Panthers relying on talent, depth to produce successful season
Despite lacking depth, the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team produced respectable records by going 8-14 and 9-15-2 the last two seasons.
With the most numbers in the 13-year history of the program (26 players, including nine from last year's varsity team), head coach Chris Albee is counting on that depth to lead the Panthers to a winning record this season.
"This is what we've been waiting for," said Albee. "We've lost a lot of close games the last few years. Now our depth is going to start to show up. We're not going to get as tired this year. We'll be stronger in the third period and hopefully that will help us win those close games."
Leading the Panthers are the nine returning players from last team: senior Heather Brostrom; juniors Allie Bade, Jessica Gapinski and Taylor Pachel; sophomores Bailey Moore, Ashley Thelen and Hannah Williams; and freshmen McKenna Brand and Danika Aletto. Brostrom goes to school in Menahga while Gapinski and Aletto attend W-H-A.
Of that group, Gapinski, Williams and Brand were Mid-State Conference players while Brostrom, Bade and Moore received all-conference honorable mention honors.
Brand and Gapinski will lead the offense again this season. Brand (who was the only freshman to earn a spot on Team Minnesota at the Hockey Night in Boston Showcase in August) led the Panthers with 20 goals and 15 assists for 35 points last season while Gapinski scored 20 goals and had eight assists for 28 points.
Williams, Bade and Brostrom return as the leaders on defense. Those three also helped offensively by combining for 24 goals and 31 assists. 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.
Also being counted on to help the offense this season are Thelen, Aletto and Pachel. Thelen had four goals and seven assists for 11 points, Aletto had one goal and five assists for 6 points, and Pachel had one goal and three assists for 4 points.
Moore returns in the nets after going 6-12-2, allowing 69 goals and making 499 saves in 20 games as the starting goalie. Gapinski filled in at goalie in six games, going 3-3 with 14 goals allowed and 107 saves.
Looking to fill in for Leeza Tostenson (who tallied 13 goal and nine assists for 22 points as the lone senior last season) will be junior Erika Jerger; sophomore Madison Douvier (who transferred to Nevis from Hutchinson); freshmen Kendra Dresow (who attends school at Menahga), Abby Fischer, Bailee Jerger, Shania Johnson, Megan Maves, Lauren Naeve, Alex Pederson, Julia Renner, Christina Smith and Mady Vaudrin; eighth graders Hannah Gorder, Abby Kisner, Jessie O'Hern and Makenna Persing; and seventh grader Tayah Otterness.
Those players will compete for varsity time and comprise the junior varsity team, which will play 15 games this winter.
"We're going to try and rotate as many younger kids as we can. We have the numbers to develop special teams strategy and develop a fourth offensive line and a third defensive line," said Albee. "It's going to take some time. The older kids will teach a lot and the younger kids will learn a lot this season. We have a lot of talented younger kids who are going to help out a lot this year."
Last season, the Panthers lost six games by two goals or less (including a 2-1 overtime loss to Thief River Falls in the first round of the Section 8A playoffs). This season, Albee is expecting the Panthers to win those close games and earn a home game for the section playoffs.
"We're going to be a disciplined, hard-working team this year," said Albee, who will be assisted by Andy Williams, Bronson Vinge and Merrill Lowney. "We have set some high goals this season. We want to be above .500 overall for the season and break into the top half of the section. It's going to be a fun season. I'm looking forward to it."