It wasn't supposed to be like this. After losing a couple of star players to graduation, the Irondale girls' hockey juggernaut's state success would come to a close. Their time was over. Done.
At least that's what everybody else was saying.
"Everybody is waiting for this to end," coach Tom Rodefeld said Friday night, after Knights freshman Sena Hanson scored a goal with 18 seconds left to upset Mounds View 2-1 in the section finals.
"They're like, 'You've had a nice run, but, you know, I hope you enjoyed it.' And these girls just took that as motivation and just worked harder than they've ever worked."
The hard work paid off, and the reward is their third state tournament appearance in the past five years.
The dream lives on, thanks to an unconventional victory that included a stellar performance in net and two clutch goals.
"We knew Mounds View was Herculean," Rodefeld said of the Suburban East Conference champion Mustangs, who were 22-1-2 heading into Friday's game.
"We had a game plan. They stifled everything we tried to do. Our girls were working their tail off just to keep their head above water in a lot of ways, because everything we tried to do, Mounds View was just bigger, stronger, faster."
The naysayers were partially right. Rodefeld said the Knights deserved their sixth seed in the Section 5 bracket. They did, however, finish second in the North Suburban Conference with a 9-3 record. And they won when it counted.
In the section quarterfinals, Irondale upset No. 3-seeded Blaine 1-0 behind a 15-save shutout by Anna Pate. The Knights followed it up with a 6-5 barnburner over Centennial in the semifinals.
Before Friday's game against Mounds View, the team received an e-mail from Irondale alumnus Meghan Lorence, a sophomore forward with the Gophers and 2011 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
"The captains read it to [the girls] and that was really powerful," Rodefeld said. "And then we just started saying, 'You got to believe. Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe in this team?' In the locker room, you just saw everybody's energy pick up, and they just pushed like they've never pushed."
Big losses to graduation
Sure, the Knights graduated longtime scoring machines in Lorence and Gina McDonald, but this team has its own bright lights and identity.
Junior Samantha Donovan has scored 27 goals and 26 assists for a team-high 53 points this season. Junior Alex Toupal has registered 21 goals and 24 assists. Hanson has 25 goals on the season, but none were bigger than the two in the section tournament. Hanson scored the game-winner in the semifinals against Centennial last Tuesday. And she found the top-left corner in dramatic fashion Friday to trigger the upset.
Perhaps the most crucial competitor was Pate, a sophomore netminder who registered a 1.58 goals against average and .939 save percentage in three section tournament contests. Pate stayed home ill from school three out of five days last week while battling the flu. Dehydrated and weak, she still managed to play the best game of her young career against Mounds View.
Goaltending and clutch scoring will need to be the continuing formula for Irondale in St. Paul. The Knights face two-time defending state champion Minnetonka to open quarterfinal action on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.
"If Irondale does something well, it's play the underdog," Rodefeld said. "They love when people say 'You can't do this.' There's no better motivator for these girls."