When Dave Esse was in charge of the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team, he often would sneak over to watch his daughter, Courtney Olin, lead the Lumberjacks girls team during practice.

Esse never thought he would be helping coach the girls, but after resigning following the 2017 season, that's exactly what he's been doing this season for the Lumberjacks.

"After I resigned a couple years ago, I thought, 'I'm done; I don't need this anymore,' " Esse recalled. "But it's pretty hard to say 'no' to your daughter."

CEC (17-7) has enjoyed a bounce-back year. The Lumberjacks are the No. 3 seed in the Section 7A playoffs and open the playoffs against sixth-seeded Eveleth-Gilbert Ara (11-11-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday.

"I don't want to detract," Esse said. "People are like, 'Oh, you're back on the bench,' but she's in charge here. This is my daughter, and I don't want to take anything away from her. This is her program."

Practice makes perfect

With the boys practicing next door at Cloquet Area Recreation Center, the CEC girls practiced last Thursday at Pine Valley Arena, "The Barn" as it's affectionately known. The temperature was below zero outside, and it wasn't much warmer inside, with the Lumberjacks taking a break halfway through practice to have the ice resurfaced due to its brittle nature. They were just happy to be back at practice. With no school, they hadn't practiced the previous two days and were granted an exception to practice Thursday in preparation for a pair of games over the weekend.

"It's always cold in the Barn, but this is a particularly cold one," Olin, 27, said. "We're just fortunate to be able to practice. To be off three days the week before playoffs would have been tough."

Olin is married to former Duluth East and St. Scholastica baseball player Tyler Olin. Esse joked it was OK just so long as he wasn't an East hockey player. Of all things, they met at a wiffle ball tournament the summer before Courtney started at St. Scholastica, where she played hockey, and then hit it off during college, taking the same classes in the Saints' education program.

The couple is expecting their second child later this month. Courtney Olin said nothing has changed except she comes off the ice for full-ice drills, with Esse and fellow assistant Courtney Josefson dropping the pucks.

Josefson is from Bemidji, Minn., and played at St. Cloud State and later coached at Proctor-Hermantown. Esse called them the perfect pair, joking and talking to each other as practice went on, clearly on the same page.

"We actively recruited her to come help us," Courtney Olin said. "Just her knowledge and experience as a former Division I player, she's been an absolutely fabulous addition to our coaching staff."

And so has Esse.

Esse helped out with the team last season, but this year he's made all the practices and mans a spot on the bench during games.

"This year, I'm actually getting paid," he said.

Olin said last season was hard on her father since he's not noted for going half-in on anything.

"He is one of the most competitive people I've ever met, so it's hard kind of being half-in," Olin said. "We're fortunate enough to get him this year full-time, and it's been the best addition. He's very modest about what he brings to our program, but you're talking about 27 years of coaching experience, second to none. You can't argue with his knowledge and experience. It's invaluable."

Headed in the right direction

Olin is in her fourth season as coach. She guided CEC to a 14-8-4 mark that first season before back-to-back 9-16-1 seasons. That's made this year all the more enjoyable.

And with only three seniors, the future is bright.

"It's been very fun," wing Kiana Bender said. "We take a lot of pride in what our coaches say and focus on it. I want to go further than high school hockey, but you have to work for it."

Bender is second on the team to fellow junior Taylor Nelson with 18 goals and 22 assists for 52 points.

"We've definitely improved on a lot of things that he's helped us with, strength-wise and staying wide, dumping the puck in and not messing around with it," Bender said of Esse. "He's always strict on simple plays and not trying to do much. Just get the puck deep and make the simple plays, is what he always says."

You don't have to be fancy to be effective.

Olin's coaching philosophy is very similar to her father's. Keep it simple and do it well. And never get outworked. Ever.

"I think all of us as a coaching staff have the mentality that we pride ourselves on work ethic and discipline," Olin said. "Dad was always more concerned about how we acted off the ice, our sportsmanship and how that transfers over. We expect the girls to work hard and be held accountable.

"There's many years, when you're playing a team like Duluth East, on paper, that game should be on running time, but they compete and have a close game, or even upset them. I think it goes back to that mentality on priding yourself on your work ethic."

Bender said she's never seen Olin and her father disagree, but if they do, they save it for the coaches' room.

While Olin was never formally coached by her father, she said it wasn't unusual for him to have the white dry erase board out when she and younger sister, Carley, came home from a game.

"Absolutely," Courtney Olin said. "My sister and I have both been fortunate, and probably unfortunate at times, to have a coach for a father. In time it only made us better hockey players."

While Olin and Esse can both be intense, Esse has a fun sense of humor and is a jokester, something that endures him to players. Josefson is very positive and upbeat, while goalie coach Dave Ellison, who has been with the program since its inception, is as steady and reliable as ever in his final season.

"It's almost like a family," Esse said.

And this family continues to grow.

"If I was as smart as she is at this young age, coaching-wise, I guarantee we would have won more games," Esse said. "Sometimes as a parent you think that the kids aren't listening to us, but boy, I'll tell you, she's obviously listened to a lot of hockey talk over the years. Some of the things she's said, my goodness, she's paid attention."

Section outlooks

Defending section champion Proctor-Hermantown (15-7-3), which features the best balance and depth in Section 7A, edged upstart Duluth Marshall (17-8) to earn the No. 1 seed and will host Moose Lake Area (2-21-2) in the first round Thursday.

Grand Rapids-Greenway (17-8) earned the fourth seed seed in Section 7AA and will open against Cambridge-Isanti Area (17-7), while the sixth-seeded Duluth Northern Stars (6-17-1) play at No. 3 Elk River/Zimmerman (15-7-3). Top-seeded Forest Lake (23-1) is favored to win 7AA.

The Lightning are led by Ms. Hockey semifinalist Sade Peart, a Quinnipiac recruit, and sophomore Claire Vekich, a Bemidji State recruit. After a tough stretch where they lost six straight, Grand Rapids-Greenway has bounced back to win four straight.

Final News Tribune rankings

1. Proctor-Herm. 15-7-3

2. GR-Greenway 17-8

3. Duluth Marshall 17-8

4. Cloquet-EC 17-7