Alexandria boys hockey coach Josh Meyers stood at center ice on the west rink at the Runestone Community Center watching closely as his players skated through a fast-paced practice on Nov. 18.
Now in his second season leading the Cardinals, Meyers said there is definitely a much greater comfort level heading into this winter. The whole first week of practice is a tryout week as players try to solidify spots on this roster. Coaches not only got to see kids compete in team drills, but they also had scrimmages against four other teams at the end of the week.
“The drive, the hunger has been there since back in June when we had some scrimmages in town to see the guys who will be coming out this year,” Meyers said. “You could tell they were excited...I think the drive with the guys has been huge. Guys are competing in practice. They’re fighting for some spots, and that’s huge.”
Guys are eager to get going again after Alexandria finished last season with a 9-10-1 overall record. That included a fourth-place finish in the Central Lakes Conference.
“Expectations are just to do the best we can,” senior defenseman and assistant captain Pieter Mulder said. “We need to score a lot more goals than last year. Our junior class this year that led us in goals, we’re excited to have their experience back. We have a strong senior class to lead the way, and some rookies who will definitely make the lineup. We’re excited.”
The Cardinals have all four of their top scorers from a year ago back. Senior Josiah Gronholz leads that group after scoring a team-best 17 goals and adding 11 assists last winter. Juniors Tyler Kludt (9 goals, 12 assists) and Joe Lamski (5 goals, 12 assists) and senior Brycen Berg (8 goals, 6 assists) add to a group of scorers for the Cardinals who teammates and coaches expect to make a nice leap with a year of experience under their belt.
“I’m expecting a big difference,” senior defenseman and captain Brennan Lattimer said. “When me and Pieter both came from our sophomore year to our junior year, we saw that. We got our feet wet and knew what to expect when we had to contribute to the team more.”
Meyers said Alexandria’s offense does not need to have one guy try to carry the load. The Cardinals averaged 3.4 goals per game last year, which put them sixth in the 10-team Section 6A field in terms of goals scored per game.
“I think with our team this year, we’re going to have depth,” Meyers said. “We’re going to have a lot of guys who can score goals. If it happens where one guy ends up scoring more, I think that’s just the luck of the draw. They all have good offensive ability.”
Pfeffer between the pipes
Senior Teagan Pfeffer is a standout defensive back for the Alexandria football team, and he took a couple of days to rest just a little bit after the disappointment of the Cardinals’ fall season ending at the state tournament on Nov. 13.
Players have a couple of weeks they can take off between the end of their previous sports season and the start of their next through the Minnesota State High School League. Meyers said he wanted guys from the football team to take their time physically to make sure their bodies were good to go for hockey, but Pfeffer could not stay away long as he joined the Cardinals in the middle of their first week of practice.
“He had some hurt feelings with how football ended, and he came up to me within five minutes of practice and said, ‘Can I play tomorrow?’” Meyers said of Pfeffer wanting to play in a Nov. 19 scrimmage. “We already had made up our minds that he wasn’t going to, but just his drive, he got back on the ice and he’s ready to play.”
Meyers did not hesitate to say Pfeffer would be the guy Alexandria will lean on in goal when asked about that position.
Christopher Loken was the senior goaltender last year who led the Cardinals in minutes played, but Pfeffer got a bunch of experience too. He posted a 4-4 record with a 3.11 goals-against average and a .878 save percentage with one shutout.
“I think we have a strong defensive core all the way throughout,” Lattimer said. “No matter who is between the pipes there, we’re going to help him out.
“A lot of goals against us last year were scrums in front of the net,” Mulder added. “Our defense needs to be better at just picking up bodies. If we can eliminate those scrappy goals, I think we’ll have a good chance at winning games.”
A weakened Section 6A field
Alexandria will once again play out of Section 6A come tournament time, but it’s a different looking section heading into this season.
The field now includes just 8 programs instead of the 10 from a year ago. Last year’s section champion, Little Falls (14-5-1 last season), joins Sartell-St. Stephen (11-8) and St. Cloud Cathedral (8-10) as programs that have moved out of the 6A field. That’s three of the top five teams in the section from a year ago now gone.
“It was tough to see. I felt like our section got pretty weak,” Meyers said. “Those teams we just said, Cathedral had a down year last year, but those were the top teams in our section. At least in the top five, so when you take three of those teams away, it hurts.”
Northern Lakes, a cooperative comprised of Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, Pequot Lakes, and Pine River-Backus, has been added to the Section 6A field after winning Section 5A last winter. The Lightning were 18-4 overall, beating Monticello 6-3 in the section title game on March 25 before falling 8-0 to eventual state champion Gentry Academy.
“I don’t know much about them,” Meyers said of Northern Lakes’ addition. “Hopefully they’re a good team, but it hurt that they did that with our section. As a coach, my first thing was we need to find some good outside competition. I don’t want to say this, but if you say our road to state is a little bit easier through sections, we still want a high enough seed so we’re not getting Hermantown first game at state, or whatever the case might be. We want to play good competition outside our section.”
Mulder said that Little Falls (Section 5A), St. Cloud Cathedral (Section 5A) and Sartell (8AA) are all great programs, but the Cardinals have to look at it now as an opportunity. Breckenridge-Wahpeton (2-14 last season), Fergus Falls (15-4), Morris-Benson Area (13-5), Prairie Centre Area (3-13-1), Wadena-Deer Creek (4-14-1) and Willmar (3-17) join Alexandria and Northern Lakes in the section.
“Obviously, Fergus Falls (will be good),” Mulder said. “They have a lot of returning guys. I think Northern Lakes is a decent program. Other than that, with the section change there’s still some unknowns. A lot of good teams got moved out.”
Fergus Falls knocked Alexandria out of the playoffs last winter in the section semifinals and return as one of the expected front-runners in this new-look section. The Cardinals have every expectation of being right there as well as they push toward playing their best hockey in March.
“It’s pushing ourselves every single day,” Meyers said. “We know during the season that there’s ups and downs. These guys love to be pushed. They thrive on that stuff, and there’s a sour taste in our mouths from last year and Fergus ending our season.”
2021-22 ALEXANDRIA BOYS HOCKEY ROSTER
SENIORS - Mason Stennes, F; Josiah Gronholz, F; Brycen Berg, F; Pieter Mulder, D; Brennan Lattimer, D; Teagan Pfeffer, G; Gabe Evink, G; JUNIORS - Joe Lamski, F; Tyler Kludt, F; Nicholas Peterson, F; Jack Breitzman, F; Keegan Lucy, F; Tripp Shatek, F; Zaven Noetzelman, D; Henry Ramstorf, D; Mason Loch, D, Brayden Steidl, F; Brayden Schlangen, F; Colton Cavers, F; Riley Wagner, D; Elijah Rasmusen, G; SOPHOMORES - Leo Kompelien, F; Gavin Olson, F; Caleb Lind, F; Jack Lamski, D; Evan Anderson, F; Kasen Muscha, F; Cole Haabala, F; Owen Draper, F; Rylan Hovde, F; Ryland Block, F; Gage Castle, D; Bennett Olsen, D; Ben Scott, D; Jackson Cavers, G; FRESHMEN - Evan Kludt, D; Brett Thornburg, D
ALEXANDRIA BOYS HOCKEY SCHEDULE
Nov. 30 at Sartell, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 2 at Rocori, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 7 at Little Falls, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 11 vs. Minneapolis Southwest, 1 p.m.
Dec. 14 vs. Sauk Rapids-Rice, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 16 vs. Rocori-River Lakes, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 18 at East Grand Forks, 3 p.m.
Dec. 23 at St. Cloud Crush, 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 29 at Gentry Academy, 7 p.m.
Jan. 4 vs. Monticello, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 6 vs. Fergus Falls, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 8 at Bemidji, 2 p.m.
Jan. 11 at Brainerd, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 15 vs. Totino-Grace, 7 p.m.
Jan. 18 vs. St. Cloud Cathedral, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 21 vs. Sartell, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 25 at Willmar, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 27 at Sauk Rapids-Rice, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 31 vs. Little Falls, 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 5 at Denfeld, 2 p.m.
Feb. 8 vs. St. Cloud Crush, 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 10 at Fergus Falls, 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 11 vs. Pequot Lakes, 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 15 at Detroit Lakes, 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 17 vs. Brainerd, 7:15 p.m.