Pat Johnson hasn’t had to cut a player in years. Relying heavily on a lineup of underclassmen, head coach Johnson is outnumbered by the youth on the West Fargo United girls hockey team.
The United’s seasoned veterans are freshmen and sophomores. Johnson’s team is young, and the eighth and ninth graders outmatch the number of juniors and seniors on the squad.
With a bulk of the team’s roster entering their first or second seasons — Johnson can’t bank on a roster stacked with older kids.
“We’re taking eighth graders and putting them in the ninth-grade roles and calling them a seasoned veteran,” United head coach Johnson said. “That's not normally what happens. You’re usually saying your seasoned veterans are your juniors and seniors.”
To Johnson, he refers to the “older” kids as anybody who has played one year for him. He has four upperclassmen — two juniors and two seniors — and a roster full of girls who don’t have much varsity experience.
“We’re young. We're going to be a learning experience, and the faster the younger kids can pick up the speed of the game, that changes,” he said. “We had our first game last night and (for) a lot of them, it's a lot faster. Decisions have to be made faster. Skating has got to be done quicker. Everything's got to be done quicker. So the faster they can get up to speed, the better off we’ll be.”
The United defeated Devils Lake 3-1 in their season opener Tuesday, Nov. 26. Johnson said it was a big win for his team.
“We've got three non-conference games to get ready for the next round of conference games,” Johnson said ahead of his team's Nov. 29 Crookston matchup. “So hopefully within that time they start getting more comfortable. It’ll come, it just takes time.”
The United came away with a 2-1 overtime victory over Crookston on Friday, Nov. 29, at Crookston Sports Center. With the wins, the United are off to a 2-0 start.
Unlike his roster which includes many players who are fresh onto the varsity scene, Johnson knows how this goes. In his 18th year coaching girls high school hockey — 13 of those with West Fargo’s varsity team — he’s seen how the sport’s involvement fluctuates.
“We have a big group coming up in a couple years. So it goes up and down,” he said. “You'll have one year of lots of numbers and then you’ll have a couple of not very many.”
Counting girls from Sheyenne, West Fargo, Liberty Middle School and Cheney Middle School, Johnson has 22 hockey players. There weren’t enough girls for a 14U club hockey team this year, so Johnson added five eighth graders to his roster who wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise.
“It’s got ups and downs. We’ve got number issues here,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a lot of kids out for hockey considering we have so many kids in our school district.”
Three of the United's four upperclassmen are captains — junior goalie Madelyn Buchert, senior defenseman Jocelyn Hareland and senior wing Madison Schoenberg — along with sophomore forward Morgan Bents.
“They have to kind of show the way,” Johnson said. “You gotta lead because you've been around and you know a little bit more. We’ve got a lot of first year or second year kids in the program, at the high school level. It's not like we have a lot of high school experience.”
West Fargo finished fourth at state last year, ending its 2018 season at 14-12. The United graduated six kids, including some power on their offense.
The United’s two leading scorers are gone — Madison Hjelden, who put up 40 points (27 goals, 13 assists), and Kaycee Herring, who tallied 16 goals last year. They’ll also be missing All-State goalie Brooklyn Myrvik.
Johnson said he’ll just need to get the next group ready.
“With high school, you don’t get to recruit your players. You get what you have,” he said. “It takes a little time for them to learn a new system. It takes a little time to adapt to the speed. It’ll take a little time. But that’s why you play games early.”
“They’ll develop, and they’ll develop as the year goes on, too,” he added.
Planning to lead the group this season is Payton Hareland, who put up the fourth-most points as a freshman last year, and two freshmen defensemen who had impressive eighth-grade showings — Erin Nowacki and Layla Aune. Nowacki notched the overtime goal against Crookston to carry her to team to victory.
Johnson also expects Emily Fuchs, who has been with the program for two years, to have a good junior season.
The seasoned coach, who has been at the helm since West Fargo became a varsity team 13 years ago, hopes the United will punch another ticket to state this year, and wants to make a little noise at the end of the season.
Despite the youth-filled lineup, Johnson said his expectations will never change.
“You want to get better every day and you want to finish in the top half, top four at state, top four in the league — that’s your goal. Those are expectations that you always have.
“Will we always achieve them? Maybe not,” Johnson said. “We might be a little young for that, but you always have the bar high. You don’t set it low, because you can achieve low things and then that’s all the further you achieve. We're going to achieve high things. We're gonna reach for it right away.”
The United next play another non-conference game against East Grand Forks (2-3) at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the East Grand Forks Civic Center.