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Feldman: Dodge County's runner-up finish will soon become motivation to return to The X

Feb. 25—ST. PAUL — Sometimes the best laid plans are intended to run in a straight line.

Sometimes, though, the best laid plans are altered, from a straight line to an "S"-shape.

The best of intentions, the clearest of visions have a way of getting clouded.

Two years ago, the Dodge County girls hockey coaching staff could see the future. Their vision was crystal clear: A young Wildcats team would battle a challenging regular-season schedule in 2022-23, win a section championship for the first time in program history, and introduce itself to the rest of Minnesota at the 2023 state tournament.

Then, another year older and with one state tournament under its belt, Dodge County would return to the Xcel Energy Center in 2024 and challenge for a championship.

Then the Wildcats ran into the S-curve.

Albert Lea stunned and upset Dodge County in overtime in the 2023 Section 1, Class 1A championship game, a game in which the Wildcats held a 30-11 shots-on-goal advantage and were afforded nine power-play opportunities. The Tigers went to the state tournament. The Wildcats couldn't watch.

It took days — weeks in some cases — before most Dodge County players were ready to even think about putting skates on again.

But the most impressive thing about this group of Wildcats has always been its maturity. Sure, they're high school kids who — as coach Jeremy Gunderson pointed out more than once last week — love to laugh and have fun as a group. Once they step on the ice, though, they're all business.

That was the attitude they took for the past year: Let the pain and frustration of that loss to Albert Lea become motivation.

The funny thing about a long-term vision? Sometimes the midpoint is blurry, while the view of the starting point and the finish line are so clear they become reality. Sometimes what happens in between the beginning and the end has to change.

As it turns out, Dodge County's blurry midpoint — that S-curve — might have been the best thing to happen to the Wildcats.

Winning a section championship in February of 2024 didn't wipe out the memory of the loss in the section final a year earlier, but it did get the Wildcats to the ultimate end-point of that two-year plan: The Class 1A state tournament and, after impressive wins against Fergus Falls and Orono last Wednesday and Friday, to the championship game.

The result in that championship game Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center wasn't what the Wildcats wanted — Warroad 5, Dodge County 2 — but there was a level of understanding (not acceptance or complacency) from the Wildcats after the final buzzer.

The team's four seniors understand they just got to do something so few hockey players ever do, play in the championship game of one of the two or three greatest high school tournaments in the country.

The rest of the team — four of its top five scorers are underclassmen, as is goalie Ida Huber, the junior who willed the Wildcats to a 4-2 semifinal win on Friday against Orono — understands what Saturday's loss can be down the road, a motivator to get back to The X and try this all again a year from now.

They got to introduce themselves to the state last week, an introduction that apparently was needed, despite all of the wins the team has had over the past decade. One conversation overheard in the Xcel Energy Center press box last week, which elicited a few chuckles, went like this:

Reporter 1: "Remind me where Dodge County is from? It's a big co-op right?"

Reporter 2: "It's Kasson and something. Kasson-Wanamingo, I think."

Reporter 1: "That's right. Kasson-Wanamingo."

There's still some work to do, apparently.

The two-year plan is now a three-year plan. And the Wildcats hope to keep adding another year to that plan every February. Work toward that new vision will begin soon enough for the returning players — and they are some good ones. No goalie was better in the tournament than Huber was in the semifinals. Junior forward Nora Carstensen and her freshman linemate Maysie Koch were two of the best forwards in the tournament.

Along with junior Mollie Koch, that entire top line — which finished the season with a combined 76 goals and 146 points — will be back next winter. So will minutes-eating defenders Alexa VanStraaten, who scored in Saturday's title game, and Kylie Meyer, who scored the go-ahead goal in Friday's state semifinal win.

But Saturday, and the next few days, are about four seniors — defenders Abby Simons and Alyse Williamschen, forward McKenna LaFleur and goalie Jeri Eberling. They helped re-shape an already strong program as the emotional backbones of a team that proved it fully belonged in the state championship game. The first team from Section 1, Class 1A to make the state championship game since the tournament went to an eight-team format in 2007.

There will be plenty of time to process the hurt of coming so close to their ultimate goal. Then there will be time to remember the journey to get there, a journey that so few athletes ever get to take, and one that reshaped the vision for what Dodge County hockey is and will be.

By the end of Saturday's championship game, hockey fans around the state had learned where the Wildcats come from and what their program is about. So had the two reporters in the Xcel Center press box. Another conversation was overheard in the third period.

Reporter 1: "These really are the two best teams in Class A."

Reporter 2: "Yep. This could be the state championship game again next year."

Jason Feldman is the Post Bulletin's sports editor. He can be reached at jfeldman@postbulletin.com