North Wright County relies heavily on Dani Sibley (31 regular season goals, 26 percent of team’s total), Rachel Heiber and Maddi Sjelin to create goals, while Lakeville North seems to have a more scoring by committee approach. The Panthers’ top scorer has just 18 goals, and the team has six other players that are within 10 goals of their leading scorer.
Lakeville North has also been an impressively strong starter this year, outscoring opponents 32-8 in the first period during the regular season (and 109-41 overall). The Hawks meanwhile have been at their best in the second period, outscoring opponents by a whopping 39-8 margin (and 120-37 overall).
LaMere, by the numbers, has been slightly more impressive in the net than Lakeville North’s starter, Cassie Alexander. LaMere owns a record of 12-3-1 this year, allowing just 1.47 goals per game, while saving an impressive 93.3 percent of shots faced and earning five shutouts. Alexander meanwhile has racked up a record of 12-6-2. The senior has saved 88.5 percent of the shots that she has faced while allowing 1.92 goals per game and earning four shutouts this season.
Alexander and the Panthers will without a doubt be one of the toughest tests the Riverhawks have faced this year, but, they feel as though if it’s a test they are ready to pass.
“One thing that we have kind of talked about is that it doesn’t end here, now that we’re at state,” said LaMere. “We have so much more that we want to accomplish. We are setting high expectations for ourself.”
Coach Johnson put those expectations into words at the beginning of the year, and he isn’t ready to back away from them now.
“I said [at the start of the year] I want to win the state tournament,” said Johnson. “We’re a few steps closer. We’ve got a few big steps to make, but, I think we can do that.”
North Wright County plays Lakeville North at 8 p.m. tonight at the Xcel Energy Center. The Hawks, dependent upon the result of tonight’s game, will play either Irondale or Mounds View in the championship or consolation bracket Friday. For updated information, please visit www.monticellotimes.com after the conclusion of Thursday night’s game.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com