Lakeville South forwards Megan Morse (7) and Jordan Gill (21) challenged Prior Lake forward Brittney Schulz for the puck in a recent game. The Cougars (19-5-1), under first-year coach and former Olympian Natalie Darwitz, are the second seed behind rival L
Concussions. Broken collarbones. Flu bug. Name the ailment, and chances are Lakeville North's girls' hockey team has seen some form of it this season.
"Bit us the whole season," coach Buck Kochevar said.
As such, Kochevar and his staff elected to give the team Thursdays off from the ice the entire month of January. Instead of pucks and sticks, players used that practice time last month for studying, bowling or just plain hanging out.
The ice time was donated to Lakeville Youth Hockey.
"Our bodies just needed a rest," Kochevar said. "And we're leaning in the right direction now, which is nice."
The Panthers (19-5-1) won 14 of their final 16 games during the regular season, including a 7-1 demolishing of Class 1A, No. 1 Breck on Jan. 30.
Lakeville North received the No. 1 seed in Class 2A, Section 1 and opens play at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night at home against the winner of the section's play-in game.
"Against Breck, it all came together," Kochevar said. "We gained a lot of confidence after beating a team like that. We're starting to win the close situations [in games], which is all about execution. The girls are doing that, and peaking at the right time."
If the seeds play out, a Feb. 16 showdown looms in Owatonna between the Panthers and No. 2 seed Lakeville South (19-5-1). The Cougars, under the guidance of first-year coach Natalie Darwitz, won their final four games of the regular season by a combined score of 17-3. But if you think Darwitz did back flips to celebrate in advance of South's section tournament opener Wednesday night against No. 7 seed Owatonna, guess again.
"As a coach you always want more," she said. "Not satisfied. Hopefully we can step it up a notch."
The Lakeville coaches are taking similar strategies into the section tournament. Without coming right out and saying it, both hinted an all-Lakeville final would be ideal.
They just have to get there.
"The way our team is going, we could go pretty far," said Kochevar, who still hasn't been cleared to skate with his team nearly a year after a scary fall on the ice. "It's going to be a tight race. I just hope we're there."
Darwitz said she's preparing the Cougars for the unknown.
Section 1 stretches from Lakeville, out to Farmington and down to Rochester. A co-op centered in Kasson-Mantorville is also in the mix.
South has played Owatonna, Lakeville North and Farmington this season and Darwitz said the other six teams in the section are mysteries to her.
"We're pretty much going in blind," she said. "There are pros and cons to that. [If] you play a team you beat earlier in the year, you might let up. You can't have that."
Darwitz added she's concerned with one team in the playoffs: hers.
A former Olympian, Darwitz thought back to the 2006 Games in Torino. Canada had already secured a spot in the gold medal game, and the Americans wanted a shot at redemption after losing to their northern neighbors four years earlier in Utah.
Team USA, though, lost to Sweden in a shootout and never got the chance.
"If you show up and you're not focused, well, pack your bags and have a good couple of months, ladies," Darwitz said. "We all start guaranteed 25 games. In the playoffs, it's one. We can't be looking at Feb. 16 right now. Look ahead, and you make mistakes."