Two years ago, Crookston girls’ hockey brought up a large class of eighth-graders. The class’ mission was even larger.

Save the program.

Like … literally.

When struggling pro teams take players with the top pick in the draft, those players often get tagged with the “franchise savior” immediately. The Pirates’ 10 eighth-graders fit that description too, but without them, Crookston girls’ hockey wouldn’t merely have struggled — it might not have existed.

The Pirates hadn’t won double-digit games since 2012. They’d gone 5-44-2 combined in their last two seasons. Without the eighth-graders, they would have had just 10 players. The school board held meetings with parents and kids and discussed the possibility of dropping the program.

“I don't know if it would have been forever,” said then-assistant coach Tim Moe, now Crookston’s head coach. “But once you don’t provide something, it's tough to get it back.”

Ultimately, with the players moving up from the youth ranks, the Pirates had enough to fill their roster. They won five games in 2017-18, four the year after that. But their biggest victory during those two seasons was merely putting a team on the ice.

“We knew we weren’t coaching for those years,” Moe said. “It was for this year, and it was for the next couple years, where we had to build our skill level of the kids who we had. We had to build their confidence up.”

Crookston graduated only one player in each of the last two seasons, and prior to this season, Moe anticipated the arrival of players from a talented 12U team. This fall, for the first time in a while, the Pirates were looking at a somewhat stocked cupboard.

Experience in Catherine Tiedemann, Kylee Meier, Kenzie Epema, Nora Peterson and Grace Koshney. Developing talent in Aleah Bienek, Rylee Solheim, Dillynn Wallace and Kendall Bergquist. Promising newcomers in Cassie Solheim, Raina Satrom and Morgan Nelson.

For the first three weeks of the season, though, the Pirates looked to be on the same old path. They started out 1-5, were defeated 8-0 in East Grand Forks, 10-0 in Warroad. But after the blowout against the Warriors, things started to change.

Moe doesn’t point to a specific event that set the change in motion. With the program he has and his vision for it, everything is gradual. But the results are clear — and over the last two weeks, Crookston might be the most improved team in Minnesota.

Two weekends ago, the Pirates beat Morris/Benson Area and Prairie Centre, scoring seven goals in two games and outshooting their opponents 78-25. Three days later, they went on the road and beat Bemidji, 4-0 — a win over a Class AA team, and their first conference win in years. They defeated Detroit Lakes 3-1 at home last Thursday and nearly came back from a three-goal deficit in Fergus Falls, only losing 6-5, three days ago.

“There’s a swagger to these girls right now,” Moe said after the win over the Lakers. “We were playing with confidence, and when we do that, we have some talent on this team.”

“Bigger, faster, stronger” has been Moe’s mantra for much of the season. First, in describing teams such as Warroad and East Grand Forks compared to Crookston. Lately, in describing the development of the Pirates themselves.

It’s been players like Peterson, starting to unlock her dynamic talent on a cohesive line with Solheim and Satrom. Nelson, who’s shot up to third on the team in scoring. Bienek, already a captain as a sophomore, who gutted out a minor injury against Fergus Falls.

“They took their lumps, but I think we’re seeing the benefits of their time in the program now and understanding things, they’re starting to see some success now,” Moe said. “You can just see it — the mood has changed in the locker room.”

After the first period Saturday, Moe heard his players bouncing constant words of encouragement off of each other. No panic at the 3-1 scoreline, just confidence and belief.

If Crookston had faced that scenario at the start of the season?

“It probably would have been another East Grand Forks situation where you start feeling down, like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Moe said. “But I think this past week has shown the kids that they can compete.”

Can they compete against East Grand Forks?

They’ll get another chance to prove that tonight when the Green Wave come to the Crookston Sports Center. Moe has high hopes for this game: for one, East Grand Forks might not quite be the world-beater it looked like on Nov. 21. It comes in just 5-4, lost by three goals to Bemidji and two goals to Fergus Falls. Common results indicate Crookston won’t get rolled over again.

“I think the kids do understand that was our first game of the year and that was their fourth, and they say you make the most improvements between the first and second games,” Moe said. “And it shouldn’t have been an eight-nothing score. That was not indicative of the type of team that we were even back then, but we’ve gotten so much better now.

“We’ve put kids in different positions since that first game, and found where they complement the team better, whether it's forward or defense or different lines. So I just think that going into Tuesday, we’re going to come in with a lot more confidence.”

Even if that doesn’t lead to a win, Tuesday’s game stands as a measuring stick — and the Pirates have put themselves in position to blow past where they previously stood.

At the start of the season, their words were the only thing that indicated that. Now, it’s their play too.

“We’re developing, and we’re getting ready to move onto the next level and be a good team,” Peterson said.

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