CLOQUET - At Northwoods Arena two weeks ago, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey practice was in full swing, with the Lumberjacks rhythmically going through drills while coach Dave Esse barked out orders, his whistle keeping the pace.
Meanwhile, on the Pine Valley ice sheet next door, all eyes were on Courtney Olin, Dave’s daughter and the first-year coach of the Lumberjacks’ girls team.
Esse admitted he has snuck over to watch more than a few practices.
“You can tell when people have respect for somebody, and I could tell right away that the players have respect for her,” Esse said.
Respect doesn’t always lead to victories, but the turnaround for the Lumberjacks this season has been remarkable. Fifth-seeded Cloquet-Esko-Carlton is 14-7-4 going into its Section 7AA quarterfinal at 7 p.m. today at fourth-seeded Andover (12-13).
“I’m pleasantly surprised, but as the year went on, our expectations rose higher and higher,” Olin said. “I didn’t know what to expect. If you would have asked me before the season, I would have been happy with seven wins, because they won six last year, so we’re really happy to be where we’re at.”
While the CEC girls program doesn’t have the history of the boys, there is certainly tradition to build upon. The Lumberjacks advanced to state five times from 2002-09, finishing as Class AA runner-up in 2003 and 2005. Led by coach Dick Bartholdi, “Coach Bart,” a 2015 inductee into the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame, they had a defensive-minded approach built around strong goaltending. But the program struggled in recent years, failing to have a winning season since 2012-13, and there was instability in the coaching ranks. Olin hopes to change that.
“Coach has brought instant stability,” said Kayla Baker, one of seven seniors on the team. “We all know what to expect, and we all know what she expects of us, and it’s just really nice to have that routine, that constant. Coach brings a lot of intensity and pushes us. She really knows a lot about hockey and is good at motivating us.”
Both Lumberjacks programs opt up to Class AA, meaning they don’t always have the numbers of larger schools. That is a constant challenge but one the Lumberjacks relish, competing against the big boys (and in Olin’s case, the big girls).
“I’m looking at this as a rebuilding year,” Olin said. “We’re going to continue to work on those basic hockey skills, but numbers are a big factor in that. If we don’t have a lot of girls trying out, that gives you less to work with. Numbers are key to having a successful program.”
Twice as many wins as losses is a pretty good rebuilding year.
Olin, 24, was a three-sport athlete at Cloquet before graduating in 2010. She played college hockey at St. Scholastica and received a degree in elementary education and minor in coaching in 2013. Her younger sister, Carley, is a junior defenseman at Bemidji State.
While both sisters were active in sports and school, talk at the Esse dinner table usually revolved around three things: hockey, hockey and more hockey.
“Cloquet is definitely a hockey town, or at least, in my family it is,” Olin said. “Growing up, hockey was definitely what our family revolved around. We were always going to hockey tournaments, and we’d go down to the state tournament every year. That was our family vacation.”
After her playing career ended, Olin served as a defensive assistant for the Saints from 2013-2015. She is married to former Duluth East and St. Scholastica baseball player Tyler Olin. The couple resides in Cloquet.
“Dad is the best mentor you could ask for,” Olin said. “As a player growing up, he couldn’t be more helpful. He was always giving us pointers whether we liked it or not. He’s a true coach. He was always looking to develop better players, and people, too.”
Courtney Olin has coached Lumberjacks summer hockey camps since 2008 and is a first-grade teacher at Churchill Elementary in Cloquet, so she has patience.
“Courtney is a lot quieter than me,” Esse said, laughing. “I’ve seen four games so far, and I look at her to see how she’s coaching. I see her talk to referees, but I can’t hear her. I know she’s a disciplinarian.”
Esse is rather stoic behind the bench during games but certainly isn’t one to hold back on his emotions in the locker room.
“A lack of respect is the thing that really gets me, that’s the one thing that can really flip my switch,” Esse said. “Respect the game, and respect other people. It’s a give and take.”
Esse said more women’s coaches are needed, but Section 7AA is encouraging. Half of the section’s eight head coaches are women, including the Duluth Northern Stars’ Jamie Kenyon, a former Minnesota Duluth player.
“I think just being a female, I have a different way of approaching conflict, and addressing the team,” Olin said. “But there is still definitely a level of intensity. It’s just in a different way.”
Olin has combined lessons learned from her father, Coach Bart and college. Her knowledge of the game is beyond her years, the product of having been spoon fed hockey since she was little.
“Just talking with her, she could coach on our staff, with me,” Esse said. “I just think she is that smart. I wish I had the poise and the knowledge that she has now when I was her age. For a young woman, she is way ahead of the game.”
A signature of Esse’s teams is how hard they work. Any coach who has ever played the Lumberjacks has said the same thing. And if you don’t work hard, you won’t be on the ice. It’s that simple.
Esse knows his teams might not always have as much natural skill as the opponent, but they can always outwork them. That is the one thing you can control. He is seeing the same thing in his daughter’s team.
“From what they’ve done the last couple years, I’m shocked by how many games they’ve won (this year), in a good way,” Esse said. “They are working so stinking hard. I love the work ethic. I like to see when players who maybe aren’t on the top two lines just giving everything they have. That’s all you can ask for.”
To get players to work hard, they need to have something to work hard for. Most players already are self-motivated, and victories certainly help, but giving your best sometimes requires realizing that the team you play for is bigger than you, and the impact goes beyond the ice.
“Coming in as an athlete who played here, one of the things I’ve tried to bring is to be proud of your school and your community,” Olin said. “That was something my dad always stressed. Work hard and be proud of who you play for.”
-- Elk River-Zimmerman is the top seed in 7AA, while No. 3 Grand Rapids-Greenway hosts No. 6 Duluth at 7 p.m. in today’s quarterfinals.
-- In 7A, Proctor-Hermantown earned the top seed and a bye into the semifinals. Duluth Marshall, in its first season as a varsity program, is seeded second and will play Eveleth-Gilbert Area at 7 p.m. at Mars Lakeview Arena.
News Tribune prep girls hockey rankings
1. Proctor-Hermantown 17-7-1
2. Grand Rapids-Greenway 16-8-1
3. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 14-7-4
4. Duluth Marshall 14-8-3