Prep girls hockey: Balance is no Mirage for Proctor/Hermantown

Mirage back in the state tournament for a third straight year.

high school girls play ice hockey
Anika Burke (8) and Reese Heitzman (21), both of Proctor/Hermantown, celebrate a goal against Duluth Marshall during the Section 7A girls hockey championship at Northwoods Credit Union Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 15 in Cloquet.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Proctor/Hermantown girls hockey coach Emma Stauber was asked following a 5-4 victory over Duluth Marshall in the Section 7A title game how the Mirage select a player of the game when it seems like the goals and assists are spread around every game.

Stauber thought for a moment and gave a very coach-like answer, singling out Proctor/Hermantown’s eight seniors, in particular, four of their leaders who helped the Mirage overcome a 3-1 deficit against the Hilltoppers.

“Our two captains, Nya Sieger and Reese Heitzman, were definitely outstanding and they led the team on the forward end, and Sophie Parendo and Ava Anick, our alternates, were phenomenal on the back end. We definitely owe it to them. They helped turn it around. They didn’t want it to be their last game and they led us.”



What: Class A girls hockey state quarterfinal

When: 11 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

TV: Free streaming (with registration) on

Proctor/Hermantown, the 2021 state champions and ’22 runner-up, will play in its third-straight Class A tournament and seventh state tournament overall, all since 2014 (Proctor/Hermantown/Marshall also went in 2010).

The second-seeded Mirage (19-6-2) play unseeded Mankato East (20-6) in the Class A state quarterfinals at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul as the region is in the midst of a winter storm.


“Last year we came out second but we feel we can win the championship, for sure,” Sieger said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

Mankato East has outscored opponents by a 4.9 to 1.3 margin but hasn’t played a schedule nearly as difficult as the Mirage, who have outscored opponents by a 3.9-1.9 average.

Senior forward McKenzie Keller leads the Cougars with 27 goals and 30 assists for 57 points while Proctor/Hermantown, as mentioned, counters with a much more balanced attack.

The Mirage have six players with at least 20 points apiece: Hannah Graves (14-21—35), Heitzman (18-11—29), Izy Fairchild (16-10—26), Sieger (7-17—24), Hailey Jussila (5-16—21) and Jane Eckstrom (9-11—2).

While the teams didn’t see each other during the regular season, Mankato East pushed Duluth Marshall to overtime before falling 3-2 in overtime Dec. 27 at the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic in Blaine, Minnesota.

Graves, a junior forward, said the Mirage won’t overlook any opponent.

“We want to win the whole thing, but you have to win the little battles before that,” Graves said. “If we end up making it to the championship, we’ll take on that challenge when it comes.”

Proctor/Hermantown and Duluth Marshall were tied 3-3 going into the third period before Sieger scored at 5:31 in the third and then Graves — after a handful of good looks — finally scored a backdoor goal on an assist from Sieger at 6:08 in the third, making it 5-3. The Hilltoppers, however, weren’t done as Nina Thorson pulled Marshall to within a goal with a shorthanded tally at 15:59, making for an intense final minute.


“We were a little nervous but we just had to stay positive,” Sieger said. “We kind of knew Marshall was going to come back. We knew they were going to come out hard. We just had to come out harder.”

Mankato East features senior Annaliese Rader (20-6, 1.2 GAA, .945) in net while Proctor/Hermantown counters with Neelah McLeod (9-3-1, 1.95 GAA, .916 save %) and Suri Langley (10-3-1, 1.62 GAA, .923 save %).

On the other half of the bracket sits No. 1 seed Warroad, which defeated the Mirage 6-1 in last year’s state title game.

While Proctor/Hermantown would love to see the Warriors again, Stauber just wants to win.

“Yeah, we’d like to see them again, but if we don’t see them, we don’t see them. We’ll play whoever,” Stauber said. “You’ve got to get through them all if you want to win the title.”

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 or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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