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State Tourney Insiders: Sights and sounds from Day 3 of girls hockey

We're updating this article all day and night from St. Paul with moments captured on and off the ice during Day 1:

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Hill-Murray goalie Zhan draws praise

Hill-Murray senior goaltender Grace Zhan faced 37 Andover shots but allowed only one Andover goal in Friday's 3-1 Class 2A semifinal victory in the girls hockey state tournament.

Zhan stopped pretty much everything on the ice but could not prevent coach Johnny Pohl's emotional dam from bursting afterward.

Pohl let out a season's worth of feelings in the postgame news conference.

"She is a better person than she is a goalie," Pohl said of Zhan, before deferring to juniors Kasey Senden and Ella Hornung.

"Grace is the person who will always sat hi to you in the hallways," Senden said. "She's always got a smile on her face. Everyone just loves her."

Hornung added: "She's always upbeat. I ask her for help all the time with my homework — especially biology."

But Zhan, a native of China, excels in chemistry.

"Grace had already moved to the United States before COVID-19 hit," Pohl said. "When it did hit, she was making masks for kids and bringing them to school."

Pohl had to stop talking once again lest he restart his tear ducts.

Zhan, appreciative of the kind words and genuine emotion, said, "I'm going to cry now."

Hornung steps up

Junior forward Ella Hornung opened the scoring for Hill-Murray and then assumed her usual underappreciated role — husting back on defense and blocking scores of shots.

"That first goal was like, 'We got our first goal; it's a start, now we have to work on getting the next one,' " Hornung said.

Pohl said, "Grace made 36 saves, but Kasey and Ella blocked 13 shots between them."

Roll the tape

Pohl and the Hill-Murray coaching staff sat the team down for the season's inaugural video review earlier Friday, focusing on Andover's power play and penalty kill.

"Thinking hockey players are slow hockey players," Pohl said. "We want them to just play. We don't want them doing calculus out there. But special teams is a huge part of the game."

Youth propels Warroad into familiar spot

Warroad has an extensive state tournament history in girls hockey. The Warriors have won four state titles and are looking for a three-peat this year. But they also lost a ton of offensive production to graduation from last year's Class 1A championship team and have a lot of younger players on this year's roster.

No matter. Warroad, as the fourth seed, is still back in Saturday's state tournament title game.

"Nobody had this on their bingo card at the beginning of the year," Warroad coach David Marvin said. "I know I didn't.

"But I started believing in these guys partway through the year."

A freshman, sophomore and junior scored Warroad's three goals in the semifinal.

"We've had a lot of girls be shadowed over by those point-getters for so long," junior Katy Comstock said. "Now, they had their time to come out and really show them what they're made of."

Marvin said his team played well in Friday's semifinal, knocking off top seed Holy Angels 3-2. It's one of 15 one-goal games Warroad has played this season. Holy Angels topped Warroad early in the season by the same score.

Warroad's Taylor Reese scored the game-winner — again — only 29 seconds after Holy Angels tied the game 2-2 in the third period. She popped the puck into the net off a rebound.

Holy Angels kept pressuring to tie the score for the third time in the game but couldn't do it.

"It's deflating," Holy Angels coach Ryan LaMere said. "Still had a lot of confidence that we'd be able to still come back there. We have most of the year. All of us and every team in this tournament builds to get to this point.

"It's certainly hard when you end up on the wrong side of it."

Stars feel the fan support

Holy Angels has endured a long drought since its last state tournament appearance, going back to 2006. The Stars' fans and student section showed up in a way that made senior Emilie Anderson want to thank them for the support.

"Typically, girls hockey you don't get a huge turnout," Anderson said. "But our last couple days, the students have really, really shown up for us. And I think that's had a huge impact for our game. Our section final, we won 4-3. Everyone in the crowd helped us get to that point. And it was just crazy to have so many people out there supporting us and cheering for us."

Full circle for coach, 'unreal' state experience for Stars

In his fifth year coaching Holy Angels girls hockey, coach Ryan LaMere experienced a full-circle moment at the state tournament this week. He played for the 1999 Holy Angels boys team in the state tournament. LaMere's team that season also lost in the semifinals; he scored an unassisted goal in the loss to Roseau in the Class 2A boys tournament.

Playing, and now coaching, in the state tournament is a dream come true and an awesome experience, LaMere said.

"And the game's exploded. Girls hockey's exploded," LaMere said. "The media, all of you that follow it makes this really special for the kids. The state high school league, what they did the past few days, it's really, really cool down below and the experience that these kids have. Super grateful for that."

A four-year player with the program, Emilie Anderson said she feels lucky to be part of the experience.

"Even our first day here, when we were on the bench before the game, it felt unreal," senior Aislin Lacher said. "Taping our sticks with our best friends. It seems incredible."

Said senior defenseman Sara Cooney: "When you go to bed every night, it's like, 'Wow.' "

Familiar foes to meet for third place in 1A

Instead of the top two seeds — Holy Angels and Orono — meeting in the championship game, the old rivals will face each other in Saturday's third-place game. Orono ended the Holy Angels season the past two years in the Section 5 championship game.

Holy Angels moved to Section 4 this year, and both programs made the state tournament.

"We still got one more game tomorrow," Ryan LaMere said. "An old rivalry of ours to play for third place. So, super excited about that."

The women in charge

The four-women crew that officiated Wednesday morning's Class 1A quarterfinal between Orono and Willmar, part of the first all-female group sent by the Suburban Hockey Referees Association, worked Friday's Class 1A semifinal between Warroad and Holy Angels.

Sarah Moe and Kristin Moran were the referees while Carlye Veer and Michelle McDonough served as linesmen. McDonough, a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Fairmont, is Moran's daughter.

In addition, Haley Toth was a referee in the Dodge County-Orono Class 1A semifinal played earlier Friday. Toth and her father, Robert Ludwig, officiate WCHA women's hockey together, said Dan Walt, Suburban Hockey Referees Association director.

Dodge County, we hear you

For Dodge County, Saturday's Class 2A championship game is a chance to show the State of Hockey where Dodge County is from and what it's all about.

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

Those underdogs from southeastern Minnesota, with players from Byron and Kasson-Mantorville, hope to join some elite company if they can win the Class 1A championship Saturday in their first state tournament appearance. They would be the fourth team to do so, joining Blake (2002), Holy Angels (2005) and Thief River Falls (2015).

Coach Jeremy Gunderson talked again Friday, as he did after the team's quarterfinal victory, about how his team relished the opportunity to be here after losing the section final in overtime a year ago. They could have "made some noise" at state last year, he said, but this year they're also more mature.

"We always knew that this year would be a very good year for us," Gunderson said. "The seniors' leadership, and our younger kids have been playing varsity since seventh grade. Finally, they're older. Maysie's [Koch] got 100 points, and she's only a freshman."

Maysie Koch indeed has 114 points in her career and has scored 25 goals and 49 points this season.

Dodge County is 23-4, with losses to North Wright County, Centennial/Spring Lake Park, Orono and Simley. The loss to Simley has since been avenged, and now Orono is covered.

The South on the rise

The chance for Dodge County to win a championship shows that there's good hockey in the southern part of the state, Gunderson pointed out. No girls hockey program south of the metro area — in either class — has won a state championship.

Gunderson mentioned that his players train with the legendary Winny Brodt Brown, and that Red Wing graduate and current PWHL Minnesota player Taylor Heise has worked with the team in practice, and so does Red Wing grad Nicole Schammel. They're alumni with southern pride, Gunderson said.

"I know the North has a lot of pride," Gunderson said. "I think this is great to show the southern pride. These kids are good, hard-working kids. They put on a lot of miles. We play a hard, independent schedule.

"It's just great to see people from the South do well and represent. Our goal is just to do a good job tomorrow and hopefully win a state championship and again try to bring one down to the south."

'Steal one' indeed. Goalie stars in win over Orono

Sure, Dodge County scored a couple of goals in quick succession during the second period of its semifinal game. But junior goaltender Ida Huber put on a show in between the pipes with a season-high 35 saves in a 4-2 victory over Orono. Her coach, Jeremy Gunderson, said it was clear coming into St. Paul that Huber would need to "steal one from somebody" if the team was going to reach its ultimate goal.

"She's square, played big on the puck, you can see why she's made it where she has in the USA Development Camp," Gunderson said. "Very athletic."

He knew Huber was dialed in as soon as pregame warmups started.

"As soon as I saw the first seven shots, saw her tracking it, I was like, 'She's on,' " Gunderson said. "So we knew we had her dialed in. And so, it was just the rest of us to get over our nerves again and come to play."

While their offense took care of business, Huber came up with some big saves throughout the game, especially during Orono's third-period push to cut into the deficit. With about nine minutes left in the third, Orono hit a post. Less than a minute later, Huber stopped Kali Schmidt when she came in alone for a scoring chance.

The whistle blew to stop play with 2:04 left in regulation, after a sequence in which Huber still kept the puck out of the net while playing without her stick. Orono didn't let up the pressure, pulling its goaltender with about a minute to play. An empty-netter for the Wildcats let Huber and teammates breathe a sigh of relief.

"She really saved us, I think," said junior forward Mollie Koch. "She played big, like Jeremy said. And she stayed positive in the net. I don't think she ever gave up."

Added senior defenseman Abby Simons: "It feels really good to have her behind me. She's always talking to me as a defenseman. It just feels really good to have a really solid goaltender."

Though this is the first state tournament for the Wildcats, Huber had played here before. She started in net as an eighth-grader for Rochester Lourdes in 2021, a quarterfinal loss to Warroad. Huber came to Dodge County her freshman season.

Orono coach Paul Antonenko also credited Huber's play on Friday.

"We were trying to get the puck to the top of the crease, figured a garbage goal was going to be what we needed," Antonenko said. "And she was seeing the puck really well. We weren't really taking her eyes away either."

Ida Huber, goaltender with a plan

Ida Huber wasn't brought to the interview room postgame, but Ch. 45 caught her on the ice.

She had her plans all set.

"I can't wait to get back to the hotel with my friends and celebrate and come back here tomorrow and do it again," she said.

Orono again, please

Sophomore defenseman Kylie Meyer has scored three goals this season for Dodge County. Two of them came against Orono.

On Jan. 20, Meyer helped Dodge County erase a two-goal deficit in the third period before Orono's Zoe Lopez scored the overtime winner in a 5-4 Spartans victory.

On Friday, she scored in the second period, giving Dodge County a 2-1 lead.