Girls hockey: Cardinals look back on a 2008 title that was five years in the making
Almost every team that wins a championship experiences some form of good luck along the way during the course of a tournament run.
Former Alexandria girls hockey coach Mitch Loch insists those breaks never fell the Cardinals’ way in four straight state tournament appearances leading up to 2008.
Maybe it was running into a South St. Paul program that had recently won Class AA state titles before moving down to Class A. Early in those years, the Class A girls tournament featured only four teams too. Just getting there was an accomplishment, but Alexandria’s record from 2004-2007 was what it was. Just one win in eight games -- a 5-4 victory over New Prague that gave Alexandria third place in 2006 -- and four first-round losses.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the word ‘adversity,’” Loch said when thinking back to his players from 2008. “That group of girls, some of them had been at that state tournament for four years prior, and we didn’t have much success down there as far as advancing.”
The Cardinals knew there were plenty of doubters watching on as they got ready to play Breck, a private school in Golden Valley, in the Class A title game in 2008. Breck had beaten another private-school power in Blake during their section tournament.
A few members from that Blake team were sitting near the glass in the lower level of the Xcel Energy Center seats as Breck and Alexandria warmed up ahead of the championship. The conversation turned to how the Cardinals shouldn’t even be in the game. That if Blake and Breck weren’t both from Section 5A, they would be the ones playing for a title.
“They kind of live in their own little bubble sometimes where they’re not aware of what’s going on in the rest of the state,” Loch said of going against perennially-strong private schools. “Who was Alexandria? They didn’t know who Alexandria was even though we had been there four years prior, they still didn’t give us a chance. ‘We came from the softer section.’ Every year they said that when we were there. But we proved we belonged and we can play at that higher level.”
A different feel
That 2007-08 team had done everything it could to change the narrative of being the product of a soft section.
The Cardinals loaded their schedule that winter, including against some strong Section 8AA opponents. They beat them all. Alexandria’s only loss was to Grand Rapids-Greenway in overtime in the third game of the season. That Lightning team went 25-4-2 and finished second at the Class AA tournament.
The Cardinals’ 27-1-2 record overall included a 2-0 win at Breck on Dec. 22. That win, despite getting outshot that day, gave Alexandria confidence going into the state title game on Feb. 23.
“What we had heard for so long on why we had made it to the tournament -- weak schedule, weak section, they’re just a shoo-in to the tournament -- that definitely played into our confidence and our drive,” all-state defender Ashley Holmes said. “But I think the success that we had that year helped with our confidence as well. We had pretty much as close to a perfect season as we could, so we were feeling really good about our team and our skill level and our ability to make a statement at state.”
Abby (Williams) Areshenko remembers a much different feeling in prior years.
South St. Paul was a girls hockey power throughout the early-2000s. The Packers won Class AA state titles in 2002, 2003 and 2005 ahead of a Class A championship in 2006. That win included a 4-2 victory over Alexandria in the opening round of the tournament.
“South St. Paul had such a history and was such a great team for so many years,” Areshenko said. “My dad and I decided to go watch their playoff game (in the 2008 section finals). Watching that game, it flipped a switch in my brain because I knew we could beat them. I knew we were a better team. Going into state tournaments in the past, I was not sure how we would do. Watching that game flipped my mind that we can do this.”
A 5-2 win over South St. Paul in the state tournament opener cemented that feeling. The Cardinals escaped a 2-1 game against Roseau (24-5-2) in the state semifinals, setting up a rematch with Breck (21-7-2) for the state championship.
“You don’t like the private schools,” Holmes said of her mindset back then. “Being from the north or the central, you don’t like the (schools from the Twin Cities). You want to make a statement for your half of the state. Absolutely, I think that was a huge thing for us growing up all five years, and especially that senior year. We felt maybe a little like underdogs, but also just a huge sense of pride, and a huge sense of community behind us.”
An early lead and a standout performance
A defense anchored by Holmes and all-state goaltender Danielle Justice guided the Cardinals all season long, and that wasn’t about to change.
Breck averaged 4.6 goals-per game that winter, but Justice was phenomenal down the stretch in the title game. She finished with 30 saves to secure the 2-1 win.
Areshenko started a 2-on-1 break up the left side of the ice in the second period. She found Kathryn DelZoppo for a wrister that made it 1-0. Michelle Anez got her fifth point and second goal of the tournament almost five minutes later.
That turned out to be the game winner. Milica McMillen scored late in the third period to make it a one-goal game. Justice, who finished with 97 saves at the tournament, covered everything up over a hectic final few minutes to let her team celebrate a title.
“I don’t know if we were necessarily the better team, but we had a goalie that stood on her head,” Holmes said. “Danielle played fantastic, and she kept us in that game with a lot of big saves. Just to win and hoist that trophy, it was a five-year and a lifetime kind of dream.”
Cementing their legacy
Accolades poured in for the Cardinals throughout that season.
Holmes, who went on to play Division I for the University of North Dakota and is now an assistant women’s hockey coach at Augsburg University in St. Paul, was a top-10 finalist for the Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award. Areshenko (2007) and Holmes (2008) were both Herb Brooks Award winners in their career. Both joined Justice, DelZoppo and Anez on the all-tournament team in 2008, and Justice was a top-five finalist for the Goalie of the Year Award in the state.
“She should have been the goalie of the year,” Loch said. “Because we were outstate, I don’t think she got the recognition she deserved even though we plugged her as best we could from out here. She was huge. She had a great run as a senior, and even before that.”
She was part of a senior group that completely turned the tide for Alexandria girls hockey. The Cardinals still feel that today as winners of 13 section titles and a 17-7-3 record this past winter in the program’s jump up to Class AA.
The group of players on that 2008 team had done everything in their careers but win a title to that point. So was a championship necessary to cement their legacy?
“I think either way, making it to state for five years and making an impact like that on the program was awesome,” Holmes said. “But no one really remembers a second-place team or a third-place team. It doesn’t leave the same memory as a championship does. I’ve been back to the (Runestone Community Center) many times, and you notice the one red banner amongst all the white ones. It was the icing on the cake, but specifically for us, that was something we worked so hard for for so long.”
It was Alexandria’s first and only girls hockey state championship. A nearly perfect season erased years of frustration in St. Paul. It’s a memory that coaches and players still carry.
“I think we would have had a great legacy regardless of that, but just winning that state tournament, it sealed everything,” Areshenko said. “My mom comes from a family of 11 kids, and four of her brothers played college hockey. I have a cousin who played in the NHL, so I grew up with hockey. I grew up going to the state tournament. That was always a dream of mine. So going in and doing that, especially with that group of girls we had, it was just so special. It’s something you get to have forever.”