The football state tournament had barely begun last Thursday when the first pucks were already dropping on the first night of girls’ hockey regular season games. The sport has about a two-week head-start on most winter sports that just held their first day of practice on Monday.
The 2018-19 season is a special one for girls’ hockey. The 16 teams that reach the two-class state tournament will compete in the milestone 25th anniversary event at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Here are five areas to keep an eye on this season:
1. Silver skaters
In 1995, Minnesota held the nation’s first girls’ hockey state tournament. This season culminates in No. 25, to be held Feb. 20-23. Beginning on Jan. 26, the Minnesota State High School League plans to start 25 days of celebration to conclude on the Tuesday of state tournament week. Among the features are a snapshot of each previous tournament.
In addition, the top six players of all time will be recognized on the Xcel Energy Center ice on championship Saturday.
Teams throughout the state are using the anniversary to honor their own heritage. On Nov. 29, The Blake School will celebrate state champion and Olympic gold medalist Dani Cameranesi. In January, Wayzata will bring back players from its inaugural team as well as members of the Trojans’ 2005 state tournament team.
Great depth of high-end talent made the Class 2018 special. Moreover, many of those players were standouts for three, four and even five years, making their graduation an opportunity for a fresh wave of young standouts. And there are plenty out there.
More than 25 freshmen and sophomores combined have made Division I college verbal commitments. Four ninth-graders have verbally committed to the Gophers: Allie Franco (Hill-Murray), Vivian Jungels (Edina), Madison Kaiser (Andover) and Rilee Winters (Cambridge-Isanti).
A pair of underclassmen asserted themselves for Wayzata during the team’s first two games. Sophomore Gretchen Branton tallied four goals in a season-opening victory against Mounds View. The next day, freshman Sloane Matthews posted four goals, including a natural hat trick in the third period, to defeat Eagan.
3. Ms. Hockey hopefuls
While the rising stars bring intrigue, the senior class should not be overlooked. Blake defender Madeline Wethington tops the shortlist of Ms. Hockey favorites. In August, Wethington competed alongside Olympic gold medalists as the only high school player on the U.S. Under-22 Women’s Select Team roster.
Other top seniors include Haylee Blinkhorn of Hill-Murray, Kate Boland of Northfield, Wethington’s Blake teammate Izzy Daniel, Kailey Langefels of Minnetonka, Mannon McMahon of Maple Grove, Ramsey Parent of Blaine and Sydney Shearen of White Bear Lake. Top senior goalies include White Bear Lake’s Calla Frank and Hill-Murray’s Ava Bailey.
4. Teams to watch
Two-time defending Class 2A state champion Edina returns enough talent to be in the mix. But with fellow power Blake also residing in Section 6, just getting to state is uncertain. Those teams sit atop the Let’s Play Hockey preseason poll, though the Hornets will drop from No. 1 after a 4-3 loss to No. 3 Andover on a memorable opening night for players and fans alike.
“Some of our players went to that game and said how great of an atmosphere and game it was,” Blake coach Shawn Reid said. “It’s awesome to see our sport continuing to gain traction.” Hill-Murray and Minnetonka completed the top five.
5. Key coaching changes
Defending Class 1A champion Breck lost coach Ronda (Curtin) Engelhardt, now a co-head coach of the Minnesota Whitecaps in the National Women’s Hockey League. Breck hired former Orono head coach Keith Radloff as the interim head coach this season. Tim Morris, who led Eden Prairie to a pair of state titles, left his assistant role at Blaine for the head coach job at Lakeville South. And Kristi King, whose Centennial team took second to Edina, now coaches at the University of St. Thomas. David Cole now coaches the Cougar’s program.