On the bus, Catherine Tiedemann, all of a sudden, turned to her head coach.
"Hey, we won double digits."
Winning at least 10 games was one of Tim Moe's goals before Crookston girls' hockey began the season in November. On Saturday, with a 4-2 win at International Falls, the Pirates achieved it.
On Tuesday, with a 2-1 win over Bemidji, Crookston finished the regular season with an 11-13 record, taking momentum into a home playoff game against Detroit Lakes on Thursday.
The Pirates have not hosted a playoff game in five years. They have not won this many games in seven.
"This is something that the coaching staff and the people around the program knew was coming," Moe said. "But now there's expectations on these kids. Get first round at home in the playoffs. Win in the playoffs. Get double-digit victories. Go out and compete against a Bemidji.
"As you get into these situations, they become more normal for you. But this is not normal for Crookston girls' hockey."
As the man most in charge of the Pirates' rebuild, Moe's been able to look at his team's rapid ascension with clear eyes. His players have gotten older, stronger, more experienced and more skilled. They were always going to.
Last year, Moe believed Crookston took steps, even though its 4-19-1 record didn't show it. It competed in overtime and one-goal games and had a number of injuries. With younger, talented players coming into the program and a healthy, more mature roster, Moe knew success was on the way.
But a young athlete's focus is naturally much narrower than that of their coach. And in recent years, losing is all the Pirates have known.
"It wasn't a surprise for us," Moe said. "But I don't think the girls believed me right away when I told them that we were gonna be good."
Tiedemann's sudden exclamation on the way back from International Falls serves as an example. So does Nora Peterson, Crookston's leading scorer this year and responsible for the game-tying goal on Tuesday.
"I expected us to be a little better," the junior forward said. "I didn't expect us to get as far as we did."
In recent weeks, that surprise has manifested itself into a kind of "nervousness," in the words of sophomore defenseman, Rylee Solheim — the game-winning goalscorer against Bemidji. The Pirates have a true senior class now. They have real competition for playing time. They're playing in games that matter.
As a result, Solheim believes Crookston has been "holding back" somewhat: still adjusting to how good it is already, and how much is on the stake as it prepares to open the postseason. This showed against the Lumberjacks in the first two periods, in which the Pirates were outshot 25-6 and trailed 1-0.
"We were kind of just passing the puck and throwing it everywhere," Solheim said. "We talked in the locker room and started to calm down a little bit and just chill."
In the final period, Crookston put an entirely different team on the ice. It asserted control over the game, out-shooting Bemidji 12-7 and scoring twice. On the bench, all Moe heard for the last five minutes was confidence. The Pirates knew they had the tired Lumberjacks on the ropes.
"You just have to take it as momentum," Moe said. "Great third period, have to go into practice tomorrow and then build into Thursday and just ride it as long as you can."
Crookston will be favored against the Lakers, a team which it swept in the regular season. With increased expectations come more pressure and nerves. Against Bemidji, the Pirates showed they can deal with them, but the pressure will only be intensified on Thursday.
Outside expectations may have risen. But Moe and the coaching staff aren't expecting anything different from the team, only that they do the same things that got them here in the first place.
Sure, the return of playoff hockey to Crookston is nerve-wracking. But at the same time, as the Pirates learn to deal with new expectations, they're also adjusting to the positives.
"I think it means a lot to the community to finally see us getting some wins," Solheim said. "Especially to us, because we've always been looked down on, and we're finally getting somewhere."
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