State bound: Alex girls hockey team wins fifth straight section title
For the fifth year in a row, the Alexandria girls hockey team is on its way to the Xcel Energy Center.
The Cardinals (14-12-1) were the second seed going into sections but pulled off the upset over top-seeded Fergus Falls with a 3-1 section championship win to advance to the state tournament.
“It was like all our work finally paid off,” sophomore forward Alexis Heckert said. “Seeing all of our friends in the student section and our family so proud of us, it was a great feeling.”
Head coach Molly Arola said the team was a little anxious going into Thursday night, but it didn’t take long to get going.
“They were a little bit nervous, but they settled down quickly,” she said. “They got really confident, they battled hard and they stayed positive the whole time. I thought it was a great offensive and defensive game by everyone.”
The first period flew by. The second whistle of the game seven minutes in. Both teams played relatively clean, and the refs let them play through the minor trips and slashes.
Most of the play was in the Otters end, and the Cardinals were finally able to capitalize as sophomore forward Heckert buried a goal at the 8:34 mark to open the scoring.
“We were just grinding, working hard and working for the puck,” she said. “Then the defense stepped up and I saw the opportunity. I just shot in the general area, hoping for the best.”
Just over three minutes later, Otters eighth grader Ellie Anderson knotted the game at 1-1, where it stayed until the first intermission.
Although the Cardinals forecheck slowed in the second period, senior forward Megan Pesta stepped up at the halfway point.
She crossed the blueline on a rush by herself against two Fergus Falls defenders, turned to go wide around the right side and reached back and shot it perfectly in the top left corner above Otters goalie Jadyn McKeever’s blocker for what would eventually be the game-winning goal.
“Whenever it’s tied 1-1, the anxiety is really high,” Cards senior goalie Sarah Finley said. “(The go-ahead goal) definitely boosted my confidence and my confidence in my teammates. It was such a different feeling when we scored that. The energy was really there and upbeat and you could feel it.”
When McKenna Ellingson scored a powerplay goal a minute later, Finley and the Cardinals felt even better.
But then Ellingson went to the box for tripping, which brought Alexandria back to earth. Besides a ringer off the crossbar from the stick of Kristin Trosvig with two minutes left, the Otters controlled the rest of the period. They had a few chances during the Ellingson penalty and kept the puck in their offensive zone for most of the period.
But Finley stood strong in the crease and the skaters helped to keep the puck out of their net.
Early in the third, the Cardinals killed another penalty and, with a 3-1 lead, they focused on limiting their mistakes until the end of the game.
“We focused on the little things,” Arola said. “Get pucks out and keep it deep, but we didn’t let up. We stayed aggressive and kept fighting.”
With 1:25 remaining, the Otters called a timeout with an upcoming defensive-zone faceoff. They were able to pull McKeever with 1:07 to go, but they couldn’t muster any quality chances and the game came to a close.
“I’m so proud of them,” Finley said of her teammates. “They work so well together. They played with so much passion, so much dedication, so much commitment. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The Otters finish their season with a 14-11-1 record.
Alexandria plays at the Xcel Energy Center next Wednesday for the Class-A state tournament. Opponents and times are to be determined.
“I’m looking forward to playing at the X,” Finley said. “So many previous girls high school teams played at the X since I was a little girl. It’s so crazy that I get to be on the team now and get to be one of those girls.”
Arola is happy with the results the team has had in the playoffs so far, but she is also serious about what’s coming up next week.
“I’m feeling good,” she said. “I think we’re in a good spot right now. We still have a ways to go, too, and that’s fun to see as well. We are peaking at the right time, and hopefully we can continue with it.
“I think the biggest thing is for us to carry that intensity and focus that we had tonight (into the state tournament). We want to go down (to St. Paul) with a purpose, and not just go down there to be down there. We need to find a purpose and find a way.”
ALEXANDRIA 1 2 0 – 3
FERGUS FALLS 1 0 0 – 1
FIRST PERIOD – 1, ALX, Heckert (Unassisted), 8:34; 2, FF, Andersen (Karsnia), 11:50
SECOND PERIOD – 3, ALX, Pesta (Unassisted), 8:58; 4, ALX, Ellingson (Mayson Toft, Trosvig), 9:57
THIRD PERIOD – No Scoring
GOALTENDING – ALX, Finley (W) - 23 saves, 1 goal allowed; FF, McKeever (L) - 31 saves, 3 goals allowed