Jan. 24—KASSON — Jackson Roethler was 9 years old when he was hanging out with friends Gryffon Funke and Caeden Smith, shooting pucks together.
"We were shooting in the garage one day and Gryffon and Caeden both said they needed a goalie to shoot on," Roethler said with a laugh. "They both taught me how to do the butterfly, so I wrote my mom a note and said 'hey, I want to be a goalie.'
"The next week, I had pads on."
Just like that, a goalie was created.
Roethler couldn't have picked two better guys to break him in. The three classmates are all seniors now, and Funke and Smith still use Roethler for target practice on a daily basis — though he has matured into a goalie who is now painstakingly difficult to beat. The three friends are also key pieces to a Dodge County boys hockey team that improved to 14-6-0 with a 3-0 win against visiting Mankato West on Tuesday night at Dodge County Ice Arena, their ninth win in 10 games.
Smith is a towering defenseman with a heavy shot. Funke is a playmaker and pure goal-scorer who is second in the state this winter with 35 goals. Roethler is their backbone, the guy who the Wildcats trust to have their backs when a play breaks down. And it all started with a little bit of prodding from his friends when they were in fourth grade.
"I fell in love with it as soon as I put the pads on," said Roethler, who stopped 22 shots against West to record his second shutout this season. "I love how much effort it takes. I love putting in the work and just trying to be better every day."
Roethler's work ethic and desire to improve since that day nine years ago — half a lifetime for the young goalie — aren't lost on his coaches or teammates.
He may have been the best player on the ice Tuesday, when he made at least three saves from point-blank range, including sliding left-to-right to rob Hunter Rigdon on a 2-on-1 with 7:20 to go in the third period, preserving what was a 1-0 Dodge County lead at the time.
Two-and-a-half minutes later, Brett Ludvigsen fed Funke on a 2-on-2 rush for a one-timer — Funke's second goal of the game — to extend the Wildcats' lead to 2-0. Then, with 3.2 seconds to go, Roethler got something that might be even better than a shutout: an assist. He passed the puck to Gideon Ellinghysen for the victory-sealing empty net goal.
"He does a great job and when he gets his confidence up, like you saw tonight, it's pretty hard to beat him," Funke said. "When he gets rolling, we feel pretty confident that he's going to be there to stop whatever comes at him."
Roethler's confidence has grown leaps and bounds in his senior season, specifically since the start of January. His numbers in seven games this month are astounding: 6-1-0, with a 1.57 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and two shutouts. He has allowed just 11 total goals in those seven games.
"The last few weeks he's had a turnaround both mentally and with how he's playing his game," said Dodge County goalie coach Alex Bjerk, a former Rochester Ice Hawks and Division III college goalie, who also served as the Vegas Golden Knights' emergency backup goalie for the 2017-18 season. "I told him after the first (period) that it's going to be the little details that decide the outcome of this game and if he's making saves look easy, then he's doing his job the right way. He competes and makes those big saves as well.
"This year, especially in the second half, his mental game has come a long way, not getting too down on himself and understanding how his game needs to be played."
Funke said having a confident Roethler — now in his third season and second full-time on the varsity — behind them allows the Wildcats to play a little more free offensively.
"We can take a deep breath," Funke said. "We know he's going to be there and be on top of his game. We can take some chances that maybe some other teams wouldn't be able to."
As a freshman, Roethler started for Dodge County's Bantam team, and watched from the stands as Brody Lamb wowed the state with his scoring ability and then-junior Isaac Dale backstopped the Wildcats to the Class 1A state championship game.
Roethler said he knows it will be a tall task — No. 20-ranked Dodge County will have to go through No. 6 Northfield, La Crescent-Hokah, Albert Lea, Winona, Lourdes and others in what is expected to be a gauntlet of a Section 1 tournament — but he hopes to finish his high school career in the same place Lamb finished his: the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"We know how good Northfield and the other teams are," Roethler said. "It just motivates us to want to play better and work harder every day."
DODGE COUNTY 3, MANKATO WEST 0
Mankato West 0-0-0 — 0
Dodge County 0-1-2 — 3
First period — no scoring.
Second period — 1. DC, Gryff Funke 34 (Jeremiah Peterson Gordon 16, Brett Ludvigsen 34) 14:48 (PP, 5x3).
Third period — 2. DC, Funke 35 (Ludvigsen 35) 12:20. 3. DC, Gideon Ellinghysen 5 (Jackson Roethler 1) 16:56 (en).
Shots on goal — MW 10-7-5 — 22; DC 5-11-11 — 27.
Goalies — MW, Mason Schreiber (L, 6-10-2; 26 shots-24 saves); DC, Jackson Roethler (W, 13-6-0; 22 shots-22 saves).
Power-play opportunities — MW, 0-for-5; DC, 1-for-5.
Penalties — MW, 5-10 minutes; DC, 5-10 minutes.