Mounds View forward Maddie Peake, left, and Blaine forward Kiersten Falck vied for the puck in the Section 5 championship game. Mounds View defeated Blaine 5-4.
Pete Aus took over as coach of Mounds View girls' hockey program seven games into the season, a tense situation eased by his calm, collected demeanor.
Lindsey Wolter called Aus, 69, a "funny, cute old guy," referred to by players as "Coach Aus-some."
Aus revealed another side of himself later in the season as inconsistent play caused the Mustangs to give away some games. A veteran coach who retired from Bethel University in 2007 as the men's hockey program's career leader in victories, Aus got his point across with polite but pointed words.
"Around the time of the Hastings loss in January I asked the girls, 'What's your goal here? What do you really want?'" Aus said.
Seniors such as Wolter and Maddie Peake, who fell one game short of the state tournament as freshmen, answered the challenge. The Mustangs went 8-1-1 down the stretch, punctuated by a victory against Blaine in the Class 2A, Section 5 championship game.
Mounds View (21-6-1) makes its first state tournament appearance since 1999, opening against No. 3 seed Edina (18-4-6) at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.
"It's all kind of unbelievable," Peake said. "There were little girls lined up waiting for us just like I used to. You don't know if you'll ever play at the X. It's very surreal."
It's also immensely satisfying for players who weathered the uncertainty of a rare in-season coaching change. Aus replaced Tom Foley, whose departure resulted in more questions than answers.
"Seven games in it was obvious we needed to make a change," Mounds View activities director Bob Madison said. "At that point, Coach Foley resigned. I would say he was not even 100 percent responsible for what happened."
Sophomore defenseman Bella Sutton recalled "not knowing what to say or how to comfort each other. But Coach Aus gave us the confidence that we could still make this season work."
Players said Aus's impact this season did not come from changing X's and O's but in his daily stories and life lessons in the locker room. Aus said his mission was "benefitting players in becoming young women."
The nurturing helped unlock the players' full potential. The driven Peake provided a standard for teammates to match. Junior Kathryn Larson stepped up, tallying eight goals in the last nine games.
Aus said the team's cohesiveness showed in its first playoff victory, a four-overtime battle of wills against district rival Irondale, the team that stopped Peake and Wolter one game short of the state tournament three years ago. Sutton played all but two minutes of the overtime sessions and shadowed the Knights' elusive Samantha Donovan.
Goaltender Mary Dingman kept her team in the section final game against Blaine by turning away all but one of the Bengals' strong first-period scoring chances. And Lauren Klein helped the Mustangs take advantage of a five-minute power play by scoring twice in the second period.
As time expired on Mounds View's 5-4 victory, Wolter recalls "jumping onto the pile" and "hugging the same teammates five different times" in celebration.
It was a special moment for Aus as well. He coached boys' hockey at Litchfield and Willmar from 1970-92 but never went to state as a head coach.