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Chasing a three-peat

By DAVID La VAQUE, Star Tribune, 02/19/13, 4:20PM CST


Heading into state, the Skippers are focused on the prize, but also on the joy of being together.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s forward Brittany Wheeler pursued Minnetonka’s Laura Bowman Friday. Bowman scored one of the goals needed to seal the comeback victory. Photo by Mark Vancleave • mark.vancleave@startribune.com

Challenges came in twos for the Minnetonka girls' hockey team this season.

A two-game losing streak in January jolted players who could not recall such a slump ever in their hockey lives. A two-goal deficit late in the Class 2A, Section 6 championship game against Benilde-St. Margaret's threatened to derail the Skippers' state tournament dreams.

Clearing those obstacles makes chasing the unprecedented -- a third consecutive Class 2A state title -- seem almost reasonable by comparison.

Goaltender Sydney Rossman, one of seven Minnetonka players committed to a Division I college, said overcoming adversity "prepared us really well and gives us the best opportunity to go far at state."

No. 1 seed Minnetonka (24-4) begins its march toward history against Irondale (19-8-1) at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.

Three other west metro schools also qualified for state. No. 2 seed Eden Prairie (20-5-3) plays Forest Lake (15-10-2) at 11 a.m. Thursday. The Eagles won Class 2A state titles in 2006 and 2008.

In Class 1A, No. 3 seed Blake (19-5-3) plays Mound-Westonka (19-7-1) at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The Bears won state titles in 2003, 2007 and 2009 while the White Hawks are tournament newcomers.

Minnetonka's veterans are trying to take a fresh approach to another title run, even as pressure mounts.

"We definitely have high hopes for ourselves, but we're not thinking about having a target on our backs," Rossman said.

Opponents who took aim at Minnetonka's blue block M hit the mark at times this season. Benilde-St. Margaret's blanked the Skippers in December. Then in January, the Skippers lost to Hopkins and Wayzata in consecutive games. Minnetonka's first two-game skid in four years spurred changes.

On the ice, coach Eric Johnson changed up drills to break the midseason doldrums. Away from the rink, players reconnected through sleepovers, a team sledding outing and a snowball fight.

"Those losses were a major turning point," senior forward Amy Petersen said. "They helped our team realize that anyone can beat us. We weren't going to be given any games. We had to go out and fight if we wanted to win."

After the losses, Minnetonka won nine consecutive games. The Skippers' stifling defense was a computer programmer's dream, holding opponents to a series of ones and zeros. They allowed six goals in the past nine games, posting four shutouts and permitting one goal in four games.

The section championship game against top-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret's deviated from the script. Trailing 2-0 with seven minutes to play, players experienced moments of doubt before collecting themselves.

"We knew it was now or never because our season was close to coming to an end," Petersen said. "If we wanted to change that we had to do something fast."

Relief came in the form of goals within a four-minute span from Hannah Behounek, Petersen and Laura Bowman. Those goals provided a comeback victory but more importantly, players said, prolonged their time together.

"The medals and the awards, yeah, they are awesome and we love having them, but it's about the relationships you build," junior defenseman Sydney Baldwin said. "These girls are my best friends and we're all just excited to have one more week together."

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574