The Packer girls hockey team doesn't have much history to draw from, but in only its second year of existence the team already has plenty of success to live up to.
West Fargo cruised to a 20-4 record and a runner-up finish at the state tournament during its inaugural year last season with only four upperclassmen on the team. But those four upperclassmen were all graduating senior defenders that held opponents to 28 goals for the entire year.
"Numbers-wise we didn't lose a lot, but experience-wise, it was a great (loss)," said Packers coach Pat Johnson. "We lost quite a bit in quality."
The Packers graduated their only two goaltenders in Amanda Olson and Alison Sund, statistically the best two goalies in the state. They also lost defenders Cassandra Beckerleg and Amanda Rudlang. Beckerleg was voted first team all-state and was West Fargo's third-leading scorer with 24 points. As the team captain, her leadership will be missed.
West Fargo lost its season opener last week to Fargo South 3-2. Johnson said his team's lackluster performance was due in part to jitters and a lack of leadership.
"We were a little too jumpy," said the coach. "We miss that senior leadership too. (Last year's seniors) were a bit of a calming effect. Also, our game is to outplay people and outskate people, and we didn't do that."
The Packers return everyone on an offense that helped put 96 shots past opposing goalies, including sophomore center Kacie Johnson, who put up 45 points (27 goals, 18 assists) as the team's leading scorer. She'll be joined on the first line by sophomore wings Kaylee Lothspeich (25 points) and Katlyn Springer (16 points).
The second line will be filled by juniors Tia Lopez (9 points), Kelsey Kloos (17 points) and Allison Klug (8 points). Sophomores Paige Swanson (6 points), Briana Keller (5 points) and Courtney Ellenson (5 points) make up the third line, with the fourth line comprised of junior Alyssa Lind (3 points) and sophomore rookies Randi Haaland and Britney Yliniemi.
"Our offense is the same as last year, so we just have to pick it up. We didn't perform well against Fargo South," said Kacie Johnson. "Once we pick it up we should be pretty good. I think we can be as good as last year."
That success will depend widely on a revamped defense that includes a pair of experienced players from last season - sophomore Melanie Sopp (13 points) and junior Katelyn Peterson (8 points). The rest of the defense will be comprised of less experienced returnees from last season, including sophomores Jaime Springer (1 point) and Missy Halda (1 point). Sophomore rookies Cassie Sorlien and Abby Lein will also play defense, according to Pat Johnson.
"We're going to try to get some speed back there and get some experience," he said.
A large part of the defense's responsibility will fall on the shoulders of rookie eighth-grader Andrea Klug, the Packer goalie.
Pat Johnson said West Fargo has the potential to be as good as last year's team that also lost its first game of the season to Fargo South. The Packers won every game of the season after that one, except the three they played against Fargo North, including the state championship game. The Spartans graduated some of their best players but are likely to be one of the state's top teams.
The state coaches' poll has the combined Grand Forks team at No. 1 with the Packers just behind in the second spot. One preseason publication picked the Packers first.
"I think potentially we have an offense that should do more. We should score more and control (the game) more on offense," said Pat Johnson. "If our defense picks up a little bit then it's going to be hard for them to score on us."
Kloos said the team's success will come down to desire and work ethic.
"This season just depends on how much intensity and how much effort we give into the game," said Kloos. "If we give a lot of effort, we can be better than last year. That's our goal - to be better than last year."