Natalie Darwitz, shown here when she was an Eagan assistant coach, is in her first year as head coach at Lakeville South.
A kid's name etched on athletic tape and slapped to the front of his or her helmet is as much of a part of youth hockey as early mornings and round-robin weekend tournaments.
Once players get to the varsity ranks, those traditions are usually long gone. But new coach Natalie Darwitz is only just now familiar with all the names at Lakeville South.
"Almost," she laughed last week. "We really were toying with putting their names on their helmets for a few weeks. We're getting there. We've come to learn their personalities, and they've gotten to know ours. I like the mix."
As the team prepared for this weekend's tournament in Buffalo, it was time to peel back the tape and let the players loose.
"For the most part, it's been a good start, but this is going to be a process," Darwitz said of the Cougars, who were ranked No. 13 in the Nov. 17 edition of Let's Play Hockey magazine.
Darwitz, 28, might be a stranger to Lakeville, but she's hardly a no-namer. She honed her skills as a youth in Eagan before being the youngest player selected to the U.S. National team at age 15. She's won Olympic medals, a pair of national championships with the Gophers and was an assistant coach there until taking the job at South this summer.
All her accolades, though, won't put pucks in the back of the net now.
"That's the toughest part; what came easy to me as a player, a lot of these girls need to work on," Darwitz said. "A lot of skill-development work. It's a lot going on, but this has been a ton of fun, too."
South suburban parity?
For only being a head coach a few months, Darwitz has the coach-speak down pat.
"You can't take a game off in the South Suburban Conference, and if you do you're going to fall a few [games] behind the teams chasing you," she said. "I personally like it that way. Every game it's going to be a tough night, and we're looking forward to being battle-tested when the sections come around."
She might be taking the high road, but the coach of the defending conference champions is not alone in her opinions.
"There's going to be a couple teams that are down, but you look at the top seven and ... there's a lot of depth," said Apple Valley coach Don Erdall, whose team played six games in 12 days to open the season. "You can't take any teams lightly. We did that with Rosemount [in a 5-3 loss], and they made us pay for it."
No. 13 Lakeville North and No. 17 Eagan -- coincidentally coached by Darwitz's father, Scott -- are two teams on everyone's radar.
"Our biggest rival is two miles down the road, but there are some pretty good teams this year," Natalie Darwitz said. "I'd say we're all dark horses."
Northfield is the only other team south of the river mentioned in either class of the Let's Play Hockey rankings. The Raiders were ranked 20th in Class 1A.