The last decade has been a lean one for Crookston girls’ hockey.
Once one of the most powerful teams in Section 8A, the Pirates haven’t won double-digit games or had a winning record since 2013. They finished 4-19-1 last season, only ahead of winless Park Rapids in the section.
Winning? Sure, it’s nice. No one would rather lose games than win them.
But losing? It forces you to grow up quick.
“We just kinda stayed more positive with each other,” said junior Catherine Tiedemann. “We really needed to do that last year because of our record. It wasn't the best, it wasn't what we wanted it to turn out to be, but we kept our heads high.”
Every new season brings the promise of change. A return to glory days, in Crookston’s case. And this winter, the Pirates hope that a mentality forged by struggle can start to propel them back to the top.
“We had some injury issues, adversity, we faced that and now we've got everybody back healthy and we've got some young kids moving in from the youth levels,” said head coach Tim Moe. “We are very optimistic this year.”
Growing up quick means that youth is tested. One trying season can pack two years’ worth of lessons. Tiedemann, for example, has been on varsity for the last four years and the Pirates’ leading scorer for the last two.
Beyond that, Nora Peterson and Aleah Bienek, their second and third-leading scorers, are back as well. Kylee Meier, the fifth-leading scorer from two years ago, returns after a knee injury. Overall, Crookston returns 15 of its top 16 scorers, in front of a seasoned goaltender in Grace Koshney.
“I think that we have more talent as a whole instead of just individuals,” Tiedemann said. “So it's easier to work together.”
Tiedemann cited numbers as the Pirates’ biggest strength, as did Moe.
“We have six defensemen who can play at the varsity level, which just two years ago we had a tough time just finding three just warm bodies to put out to play in the game,” Moe said. “I think we have depth now in our forward lines. We have three lines that we think can play and score goals for us.”
All that returning experience means that Crookston might be able to play a more attacking style this season, especially with a trusted netminder and blueline unit.
“We think that we have more offensive talent than we have in the past,” Moe said. “We think we have more depth so we're gonna play a lot of kids and we're gonna try to be more aggressive offensively. In the past, we're on our heels all the time because we're playing against teams that are bigger, faster, stronger than us, so we're looking to take forward strides in the offensive zone.”
But even with these reasons for hope, Crookston still has its backs against the wall. Park Rapids, which all its recent section wins have come against, is no longer fielding a team, meaning the Pirates will have to up their game that much more to stay competitive in a district dominated by Warroad, Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks.
“My goals are always to win the section academic championship, and to represent Crookston and the community and ourselves really well,” Moe said. “ … I've always felt that if you take care of the little things, the wins will take care of themselves.”
Pirates figuring out full roster
Crookston’s roster includes girls from three other communities: Fisher, and Hatton and Mayville in North Dakota.
The Pirates have one player each from Fisher and Hatton and six from Mayville, including three who joined the team just this week after volleyball season finished. Bringing players from different schools and different communities together is just one of the permanent challenges of this level of high school hockey.
“They're all great kids, have come in and worked hard and they seem to be all getting along really well,” Moe said. “Four of the Mayville girls played with us last year, so there's familiarity there.”
One of those returners is Koshney, who came in last year and won the starting job in net almost immediately. Since her position is so different, and somewhat isolated from the team on the ice, it might be easier for her to settle in.
Furthermore, Koshney excelled last season, even though she faced constant barrages. She recorded an 86.0% save percentage while averaging 28.3 saves, giving Crookston a backstop that it can rely on. With Koshney having asserted herself at the position, Moe expects her to play with even more confidence.
“She's an athletic kid who has a lot of skill at that position,” Moe said. “ … The kids like her and I think that it's maybe a little bit easier for her. She's really not competing for playing time.”
Green Wave rivalry has lost its luster
The Pirates open their season at 7:30 p.m. tonight at East Grand Forks, their closest rival, but a team that they have not beaten since 2012.
No one in blue and yellow struggles to get up any extra for games against the Green Wave. But the same can’t really be said for East Grand Forks.
“For me it's a big deal but I think for their kids it's maybe not such a big deal anymore,” Moe said. “Until we can compete I don't know if we can really call it a rivalry at the moment.”
Moe would understand this better than most. He’s from East Grand Forks, knows many Green Wave parents and coaches and pictures from his playing career still line the walls at the civic center. To him, while the rivalry isn’t dead, Crookston’s recent struggles have rendered it dormant at best.
But there’s a pretty easy fix: the Pirates start to win games.
Even keeping the score close and competitive, in the first game of the season, might send a statement to both schools that this year, and the years to come, will be a little different. And with East Grand Forks having lost a good number of players to graduation, Crookston’s opportunity might be there for the taking.
“That's my biggest goal,” Moe said. “To be able to compete against those top teams in the section.”
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