Girls hockey: Packers crowned state champions
The West Fargo girls hockey team capped a near-perfect season in the best way possible: with a North Dakota state title.
Winning 3-1 on Saturday, Feb. 27 in Grand Forks, the Packers ousted No. 2 Fargo North to grab their first championship since girls hockey became a sanctioned high school sport in North Dakota three years ago.
For West Fargo coach Pat Johnson, it was due time.
"They played well," said Johnson, who was named Girls Hockey Coach of the Year for the second time. "They did the job they set out to do."
Coming into the tournament, the Packers were ranked No. 1 in the state. They made quick work of their opening- and semifinal-round opponents, beating Williston 3-0 on Friday, and Grand Forks 3-1 on Saturday.
But when it came to the championship game, the Packers knew the Spartans wouldn't go down easily. Until this season, West Fargo hadn't posted a win against the two-time defending state champions, dropping five straight including the 2008 title game.
This year, the Packers earned two regular-season wins en route to the championship.
Still, with the title on the line, the girls were anxious.
"You could tell there was a little nervousness, because we didn't come out like we wanted to," Johnson said.
Jordan Brenneman put the Spartans on the board first, scoring six minutes into the first period. Through the remainder of the period, West Fargo desperately tried to close the gap, but couldn't get the puck past North goalie Chelsey Sitzmann.
Then 10 seconds into the second period, Kacie Johnson, the Packers' biggest offensive threat, scored the tying goal. Tia Lopez notched the game-winner five minutes later, and Johnson sealed the win with a nifty backhand with less than a minute remaining in the game.
When the clock hit zero, the West Fargo bench erupted and players leaped into a celebratory hog pile on the ice.
Johnson led the Packers throughout the tournament, racking up six goals (which included a hat-trick against Williston) and two assists. Kaylee Lothspeich also stood out, acquiring a goal and three assists.
West Fargo goalie Andrea Klug stopped 11 shots to keep North from gaining any ground in the title game, and made 28 saves while only letting in two goals.
For their efforts, Johnson, Klug, Kelsey Kloos and Melanie Sopp were named to the All-State Team. Kloos also was named Outstanding Senior Athlete, while Johnson earned a spot on the All-Tournament team and was named Tournament MVP.
In Coach Johnson's eyes, it was a fitting end to a breakout season.
"They set out to get to the state tournament and see how they'd do," he said. "They came in ranked No. 1 and it was good to see them play like No. 1."
Pat's daughter, Kacie, finished the season in the spotlight. She accumulated 36 goals and 25 assists to become No. 1 points leader in the state, edging Fargo North's Kaley Olmstead by one point.
But even though Kacie put up a majority of the points, Coach Johnson said she wasn't the only reason West Fargo won.
"I think they all did a nice job and all worked together," he said. "It was a team effort. Even though one person might get a lot of goals, it takes every team member to be successful."
Finishing second on the team and seventh in the state in points for the season was Kloos with 20 goals and 14 assists. Following closely behind was Lothspeich with 31 points and a ninth-place ranking.
Klug, a freshman, also finished high in the state rankings as a goalie. She was first among goaltenders with more than 20 games played in both save percentage (93.4) and goals against average (1.12).
The Packers went out with a bang, and ended with an overall record of 20-2-1. But looking back, would Coach Johnson have done anything differently?
"No," he said. "The year went really well and everyone worked together."
And in the end, the work paid off.