Mike Taylor will be the first to tell you "sometimes it's easier getting to the top than staying on top."
The Eagan boys' hockey coach has guided the Wildcats to back-to-back appearances in the Class 2A state tournament. His squad wound up sixth last year after finishing third in 2011.
"We have steadily built this program," said Taylor, who is in his 10th season at the helm. The Wildcats' only previous state tournament appearance came in 2006. "Once you build a tradition, more kids want to be a part of it."
Senior forward Cullen Willox is one of those kids. He has had a first-hand look at the growth of the program since his childhood playing days.
"Coming up through the program, we were always told 'hard work will beat talent if talent doesn't work hard,'" Willox said. "You have to work hard if you want to win."
Eagan has done just that this season. The Wildcats are 9-2-1. They have won at least 20 games in each of the previous three seasons.
"I thought we could do better than where we finished last year," said Willox, the team's second-leading scorer with 12 goals and 10 assists on the season. "We didn't accomplish what we wanted, and now we have a chip on our shoulder this year."
The Wildcats graduated six seniors who are either playing Division I or junior hockey from last year's squad. That group finished 25-5-1, with two of those setbacks coming in the state tournament.
"We had some good teams, and then that great group came through our program," Taylor said. "You don't get to coach classes like that very often."
Naturally, that led people to wonder how good Taylor's group would be in 2012-13.
"I knew our top end players would still be very skilled," Taylor said. "It was a matter of developing our secondary scoring, and adding some depth."
The Wildcats have seven players who have scored at least five goals. Senior forward Zach Glienke leads the team with 14 goals and 15 assists.
"We had to get better every day, and do it quickly because of how tough our schedule was at the beginning," Taylor said. "I knew if they bought into the team concept we could be pretty good, and they have done that."
Their best performance of the season came a week before Christmas. Eagan went into Burnsville and came away with a 4-2 victory over the preseason favorite to win the South Suburban Conference..
"Our kids played their most complete game of the season," Taylor said. "They have a lot of respect for Burnsville, and know what kind of effort it takes to beat them. It was a complete 51-minute effort."
It's the kind of effort Eagan plans on giving every game as it pushes toward making its third consecutive state tournament trip.
"Obviously, everybody was talking about Eagan last year," Willox said. "Everybody thought we would be done this year. We lost a lot of talent, but I thought we would still be fine. We're working hard to accomplish our goals."
Ron Haggstrom • 612-673-4498