It had been five years since the Pirates had done what they did last Thursday, but Tim Moe didn't seem particularly interested in taking it all in.
"We're thinking about what's gonna happen in practice tomorrow," Moe said after Crookston's 3-2 win over Detroit Lakes in the Section 8A play-in game, "and what's gonna give us the best chance to get ready for Warroad."
Moe understood, though, that his team's best chance against the juggernaut Warriors was slim to none. Coming off a 4-19-1 season, taking down the second-ranked team in the state appeared to be a bar too high to climb. And it was.
Crookston girls' hockey fell to Warroad, 12-0, in the Section 8A semifinals on Saturday in Thief River Falls, bringing a resurgent season to an end with a 12-14 overall record and a 3-6 section mark.
The Pirates accomplished plenty in Moe's second season as head coach: winning double-digit games for the first time in seven years, hosting — and winning — a playoff game for the first time in five. The end of the season grants an opportunity to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly of the last few months. Crookston won't be doing much of that.
Instead, the Pirates will be back in the weight room on Monday. Some have spring sports to prepare for. Others simply want to get after it.
"They saw how good Warroad is," Moe said. "If we're going to compete with them, we have to get better."
Moe has long stressed that this is a step Crookston needed to take this season: not merely beating bad teams, but losing to good ones and learning from the experience. There's plenty the Pirates can take in defeat on Saturday.
First and foremost on Moe's mind was the Warriors' cohesiveness. They average nearly seven goals per game, and have four players who average at least two points per contest, led by star forward Hannah Corneliusen's 50 goals in 25 games. For Crookston to take the next step, Moe believes it will need to emulate the way Warroad fits all the pieces together.
"We have some good skill," Moe said. "When we play against a team that has a couple good players but not the depth that Warroad has, you saw us have success. We can beat people individually, but we don't have five kids who are looking for that extra pass, looking when they don't have the puck, getting to those areas that they can be a great option for their teammates to pass to."
This isn't a fault of the players themselves, but of years of bare cupboards. Year in and year out, the Warriors have seemingly endless arrays of skilled players who just know how to work together, a consistency bred by success. In essence, Warroad is good this year because it always is, not because it randomly came across a collection of talent unparalleled in Minnesota.
"This starts down in the youth levels," Moe said. "When you just don't have the depth, when you're counted on to go score a goal for the team, go use your individual skills to make something happen and you don't have four other players on the ice with you who are going at the same speed and thinking the game at that same level, it's difficult to learn how to pass the puck and learn how to trust other people to pass the puck to them.
"I think that might be the biggest thing, as our depth gets better and our skills get better. We just need to keep getting that experience to trust each other in order to play as that cohesive five-person unit out on the ice."
Moe did allow himself to look back somewhat in defeat. Some resting on laurels, sure. But mostly, at a bittersweet ending for the Pirates' four seniors: Kaydin Brule, Taylor Garrett, Breck Fugelberg and Kylee Meier. They played as large a role as any in Crookston's rise this year, but won't be around to reap it in full.
"They provided great leadership for us, and with the two Mayville seniors (Garrett and Fugelberg), they really solidified the co-op as it is today with their hard work and dedication and just the great kids that they are," Moe said. "It's gonna be tough going forward without them because you lose that leadership."
But the Pirates likely won't lack that for long. They'll have a much larger contingent of upperclassmen next season and return almost all of their scoring, defending and goaltending. That includes Grace Koshney (Jr., G), a first team All-Section 8A selection, Nora Peterson (Jr., F), who was named to the second team, and Moe himself — the section's head coach of the year.
This year, that wasn't enough to compete with the best of the best. Maybe it will be next year. But even though the scoreline didn't show it on Saturday, Moe thought the game itself reflected Crookston's massive improvement, even over the course of this season.
The Warriors beat the Pirates 10-0 on Dec. 4, outshooting them 56-4. On Saturday, the shot differential was 36-5. The gap is closing ever so slightly, and even in defeat, Crookston can learn what will allow it to close it even more.
"When you look at it, we had more scoring chances than we did the first time we played them, and we competed hard all the way through," Moe said. "I don't think anybody could have walked out of the arena last night thinking that the Crookston Pirates gave up."
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