Girls High School Hockey Preview: Pajari’s performance in net is no Mirage
The Proctor-Hermantown goalie might be small but the results are big.
Proctor-Hermantown senior girls hockey player Abby Pajari grew up playing left wing before she began dabbling as goalie at the U-10 level because her team didn’t have one.
“It was kind of nice because my dad didn’t know a lot about it, so I could get through practice without him yelling at me,” Pajari said, laughing. “Then I kept practicing as a goalie and ended up just loving it.”
And, as it turns out, she was good at it — really good at it.
Pajari led, even carried, Proctor-Hermantown to the Class A title last season with stellar play between the pipes last April. The 5-foot-2 goalie emerged in her second season on varsity, posting gaudy numbers with a 12-0 record, 0.92 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
As good as those numbers are, in five playoff games Pajari was even better, stopping 109 of the 113 shots, good for a .965 save percentage and two shutouts as the Mirage (21-0) won the Class A state title. That was enough for one Northland hockey coach to nominate her for News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year but she had to settle for first-team honors.
Even without graduating 10 seniors, Proctor-Hermantown realizes it’s impossible to match last year. This is a new year, a new team.
“It’s going to be hard,” Pajari said of a potential repeat. “We have a lot of younger girls coming up in the program, a lot of eighth graders and freshmen and sophomores who are talented, so hopefully we can have a season similar to what we had last year.”
After rolling through the regular season and section playoffs, and then winning a couple of gritty games at the state tournament to complete a perfect season, it took all of one game — one game — for Proctor-Hermantown to suffer a loss this season as the Mirage fell 1-0 at perennial power Warroad in their season opener Saturday, Nov. 13.
It would be impossible to fault Pajari for that one. She finished with 43 saves, with the one goal she gave up not exactly being clean, bouncing off her back and rolling in.
“Abby is in there for a reason. Tonight, she was absolutely phenomenal,” third-year coach Emma Stauber said on the ride home after the game. “She’s so quick. She can not only make that first save, but the second and third one as well. She sees the puck, she tracks it, she covers it, we’re just excited to have her back this year. She’s going to be a big piece of our success this year.”
Pajari split time with senior Vivi Helquist last year as both goalies were deserving, with Helquist posting a 9-0 record with a 0.64 GAA and .935 save percentage.
This year, Pajari will get the bulk of the time between the pipes as the Mirage are inexperienced behind her, with freshman Neelah McLeod and eighth-grader Suri Langley.
“That’s not how we typically run our program, because whoever deserves the net is going to get the net, but obviously, last year was different,” Stauber said. “Once it came to the playoffs last year, it was Abby’s dance, and what she showed us in those games was pretty special.”
Pajari said switching back and forth between goalies made it more challenging to stay focused. In addition, the fact the Mirage were blowing out most teams — they outscored opponents by a 7.19 to 0.81 average — made it harder for their goalies to stay into the games as they weren’t seeing as many shots.
That won’t be quite the same this year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic last season, teams kept their schedules tight and stayed closer to home. That’s not the case this year as Proctor-Hermantown hit the road right from the get-go.
The Mirage had a game scheduled for Friday, Nov. 12, at East Grand Forks but that got canceled due to the weather.
“We definitely feel like we have a huge target on our back after last season,” Pajari said. “We know every game is going to be a competition.”
And Pajari isn’t afraid of competition, or of being the goalie.
So while she might be superstitious, to the point where she has to put her gear on the exact same way, has to have the same person braid her hair and always has to have blue Gatorade, Pajari has found her calling. She was meant to be a goalie.
“Whenever I tell people about all the superstitions I have, they think I’m crazy, but a lot of my teammates don’t even know,” Pajari said, laughing. “I kind of keep it quiet.
“There will be a little bit more pressure this year but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m pretty used to it.”
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Boettcher was already really good as a sophomore last year, notching 17 goals and 22 assists to earn All-Area Second Team honors, and she is only getting better. “Meredith is a strong, two-way forward who can score big goals during big moments,” Hilltoppers coach Amanda Boulier said. “She is a leader on and off the ice. We expect her to play some huge minutes, in every situation.”
Bischoff was second in the Northland in scoring last year with 31 goals and 25 assists for 56 points, earning All-Area First Team honors. It’ll be interesting to see what she does this season without star Claire Vekich, now at Bemidji State. “What really separates Mercury from her peers is her tremendous set of instincts for hockey,” Lightning coach Brad Hyduke said. “Her ability to be a play ahead of everyone else on the ice is fun to watch. She has a rare combination of deception and breakaway speed — and she’s only in ninth grade.”
While the Mirage graduated plenty of firepower from their state-title run last winter, the cupboard isn’t bare. While second-leading scorer Macy Sieger graduated, younger sister and third-leading scorer Nya Sieger is back after scoring 12 goals and adding 25 assists for 37 points in earning All-Area Second Team honors. Sieger could be used at center and wing. “She’s a phenomenal player, a game-changer, she’s just so dynamic,” Mirage coach Emma Stauber said. “She’s all over the ice. She’s so smart, she can see the ice, and you’re going to get everything out of her, every day. She’s just so determined.”
As a junior, Stewart was the first junior captain in program history, as voted on by her teammates. She had three goals and six assists for nine points in 15 games while helping the Lumberjacks hold opponents to 2.18 goals per game. She will play college hockey next year at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “She is an outstanding leader on and off the ice,” Lumberjacks coach Courtney Olin said. “She works extremely hard and sees the ice very well.”
Pajari was stellar last season as the Mirage went 21-0 and captured the Class A state title, posting a 12-0 record, 0.92 goals-against average and .954 save percentage en route to All-Area First Team honors. After splitting time between the pipes in 2020-21, Pajari said she is ready to handle the bulk of the goaltending duties this winter.
5 GAMES TO WATCH
Grand Rapids-Greenway at Proctor-Hermantown
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9
The one and only meeting between two of the Northland’s top programs takes place in Hermantown. The two meetings between the teams didn’t go well for GRG last season, with the Mirage winning 10-2 and 4-2 en route to a 21-0 season and Class A state title, but a lot can change in a year.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton at Moose Lake Area
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 16
This is the second scheduled meeting between the teams, with the first being Nov. 23 in Cloquet, and one team, of course, will be looking for a little payback, while the other will be looking for a regular-season sweep.
Proctor-Hermantown at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21
This is the only scheduled meeting between the teams this season. The Mirage took both meetings 5-1 from CEC last season, exacting a little revenge after the Lumberjacks edged them 3-2 in the 2020 Section 7A finale before a raucous crowd of about 1,500 at St. Luke’s Events Center in Proctor en route to a runner-up finish in Class A.
Duluth at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13
This will always be a rivalry, boys hockey, girls hockey, no matter the sport. The teams first square off Dec. 14 in Duluth and have the rematch a month later in Cloquet. The Lumberjacks swept the series 5-2 and 5-1 last season.
Andover at Proctor-Hermantown
7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28
Last year’s Class AA runner-up (Andover) against last year’s Class champion (Proctor-Hermantown) square off in Hermantown — doesn’t get much better than that for a regular-season matchup and postseason tuneup. Both made Section 7 proud last season. The teams originally looked at playing Jan. 22 but Andover is part of Hockey Day Minnesota that weekend.