Panthers continue to close gap
Chris Albee was looking for the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team to continue to close the gap on the other teams in Section 8A.
Despite matching last year's total of one win against section opponents, the Panthers did close the gap on the other teams in the section.
Last season, the Panthers went 1-7 in the section en route to an 8-14 overall record. Park Rapids was shut out three times in those games while being outscored 47-7.
This season, the Panthers had a 1-9 record against section opponents, but were only shut out twice in being outscored 33-13. Park Rapids ended the season with a 9-15-2 overall record.
For the season, the Panthers were outscored by a slim 83-80 margin compared to an 85-41 deficit a year ago.
That's quite an improvement - especially on the offensive end - for a team that had only 11 players on the varsity roster.
"Overall I thought we had a good season. We fell short of our goal of winning 10 games and being a .500 team, but we played really well against some tough teams," said Albee, who was named the Section 8A Coach of the Year. "For being such a young team, to play as well as we did shows the character of the girls. The section coaches had a lot of good things to say about our team."
The Panthers opened the season with a 52-19 edge in shots on goal in a 4-1 win over Pequot Lakes.
Despite being outshot 30-22, the Panthers tied International Falls 3-3 before dropping a close 3-2 decision to Thief River Falls, which had a 28-19 edge in shots.
Crookston used a 38-15 advantage in shots to spark an 8-0 win before the Panthers rebounded with a 3-3 tie with Detroit Lakes despite having a 41-27 disadvantage in shots on goal.
After starting with a 1-2-2 record, the Panthers went through a five-game losing streak with three straight 4-1 losses to Babbitt-Embarrass, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, a 6-2 loss to Morris/Benson Area and a 2-0 loss to Eveleth-Gilbert. Park Rapids held a 32-20 edge in shots against Babbitt and a 31-17 edge in shots against Benson while tying Thief River Falls with 22 shots. East Grand Forks had a 32-24 edge in shots while Eveleth had a 26-24 edge in shots.
The Panthers' hit their stride offensively by matching Detroit Lakes' 27 shots in a 2-1 win, holding a 44-21 edge in shots in a 5-1 win over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Wadena-Deer Creek, and skating to a 31-16 advantage in shots in a 6-1 victory over Lake of the Woods.
In the next five games, the Panthers went 1-4. Morris held a 35-32 edge in shots in a 6-4 win and Crookston held a 35-17 edge in shots in a 3-1 victory. Park Rapids fired 43 shots on net and held LPGE/WDC to only 22 shots in a 6-3 victory. International Falls used a 31-21 edge in shots to spark a 6-2 win and Eveleth-Gilbert held a 34-23 edge in shots in a 6-1 victory.
Despite being outshot 31-29, the Panthers defeated Babbitt-Embarrass 6-3. Park Rapids dominated its next two games, using a 46-10 advantage in shots to defeat Pequot Lakes 9-1 and following with a 42-14 edge in shots to defeat LPGE/WDC 8-1.
Lake of the Woods held a 25-20 edge in shots in a 3-0 win before the Panthers fired 51 shots on goal and held Pequot Lakes to only 10 shots in a 10-1 victory.
The Panthers defended their Mid-State Conference title by going 5-0-1 against Detroit Lakes, LPGE/WDC and Pequot Lakes.
Park Rapids then ended the regular season with a 3-1 loss to Thief River Falls and a 5-1 loss to East Grand Forks. Thief River Falls held a 27-23 edge in shots while East Grand Forks had a 37-26 edge in shots.
The Panthers received the No. 5 seed for the Section 8A playoffs and battled No. 4 Thief River Falls into overtime before the Prowlers escaped with a 2-1 victory. Thief River Falls had a 39-21 edge in shots in that playoff win.
Section 8A champion Warroad, which won the state title, was ranked No. 1 in the final state Class A poll while East Grand Forks (No. 5), Crookston (No. 7) and Eveleth-Gilbert (No. 12) were also ranked in the final state poll.
Leading the Panthers were the 11 varsity players: senior Leeza Tostenson; junior Heather Brostrom; sophomores Jessica Gapinski, Allie Bade and Taylor Pachel; freshmen Hannah Williams, Ashley Thelen, Brittany Floyd and Bailey Moore; and eighth graders McKenna Brand and Danika Aletto.
Of that group, Tostenson, Gapinski, Williams and Brand received all-conference honors while Brostrom, Bade, Moore and Floyd were all-conference honorable mention selections.
Brand led the team with 20 goals and 15 assists for 35 points in her first varsity season.
Gapinski was second in scoring with 28 points, including 20 goals and eight assists. Gapinski also played six games as goalie, going 3-3 with 15 goals allowed and 109 saves.
Tostenson capped off her senior season with 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.
The Panthers received plenty of offense from the defense as Williams had seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points, Bade had four goals and nine assists for 13 points and Brostrom had seven goals and four assists for 11 points.
Floyd (three goals, eight assists) and Thelen (four goals, seven assists) also contributed 11 points each while Aletto (one goal, five assists) and Pachel (one goal, three assists) combined for 10 points.
Moore, who missed six games with an injury, went 6-12-2 in the nets with 68 goals allowed and 451 saves.
Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers have to replace Tostenson, but will have some talented girls move up from this year's 14-under team to provide depth as Park Rapids seeks to move up in the section standings.
"We're going to miss Leeza, but with the experience we gained this year, I think we're going to be a much stronger team next season," said Albee. "I definitely look for us to be a .500 team or better. One of our goals is to win a first-round playoff game, which we were so close to doing this year. I look for us to continue to play better against the good teams and have a better regular season so we get a better seed in the section. With the players we have coming back and with the players moving up from the 14-under tem, I feel we have the potential to be playing in the section championship game next season."