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Panthers' depth leads to more wins

Senior Morgan Kelly concluded her high school career with six goals and five assists to raise her career totals to 20 goals and 15 assists. (Vance Carlson / Enterprise)

Having an increase in numbers led to an increase in wins for the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team this season.

The Panthers battled low numbers the last three seasons. The results were a 4-15 record with 15 players in 2005-06, a 1-22-1 record with 13 players in 2006-07 and a 1-20 record with 13 players in 2007-08.

With more depth, the Panthers had more success this winter and finished the season with an 8-14 record. Park Rapids improved both offensively and defensively by scoring 40 goals while allowing 86 goals. The Panthers scored only 20 goals in 2006-07 and only 15 goals last season while allowing 145 goals in 2006-07 and 130 goals last year.

Offensively, the Panthers were shut out only five times compared to 13 times last season and 14 times in 2006-07. Park Rapids had 11 players score goals this season compared to only six players a year ago.

"Depth was the main difference from the past couple of years," said Park Rapids head coach Chris Albee. "(Having more numbers) helped in a lot of ways. Because of our numbers, the girls weren't as tired and the second and third periods became our best periods. I was happy with the progress we made."

The season started off on the right foot with a 4-1 victory over Pequot Lakes. Park Rapids held a 37-21 edge in shots in that game.

Losses to Thief River Falls (6-1), International Falls (6-0) and Silver Lake (4-1) followed as the Panthers were outshot 123-58 in those three losses.

Park Rapids fired 38 shots on goal in a 3-2 win over East Range before falling to 2-7 on the season with losses to East Grand Forks (4-0), Thief River Falls (7-1), Morris/Benson (3-1) and Eveleth-Gilbert (10-4). The Panthers were outshot 46-10 against EGF, 40-24 against TRF, 40-33 against Morris/Benson and 56-19 against Eveleth.

A three-game winning streak followed as the Panthers won close games against Detroit Lakes (1-0), Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Wadena-Deer Creek (4-3) and Lake of the Woods (3-2 in overtime). Park Rapids was outshot by DL (22-18) and LOW (43-28) and had a 25-22 edge in shots against LPGE/WDC.

After being outshot 49-3 in a 6-1 loss to Crookston and 35-27 in a 4-0 loss to Morris/Benson, the Panthers shut out LPGE/WDC 4-0 with a 30-26 edge in shots on goal. Park Rapids also held a 30-29 edge in shots in a 2-1 loss to East Range and fired a season-high 59 shots on goal while allowing only 14 in a 3-1 win over Pequot Lakes.

East Grand Forks used a 50-8 edge in shots for an 8-0 victory before the Panthers defeated LPGE/WDC for the third time this season, holding a 36-22 edge in shots in a 4-0 win.

Park Rapids ended the regular season with a 3-1 loss to Lake of the Woods (despite holding a 32-30 edge in shots) and a 4-3 loss to Detroit Lakes (with a 44-23 disadvantage in shots).

In the Section 8A tournament, the Panthers received the No. 7 seed and opened with a 10-0 loss to No. 2 Roseau. In that game, Roseau held a 55-3 edge in shots.

Of Park Rapids' opponents this season, four - Roseau (No. 4), Crookston (No. 6), Silver Bay (No. 7) and Eveleth-Gilbert (No. 14) - were ranked in the final state Class A poll.

Going 5-1 by splitting with Detroit Lakes and sweeping Pequot Lakes and LPGE/WDC gave the Panthers the Mid-State Conference title. That fulfilled one of the Panthers' major goals this season.

"Overall I thought we did really well," said Albee. "Winning the Mid-State title was one of our goals. That was huge for us. Another goal for us was to go .500, but we fell a little short of reaching that goal. We had a chance to go .500, but we lost some close games. But overall, we improved our record, which was our main goal."

Leading the Panthers this season were the 19 varsity players: seniors Morgan Kelly, Kaylyn Naeve, Ashley Sauer, Cassandra Thelen, Elise Loomis and Mara Borland; juniors Maria Goetz and Leeza Tostenson; sophomore Heather Brostrom; freshmen Allie Bade, Jessica Gapinski, Erika Jerger, Taylor Pachel and Mandy Schirmers; eighth graders Brittany Floyd, Bailey Moore, Ashley Thelen and Hannah Williams; and seventh grader Christina Smith.

Cassandra Thelen completed her fourth season as the Panthers' starting goalie, going 5-7 in the final 12 games after missing the first 10 games with a back injury. Thelen made 292 saves on 327 shots to raise her career totals to 2,481 saves and 367 goals allowed.

Also seeing action in the goal were Moore and Gapinski. Moore started eight games, going 2-6 with 39 goals allowed and 275 saves on 314 shots. Gapinski filled in for two games, going 1-1 with 65 saves on 70 shots.

Offensively, the Panthers had 11 players score goals and 12 different players tally assists.

Tostenson led the Panthers in scoring with 10 goals and five assists for 15 points. Tostenson had two goals and four assists last season.

Kelly and Bade also reached double figures in points with 11 apiece. Kelly was second on the team with six goals while tallying five assists while Bade led the team with nine assists to go along with two goals. Last season, Kelly led the team with nine points (three goals and six assists) while Bade had one assist. Kelly concluded her high school career with 35 points (20 goals and 15 assists).

Naeve capped her senior season with four goals and five assists for nine points to raise her career numbers to 14 goals and 15 assists for 29 points. Naeve led the Panthers last season with five goals.

A pair of Walker-Hackensack-Akeley players - Loomis and Gapinski - tallied eight points apiece. Loomis had five goals and three assists in her third season while Gapinski had four goals and four assists in her first varsity season. Loomis had two goals and two assists last season.

Ashley Thelen had four goals and three assists for seven points this season, compared to two goals and one assist last year.

Williams made her varsity debut by scoring three goals and assisting on three others.

Sauer concluded her senior season with two goals and one assist for three points after going scoreless last season.

Floyd also scored three points this season, tallying one goal and two assists in her first varsity season.

Smith had one goal in her varsity debut, Pachel had one assist in her second varsity season and Goetz tallied one assist after having one goal and one assist last year.

Also playing key roles for the Panthers this season were Borland, Schirmers, Brostrom and Jerger.

Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers will have to replace the six seniors. However, with the return of 13 players from this year's varsity squad and the addition of some younger players, Albee is looking for the Panthers to continue their improvement.

"We'll have to replace Cassandra in goal and a big chunk of our scoring, but we have a lot of experience returning," said Albee. "We're looking to close the gap on the better teams and climb up in the section rankings. I'm excited about the future of the girls hockey program. I'm looking forward to the next few years."