A year after missing the state tournament for the first time since 2012, the Hill-Murray girls' hockey team is headed back to Xcel Energy Center.
The Pioneers topped Stillwater 3-1 in the Class 2A, Section 4 final at Aldrich Ice Arena in Maplewood on Friday to earn their ninth state tournament appearance since 2011, avenging a 2-0 loss to White Bear Lake in last year's section final.
"It's definitely a great feeling to get back," Hill-Murray co-head coach Bill Schafhauser said. "You can never take it for granted."
Stillwater (21-6-1) played from behind for all but 3 minutes, 24 seconds as Hill-Murray senior forward Alex Belde put the Pioneers (18-9-1) up quickly in the first period and senior forward Nina Steigauf added another before the period was over.
"We took the period off. That's the story of the game," Stillwater coach Mira Jalosuo said. "When you don't start playing hockey when the puck drops, that's the outcome."
Still, Hill-Murray wasn't comfortable sitting on its lead.
"In the locker room between the first and second period I was like, 'We need to get one more goal,' " Belde said. "Just to put it in there that we're ready to play this game and we're in it to win it."
Belde did just that, scoring midway through the second period for a 3-0 lead. Stillwater's Morgan Wohlers scored early in the third.
Hill-Murray goaltender Rachel Kennedy finished with 18 saves.
The Pioneers are looking for their first state championship since they won back-to-back in 2014 and 2015.
Paul Hodowanic (email@example.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.