CLOQUET — Proctor/Hermantown girls hockey forward Nya Sieger brought the puck in down low Wednesday night, just to the side of the net, and heard an old familiar voice calling from up front, “Nya, Nya, Nya, here, here, here.”
It was teammate Hannah Graves.
“All the players were turned to Nya, so I knew if she found me, I’d have it in the back of the net, and she did,” Graves said. “It was just a heads-up play by her. It was beautiful.”
Graves’ goal at 6:08 in the third period proved to be the game-winner as top-seeded Proctor/Hermantown held on for a 5-4 victory over second-seeded Duluth Marshall in the Section 7A title game before about 900 fans at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.
Proctor/Hermantown (19-6-2) advances to its third straight Class A tournament and seventh time overall, all since 2014 (Proctor/Hermantown/Marshall also went in 2010).
The quarterfinals are Wednesday, February 22, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, with the opponent and time to be determined once seeding is completed.
“It never gets old, and every year is different, too,” Mirage coach Emma Stauber said.
This one was a lot more nerve-wracking than most, that’s for sure.
Duluth Marshall (20-7-1), which was outshot 37-15, didn’t get a whole lot of scoring opportunities in this one but took advantage of most of them in leading 2-1 after the first period.
“We knew we were going to have to weather the storm,” Emma Stauber said. “Marshall came out with a lot of energy in that first period and down 2-1, we had to figure something out. We kept it positive.”
The Hilltoppers expanded their lead to 3-1 at 2:38 in the second period on Sarah Stauber’s goal just four seconds after a faceoff.
That’s where Proctor/Hermantown took over, as the Mirage came back to tie it 3-3 on goals by Natalie Berg and Reese Heitzman. Duluth Marshall, which spent its share of time in the penalty box, was outshot 16-2 in the second period.
“Sometimes you run into fantastic goalies, so it was nice to finally get a couple,” Emma Stauber said. “We knew if we could get a goal in the third period we could gain the momentum. Our seniors didn’t want this to be their last game and they led us.”
The Mirage took their first lead at 4-3 on a goal by Sieger, a senior forward, at 5:31 in the third, with Graves scoring just 37 seconds later to make it 5-3.
This one was far from over, however, as Duluth Marshall wasn’t about to give up. With Proctor/Hermantown on the power play, the Hilltoppers pulled their goalie and made it 5-4 on Nina Thorson’s second goal of the game at 15:59 in the third, making it 5-4. Thorson’s goal proved the old adage, throw the puck on net and good things will happen, as it was a bit of a miracle that one somehow snuck in.
That’s how it would stay but it certainly made for a tense final minute.
Proctor/Hermantown has knocked Duluth Marshall out of the playoffs five straight years, including the past three section finals.
“It’ll be us on the other side of this one day,” Hoff said. “The future is bright. We’re going to keep coming back at ’em. It’ll be ours eventually.”
Hoff, the 2021-22 NCAA Division III player of the year while at Wisconsin-River Falls, enjoyed a terrific first year as Duluth Marshall’s head coach. While Wednesday was tough, Hoff and assistant coach Shawna Davidson are winners who could make the Hilltoppers formidable for years to come.
While Proctor/Hermantown graduates eight seniors, Duluth Marshall only graduates three. The Hilltoppers will have an influx of incoming talent to go along with the likes of superstar Ilsa Lindaman, a junior center who was held to two assists.
“I’m kind of speechless,” Hoff said. “These girls in this program gave me a lot for my first year of coaching. They set the standards high for this program. We’re going places. This is only the start for us. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and grow with these girls.”
Duluth Marshall 2-1-1—4
First period — 1. DM, Nina Thorson (Ilsa Lindaman), 8:20; 2. PH, Jane Eckstrom (Nya Sieger), 10:22; 3. DM, Eva Etter (Hailey Cummins), 14:01 (pp).
Second period — 4. DM, Sarah Stauber (Danica Mark), 2:38; 5. PH, Natalie Berg (Izy Fairchild, Sophie Parendo), 8:05 (pp); 6. PH, Reese Heitzman (Sieger, Eckstrom), 12:03.
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.