Bird, Rebels relish chance to play CEC
CLOQUET--Jessica Bird is an identical twin, but watching her play hockey, it's evident that the 18-year-old's skills on skates look much different than anyone else.
CLOQUET-Jessica Bird is an identical twin, but watching her play hockey, it's evident that the 18-year-old's skills on skates look much different than anyone else.
Bird has played her favorite sport since the age of 4, not long after entering the world one minute following her lookalike sibling, Jamie. Since then, her second home has been on the ice.
And boy, was that evident last Tuesday.
Jessica Bird was outstanding against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in the two neighboring programs' first meeting in recent memory at a well-attended Northwoods Credit Union Arena, as the do-it-all Barnum senior netted four goals - scoring every time she shot - in guiding Moose Lake Area past the Lumberjacks 5-0.
Bird has buried the puck nine times already this season - and more impressively, on nine shots.
"She really is that good," said MLA coach Joe Mohelsky, now in his 11th year. "She was dynamite tonight."
Bird lit the lamp once in last week's opening period, using a nifty head fake to beat CEC senior goaltender Erin Genereau. After a scoreless second frame, Bird was at it again in the third, counting the game's second and third goals, giving the elusive forward a natural hat trick. After junior teammate Lauren Pederson produced the Rebels' fourth goal, Bird capped the scoring for the evening.
Using a variety of ways to create offensive opportunities for the cooperative program containing players from five separate schools, Bird has five assists to add to her already gaudy goal total this winter. Her 14 points is a team best in centering MLA to four wins as many games to begin the season. Given their entire schedule ahead, Bird could be on pace for a mind-boggling 91 points - or maybe more.
That's not too surprising for the shifty right-hander, as Bird counted 58 points a season ago, 79 as a sophomore, 46 as a freshman and 37 as an eighth-grader in her first year starting for Mohelsky. That gives Bird 234 career points, 117 of which are goals.
Yet when asked if it's all about the points, Bird was quick to deflect personal praise.
"It's always for the team. Those four or five other girls are always picking you up," she said smiling outside the locker room last week following her squad's impressive shutout. "I'm always trying to get that puck in the net. I want to do it for my team. I want to help us come out with a win."
Linemate Sage Gerard partners with Bird daily on the ice. While she said that their superstar was "a great teammate," she added that Bird is quite the challenge to go up against. Laughing when asked of their daily competition at Riverside Arena in Moose Lake, Gerard answered honestly.
"Jessica has the moves, but I have the size," said Gerard, a Moose Lake senior who stands considerably taller than the 5-foot-6 Bird. "It goes both ways, but it's really fun."
Bird hasn't been the only option for MLA (4-0), however. Despite listing 13 underclassmen and just four seniors on their roster of 22 players, the Rebels' experienced elders are paving the way. Their top line of Bird, Gerard and Pederson has been nothing short of dominant.
Following Bird's lead, Gerard has garnered three goals and nine points, while Peterson has four scores for seven points. In fact, the trio all connected on last week's opening score when Gerard and Peterson pushed the puck forward to Bird, who did the rest. Incredibly, the three first-liners marked every goal and assist - a total of nine points - against the Lumberjacks.
Not to mention junior netminder Maddy Gamst, who blanked CEC with her 14 saves. Jamie Bird, a blue line defender who has been sidelined with a broken foot for six weeks since a volleyball injury, is also expected to return soon. Jamie sat behind the Rebels' bench last week in a boot and crutches.
"Moose Lake has a great program," said second-year Lumberjacks coach Courtney Olin. "Their top line was excellent, they have a great goaltender and Jessica is clearly a good asset. I would expect them to be very competitive in their section."
That's certainly the Rebels' plan, having been eliminated in the Section 7A semifinals each of the last four seasons - all by the likes of section giants like Proctor-Hermantown or Hibbing-Chisholm.
Both the Mirage and the Bluejackets can be assumed favorites again this winter, although one would be silly not to expect Mohelsky's group to contend for its first-ever section trophy come February. They've already beaten the likes of much-larger schools Cambridge-Isanti and Chisago Lakes, along with CEC.
Would they like to be the ones to dethrone the Mirage and Bluejackets' section supremacy?
"Absolutely," Mohelsky said. "That's why we're here, right? We want to go as deep as we can, but there's a lot that can happen. As long as they keep working hard, keep it light, have fun and keep getting better each day and every time we step on the ice, that's really all we can ask.
"The atmosphere is real positive and upbeat and the girls are just excited to be at the rink," Mohelsky continued. "The old saying goes you don't want to peak too soon, but I still don't think we are playing our best hockey. We're going to play some good teams and we'll lose some games. We just want to peak at the right time."
That surely could happen, knowing the history of this group. Bird, Gerard and Co. were actually a part of a 12-and-under youth state championship team several years ago. CEC's Genereau was also a part of the Rebels' youth program, before moving and becoming a Lumberjack.
That's why last week's game was so neat. A lot of these girls played with or against each other growing up. Yet come high school, this was the first meeting that anyone could remember.
"We're pretty jacked," said Gerard. "It's the one time we get to come up here and play Cloquet. And to play like we did, it was pretty fun."
With a handful of players switching in their red and blue colors for purple and white over his decade of time, Mohelsky said last week was more than just a hockey game.
"It was an opportunity to prove we are worthy," he said. "Is Moose Lake five goals and a shutout better than Cloquet? I don't know. Tonight we were, I guess. Cloquet is a hockey town and has a rich tradition of being so. I hope we can continue to compete in years to come."
The chance will certainly be there, as Olin, a Cloquet graduate herself, said the two programs playing one another is good for each community and adds awareness of their sport. She said she wants to continue the newly created matchup.
"I think any time we can have local competition, it's great for both programs," Olin said.
Speaking of her program, the Lumberjacks simply didn't muster near enough scoring attempts on Gamst last week. Counting just 14 total shots on goal, eight came in a competitive and scoreless second, yet the opening and closing periods were clearly controlled by the Rebels.
CEC's 21 underclassmen out of 25 rostered players may have had something to do with that.
"That's a learning curve that I think not a lot of teams have," said Olin of a squad that has 84 percent of her players in 10th grade or under. "We're young and we just need more experience. At times, you could kind of see that deer-in-the-headlights look. It's just a little faster pace, but an adjustment we have to make."
Olin also noted her team's first two games the weekend prior were postponed due to inclement weather.
Having 16 practices leading up to last week's loss, Olin said, "I think we were all a little antsy to get on the ice."
They did just that in preparation for their game at Grand Rapids-Greenway Tuesday. The Lightning are annually dubbed as a Section 7AA front runner.
That said, Olin, whose team is headed by seniors Genereau, Alysha Anderson, Rose Lundquist and sole junior Ally Martin, practiced a couple of morning occasions prior to and over the Thanksgiving holiday.
"Back to the grind," said Olin, who also played collegiately at St. Scholastica.
Freshmen in Cloquet's Kiana Bender and Carlton's Taylor Nelson are up-and-coming players to watch, yet were held scoreless last week like everyone else on the host team.
"We're taking things in stride, one shift at a time," added Olin. "Our record doesn't matter until February. We're hoping to play our best hockey then, because that first playoff game is the only thing that counts."
The Rebels can relate.
"I want to get to that final," said Bird, who is leaning toward playing college hockey at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next year. "We've come so close, but we've always lost that second game."
"But this year," chimed Gerard, "is the year."