Anyone who saw Rachael Bona play in the Class 2A, Section 5 championship game can testify to her impact on the Coon Rapids girls' hockey team.
Bona scored twice in the first period before completing the hat trick in a 4-1 victory against Anoka that sent the Cardinals to the state tournament. Coon Rapids (23-5-0), the No. 4 seed, opens play against North Wright County (22-5-1) at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
But fans did not see Bona's efforts in the locker room. Before the game, she asked teammates to hold hands and close their eyes. Then she encouraged them to visualize a lead on the scoreboard as the final seconds ticked away and the aftermath of victory -- throwing sticks and gloves in jubilation as fans roared.
Bona has come close to this reality. The Cardinals lost in the section final to end her eighth-grade and ninth-grade seasons. Now a senior leading her team on and off the ice, Bona, a Ms. Hockey finalist, has become one of the pillars on which this state tournament run was built. Her skilled teammates came into their own, and first-year coach Jessica Christopherson helped make sure self-confidence was high and drama was nonexistent.
"I've never been on a team where literally every single girl wants it," Bona said. "That's how you win."
An eight-game winning streak to open the season showed promise. But in the span of two games, the Cardinals lost 5-4 in overtime to rival Blaine, then experienced a thrilling 5-3 comeback victory against defending state champion Roseville.
The low point came as the Cardinals dropped three of their next four games, to Edina, Lakeville South and Centennial.
"We started to doubt ourselves," Christopherson said. "We played a tough nonconference schedule, but I'd pinpoint that as the reason we're playing as well as we are right now."
Coon Rapids won rematches with Blaine and Centennial and rode a five-game winning streak into the playoffs. Such players as freshman forward/defenseman Amy Schlagel (21 goals, 25 assists), Addie Rust (10-17), Michelle Harris (10-13) and Brenna Paskey (8-19) provided offensive punch. And senior tri-captain Dani Lobejko (4-17) provided points and leadership. But the playoffs were Bona's showcase.
Bona reeled off four goals and two assists in the quarterfinals against Champlin Park, then got a hat trick against Irondale in the semifinals. Her two first-period goals helped put Anoka in a hole, and her third goal of the game came on a fantastic individual effort. Skating into Anoka's zone with two defensemen in front of her and a back-checking forward on her heels, Bona cut toward the net and tucked the puck just under the crossbar with a wrist shot. The goal was Bona's 53rd this season, but she is more than an offensive force.
"She brings so much to our team," Christopherson said. "She scores, she back-checks, she breaks the puck out, she finds teammates -- some of those things go unnoticed. She knows the game and sees the ice better than anyone I've seen at this level."
At Bona's urging, the Cardinals saw themselves winning the section final. And now, they all get to share in a dream.
"This was my one goal," Bona said. "I'm first-team [Star-Tribune] All-Metro, I'm a Ms. Hockey finalist -- but this is what I wanted more than anything. I wanted to go to state with my team."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574