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Panthers continue to close gap

McKenna Brand led the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team with 37 goals and 52 points.

Chris Albee continues to see the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team close the gap on the elite teams in the area.

After going 1-22-1 in 2006-07 and 1-20 in 2007-08, the Panthers have shown improvement by going 8-14 in 2008-09, 9-15-2 in 2009-10 and 10-15 this season. Of the Panthers' 15 losses this winter, 13 were to six of the best teams in the state. The 10 wins also marked only the fifth time the Panthers have reached double digits in victories.

The Panthers opened the season by jumping out to a 4-1 lead only to see Morris/Benson rally for a 6-4 victory. Morris/Benson held a 34-30 edge in shots in that game.

Warroad used a 57-12 advantage in shots for a 12-0 victory before the Panthers held a 54-19 edge in shots in a 4-3 overtime victory over Pequot Lakes.

A seven-game losing streak followed as Park Rapids was outshot 27-24 in a 3-0 loss to International Falls, 41-24 in an 8-2 loss to Crookston, 46-24 in a 4-1 loss to Thief River Falls, 37-22 in a 6-3 loss to East Grand Forks, 28-20 in a 3-1 loss to Thief River Falls and 39-21 in a 5-3 loss to Eveleth-Gilbert.

Park Rapids responded with a four-game winning streak, beginning with a 5-1 win over Detroit Lakes and a 10-0 shutout over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Wadena-Deer Creek. The Panthers held a 36-16 edge in shots against Detroit Lakes and set season bests with 53 shots on net and only five shots allowed against LPGE/WDC.

Princeton held a 27-24 edge in shots, but the Panthers prevailed 6-1 while Park Rapids held a 26-23 edge in shots in a 4-3 win over Lake of the Woods.

Morris/Benson and Crookston posted 5-1 wins in the next two games as the Panthers were outshot 17-16 by Morris and 39-17 by Crookston.

Park Rapids used a 34-14 edge in shots to defeat LPGE/WDC 8-0 and a 42-15 advantage in shots to spark a 5-3 win over Pequot Lakes.

After being outshot 34-15 in a 6-2 loss to East Grand Forks, the Panthers controlled play with a 48-6 advantage in shots in a 12-0 win over LPGE/WDC and a 42-10 advantage in shots in a 9-0 victory over Lake of the Woods. The 12 goals broke the school record for goals in a game set in an 11-5 win over Morris in 2000-01.

Eveleth-Gilbert used a 34-23 edge in shots for a 6-2 win before the Panthers held a 42-29 edge in shots in a 5-4 overtime victory over Detroit Lakes.

The Panthers closed the regular season with a 3-2 loss to Thief River Falls and a 6-2 loss to International Falls. TRF held a 28-16 edge in shots while IF outshot the Panthers 41-16.

For the Section 8A tournament, the Panthers received the No. 5 seed and faced No. 4 East Grand Forks, which used a 26-20 edge in shots for a 4-1 victory.

Section 8A proved to be arguably the toughest section in the state with Warroad (No. 1), Crookston (No. 4), Thief River Falls (No. 9) and East Grand Forks (No. 10) being rated in the final state poll. Warroad won the state title and finished with a 27-3 record while Crookston (21-6), TRF (17-7-1) and EGF (16-10-1) also had solid seasons. Eveleth-Gilbert ended the season rated No. 12 with a 20-10 record and joined Warroad at the state tournament. Morris/Benson finished with a 21-4 record.

Those six teams accounted for 13 of the Panthers' losses and outscored Park Rapids 73-23 in those games. In comparison, the Panthers went 0-12 against those teams last season and were outscored 52-15 and went 0-8 in 2008-09 and were outscored 48-8.

For the season, the Panthers were outscored 97-93, but held a 68-15 edge in their 10 victories. The Panthers were shut out only twice while posting four shutouts.

"One of our goals every year is to get to 10 wins and we did that this year. But I think the kids felt we'd do better," said Albee. "It was a big adjustment for the younger kids. They had success at the 12-U and 14-U level, but it's a big adjustment stepping up to varsity. Our section is so tough. We're playing against the best teams and the best players in the state. We're closing the gap, but we still have a lot of work to do if we want to beat those teams."

A main reason the Panthers were more competitive against the elite teams was having a full roster for the first time in the program's 13-year history.

Having 25 varsity players gave the Panthers plenty of depth. Of the 23 skaters, 20 contributed points.

Comprising this year's varsity lineup were senior Heather Brostrom; juniors Jessica Gapinski, Allie Bade and Taylor Pachel; sophomores Hannah Williams, Ashley Thelen, Bailey Moore and Madisen Douvier; freshmen McKenna Brand, Mady Vaudrin, Bailee Jerger, Abby Fischer, Alex Pederson, Danika Aletto, Julia Renner, Christina Smith, Lauren Naeve, Shania Johnson, Kendra Dresow and Megan Maves; eighth graders Jessie O'Hern, Hannah Gorder, Makenna Persing and Abby Kisner; and seventh grader Tayah Otterness.

Leading the way offensively for the Panthers were Brand, Gapinski, Williams, Brostrom, Bade and Vaudrin. Those six tallied double digits in points.

Brand played in all 25 games and set school records with 37 goals and 52 points this season. The 37 goals and 52 points broke Diana Olson's 2000-01 record of 25 goals and 38 points in a single season. Brand tallied nine hat tricks this season and moved into the No. 2 spot on the Panthers' all-time scoring list with 57 goals and 30 assists for 87 points. Kaitlyn Pickett holds the top spot with 96 points. Brand was also named to the Section 8A Third Team and was an all-state honorable mention player.

Gapinski also played in all 25 games and finished second on the team with 12 goals and 28 points and led the Panthers with 16 assists. Gapinski moved into the No. 7 spot all-time with 64 points (36 goals and 28 assists).

Brostrom finished fourth on the team with 16 points, including three goals and 13 assists in 25 games.

Williams, Bade and Vaudrin led the defense and also contributed on the offensive end.

Williams played in 22 games and was third in scoring with 11 goals and 13 assists for 24 points, moving her into the No. 9 spot all-time with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists).

Bade tallied three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 25 games while Vaudrin had five goals and five assists for 10 points in 25 games.

Five other forwards scored at least two goals. Jerger had five goals and three assists in 21 games, Thelen had four goals and two assists in 25 games, Fischer had there goals and three assists in 22 games, Pederson had five goals in 25 games and Otterness had two goals in 10 games.

Also contributing on offense were forwards Pachel (two assists in 16 games), Smith (one goal in 18 games), Gorder (one assist in six games), Naeve (one assist in 13 games), Persing (one assist in 16 games) and Dresow (one assist in 24 games); and defensemen Aletto (one goal, one assist in 25 games), Renner (one goal, one assist in 25 games) and O'Hern (two assists in nine games).

In the nets, Johnson and Moore split time. Johnson played in 16 games and allowed 46 goals while making 328 saves for a save percentage of 87.7. Johnson went 7-7 with two shutouts. Moore played in 12 games and allowed 51 goals while making 285 saves for a save percentage of 84.8. Moore also had two shutouts.

Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers graduate Brostrom but return the rest of the team in hopes of continuing to close the gap on the elite teams.

"Heather had a lot of impact for us and we're going to miss her. But she's the only player we lose," said Albee. "I'm looking forward to next year. My expectations are to take the next step and start beating Thief River Falls, East Grand Forks and Crookston. These kids work hard, but they need more experience and they need to work on their individual skills and on getting stronger. We're getting there. If they work hard in the off-season, I think we can stay with those top teams. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but I expect these girls will take the next step and get the success they deserve."