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Panthers hoping to move up in section

Gary Vaudrin is once again looking for a strong defense to lead the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls hockey team to another successful season.

Last season, the Panthers shut out their opponents seven times and held an 83-61 advantage in goals en route to going 12-12. That marked the first time the Panthers finished with a .500 record or better since going 13-8-1 during the 2001-02 season. Park Rapids also won the Mid-State Conference title with a 5-1 record.

One of those shutouts was a 2-0 win over Crookston early in the season as the Panthers defeated the Pirates for the first time in school history. However, Park Rapids had a 3-7 record against Section 8A teams and was outscored 37-14 in those games, including a 3-1 loss to Crookston in a section quarterfinal game.

At the end of last season, Section 8A had four teams rated in the final state poll. Warroad topped the list at No. 2 and ended the season placing third at the state Class A tournament. Thief River Falls was rated No. 4, Crookston finished at the No. 14 spot and East Grand Forks was rated No. 20. Those four teams will once again make Section 8A one of the best sections in the state.

"It's tough when you have four of the top teams in the state in your section," said Vaudrin, who begins his second season as the Panthers' head coach. "We want to compete with those teams. We have a lot of good athletes who are dedicated to hockey. We should do better than last year. Our goal this year is to finish above .500 and go deeper in the playoffs."

Even though the Panthers scored 83 goals last season, 49 of those were in five victories against Morris/Benson and Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Wadena-Deer Creek. Producing goals against the other teams will be the key to the Panthers' success this year.

Looking to lead the Panthers to another successful season will be the 15 returning veterans: seniors Bailey Moore, Ashley Thelen and Hannah Williams; juniors Danika Aletto, Kendra Dresow, Abby Fischer, Bailee Jerger, Shania Johnson, Lauren Naeve, Alex Pederson, Julia Renner, Christina Smith and Mady Vaudrin; sophomore Jessie O'Hern; and freshman Tayah Otterness. Of that group, Williams and Johnson were Mid-State Conference selections while Thelen, Pederson, Aletto and Vaudrin received all-conference honorable mention honors.

Moore and Johnson give the Panthers two experienced goalies. Moore had a 2-1 record with six goals allowed and 85 saves while Johnson went 10-11 with 55 goals allowed and 496 saves and five shutouts. Johnson earned Associated Press state Class A honorable mention honors and a spot on the Section 8A Third Team.

Leading the defense will be Williams, Vaudrin, Aletto, Renner and O'Hern.

Williams received Section 8A honorable mention honors after finishing third on the team in scoring with eight goals and six assists for 14 points to move into the No. 8 spot in school history in career scoring with 29 goals and 35 assists for 64 points. Vaudrin contributed four goals and four assists last season, Aletto had two goals and six assists, Renner had five goals and three assists, and O'Hern had a goal and an assist.

Offensively, the Panthers will count on Pederson, Naeve, Fischer, Thelen, Smith, Dresow and Otterness to pick up the scoring. Pederson was second on the team with 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points while Naeve (three goals, 11 assists), Fischer (six goals, six assists) and Thelen (four goals, six assists) also hit double digits in points. Smith (five goals, two assists), Dresow (three goals, four assists) and Otterness (four goals, two assists) also contributed on the offensive end last season. Jerger returns after serving as a foreign-exchange student in Australia last season.

That group will be looking to take over the scoring load provided by last year's senior crew of Jessica Gapinski, Allie Bade and Taylor Pachel. Gapinski became the Panthers' all-time leading scorer with 54 goals and 45 assists for 99 points after tallying 18 goals and 17 assists last season. Gapinski was an all-state honorable mention, Section 8A Third Team and all-conference player as well as the team's Most Valuable Player. Bade contributed five goals and five assists as a defenseman while Pachel had two goals and two assists.

Starting the season on the junior varsity and looking to provide depth on the varsity will be sophomore Hannah Gorder; freshmen Josey Umthun, Lexi King and Morgan Douvier; eighth graders Allyson Vaudrin, Brooke Jerger, Kalpana Bowe, Sara Gorder and Serena Aletto; and seventh grader Lexi Hinkley Smith.

"We have a solid group back. Our defense will be strong with our core of defensemen coming back and with Bailey and Shania returning with a lot of varsity experience in the net," said Vaudrin, who will be assisted by Andy Williams, Dion Pederson and Judd Fischer. "The big question marks are who will take over the leadership role and who will pick up the scoring. We've got some experience back on offense, but we have to find the right combinations. For us to be successful, we need to control the puck better and put the puck in the net."

If the offense can finish off plays and if the defense plays up to its potential, Vaudrin believes the Panthers have the potential to produce a winning record and reach the section semifinals.

"Realistically, if the cards fall right, we could be the No. 3 seed in the section and have a home playoff game," said Vaudrin. "We want to build momentum at the end of the season and get that playoff mentality. Getting past that first playoff game and into the semifinals is a good goal for us. I think we can do that this year. I'm excited about the season."