Mark Johnson wasn’t sure what to expect returning to the Lakeville school district to coach girls’ hockey. He previously was an assistant coach in the district when there was only one school but was now stepping in to replace Natalie Darwitz at the helm of the South program.

“It’s not always easy for players to make a switch to a new coach,” Johnson said. “These girls have a tremendous work ethic and a wanting to learn that has made the transition to Lakeville South a pleasurable one for me.”

Johnson served as an assistant coach in the district from 2001-04. He was most recently an assistant coach with the Hill-Murray boys’ program.

“It’s not easy for players to work with a new coach and new systems,” Johnson said. “These girls have made the transition very well.”

The smooth transition has a lot to do with the leadership of nine seniors, four of whom are captains. They are forwards Janna Haeg and Maddie Nelson, defenseman Tea Baker and goalie Chloe Crosby.

“They have done a great job keeping everybody working hard,” Johnson said. “The girls have been really excited to learn, and their passion for the game has been remarkable.”

They achieved their first goal of defending their South Suburban Conference title with a 4-0 victory over Shakopee on Tuesday.

“We lost our core group from last year, but we still have a good set of seniors and juniors,” said Haeg, who leads the team in scoring with 17 goals and 21 assists for 38 points. “We’ve played pretty well all season.”

Haeg, who also was the team’s leading scorer last season, will be the first to tell you that success has been based on being a well-rounded team.

“We have an unreal forecheck,” Haeg said. “That is our strongest asset.”

The Class 2A, No. 12 Cougars (17-5-2 with one game left) have six players with six or more goals this season. Fourteen different players have netted a goal.

“We have been able to keep three steady lines working together throughout the season,” Johnson said. “We value our depth. Being able to roll three lines consistently is a great attribute.”

The Cougars have also been strong in their own end of the ice. They have given 43 goals, 22 of which have come in their five losses. They are allowing 1.79 goals per game.

Crosby has played 17 of the 23 games in net. She and sophomore Lexi Baker have combined for seven shutouts.

“It’s a pleasure to come to the rink late in the season when the team is still smiling and everyone is maintaining a great work ethic,” Johnson said.

Sights are now set on winning the Section 1 title and earning a return trip to the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center.

“It’s nice to check your goals off the list — conference, section and state,” Haeg said. “We want to get back to the state tournament, and do better than last year.”