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Dodge County battles to the buzzer, falls to Northfield in section championship game

Feb. 28—ROCHESTER — The look on Alex Bjerk's face told the whole story.

It was a painful "so close, yet so far" reaction.

"He left his heart out there," Bjerk, the goalies coach for the Dodge County boys hockey team, said of Wildcats senior netminder Jackson Roethler.

Roethler made 45 saves, making the first stop on nearly every chance Northfield had Wednesday night. His teammates were there almost every time to clear a rare rebound that was left in a bad spot, or to lift the stick of a Northfield player who thought he might have a golden opportunity to score.

In the end, the Raiders quick transition game and ability to cause chaos in front of Roethler paid off.

Northfield downed Dodge County 4-1 in the Section 1, Class 1A championship game at the Rochester Recreation Center to earn a trip to the state tournament for a second consecutive season. The Raiders quick transition game stretched the Wildcats defensively and led to a definite puck-possession advantage for the top-seeded team.

"It's funny because I prayed before the game, at my house, 'Lord let Jackson make some saves tonight that even he didn't know he could make,'" Dodge County co-head coach Bryce Wilcox said. "I think he had four or five of those tonight. He was outstanding.

"His ultimate goal is to get to the next level and I think if anybody (junior hockey coaches) is watching this game, how do you not give him a look? Without him, we're not in a one-goal game going into the third period."

Dodge County was left heartbroken — so close to a second trip to state in four seasons — but with nothing to hang its heads about after a 19-8-1 season.

The Wildcats say goodbye to eight outstanding seniors, including Roethler, forwards Gryffon Funke, Isaac Nelson, Aidan Nelson, Gideon Ellinghysen and Ethan Hearn, and defensemen Caeden Smith and Bronson Freerksen. Funke departs after a 44-goal, 74-point senior season.

"I think it was just a group with pure determination," Wilcox said of the Wildcats' seniors. "Some of them were thinking they might not even come out, whether it was a year ago or two years ago, but they decided to stick with it.

"Without that bond, without them sticking it out, we're not able to put a 15-man team together. I can't say enough about them. I'm going to miss every single one of them."

No. 8-ranked Northfield will take a 22-4-2 record into the state tournament, which begins next Wednesday, March 6, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Raiders will learn their quarterfinal game time and opponent this weekend when the seeding process is completed.

In Wednesday's section final, only one goal was scored in the first two periods. It was an incredible effort by Northfield's Will Cashin, who collected the puck in the corner to Roethler's left, dished it to Cayden Monson along the end wall, then drove to the net, got the puck back from Monson and tucked it around Roethler's far pad 3:52 into the second for a 1-0 lead.

That's how the score stayed into the third.

Northfield extended its lead to 2-0 on a bad bounce for Dodge County. Griffin Kennelly attempted to center a pass from below the goal line, but the pass hit the stick of a Wildcats player and deflected past Roethler 5:07 into the third.

The Wildcats answered immediately, as Funke and the team's leading scorer, Brett Ludvigsen, set up linemate Gideon Ellinghysen for his seventh goal of the season, just 17 seconds later, cutting the deficit to 2-1.

That's as close as the Wildcats would come, though, as Cayden Monson scored four minutes later on another outstanding individual effort. He walked the puck from the corner to Roethler's right then lifted a perfect backhand shot into the top corner of the net to make it 3-1 with 7:29 to play.

Michael Steward sealed the win with 1:26 left, with an empty-net power-play goal.

The Wildcats seniors depart after winning 35 games over the past two seasons and 51 over the past three seasons.

"All the seniors ... the Nelson boys, their character is as good as anyone's," Wilcox said. "Gideon (Ellinghysen) is the heart of the team, his work ethic and his will to win battles. Bronson is just an absolute beast on defense. Smitty, too, then Funke is just a pure goal-scorer, you take him out and you lose 30-some goals a season.

"Every single one of them is a leader. If you could make eight captains on a team, we would absolutely do that. Without them bonding this group together, we wouldn't have the team we're going to have next year and in the future. That's the role models that they've been. It's hard to put into words."

NORTHFIELD 4, DODGE COUNTY 1

Dodge County 0-0-1 — 1

Northfield 0-1-3 — 4

First period — none. Second period — 1. NFLD, Will Cashin 11 (Cayden Monson 36) 3:52. Third period — 2. NFLD, Griffin Kennelly (unassisted) 5:07. 3. DC, Gideon Ellinghysen 7 (Gryffon Funke 30, Brett Ludvigsen 48) 5:24. 4. NFLD, Monsoon 21 (Ty Frank 19) 9:31. 5. NFLD, Michael Steward 9 (unassisted) 15:26 (pp, en).

Shots on goal — DC 3-6-6—15; NFLD 12-21-16—49. Goalies — DC, Jackson Roethler (17-8-1; 48 shots-45 saves); NFLD, Max Frank (14-3-1; 15 shots-15 saves). Power-play opportunities — DC, 0-for-1; NFLD, 1-for-4. Penalties — DC, 4-8 minutes; NFLD, 1-2 minutes.