Legacy Christian, a three-school cooperative, has made dramatic strides after taking its hockey "knocks.''
The Legacy Christian Academy boys' hockey team began this season with high expectations. Two years of finishing last in its conference had been followed by two more of steady improvement, including a first-ever winning record last year.
When the puck dropped for the Lions' season opener with Armstrong, the hopes were to advance farther in the section playoffs than ever before.
But they lost by seven goals, to a team now near the bottom of the Northwest Suburban conference.
"I think that game just became a wake-up call for all of us," coach Steven Larson said. "When you begin to think that you have the likelihood of being a pretty good team, the risk is that players and coaches think, 'Hey, if we just show up, we're going to win games.' And I think we were a little guilty of that early in the season."
Larson said once his players remembered they had to play every game to their fullest potential, the season began to turn and eventually included a 10-game winning streak.
For a team that only won four games in its first varsity season, Legacy Christian was 17-5-2 and in third place in the Two Rivers Conference heading into Tuesday night's game against St. Paul Highland Park.
The improvement, Larson said, was all part of a plan.
"When we started, we had a really young program and the kids took their knocks," he said. "But now that they've gotten older, they've just progressed and the program's progressed. ... It is a group of kids who wasn't used to winning because they were young and they were getting beat a lot. But they've learned how to win."
The winning mentality took six years and three schools to cultivate. Legacy Christian Academy, formerly Meadow Creek Christian School, is a nearly 40-year-old private Christian school in Andover. It and PACT Charter School never had teams before and formed a cooperative six years ago. Concordia Academy, previously in a cooperative with two other schools, joined four years later.
Concordia provided junior Brock Thompson, the team's leading scorer with 44 points this season. Two Legacy Christian players follow Thompson: Senior Ike Larson has 40 points and junior Tyler Arenz has 35.
Larson and Arenz share a line while Thompson plays on a line with two Concordia players, junior Elmo Holleran and senior Brandon Leier.
"Tyler and Ike definitely have a connection because they've been playing together for so long," Thompson said. "And on my line, I have my two buddies from Concordia. So I feel like you have one of the Legacy lines and one of the Concordia lines and we both kind of just, we fit better together."
Junior varsity coach Tucker Arenz, Tyler's brother, played on the first incarnation of the team six years ago.
"When it started, we had one line that could put the puck in the net and the other ones would hope to keep it out," Arenz said. "And now we've got three lines that we can rotate and it doesn't make a difference."
In net, junior goaltender Tanner Balk has a save percentage of about 91 percent.
"I feel like every game it's my responsibility to kind of get us the win," Balk said. "Because if we can't get goals, I need to shut them down."
Larson, the coach's son, recently broke the school's record for points and also broke the career assists record.
"Coming into the season, I knew that it was a possibility that it could happen. But it wasn't my first goal," Larson said. "Obviously, the team comes first."
He isn't the only school record-holder this season. Balk broke the school record for most shutouts in a season and career and Thompson broke the record for most goals in a season.
The team hopes to become the first to win at least 20 games in a season. That goal goes hand in hand with another one: winning more than one Class 1A, Section 5 playoff game. A third goal is to win the state tournament.
"This year, I think, is the first year that we have had a team of majority upperclassmen," Thompson said. "So I feel like the leadership is greater than it was in the years past. So I feel like we could make an impression on the playoffs this year."
Megan Ryan is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.