Riverhawks earn program’s first state win, finish sixth in Class AA
When all is said and done, sports, more than anything else, give out memories. And as North Wright County’s state hockey tournament experience wrapped up with a 5-2 loss to Eagan in the consolation finals at Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus Saturday afternoon, the Riverhawks had made plenty of memories.
Not all were good. The first small memory was, as the Hawks were the first to score in their opening state-tournament match with Lakeville North on a beautiful effort from Dani Sibley. But the first big memory wasn’t. A flurry of a finish led to overtime for NWC and Lakeville, but it only set the Hawks up for heartbreak, as a Panthers’ goal with three seconds remaining on the power play forced NWC into the consolation bracket of the tournament.
But as the tourney went on, plenty of other memories emerged, a Danyna Duncan shutout and the first state win in program history, an outstanding postseason for Rachel King capped perhaps by one of the prettiest goals of the tournament, a gritty effort from Dani Sibley as she played through pain, and even another spirited attempt at a comeback in a consolation championship loss to Eagan. And perhaps the most lasting memory of the weekend was that the Hawks proved, with little doubt, that they belonged.
“On any given day, we’re probably one of the top 6-8 teams in the state,” said Coach Jason Johnson.
Quarterfinals – Lakeville North 5, North Wright County 4, OT
A furious rally, including two goals in the final minutes, proved all for naught in the state opener for the Riverhawks.
In the last quarterfinal game of the state tournament the Hawks turned a late 4-2 deficit against Lakeville North into an overtime battle, but they couldn’t overcome the Panthers’ special team dominance. Lakeville recorded a power play goal halfway through the eight-minute overtime period to earn a 5-4 win and move on to a state semifinal date with Minnetonka.
“You hate to see a power play, for either side, in overtime,” said Coach Jason Johnson. “But we were almost out of that penalty kill, and we didn’t finish.”
The goal, coming with two seconds left in the power play, nullified an impressive Riverhawks’ comeback.
The fifth-seeded Hawks had jumped out to an early lead when Sibley navigated through a couple of defenders before poking the puck past the Panthers’ goaltender and into the net just four minutes into the game. Lakeville North would pull even at one, but before the period ended a picturesque top-shelf wrist shot from King gave North Wright County a one goal lead at the intermission.
But after taking that 2-1 lead, the Hawks were outplayed and consistently outshot for much of the game. Aided by a knee injury to Sibley early in the second (she would come back, but at less than full strength), Lakeville North started to control the game. The Panthers would tie the game and pull ahead in the second, before adding an insurance goal in the third period.
But with time winding down, a two-goal deficit staring them in the face, and momentum clearly going the other way, North Wright County wasn’t ready to quit.
“We weren’t going to go down without a battle,” said Rachel Heiber.
It was Heiber’s terrific forecheck that led to a takeaway, and when she put a bad-angle shot on net, it created a perfect rebound. Maddi Sjelin was there to dump it in the back of the net, bringing NWC to within one with four minutes left.
Moments later, the Hawks earned another chance. This time it was King who got the puck on the net. She didn’t see a rebound, but she did see the puck get stuck by the goaltender’s skate, which no one else seemed to realize. King drove the net and knocked the puck loose and Kaleigh Hamann scooped it up and knocked it in, tying the game with just over three minutes to play.
“I saw the puck sitting there, and I felt like time just froze,” King said. “I just tried to shove it in there, and I was so thankful Kaleigh was there to score.”
The Hawks mustered a couple of more scoring opportunities, including a beautiful 2-on-1 pass from King that wasn’t quite able to be put away, in a dominant last six minutes of play but couldn’t find the back of the net for the game winner. Still, momentum remained on the Hawks’ side, even into overtime. Then, just two minutes into overtime, NWC took their fifth penalty of the game.
Despite a strong early portion of the kill, the tide slowly turned.
“I think everyone is waiting for that [power play] goal,” said Lakeville North Coach Buck Kochevar. “Because we’ve done it a lot this year.”
Sure enough, in the waning seconds of the power play, the Panthers rushed down the ice, the Hawks lost track of a scorer, and when Christi Vetter got the puck in the slot, she knew what to do. The Panthers’ top scoring forward put the puck in the back of the net, sending Lakeville to a semifinal match up with Minnetonka and forcing NWC to swallow the tough loss and regroup in just about 14 hours for a consolation bracket game against Irondale.
“We just gotta pick each other up,” said Dani Sibley, after the game. “There are a lot of tears in that locker room, but tonight we’re gonna go back to the hotel room, get some rest, and come ready to play tomorrow.”
Consolation Semifinals – NWC 3, Irondale 0
The Hawks must have gotten that rest, because they were ready to play on Friday. From the time the puck dropped for the noon game at Ridder Arena, NWC appeared to be over Thursday night’s finish, as they controlled play against Irondale, the section champions of 5AA.
“We just had to forget about the game yesterday and keep moving forward,” said Duncan, who made her first start of the postseason, at goaltender.
The Hawks were rewarded for their strong play seven minutes into the first period. Sjelin won a faceoff in the offensive zone, and Sibley secured the puck. Sibley’s brilliant stickhandling got her toward the front of the net, where she created a 2-on-1 opportunity with herself and Heiber. When Sibley smoothly dumped the puck to her teammate, Heiber quickly lifted it over the goaltender’s pads and into the net. 1-0, Riverhawks.
“I think [scoring first] was important,” said Johnson. “It built some confidence in the girls.”
That confidence built throughout the first period as NWC outshot Irondale 10-2, despite Irondale earning the only power play of the period.
In the second, the offensive opportunities seemed to increase for each team, but neither side was able to take advantage. For North Wright County, Duncan was proving worthy of the start.
“She’s a senior, she deserved that chance to play down here,” said Johnson after the game. “We have all the confidence in the world in her.”
It was well-earned as the senior made a couple of big saves during the second period to keep the game at 1-0 headed to the second intermission.
The shots were 21-8 after two, but NWC was still nursing a one-goal lead early in the third period when who other than Rachel King gave them some breathing room. A nice pass from Greta Stanton set up King, who scored her second goal and recorded her third point of the tournament to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
An empty net goal from Sibley provided the final margin as Duncan and the defense (led by Mackenzie Johnson, Marina Chapman, Emily Achterkirch, and Beth Hinkemeyer) continued to stand up to everything Irondale threw at them during the final period. Even when Irondale needed to score twice to extend their season, the Hawks were able to keep them from continually peppering the net.
“They didn’t have a lot of great second chances,” said Johnson. “And that is what we pride ourselves on.”
For the Hawks, there was also plenty of pride to be found in the way they had bounced back and earned the program’s first state tournament win, just 14 hours after what was perhaps the most dramatic loss in program history.
“Every time that we [face adversity], our girls respond,” said Johnson. “That’s what made it such a joy to coach these kids.”
Consolation championship – Eagan 5, NWC 2
Playing their third game in less than three full days, NWC hoped to get through the first few minutes of their consolation championship game with Eagan, hoping their legs would then be ready to go. They accomplished that mission, sort of.
NWC started quick, but things quickly turned as Eagan scored four goals over a seven-minute stretch to take a commanding first-period lead.
“It was just odd,” said Johnson. “I remember looking up, shots were 3 or 4 to nothing for us. We weren’t really giving them any opportunities. I felt like ‘hey, all right, we started well.’ Then it just kind of unraveled fast.”
Duncan had gotten the second straight start in goal, but had little opportunity to do anything on at least three of the goals. Almost each opportunity came on odd-man rushes, and three of the first four were put away by Eagan star Megan Wolfe, who is committed to the University of Minnesota for next season.
“She was dynamic, said Johnson. “Really on the first two goals we just lost track of her. We weren’t going to chase her around and shadow her, but we just needed to be aware.”
After they fell behind 4-0, Johnson took a time-out to remind his team, perhaps sternly, that they needed to be a little more aware. The Hawks responded well to the time-out. Play evened up in the final few minutes, as the period ended with a shot disparity of only 11-5.
But, the damage was done.
The Riverhawks, aided by some big stops from Alex LaMere (who entered with four minutes left in the first) continued to battle in the second, eventually getting a goal when King dropped a gorgeous pass to Hamann on a 2 on 1. Hamann’s wrister found the back of the net, pulling the Hawks to within 4-1.
In the third period, the Hawks battled till the final horn, but in a game of bounces, this one never bounced in NWC’s direction.
Wolfe’s fourth goal of the game put Eagan up 5-1. Finally, on their fifth power play of the game, the Riverhawks were able to derive success from their special teams, as Sjelin punched in a goal after Heiber had gotten the puck near the net.
Trailing 5-2, NWC peppered the net in the waning minutes of their season. Three times they hit pipes as they worked the shot total all the way back to even in the final minutes. But, all of the battling in the world wasn’t enough for the Hawks to overcome the big early hole, as the final seconds eventually ticked off on a 5-2 end-of-season defeat, securing a sixth-place state tournament finish for NWC.
“I thought other than that 4 to 6 minute stretch, the game was pretty even,” said Johnson. “Some days it just doesn’t work out the way you want it to.”
It was a tough last memory for a season that was full of great ones as North Wright County finished the year with 24 wins, including their first-ever state tournament win.
“It’s been a dream season,” said Johnson. “It really has.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at firstname.lastname@example.org