ST. PAUL — As the puck circled Alyssa Watkins’ way Saturday afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center, it almost appeared to be in slow motion until it landed on the stick of the Proctor-Hermantown senior captain.
Then it was released like lightning from a bottle.
Watkins’ power-play goal at 6:57 in double overtime lifted Proctor-Hermantown to a 3-2 victory over Gentry Academy as the Mirage captured not only their first state title, but the Northland’s second girls state hockey title and first since Hibbing-Chisholm in 1997.
This one couldn’t have been much more storybook, with the veteran Watkins capping an extraordinary postseason with her seventh goal of the state tournament, causing an eruption for the senior-laden Mirage, who capped the COVID-delayed season undefeated in storybook style.
“Honestly, I don’t know how it could be better,” Proctor-Hermantown coach Emma Stauber said. “There are no words right now. It’s still kind of sinking in. It’s absolutely unbelievable. This group of girls has been spectacular all year. There is no one more deserving than them. They weathered the storm and found a way through it. It was all about believing.”
With no postgame press conference, tracking down players and coaches was a free-for-all afterward on a 70-degree April day (normally, the girls state title game is about six weeks earlier). Reached by cell phone a couple hours after the game, Watkins agreed with her coach. It just didn’t feel real yet.
“It doesn’t feel like we just won the state championship,” Watkins said. “Some people have asked me about the winning goal, and I don’t even remember.”
The game-winner, for those scoring at home, was at 6:57 in the second overtime. Teammate Izy Fairchild had the puck down in the right circle, kicked it out to Ava Anick on the high point, who swung it over to Watkins in the left circle and she knew what to do with it.
Watkins’ one-timer went high into the near side of the net, over the right shoulder of Gentry Academy goalie Rylee Bartizal, who had 21 saves for the Stars (20-2). Abby Pajari had 32 saves for Proctor-Hermantown (21-0).
Watkins said it was all about reaction, a product of repetition.
“Ava just made a really good pass to me and I just shot it,” she said. “That’s something I’ve been practicing for so long, and then finally, I trusted myself to use it in a game.”
Hesitate for a second, and Bartizal would have had time to slide over and cut the gap, advantage gone.
“She didn’t have time to adjust,” Watkins said. “Both teams had a lot of chances, but Abby played terrific for us.”
That she did. The 5-foot-2 junior showed off her athleticism with sprawling saves and great covers. For the state tournament, she stopped 78 of the 81 shots she faced in three games against top-level competition. For the playoffs, she stopped 109 of 113 shots she faced in five games, including two shutouts.
Goalies are a different breed and are often more superstitious than most. Like pitchers in baseball, coaches just let them out once in a while to do their thing but otherwise don’t bother them during the course of a game. Stauber said she gave Pajari some fist bumps and thumbs-ups, some friendly encouragement, but that’s about it.
“Abby was phenomenal,” Stauber said. “She was in the zone, so I try not to disrupt that. We knew when we got down to this tournament we’d get tested in our D-zone, and that’s something that really hasn’t happened much this year.”
Proctor-Hermantown was behind in both the semifinals and championship. On Saturday, the Mirage were down 1-0 and 2-1, only to answer each time, on goals by Aurora Opsahl and Fairchild.
Stauber could only recall being behind in two other games, against Grand Rapids-Greenway and Duluth Marshall.
“We just had to continue to believe and trust and respond — oh,” Stauber said, exhaling. “It takes the life out of you, but you have to continue, because the game’s not over.”
Proctor-Hermantown was playing in its sixth state tournament and first title game, while Gentry Academy made the state title game in its first season as a program. The Stars will move to Class AA next season.
“Going into the game we were expecting it to be a tough matchup,” said Stars co-coach Paige Jahnke. “Kudos to Proctor-Hermantown for capitalizing on their chance in double overtime. We’re extremely excited to have had this opportunity to compete, and so thankful for the Minnesota State High School League for putting this together.”
The state tournament wasn’t without some critiques and controversy, with the Hermantown boys hockey team playing its junior varsity in the Class A boys state tournament after most of its varsity had to sit out due to COVID-19 protocols. Watkins said a group of boys players made a road trip down to X to watch the Mirage actually get to accomplish what the Hawks wanted to do: win a state title.
Nobody thought it would be this dramatic, or that Watkins would score seven tournament goals, herself included. All she cared about was she got the one that really mattered.
“The other goals will never compare to that one,” Watkins said. “That’s the one I’ll remember the most.”
And so will the Mirage.
Gentry Academy 1-1-0-0-0—2
First period — 1. GA, Cara Sajevic (Angelina Ruiz, Maddie Geer), 10:51; 2. PH, Aurora Opsahl (Reese Heitzman, Ava Anick), 11:54.
Second period — 3. GA, Sajevic (Jenessa Gazdik, Geer), 10:02 (pp).
Third period — 4. PH, Izy Fairchild (Kaydee High, Alyssa Watkins), 8:01 (pp).
First overtime — No scoring.
Second overtime — 5. PH, Alyssa Watkins (Anick, Fairchild), 6:57 (pp).
Saves — Abby Pajari, PH, 32; Rylee Bartizal, GA, 21.