As Josh Hardy sits in front of a locker in the crowded coaches’ room, his voice carries through the cramped space and radiates energy and optimism, as does his body language. His actual words match this delivery.

“It seems like the top three teams in our section every year are Warroad, Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks,” the Crookston boys’ hockey coach said Thursday. “We consider ourselves in that tier.”

But here’s the catch.

“In the past, it hasn't necessarily shown to be that way.”

Warroad, Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks, in some order, have gone 1-2-3 in Section 8A in all but two of the last 11 seasons. Since 2011, the Pirates have gone just 6-42 against the trio.

The last team to make some sort of dent in the triumvirate, however? That’d be Crookston in 2018, when it placed third, ahead of Thief River Falls.

“I think that we've been taking some big steps in the last couple years to kinda solidify ourselves in that top-four discussion every year,” Hardy said. “Now we’ve gotta take that next step to contend for a section title.”

Crookston’s finished in the top half of the section in each of the last four seasons. If you were to pick a team from the section’s usual middle to break into the top, the Pirates would be as good a bet as any.

But Hardy knows that his steadfast belief in his team’s standing has to be accompanied by results. And he’s realistic on how Crookston will achieve them.

“We can’t play the exact same way that East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls, and Warroad play, and we gotta play our type of hockey and our type of game that’s gonna help us be successful,” Hardy said. “I think that's getting kids to buy into the system that's maybe a little bit a change from what they've played growing up, and I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage and helps us compete when maybe we don't have the numbers of those schools or necessarily the talent of those schools every year.”

In other words: don’t expect the Pirates to win many games 6-5 or 9-4, at least against the section’s powerhouses. In a wide-open game that’s heavy on attacking opportunities, sheer individual talent and depth will almost always win out. But those differences can be neutralized by the right system — a team tough enough to turn games ugly and organized enough to sit back and absorb pressure, but feisty enough to take advantage of an opponent’s mistake.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly the kind of team Hardy expects to have in 2019-20.

Crookston will look to sit back on defense and forego an aggressive forecheck, preferring to wait out its opponents in its own zone. The Pirates might take some chances in their own zone, trying to create a turnover leading to an odd-man rush on the counterattack, but they’re content to be outshot most nights, as long as their opportunities are better.

“There're some kids in the section who are already Division I committed,” Hardy said. “We don't necessarily have that, but I think that overall, top-to-bottom, our skill set in our forwards and defensemen are right up there with anybody.”

For any system, you need the players to run it, and forwards Ben Andringa and Joey Doda and defenseman Leyton Salentine, form a senior core that Hardy is fully confident in. Crookston should receive solid contributions from Quinn Westlake, Ty Hamre and Jack Doda as well, among others. The trick for Hardy, as it is with any coach, is putting them in the best position to succeed.

Should that happen...then, at least for the Pirates, why not them?

“We've got speed, we've got smart kids, strong kids,” Hardy said. “ … It comes down to the habits of being smart, good hockey players, and that's doing all the little things the right way. If we have kids that will do that, we can implement any system and have some success.”

PLAYER NOTES

Salentine missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but comes into this season ready to go after he spent the fall as the Pirates’ starting quarterback in football. That’s key for Crookston’s hopes, especially with the graduation of two key blueliners.

“We could have used him last year,” Hardy said. “But I think he’s going to step back in and be our number-one defenseman.”

Crookston also has to replace Eric Delorme, its leading scorer the last two years. To do so, it will look to Andringa, who scored 15 goals last year, Doda (12) and Quinn Westlake (five), along with Joey’s brother Jack Doda, who was fifth on the team in scoring (14 points) as just an eighth-grader.

“At practice he looks like a junior or a senior out there as a freshman,” Hardy said of Jack Doda. “So he's gonna have a really nice career for us, and I think a big year.”

Hardy, on his upperclassmen: “Ben and those guys are gonna be the guys that guys key on, so somebody else is going to have to step up to the plate. I think Quinn Westlake's gonna have a big year for us, he's got a nose for the net, and he can definitely get on the scoresheet quite a bit.”

On defense, Hardy also expects a solid performance from Ty Hamre in his senior year.

“(He) has taken some big steps defensively,” Hardy said. “He's a big-bodied kid who's gonna play quite a few minutes for us.”

Jack Ricord, last season’s primary goalie, graduated and took a 6-10-1 record and .877 save percentage with him. Noah Dragseth, who posted an .868 save percentage in 412 minutes last year, would seem to have the upper hand solely based on experience, but he’ll be pushed for playing time by Carter Nelson and Jaren Bailey.

SECTION 8A NOTES

Hardy singled out Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and East Grand Forks’ Landon Parker as players to watch looking around the section. Thief River Falls, in Hardy’s opinion, has the section’s best goalie in Noah Rupprecht.

“Two high-end forwards that we're gonna have to deal with and are older kids, juniors and seniors,” he said of Slukynsky and Parker. “If we're able to kind of focus on them and shut them down, hopefully we can have some success.”

Hardy believes Section 8A is one of the strongest sections in the state, not just because of the Warriors-Prowlers-Green Wave power trio, but because of dark horses like Detroit Lakes, which knocked the Pirates out of the playoffs last year, and Kittson Central.

“DL always gives us fits, they’re gonna be tough,” Hardy said. “I think Kittson’s gonna surprise a ton of people this year. They’ve got a ton of really skilled players and it’s always tough to go up there and play.”

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