Panthers look to move up in section
Gary Vaudrin believes this could be the year that the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team becomes a serious threat in the Section 8A ranks.
Over the last seven seasons, Warroad, Thief River Falls, Crookston and East Grand Forks have dominated Section 8A. Crookston won the section title in 2007 while Warroad won the section title the last five seasons. Crookston, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls all made it to the section finals in the last four years.
With a veteran group returning from last year’s team that tied the school record for wins in a season by going 13-13, Vaudrin is looking for the Panthers to post a winning record, get a top-four seed to earn a section playoff game at home and challenge for a spot in the section championship game.
That could be a challenge since Warroad, Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks return talented teams. Warroad was the state Class A runner-up last year and is rated No. 1 in the state preseason poll. Thief River Falls enters the season ranked No. 6, East Grand Forks is rated No. 17 and Crookston is rated No. 19.
A year ago, the Panthers were outscored 45-4 and went 0-8 against those four teams. However, Vaudrin believes this year’s team returns enough talent to challenge the elite section teams this season.
“Our main goal is to go as deep into the playoffs as we can go,” said Vaudrin. “I think we can compete with the best teams in the section. I want the girls to have a dream to get to state.”
Being counted on to lead the Panthers this winter are the 12 returning letterwinners: seniors Shania Johnson, Alex Pederson, Mady Vaudrin, Julia Renner, Bailee Jerger, Abby Fischer, Lauren Naeve, Kendra Dresow, Danika Aletto and Christina Smith; junior Jessie O’Hern; and sophomore Tayah Otterness.
Johnson returns in the nets after going 8-11 with 52 goals allowed and 631 saves in 19 games. Johnson, who set a school record with 80 saves against Warroad, was named to the Section 8A Second Team.
Pederson (who had 14 goals and 8 assists for 22 points last season) and Vaudrin (who tallied nine goals and seven assists for 16 points last season) will be counted on to lead the offense. Vaudrin will move from defense to a forward spot this season.
Also being counted on to lead the offense will be Jerger (6 goals, 5 assists for 11 points), Fischer (2 goals, 6 assists for 8 points), Dresow (2 goals, 4 assists for 6 points), O’Hern (3 goals, 2 assists for 5 points) and Smith (2 goals, 1 assist for 3 points).
Aletto (1 goal, 4 assists for 5 points) returns on defense while Renner (8 goals, 4 assists for 12 points), Naeve (2 goals, 5 assists for 7 points) and Otterness (2 goals, 2 assists for 4 points) will move from forwards to defense.
Looking to fill in for last year’s senior group of Hannah Williams (who led the Panthers with 23 points and is tied for third in career scoring with 87 points) and Ashley Thelen (who was fourth on the team with 13 points) will be sophomores Emma Gribbin, Josey Umthun (one goal) and Lexi King; freshmen Brooke Jerger (one assist), Ally Vaudrin (one assist), Serena Aletto (one assist) and Kolpana Bowe; and eighth graders Lexi Hinkley-Smith (3 goals, 1 assist for 4 points) and Taylor Sagan. Freshman Julia Smith will be the back-up goalie.
Vaudrin, Pederson and Gribbin will start the season on the first line; Jerger, Fischer and Umthun will form the second line; Smith, Dresow and O’Hern will form the third line; and Hinkley-Smith, Bowe and Sagan will comprise the fourth line. Aletto, Otterness, Renner, Naeve, Brooke Jerger, Ally Vaudrin, Sarena Aletto and King will comprise the defense.
“With who we have coming back, I’d be disappointed if we don’t win the Mid-State Conference and finish above .500,” said Vaudrin, whose team tied the school record for wins set by the 2001-02 team that went 13-8-1 and shared the Mid-State Conference title with Northern Lakes at 5-1. “We have good athletes and the majority of these girls had success at the youth level. I’m hoping they have success this season.”
The Panthers should once again be solid on defense after allowing 68 goals (the vast majority of those were in the eight losses to the section’s top teams) while posting seven shutouts and allowing only one goal in five other games.
How successful the Panthers are this season will hinge on the offense. Last season, the Panthers scored 72 goals, but were shut out seven times and managed only one goal in five other games.
Producing more goals will be the key for the Panthers to repeat as conference champs and move up in the section ranks.
“It all starts with defense. We’re going to play solid defense. The big question mark is figuring out how to score,” said Vaudrin. “We’ve got to play good, disciplined hockey and play as a team. If we can score some goals, we can compete with the top section teams. I think we have the talent to win 15 games and get a home playoff game. We want to win that first playoff game and take it from there. If the girls continue to work hard, I feel we can go deep into the playoffs.”