Young, offensively-skilled Pirates set up for bounce-back season
If Tuesday night was any indication, this year's Crookston boys' hockey team will look radically different than it did in 2019-20.
The Pirates looked to be left for dead in their season opener, trailing Kittson County Central 5-0 late in the second period, when Carter Trudeau scored just seconds before intermission. Then they came out of the locker room and promptly scored four third-period goals, two goals coming on either side of a Bearcat tally, and trailed just 6-5 with less than five minutes to go.
KCC held off Crookston's late charge to win, 7-5. But Tuesday night in Hallock was a wild, high-scoring barnburner — games which the Pirates didn't play many of last season.
"We have tons of offensive skill," said Crookston coach Josh Hardy on Wednesday. "We're going to be able to score goals. The question will be how strong we are defensively, and we have some work to do there."
A season ago, the opposite was true. Hardy didn't know if his team had quite the firepower to go blow-for-blow with Section 8A powers Warroad and East Grand Forks, but he believed that the Pirates would be able to compete behind a strong defense and a smart, counter-attacking style.
For much of the season, however, only the first of Hardy's assumptions proved true. Crookston was shut out seven times, and scored either zero or one goals in over half of its games. Injuries took their toll, too, and the Pirates lost their first 12 games, 18 of their first 19 and 22 of 27 games overall.
But when the Pirates scored, they scored in bunches — they averaged 6.6 goals in their five wins. Many of those goals came late in the year, too: Crookston went 3-3 down the stretch, and averaged over five goals per game to finish the season. There was optimism last season, if you knew where to look.
What's more, a number of the players who keyed those offensive explosions are back this season.
Things start with forward Jack Doda, who burst onto the scene a season ago. After playing on varsity as an eighth-grader and making an impact, Doda scored 22 goals and had 14 assists last season, the highest-scoring freshman campaign for a Pirate in over a decade. And Hardy's expecting him to make an even greater leap in 2021.
"He's physically stronger, and he's such a smart player," Hardy said. "I'm looking forward to watch him take the next step, which is to be a more dominant player on his own."
But it's not just Doda. Alex Longoria had an impressive freshman season in his own right, finishing fourth on the team in scoring with seven goals and six assists. He scored Crookston's fifth goal against the Bearcats. Trudeau, who scored the Pirates' opening goal, is only a freshman, having played bantams last season.
Upperclassmen also played a big role in Tuesday night's comeback. Kaleb Thingelstad, whose junior season was interrupted due to an injury, was involved in every Crookston goal, scoring two of them and assisting on three more. Senior Noah Kiel scored four goals last season, third among returners, and scored against Kittson Central as well.
"I'd say we're young, which is good for the future," Kiel said Wednesday. "But we got a lot of older guys that can skate the puck and help out the younger guys to make the team better in the future."
Still, sophomores make up 40 percent of the Pirates' roster. For all the positive signs, the team is still working through the challenges brought by this youth — in particular, Kiel said that Hardy and the rest of the coaching staff have emphasized communication.
"We haven't been talking too much, but that's partly because we have young kids and older kids," Kiel said. "Sometimes, the young kids are scared to talk to the older ones, that's just how it works. But as the season goes on, we'll get better."
Added senior Gavin Anderson: "High school hockey can be a scary thing. But if there's somebody alongside you, that can really help."
Another challenge Crookston faces this season is a relative lack of depth, in Hardy's words. Even though Hardy thinks his team has solid top-end skill and a strong core of defensemen, he expects numbers to be an issue, at least early on.
"With such a small roster, we need to get our legs under us pretty quick here," he said. "When we do that, I think we'll be pretty competitive."
One area where the Pirates don't lack depth is at goaltender, where they return seniors Noah Dragseth and Carter Nelson and sophomore Jaren Bailey, who all played varsity last season.
On Wednesday, Dragseth drew a laugh from his senior teammates when he mentioned goaltending as one of the team's biggest strengths, but it wasn't just self-promotion. Dragseth opened last season as the starter and ended up starting 20 games, missing time due to injury in January, and while he allowed 4.6 goals per game due to a high volume of shots faced, he posted an .884 save percentage.
Dragseth got the start Tuesday night in Hallock, stopping 37 of the 43 shots he faced. But Nelson and Bailey both got significant playing time last season as well, and Hardy expects to play each them at some point.
"Excited to have all three goalies back this year," he said. "... We will either keep rotating or one of these guys is going to take the reins and run with it."
Crookston's 5-22 record a season ago may not be the greatest set-up for any expectations of competing in Section 8A this season. A talented, but young, roster might be the precursor to doing so in the future, but it could mean a few struggles right now.
But that appears to be of secondary importance to the Pirates. For now, Hardy's simply proud of what his team has already accomplished, and excited for whatever lies ahead.
"The grit they showed coming back in our first game says a lot about the team," Hardy said. "Our senior leadership has been great so far in keeping everyone up and with a positive, optimistic attitude."
And those seniors, in particular, have weathered a long, uncertain offseason thanks to a global pandemic to get back on the ice.
"It's actually really nice," Thingelstad said. "(I was) scared we weren't gonna have a season. I wanna close the book and finish my last set of games."
Maybe that's all the Pirates could ask for, bounce-back season or not.
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