Crookston's three seniors leave not only legacy, but bright future
At its heart, this story is a fairly simple one.
Catherine Tiedemann and Kenze Epema joined the Crookston girls' hockey team in seventh grade. In Tiedemann and Epema's sophomore year, they were joined by Nora Peterson, a talented forward from Mayville, N.D. For the last three years — six in the case of Tiedemann and Epema — this group has made up the Pirates' core.
It's a core that's seen and been through plenty. During their careers, Crookston's lost games — a lot. Some years, the Pirates barely had enough players to scrape by. The program's existence itself teetered on the brink at one point. It's thanks in great deal to Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann that Crookston even has a girls' hockey team today.
And currently, that team is light-years away from the team Tiedemann and Epema were brought up to six years ago, and even the team Peterson joined in the fall of 2018.
The Pirates are winning now. This season, they pushed a .500 record for the second straight year, earned the No. 3 seed in Section 8A, and beat rival East Grand Forks for the first time in 19 games. They have plenty of young, talented players, with many more rising through the youth ranks. Crookston's future is brighter than it's been in years.
Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann played their final high school game last week. It was an ending, in some form, for all three. Though things may change, none currently have plans to play hockey at the next level. If that remains the case, they'll have taken hockey as far as they can, their passion for the sport carrying them all the way.
The restoration of Crookston girls' hockey is a complex tale. But for the three seniors at the center of it, it boils down simply to the determination to keep playing the game they love for as long as they can.
That love and that determination is why Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann leave the program in better shape than they found it.
Epema and Tiedemann were in skates as soon as they could walk. In hockey-mad Minnesota, that's hardly uncommon. But the next step on their journey was.
There weren't many other young girls in Crookston's youth hockey system, so Epema and Tiedemann played on boys' teams throughout their Mite, Squirt and Peewee careers. As soon as they became seventh-graders, they were elevated to the Pirates' varsity squad, bypassing junior varsity entirely. Crookston needed players then, no matter how young.
"We knew that we were gonna have a little bit of a lull in numbers for girls for a little bit before we could build it back up," Epema said.
The Pirates went 2-23 that season. They lost 15-0 to Thief River Falls, 16-1 to Warroad. With their numbers, they simply couldn't compete.
Tiedemann carefully chooses her words. "There wasn't a team," she says, before clarifying that what she means is a program. An institution that needed to be built, rather than a loose, sparse collection of players.
But the latter was the Pirates' situation, which necessitated Tiedemann and Epema's presence on varsity. Still, the two were seventh and eighth-graders, and weren't yet at the level to help the team win games. Crookston went 3-21-2 in Tiedemann and Epema's second year on varsity, losing one-third of their games by at least nine goals.
"The biggest challenge was coming back the next day and the next day after continuously losing and losing," Tiedemann said.
There were benefits, sure. The two grew up fast, developing their skills and strength at a quicker rate than they would have otherwise. They became close friends. And win or lose, what mattered most was the fact they got to play at all.
But by Epema and Tiedemann's freshman seasons, even that was threatened.
Crookston was set to have just 10 players between its freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes. In meetings with parents and athletes, the Crookston school board discussed the possibility of dropping the program, or maybe forming a co-op with another school.
Ultimately, a large crop of eighth-graders was elevated to varsity, and the Pirates fielded a team in 2017-18. While they won just five games, the tide was starting to turn, if only ever so slightly and hardly in a tangible sense.
By now, Tiedemann and Epema were two of the team's most experienced players. Tiedemann led Crookston in scoring, with 14 goals and nine assists. Epema was second, with eight goals and 10 assists. Their individual careers had become promising, but to keep those careers going, they needed a program.
"Everything needed to be changed," Tiedemann said. "Everyone needed to want to be there for our program to get better, to win games, to play as a team."
Epema and Tiedemann's sense of responsibility grew. Now more than ever, it was time to change the Pirates' culture; ensure that every player loved being on the ice as much as them.
"I just knew that I really enjoyed the sport and I wanted to play it," Epema said. "... Varsity hockey is super fun, especially being able to play it knowing the younger kids got something to look forward to."
More changes came in the fall of 2018.
After completing her final season of bantams in Mayville, Peterson arrived, the result of a co-op agreement between Crookston and Mayville. In her, the Pirates gained another foundational player.
Peterson's hockey journey was different from that of Epema and Tiedemann. She only started playing hockey in fourth grade, knowing how to skate and nothing else. But she learned the nuances of the game quickly, and progressed through Mayville's youth system.
By the time Peterson joined the Pirates as a sophomore, Crookston coach Tim Moe could tell right away.
"She's just a dynamic player," Moe said. "You saw the athleticism, the speed, the shot, the strength. That was something that we hadn't seen around here for a long time."
The addition of Peterson meant another playmaker, and less pressure on Epema and Tiedemann to carry the team. But her biggest impact, to Moe, came during practice.
"We saw a whole another level when Nora came in," Moe said. "We saw where we had to get. She was probably that extra push that we needed for the kids who were already here to push themselves just a little bit harder."
Peterson remembers coming in with low expectations. She had talked to juniors and seniors on the team about the Pirates' recent string of losing seasons. But on the flip side, she was excited, knowing that she had the chance to play a huge role in the team's potential revival.
In this regard, she fit right in. She made an immediate impact, scoring eight goals and adding seven assists her sophomore season, and finished as Crookston's second-leading scorer behind Tiedemann.
Acclimating off the ice was tougher. Peterson and other Pirates from Mayville often missed out on after-practice events, as they lived nearly an hour away from the rest of their teammates. Communicating and coordinating activities outside of practice was a challenge.
In the beginning, Tiedemann remembers Peterson being quiet, preferring to stick with her classmate Grace Koshney, a goaltender who also joined the team that year. (Koshney did not play her senior season due to concerns over COVID-19). "Her and Grace were their own little duo," Tiedemann said.
But no matter how many miles and how many years of experience on the team separated Peterson from her teammates, the Pirates welcomed her with open arms.
"Once we got used to each other, we became pretty good friends," Tiedemann said. "... I'm assuming it was tough, a whole team of new people. But she's outgoing once you get to know her."
Added Peterson: "(Epema and Tiedemann) were just really nice to me. They got me adjusted fast. ... We did a good job of getting to know each other and team bonding. Doing stuff outside of the rink and outside of practice."
Peterson's arrival coincided with, and hastened, a breakout season in 2019, when she, Epema and Tiedemann were juniors. Aided by a large group of eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores, Crookston jumped from four wins the previous season to 12 — its first season winning double-digit games since 2013 — and won its first playoff game in five years.
Peterson took the reins, scoring 17 goals and 12 assists, while Epema and Tiedemann gave their usual contributions as well.
The long rebuild looked like it was starting to pay off. Now, coming into their senior seasons, Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann wanted to prove it wasn't a fluke.
Before the 2021 season began, Moe sat down with a number of players, including Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann. The Pirates' performance the year before had surprised them. They weren't exactly expecting to be as good as they were just yet. They didn't think tripling their win total in a single season was attainable.
Suddenly, Crookston was ahead of schedule. Its seniors had to adjust their mentality once more.
While the Pirates' record didn't improve, they took on a tougher schedule than they did the year before. They consistently outshot opponents, using a deep roster and suffocating forecheck to compete with just about everyone they faced. For the first time in years, they earned a high enough seed to avoid the Section 8A play-in game.
"It was good to know that it wasn't a plateau, that we could still build and still get better," Peterson said.
It was exactly the team the seniors had dreamed of playing on their entire career. And much of it stemmed from a simple desire that the younger versions of Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann shared.
"I just really loved hockey," Tiedemann said. "I knew that if I wanted to continue to enjoy playing, the team needed to enjoy being on the ice and playing."
To Moe, what stands out most about his three seniors isn't what they achieved over the careers — it's what they set the table for.
Reese Swanson, a freshman, was Crookston's second-leading scorer. Addie Fee, an eighth-grader, was third on the team. Kailee Magsam, a sophomore, played every minute in goal. The Pirates will return 14 players who got significant varsity playing time this season, many of them still underclassmen, ensuring Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann's stamp on the program lasts long after they graduate.
"They're gonna be remembered as the group that brought us back," Moe said.
Moe hopes they see it the same way. "Whatever success we have in the future," he says, "it's from the groundwork that they've put in."
But, he says, bringing Crookston girls' hockey back isn't a responsibility they should have been saddled with. It took years and years of struggle, during which Epema, Peterson and Tiedemann had every opportunity to lose faith, lose the love for their sport, stop believing in better things to come.
None ever did.
"Sometimes you're put into positions that are not fair," Moe said. "And they took it and they wanted it to get better. I'm just so proud of them how they've taken a bad circumstance and negative circumstance and turned it into a positive for them individually. They've grown so much as people and leaders, both on and off the ice."
Crookston's three seniors ended their careers without posting a winning record or even competing for a section title. But speaking a few days before her final game, Tiedemann tried to put things in perspective.
After six years, it was finally her time to pass the torch to the next generation of Pirates. She had taken it as she could, for her limited time in a Crookston uniform. But she had helped build a team capable of making that torch shine even brighter.
"I want to leave them as a whole, not divided, as a whole team together," Tiedemann said. "I want to leave them knowing that they can do better and always be better, and leave them as a team who wants to play hockey."
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