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Dodge County duo drawing on section title-game, state tournament experience to lead Wildcats

Feb. 28—KASSON — Gryffon Funke and Caeden Smith remember the nerves.

They remember a packed Dodge County Ice Arena.

They remember Matt Donovan's two goals and Brody Lamb's three points.

And they remember that Dodge County's win against Mankato West — in Dodge County's first-ever appearance in the Section 1, Class 1A boys high school hockey championship game — sent the Wildcats to another place they'd never been before: The Tourney.

Funke and Smith were freshmen three years ago when the Wildcats beat Mankato West 4-3 in the 2021 section title game played in Kasson, as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted playoff games to home sites and kept most fans out of the stands at the state tournament.

"Just learning to always stay positive and always stay confident," Funke said of what he learned from the leaders on the 2021 Wildcats. "Seeing those guys always stay positive and just have fun on the ice, that's something that I took from watching them."

Tonight, Funke and Smith will get another chance to play in a section championship game, when the No. 2-seeded Wildcats (19-7-1) face top-seeded Northfield (21-4-2) at 7 p.m. at the Rochester Recreation Center.

The winner goes to the Class 1A state tournament, March 7-10 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Dodge County last went to state in 2021.

"It was just a really great opportunity. The rink was packed with a ton of fans that night," said Smith, who was a freshman defenseman on that Wildcats section title team that went on to place second at state. "It was really good to be around those guys on that team, good leaders. They really brought that team together.

"And I learned from those veteran defensemen that when you make a mistake you have to just jump right back in there, play physically and play fast."

Funke and Smith, now seniors, are the veteran leaders this time around, the only players on this year's Wildcats team who were on that state tournament team. Funke (44 goals, 73 points) is the team's second-leading scorer behind junior Brett Ludvigsen (29 goals, 76 points). Smith (4 goals, 12 points) is a physical presence on a strong defensive corps..

"Caeden's a big, strong kid," Wildcats co-coach Bryce Wilcox said. "I've known him since he was a freshman. He keeps (opponents) to the outside and he has such a long stick and he can stretch and he's so strong with his arms, that he keeps guys to the outside and makes sure nothing gets to the middle of the ice.

"When he plays physically, it brings a whole other element to his game."

While the Wildcats have a couple of standouts who were on the ice in a section title game and at the state tournament three years ago, they're solely focused right now on trying to stop the team that went to state from Section 1 last year. En route to winning the 2023 section title, the Raiders took out Dodge County 6-1 in a section semifinal game.

"It's definitely going to be a good game, a tough matchup, they've been ranked the whole season," Funke said of Northfield, "but we're confident in ourselves. We're going to go into it with as much confidence as we can, control what we can control and the outcome will be what it is."

Northfield's top scorers are back from last year's title team and they picked up this year where they left off. Jake Geiger (26-38—64), Cayden Monson (20-35—55) and Kam Kaiser (36-19—55) create a challenging matchup for any opponent. That trio of seniors has combined for 82 goals and 174 points this season.

"We have to be sure to play the body against them," Smith said, "slow them down, try to make them use up their energy and win the puck battles in the corners."

Seniors Ben Geiger (23 points) and Ty Frank (18 points), and sophomore Bridger Riley (19 points) can produce offense from the back end for the Raiders. Junior Max Frank (13-3-1, 1.61 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) has started both playoff games in goal after sharing the net with senior Trey Shimota during the season.

The good news for the Wildcats is they've been through two very fast-paced playoff games to get to this point, beating Waseca 5-3 in the quarterfinals and then winning an up-and-down game against La Crescent-Hokah 4-3 in the semifinals, a game in which the Lancers pressured hard for the full third period. Northfield won its first two section playoff games by scores of 9-2 and 8-1, beating Faribault in the quarterfinals and Albert Lea in Saturday's section semifinals.

"That just shows us the different pace of the playoffs and that anything can happen in the playoffs," Funke said. "With that fast pace of a game, for our younger guys to be able to get that under their belts before the section championship game, that's going to be big for us."

Wildcats goalie Jackson Roethler (17-7-1, 3.05, .891) was at his best late in the game against the Lancers, finishing with 25 saves. Dodge County will likely need another outstanding game from the senior to get past the Raiders.

"He's been playing really well," said Wilcox, who played in and won two section championship games as a defenseman at Rochester Century, in 2005 and '07. "The first shot has been his every time and that's where our 'D' have to come in and have to be big and strong in front of the net. We have to make sure they don't get second and third opportunities."

A look at the numbers behind the teams in the Section 1, Class 1A boys hockey championship game:

STAT DODGE COUNTY NORTHFIELD

State rank No. 18 No. 8

Record 19-7-1 21-4-2

Top scorers Jr. F Brett Ludvigsen (29-47—76)

Sr. F Gryffon Funke (44-29—73) Sr. F Jake Geiger (26-38—64)

Sr. F Cayden Monson (20-35—55)

Sr. F Kam Kaiser (36-19—55)

Top goalie Sr. Jackson Roethler (17-7-1, 3.05, .891) Jr. Max Frank (13-3-1, 1.61, .921)

Goals / game 4.52 5.30

Goals alld. / game 2.96 1.81

Power play 23-for-83 (27.7%) 41-for-100 (41.0%)

Penalty kill 81-for-92 (88.0%) 80-for-92 (87.0%)