With lean years over, Pirates think their brightest days are ahead of them
All the evidence lies in the Crookston girls' hockey team's schedule.
Last season, the Pirates' schedule consisted of teams with a combined winning percentage well below .400. It was the kind of slate a team puts together when it's young and looking to develop some confidence. That's what Crookston was at the time.
This season, Crookston' 18-game schedule, which starts at home Thursday night against Thief River Falls, has an opposing winning percentage close to .500. The Pirates will travel to last season's Section 8AA champion, Roseau. They'll face defending Section 8A champ Warroad twice as opposed to last season's one meeting. There are three games against East Grand Forks. North Dakota State Tournament qualifier Fargo North-South makes an appearance too.
The subtext is plain as day. These games wouldn't be on Crookston's schedule if it didn't think it could win them.
"We tried to schedule for where we were at in the past couple years," said third-year head coach Tim Moe. "We were able to go and compete in those years with the idea ... to get us back to where we could go compete with the Roseaus of the world."
The Pirates think they've reached that point now.
Crookston, once a perennial contender for section crowns and state appearances, fell on hard times in the mid-2010s. The specifics of them aren't secrets to anyone around or inside the program. From 2014 to 2017, the Pirates won just 10 games — total. Numbers dwindled. In 2017, the school board discussed dropping girls' hockey entirely.
But just enough young talent continued to move up through the Crookston youth hockey system for the team to survive. Then, after two years of building, a breakthrough.
The Pirates went 12-14 in 2019-20, their most wins in seven years. They swept Bemidji; nearly took down Thief River Falls on multiple occasions. Their season ended with a 12-0 loss to Warroad in the section quarterfinals, but not before a 3-2 win over Detroit Lakes in the Section 8A play-in — their first playoff win in five seasons.
To them, that was just the start.
"In the past, some of the games we'd go into, we were maybe hoping to survive," Moe said. "Now, for maybe the first time in a long time — as long as I can remember — we're gonna be going in with expectations to go win some games we didn't even think we could compete in the past couple years."
One reason why: Crookston's sheer numbers. The Pirates only lost four players to graduation last season — a silver lining of being young. Moe thinks he'll be able to roll out third and fourth lines full of players that might have been forced onto the first line in past seasons. He believes his team has as many as seven capable defensemen, so many that he's already moved one of last season's blueliners, junior Dillynn Wallace, to forward.
This isn't just a strength relative to where Crookston has been, either. Typically, Moe says, both boys' and girls' high school teams have three lines of forwards and two defense pairings. The Pirates have surpluses at every position.
"We have more depth than we've had in years, and we're all pretty skilled and talented," said sophomore forward Grace Fischer. "... And our teamwork, we've all just come together closer as a team and our skills have improved together."
As to how Crookston will look on the ice, Moe thinks that depth, especially on defense, will give his team an identity. The Pirates gave up just 3.3 goals per game last season, second-best in Section 8A behind Warroad. They return the focal points of that unit, including senior Kenze Epema, the most experienced of the blueliners, junior Rylee Solheim and freshman Morgan Nelson.
In goal, there's sophomore Kailee Magsam, who as a freshman went 3-3 with an 85.6 save percentage. Moe hopes Magsam, who's going into just her third year of playing hockey, can simply be "steady."
"She's made great strides," Moe said. "But we're gonna have to do things to protect her. ... We don't need Kailee to be unbelievable, we just need her to do what she's done for us in the past."
Moe's "anxious" about where goals will come from at the moment, particularly because the Pirates were shut out in each of their first two games last season. But that doesn't mean he's pessimistic.
Crookston's defensemen — particularly Nelson and Epema — also have the ability to jump into the attack. Nelson (five goals, six assists) and Epema (two goals, eight assists) were fifth and sixth on the team in points last season, respectively.
"We're kind of changing our playing style maybe a little bit, taking some more risks that way with getting defensemen into the play," Moe said. "Because we wanna be able to score goals."
Senior forward Catherine Tiedemann, the team's mainstay for years running, will likely be looking to return to her sophomore form, in which she scored 14 goals, after a junior season in which she scored just four. Then there's senior Nora Peterson, who broke out last season to the tune of 17 goals and 12 assists, leading the team in both categories.
"She looked dynamic at times last year," Moe said of Peterson, who's from Mayville, N.D. but plays with the Pirates as part of a co-op arrangement. "But this year, just watching her at practice, there's an extra gear to her compared to last year already. She definitely got bigger, faster, stronger."
If Crookston had one weakness above any other last year, it was just that. Moe made use of the phrase "bigger, faster, stronger" on many an occasion, as the Pirates would frequently be physically overwhelmed due to their age and inexperience.
Making up that gap has been tough, Moe admitted, in the time of COVID-19. With weight rooms and gyms closed at times, it fell on the players themselves to build strength, which many did. Moe also credited assistant coach Emily Meyer, who used her background in exercise physiology to put together training programs for the players to do at home.
"I think we've been able to do the most with the hand that we've been dealt," Moe said.
For all the leaps the Pirates have taken, for all the confidence they've developed, Moe has made sure to tell them the truth: "we haven't won anything yet." Merely being a year older, a year stronger, a year more skilled doesn't mean that wins are "just gonna be handed to us." He and his team know that the only place they'll see the payoff of their hard work is on the ice.
One thing Moe has stressed to his players is how different high school hockey is from youth levels. Things are more serious now — these are the bright lights.
"It's nice to have some expectations for yourself that you can go out and compete, and really show the community," Moe said. "This isn't youth hockey anymore. This is about the community, and the pride that they put into seeing what you're able to do."
And if the Pirates improve at the rate they did last season, Crookston might get a show the likes of which it hasn't gotten in years.
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