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Calm, confident Dodge County holds off powerful Orono to reach state championship game

Feb. 23—ST. PAUL — Ida Huber didn't attend the postgame press conference here early Friday afternoon.

Odds are, the Dodge County goalie was too exhausted to speak.

Huber was at her absolute best on a day when her team needed her to be. The junior netminder stopped 35 shots, including 26 over the final two periods, and looked like the most poised person in the Xcel Energy Center.

She may have been the only one from Dodge County — players, coaches, band members, and fans included — who didn't show any nerves as the Wildcats closed out an entertaining but nerve-wracking 4-2 victory against Orono in a Class 1A girls hockey state semifinal game at the Xcel Energy Center.

"We talked about that with her, coming up here, that she might have to at least steal one," Dodge County coach Jeremy Gunderson said. "Today was that one.

"She was square to shooters, she played big on the puck. You can see why she's been where she has — invited to some USA (Hockey) development camps — she's athletic and she was dialed in."

The win lifts the No. 3-ranked and No. 3-seeded Wildcats (23-4-0) into Saturday's 4 p.m. state championship game against either Holy Angels or Warroad, at the Xcel Center.

Dodge County is the fourth Class 1A team to reach the state championship game in its first state-tournament appearance, since the tournament format was switched to eight teams in 2007. The others: Gentry Academy (2021), Thief River Falls (2015) and East Grand Forks (2014). Of that group, only Thief River won the title. Dodge County hopes to become the second team to do it, on Saturday.

If the Wildcats are to capture the state title, they'll likely need their junior goalie to be as sharp as she was Friday. Huber's coaches and teammates knew she was locked in from the get-go. The first shot she faced was a hard wrist shot by Orono's Macy Rasmussen, a standout forward who played for Team USA in this year's U18 World Championships. Huber confidently sticked it aside.

"You could see it with her in warmups," Gunderson said, "and the first six or seven shots, she was tracking it really well. I was like 'OK, she's on.' Then it was just the rest of us getting over our nerves and coming to play."

Orono's Maddy Kimbrell opened the scoring 12:15 into the game when she batted her own rebound out of mid-air for her 27th goal of the season.

The Wildcats tied the score on the game's first power play, just 60 seconds into the second period. Senior defender Abby Simons fed junior Nora Carstensen in the left circle and she fired a hard wrist shot into the top corner of the net to make it 1-1.

Dodge County turned the tie score into a two-goal lead in a span of 22 seconds midway through the second period.

Kylie Meyer gave the Wildcats their first lead when she beat Orono goalie Viv Anderson five-hole, 9:45 into the second. On the ensuing shift, Dodge County freshman Maysie Koch blocked a shot in her own zone, then turned it into a breakaway. Koch skated it deep into Orono's end then sniped a shot high past Anderson's glove to make it 3-1 with 6:53 to play in the second.

"I was a little nervous going in there, with the puck being a little wobbly," Koch said with a laugh. "But I realized that I just had to shoot to shoot and see happens. I got lucky, I guess."

Dodge County killed off two penalties in the first five minutes of the third. But the Spartans pulled back within one, at 3-2, when Macy Rasmussen scored on a backhand shot from the low slot with 10:30 to play. Alexa Niccum and Gabrille Lopez assisted on the goal.

Orono nearly tied the score 85 seconds later when Gabrielle Lopez fired a heavy wrist shot from the left circle that got over Huber's shoulder, but hit the crossbar. The Spartans had more quality chances late in the game — including a Zoe Lopez shot from in-tight that Huber stopped with her shoulder, and a clean look from the slot for Kali Schmidt with 31.2 seconds to go, which Huber also deflected aside.

"I think we just played all over them defensively; picking up bodies was what we had to do, and we did it well," Simons said of the Wildcats' play in the third period.

"We really had to talk and communicate in the d-zone," Dodge County junior forward Mollie Koch said. "We all had to clear our minds and just kind of stay calm, make sure we all got to our own spots. That really helped us out and Ida kept talking to us, which was really good for us."

Dodge County locked down defensively late in the third period, then used Koch's second goal of the game to clinch its spot in the state championship game.

"I feel like coming into the state tournament, a lot of people maybe didn't know where we were from and kind of looked down on us," Mollie Koch said. "We are the underdogs, for sure.

"I think coming in, beating Fergus Falls, then coming into this game confident and having that chip on our back, and how we really wanted to beat (Orono) really badly because we lost to them during the season, that really helped us out and kept driving us."

DODGE COUNTY 4, ORONO 2

Dodge County 0-3-1 — 4

Orono 1-0-1 — 2

First period — 1. ORN, Maddy Kimbrell 27 (unassisted) 12:15. Second period — 2. DC, Nora Carstensen 34 (Abby Simons 28) 1:00 (pp). 3. DC, Kylie Meyer 3 (Alyse Williamschen 7, Hannah Peterson 9) 9:45. 4. DC, Maysie Koch 24 (unassisted) 10:07. Third period — 5. ORN, Macy Rasmussen 9 (Gabi Lopez 8, Alexa Niccum 13) 6:30. 6. DC, Maysie Koch 25 (unassisted) 16:38 (en).

Shots on goal — DC, 8-13-5—26; ORN, 10-14-13—37. Goalies — DC, Ida Huber (W, 22-4-0; 35 saves-37 shots); ORN, Viv Anderson (L, 15-6-1; 22 saves-25 shots). Power-play opportunities — DC, 1-for-1; ORN, 0-for-2. Penalties — DC, 2-4 minutes; ORN, 1-2 minutes.