Card girls' hockey: Alexandria back at state
The celebration on the ice after the Alexandria girls' 4-0 win over Fergus Falls should have felt familiar last Friday night.
The Cardinals punched their ticket to the Class A state tournament for the second straight year and the seventh time in the last eight. But this year's section title felt a little bit sweeter after the way the second half of the season has gone for Alexandria.
The Cardinals had to overcome adversity both on and off the ice. They won just one of their final 15 games heading into the Section 6A tournament. They also had to deal with the death of former assistant coach Verd Anez before their game against Hopkins on February 1.
On Friday night, they put that all behind them and beat a team that had already beaten them twice this season to secure their spot at the Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday night.
"It was just a tremendous feeling," head coach Mitch Loch said of watching his team celebrate after the game. "Just with what the girls have had to go through. Many of these things are things you should never really have to address - the loss of a former assistant coach. We had a lot of adversity to overcome. It just shows you what kind of team we have. We moved forward, and we did it together."
Loch said his team came out a little nervous before it got going in the second. Alexandria's defense held up in the first as the two teams skated to a scoreless tie.
The Cardinals got the all-important first goal a little more than two minutes into the second. Shelby Iverson connected off a pass from Becca Illies to make it 1-0. Shanee Herd then added an insurance goal off a pass from Claire Illies six minutes later.
"Those goals are definitely big," Loch said. "But as a coach, a two-goal lead is nice to have but you always want more."
His players responded to that message in the final period. Iverson got her second of the night at the 12:14 mark to dampen any thoughts Fergus Falls had of a comeback. Claire Illies then put the finishing touches on the win with an empty-netter with six seconds left.
"That was very important," Loch said of Iverson's goal late in the third. "A two-goal lead, you always look at it and think how easily the other team can get it within one. If you can get that next one, you are up three and that's a big difference to overcome in one period. I thought the girls just wanted it more. They were truly working as a team. They wanted a return trip to the state tournament and they went out and got it."
The Alexandria defense made sure that offense stood up all night. The Cardinals were the aggressors and did not give up many quality scoring opportunities.
When they did, Drown was there to shut the door. She stopped all 20 shots she faced. It was another big performance in a section title game after she allowed just one goal in a 4-1 win over Morris-Benson Area in last year's championship.
"She played extremely well," Loch said. "She did everything. She did a nice job of controlling rebounds, limiting second chances. Defensively, we kept them to the outside and didn't give them many good looks. But it was definitely a big game for Steph, and hopefully she can carry that over into the state tournament."
The Cardinals will have their hands full when they open up tournament play tonight, Wednesday, at 6 p.m. They drew Warroad for their opening game. The Warriors are last year's Class A champion and the top-ranked team coming into the tournament.
Warroad's lineup is loaded with next-level talent. The Warriors have three of the top-10 scorers in the state in Lisa Marvin, Karley Sylvester and Layla Marvin. Those three combined for 198 points this season, while Kayla Gardner added to that offensive force with 62 points through the regular season.
Alexandria knows what kind of challenge it is up against. The Warriors beat the Cardinals 10-0 last year on their way to the state title.
"They are a pretty dynamic team," Loch said. "They have three or four Division I athletes on their team...it's a pretty big mountain we have to climb. The best way to contain those things is to play as a team, which we have been doing all year and especially lately. We need to keep them to the outside, reduce second-chance opportunities, and if we do get chances on the other end, we need to capitalize."
The winner will play either Red Wing or Eveleth-Gilbert on Friday at 1 p.m. The loser of tonight's game will move to Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for a noon game tomorrow.
FERGUS FALLS 0 0 0 - 0
ALEXANDRIA 0 2 2 - 4
SCORING SUMMARY - FIRST PERIOD - No scoring
SECOND PERIOD - Alexandria - Shelby Iverson (Becca Illies), 2:16; Alexandria - Shanee Herd (Claire Illies), 8:16
THIRD PERIOD - Iverson (Claire Illies, Becca Illies), 12:14; Alexandria - C. Illies (empty net) (Herd), 16:54
GOALTENDING - Alexandria - W, Stephanie Drown - 20 saves, 20 shots faced; Fergus Falls - Karlee Werre - L, 28 saves, 32 shots faced
State Class A girls' hockey opener against Warroad
Xcel Energy Center,