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Prep girls hockey: Pressure’s off as Mirage hope to make state tournament run

Senior-laden Proctor-Hermantown heads into Xcel Energy Center as a No. 3 seed.

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Members of the Proctor/Hermantown girls hockey team listen to head coach Emma Stauber during the Section 7A championship game Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Former Proctor-Hermantown girls hockey coach Glen Gilderman was all smiles as he talked in the parking lot Saturday at St. Luke’s Events Center in Proctor.

Gilderman’s old team had just defeated Duluth Marshall for the Section 7A championship.

“That seemed a little closer than a six-nothing game,” Gilderman said.

That it did. The Hilltoppers only trailed 2-0 going into the third period before the Mirage turned it on with four goals, their combination of talent and depth winning out.

Proctor-Hermantown (18-0) earned a third seed for the Class A state tournament and will play unseeded Luverne (16-4) at 1 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

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The Mirage are making their sixth state tournament appearance and fifth since 2014, with all the previous trips with Gilderman at the helm.

Stauber, 27, is in her second season as Mirage coach. The 2011 Duluth Marshall graduate is a Mirage and Minnesota Duluth hockey alum. While she certainly doesn’t need a vote of confidence — she knows what works — Saturday’s win was a relief after the Mirage came up just one game short of the state tournament last year.

“I was never really nervous,” Stauber said. “We prepared for this moment the entire season, and we just have to get the girls to continue to believe in themselves and get through anything that comes their way, and that’s what they did. We’re extremely proud of them.”

She continued ...

“It’s kind of that monkey off your back,” Stauber said. “We know this group is special and we wanted to do everything we could to get them to the tournament.”

Just how special, we’ll soon find out.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Proctor-Hermantown didn’t play any of the state tournament qualifiers, so it’s hard to compare. Instead, the Mirage stayed closer to home and destroyed the local competition, outscoring opponents by a combined 137-14, or roughly 8-1 per game. The closest margin of victory was 4-2, at Grand Rapids-Greenway March 2 and at Duluth Marshall March 4.

“Our schedule wasn’t the strongest but we pushed each other in practice — we were the best team we could play against,” said standout defenseman Ella Anick. “We’ve worked really hard this season and whatever we see in St. Paul we’ll be ready for it. Our girls have been playing well.”

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Hard work has been the theme all season as evidenced by the Mirage game programs that feature a coverage image of a player with the No. 21 and “HARD WORK” printed across the back of her jersey.

Proctor-Hermantown has a veteran lineup featuring nine seniors, including Anick (six goals, 20 assists, 26 points) and leading scorer Alyssa Watkins (17-21—38). Anick is bound for NCAA Division I Bemidji State while Watkins isn’t set on anything just yet.

“I have a couple options, but I’m just waiting to see how this season pans out,” Watkins said. “Really, anything that gets me to college hockey is a good thing but yeah, I’d like to go DI.”

Anick scored two goals in the section championship win over Marshall while Watkins scored the first — and only — goal the Mirage would need in the first period.

Later, in the third period, the chemistry between the two captains was apparent as Watkins, or “Watty” as her teammates call her, spotted Anick in front of the net with a perfect pass and the defenseman did the rest and buried it.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Stauber said. “That’s why they’re wearing the C's. They showed their true leadership (Saturday) when we needed it the most, just weathering that storm. They did it, just as they’ve done it all year long.”

And that performance brought a lot of relief to their coach.

Stauber has a bright coaching future. There will be more triumphant wins and agonizing losses, for sure, but nothing beats that first time, that first time leading your team to state.

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Anything less this year would have just been disappointment.

“Exactly,” Stauber said. “There’s just no other word to describe it, especially with our nine seniors. For them not to get there, after all the work they’ve put in, and all the years they’ve played together, it would have been very difficult.”

And that would have all been on coach.

“I know, I know, I know,” Stauber said, laughing. “That’s why I say the monkey’s off my back. Seriously though, it’s been an awesome year so far.”

Comeback kid

Proctor-Hermantown senior defenseman McKenzie Gunderson has suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees.

The last one occurred during a homecoming week powder puff game at the school during her junior year and she missed the hockey season. Despite the setback, she stayed close to the game by serving as a student manager.

“McKenzie spent her entire junior year helping the team and bringing positive energy every day even through the tough time,” Stauber said.

Now, Gunderson is back in action, scoring two goals and adding four assists this season while manning the blue line for a Mirage team that consistently goes six defensemen deep.

“McKenzie has been extremely resilient to come back from such substantial injuries,” Stauber said. “It takes patience and determination to continuously go through therapy and rehab to be healthy enough to play again. Now, it's her senior year and she is back and part of our core D group and doing a wonderful job. It feels like she never missed a season. We are very proud of her.”

Related Topics: HOCKEYGIRLS HOCKEYST. PAUL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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