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Ricke looking to build a winning tradition

Senior goalie Austin Jerger will be counted on to lead the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team this season. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Derek Ricke fondly remembers his playing days as a member of the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis boys hockey team.

Now Ricke is looking to create more winning memories as head coach of the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team.

Ricke was a defenseman on three of the most successful hockey teams in Park Rapids history. During his three varsity seasons, Ricke helped the Panthers compile winning records of 16-8-2 in 2005-06, 18-6-3 in 2006-07 and 25-3 in 2007-08. The 25 wins are still a school record for most victories in a season as the Panthers earned the No. 2 seed for the Section 8A playoffs in Ricke's senior year.

"The friendships I made are what I remember the most. Some of those guys are still my best friends. We were a tight-knit group that spent a lot of time at the rink," said Ricke. "We expected to win every game. Our goal was to make it to the state tournament. We didn't make it, but those years were a lot of fun."

Now Ricke, who served as an assistant coach to Pete Naugle last season, is looking to rebuild that winning tradition as the Panthers' head coach.

Ricke takes over a team that finished 6-18-2 last season. The six wins tied the 6-17 record in 2001-02 for the fewest wins in a season while the 18 losses were the most in Park Rapids history. The Panthers went 1-6-1 in Mid-State Conference games and received the No. 8 seed for the Section 8A playoffs. Bagley/Fosston, the No. 9 seed, snapped a 34-game losing streak to the Panthers with a 5-4 overtime victory in a section play-in game. Bagley/Fosston scored four power-play goals to spark the playoff win.

A lack of offense was the main reason the Panthers went 2-5-2 in games decided by two goals or less. Park Rapids scored only 61 goals while allowing 106 goals, including 19 power-play goals and a pair of shorthanded tallies. Park Rapids scored two goals in five games, one goal in eight games and was shut out four times. The Panthers also took 112 penalties for 252 minutes.

Ricke is determined to change those numbers.

"The big thing for me is to raise the bar again. The last few years we've struggled a bit. I want to raise our expectations," said Ricke. "We're trying to build the program from the bottom up. We need to get the numbers up at the lower levels and rebuild a solid foundation. We don't want to be at the bottom of the pack anymore. We want to competitive in the middle at least, but preferably we want to be competitive at the top. We've beaten East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls before and we can do it again. It's going to take time and a lot of hard work to get there, but I think we can do it. We should be a 4 to 6 seed every year and a 1, 2 or 3 seed in a very good year."

Returning to help the Panthers move up in the conference and section standings are seniors Austin Jerger, Shea Alto, Connor Link, Micah Link and Josh Baker; and juniors Jimmy Hillukka, Cameron Hoyt, Bjorn Jorgenson, Brendan Kruchowski, Thomas Melvin, Carter Opheim, Nolan Pederson, Brett Pinoniemi and Cody Sagen.

Jerger returns as the starting goalie after going 6-17-2 with 97 goals allowed on 853 shots for an 88.6 save percentage. Kruchowski will again serve as the back-up goalie after going 0-1 with six goals allowed and 45 saves last season.

Jorgenson earned all-conference honorable mention honors after finishing second on the team in scoring with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points while Alto had seven goals and three assists for 10 points last winter. Also back as forwards are Opheim (three goals, two assists), Hoyt (one goal, two assists) and Pederson (one goal, one assist).

Pinoniemi (six assists), Connor Link (two goals, one assist), Hillulkka (three assists) and Micah Link (one goal) return as defensemen. Hillukka might move to a forward position this season.

Looking to fill in for last year's senior crew of Jarrett Johnson (an all-conference forward who led the team with nine goals and 14 assists), Isaac Johnson (seven goals, eight assists), Cole Hoscheid (eight goals, three assists), Jack Naugle (three goals, three assists), Caleb Strandlie (four goals, five assists), Mitch Peterson (four goals, one assist) and Brandon Wolters will be juniors Jensen Rice (forward), Jacob Stewart (defenseman), Jordan Baker (defenseman) and Christoffer Madsen (a foreign-exchange student from Denmark who will play forward); sophomores Josh Kuhlman (forward), Wyatt Halvorson (forward), Ben Strandlie (goalie) and Logan Arndt (forward); and freshman Brody Hagen (forward).

"We have to find a way to open it up and score more goals," said Ricke. "We're going to be better on defense, which should translate into more offense. If we can score four goals a game, we're going to win a lot of games this year."

Northern Lakes won the conference title with a 7-1 record while Detroit Lakes (6-2), Wadena-Deer Creek (3-5), Prairie Centre (2-5-1) and Park Rapids followed. East Grand Forks defeated Warroad 5-1 in the section championship game and went on to place sixth at the state Class A tournament. East Grand Forks enters the season rated No. 4 while Warroad is rated No. 12 in the first state poll.

Those two teams should once again battle for the top spot in the section. Ricke is counting on the Panthers to be competitive with the other teams on the schedule.

"A big part of this season is setting a culture and teaching the guys what's expected of me and what's expected of them. I want to raise the bar on and off the ice and teach these guys what Panther hockey is all about," said Ricke, who will be assisted by Greg Chromey and Tyler Lehrke. "I think people will underestimate us this year. We'll have more depth this year and the guys will be battling for playing time. If we continue to improve and if we can find a groove, I think we can compete in the conference. Northern Lakes and Detroit Lakes will be tough, but I think we can compete with them. In the section, we want to be in the middle of the pack. My expectation is to be in the 4 to 6 range. We have a chance to turn some heads. Our goals are to be over .500 and make it to the section semifinals. I'm excited. This season should be a lot of fun."

SEASON SCHEDULE

Nov. 30 - vs. Bagley at Walker, 7 p.m.

Dec. 5 - vs. Prairie Centre at Long Prairie, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 - at East Grand Forks, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 - *Detroit Lakes, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 - *Wadena-Deer Creek, 7 p.m. Dec. 16 - vs. Lake of the Woods at Walker, 4 p.m. Dec. 19 - at Crookston, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21 - vs. Northern Lakes at Breezy Point, 7 p.m. Dec. 27 - at Fergus Falls, 7 p.m. Dec. 28 - vs. Detroit Lakes at Fergus Falls, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 29 - vs. West Fargo at Fergus Falls, 2:30 p.m.

Jan. 4 - at Wadena-Deer Creek, 7 p.m. Jan. 6 - at Kittson Central, 2 p.m. Jan. 9 - *Thief River Falls, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 - *Crookston, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13 - at Red Lake Falls, 4 p.m. Jan. 16 - at Bagley, 7 p.m. Jan. 18 - vs. Northern Lakes at Walker, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 - *River Lakes, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 - *Warroad, 7 p.m. Jan. 26 - at Lake of the Woods, 7 p.m. Jan. 30 - *Prairie Centre, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 5 - *Red Lake Falls, 7 p.m. Feb. 10 - vs. Kittson Central at Walker, 12 noon. Feb. 13 - at Detroit Lakes.

*=home games at Ted O. Johnson Ice Arena

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