Eagan senior forward Abby Barger (13) chased down the puck during a game against Wayzata at Eagan Civic Arena. Photo: Shari L. Gross * firstname.lastname@example.org
Kayla Vrieze knows exactly what it takes to win a state championship. She is part of a senior class that won three titles over a four-year span with the Eagan girls’ soccer program.
The girls hockey tri-captain is now trying to help instill the same mentality into her winter sport team. Eagan’s storied program hasn’t made a state tournament appearance since 2013.
“We have the talent,” Vrieze said. “We just haven’t developed as quickly as the other teams. We have to keep working hard.”
The Wildcats won 12 of their first 13 games to open the season. They have since endured a 1-3-1 stretch, dropping back-to-back games despite holding two-goal leads. All four of their setbacks have been by a goal, three of which wound up 5-4.
“We’re in a little slump right now, but we went through the same thing in soccer this year,” said Vrieze, a defenseman with two goals and eight assists this season. “We have to learn how to get out of it.”
Second-year coach Dan Wilson is banking on the success of the soccer program carrying over to the ice. His team includes four other members of last fall’s state championship team on the pitch: freshman forward Emily Cronk-hite, sophomore forward Julia Barger, junior defenseman Brooke Peplinski and senior defenseman Lauryn Roszak.
“They know how to win,” Wilson said. “They went right from winning a state championship to being on the ice next day when we went up to Duluth for a jamboree. They didn’t miss a beat.
“They are very experienced, and know how to weather the ups-and-downs.”
Wilson’s squad has equaled the victory total of his first season as coach. The Wildcats finished 13-10-4 a year ago.
“We never thought we would have 13 wins at this point in the season,” said Wilson, who entered the season with a career record of 152-68-13. He previously coached at Henry Sibley and Rosemount. Wilson guided Henry Sibley to a third-place finish in the initial girls’ hockey state tournament in 1995.
Despite the recent close losses, the Wildcats have won their share of close games. They have five one-goal victories, two in overtime.
“We have managed to win a lot of close games, which has helped us, too,” Wilson said. “They now realize they have the talent and determination to be successful.”
Senior center Taylor Anderson ignites the Wildcats’ offense. The Minnesota Duluth recruit leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 16 assists.
“We have good senior leadership this season, and are younger girls are stepping up, too,” said Anderson, another of the tri-captains along with senior forward Abby Barger. “It’s a good balance.”
The team’s strength, though, is defense. The Wildcats only allow 2.1 goals per game, with juniors Maddie Nickell and Ashley Larson seeing the majority of time in goal. The blue-liners in front of them are all juniors or seniors.
“Our biggest strength is our defense, but that hasn’t been the case in the 5-4 games. We’ve had breakdowns,” Wilson said. “Giving up five goals isn’t the norm for us. You can’t have defensive lapses against good teams.”
Anderson foresees getting those problems cleaned up in the last three weeks of the regular season.
“We have a couple-of-minute lapse every game, and we can’t do that any more,” Anderson said. “We have to beat every team from here on out. We all have to step it up.”
The Wildcats are on the verge of locking up the top seed in the Class 2A, Section 3 tournament. They are the only team with an overall record above .500.
“Being the favorite in the section can be a challenge,” Wilson said. “You have a target on your back.”
The Wildcats lost in overtime in section play the past two seasons.
“It’s been tough losing in the section every year,” said Anderson, a varsity player since eighth grade, the year after Eagan’s last state tournament appearance. “We want to win it, and get to state this year. That would be a dream come true.”
Ron Haggstrom • 612-673-4498