ST. PAUL — The first question Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey coach Courtney Olin was asked Saturday in her postgame press conference was what went wrong.
Olin promptly explained it’s what Breck did right. Like everything.
Breck once-again flexed its muscle to top the Lumberjacks 6-0 in the Class A girls hockey state title game at Xcel Energy Center as the Mustangs captured their third straight title. While every coach and player likes to think they have a chance, for anyone watching this tournament, Saturday’s outcome wasn’t much more than a foregone conclusion, a mere formality.
“Breck is just a very skilled team,” Olin said. “I’ll say this all day. We’re just a bunch of girls up north who work really hard. We gave it our best shot. I truly believe our girls tried as hard as they could, and I’m really proud of their effort and the work that they put in today but at some point skill beats work ethic.”
Breck, located in Golden Valley, Minn., featured a roster with six NCAA Division I recruits, including four who have committed to national power Minnesota. The Mustangs won their six playoff games by a combined 49-5, including 23-2 at the state tournament (keep in mind that against Luverne in the quarterfinals, the Mustangs spent two periods of that game playing “pass the puck”).
This comes a year after outscoring the opposition 19-1 at last year's state tournament, and it gets people asking if a move to Class AA would be appropriate. Keep in mind, this comes up every time a Class A program dominates, in particular, a private school, but not exclusively (see Hermantown boys hockey).
Breck coach Steve Persian deferred on the question, saying it was more appropriate for administration.
“They consider the experience of the student-athlete, and try to weigh the best option,” Persian said.
Olin was asked something similar. She didn’t really want to get into that, but she said it’s not exactly a level playing field.
“From our perspective, we’re a team that has the players we have in front of us and do our best,” Olin said. “It’s hard to compete with a team that pulls the top players from local communities.”
Sisters Sadie and Ava Lindsay, Minnesota recruits both, combined for eight points to lead Breck (25-6).
Ava Lindsay opened the scoring at 7:24 in the first and then assisted on both of her sister’s goals later in the period as the Mustangs set the tone early, leading 3-0 after one. The last goal was particularly deflating, occurring just 39.1 seconds before intermission.
“I think they came out flying. They came out on a mission,” Persian said of his team. “The start of the game was exactly what we were looking for. The sharing of the puck was terrific.”
CEC (27-4), which set a school record for wins this year, came out firing in the second period but it’s hard not to wear down trying to keep pace with the Mustangs. A lot of teams talk about having two No. 1 lines. With them, they’re not kidding. At one point midway through the second period it was as if they were on the power play, even though they weren’t, so it was just a matter of time before puck possession led to a goal. Breck added a score in the second and two more in the third as Emily Zumwinkle set a tournament record by notching her eighth assist.
“We knew we were going to have to get a couple bounces to go our way,” Olin said. “I think we had some scoring opportunities, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t get it into the back of the net, but I know our girls were trying their best.”
The final shot tally, 31 for Breck compared to 25 for CEC, wasn’t very lopsided. But in terms of scoring opportunities, having the skill to make them happen, and bury them so they count, makes all the difference.
Freshman goalie Sarah Peterson finished with 25 saves to earn her third shutout of the season for Breck. It was the first time CEC had been shutout this season.
“Top to bottom, they’re just a very very skilled hockey team,” Olin said.
Ultimately, it was quite the run for the Lumberjacks, who were expected to be good this year, but not quite state runner-up good.
“I’m just unbelievably proud of this team,” Lumberjacks forward Taylor Nelson said in an emotional press conference along with senior teammate Kiana Bender. “I don’t think anybody thought we could get this far, but we worked hard every day and left it all out there. That’s all you can ever ask for.”
Nelson, one of seven seniors on the team, was presented with the Herb Brooks Award after the game, given to the most qualified hockey player in the state tournament “who strongly represents the values, characteristics and traits that defined Herb Brooks.” On this, the 40th anniversary of Brooks orchestrating the “Miracle on Ice,” no less.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” she said. “It’s an amazing award. Herb Brooks is someone to look up to, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.”
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton hadn’t made the state tournament since 2009 and hadn’t made a state title game since 2005, finishing as Class AA runner-up. Olin said those seniors set the example for Lumberjacks to come.
“I have a photo that almost brings me to tears as a coach,” Olin said. “When we won our section final, Taylor was getting interviewed after the game and 15 little girls are standing around her and just staring up at her. I think that speaks for itself in the way these seniors have impacted our program. They’ve just totally lit a spark in our youth program, and there are kids who look up to them and hopefully want to be future Kiana Benders and Taylor Nelsons.”
CEC’s Nelson, Tenley Stewart and freshman goalie Araya Kiminski made the Class A all-tournament team.
First period — 1. B, Ava Lindsay (Josie Lang, Sadie Lindsay), 7:24; 2. B, S. Lindsay (A. Lindsay, Hannah Halverson), 9:21; 3. S. Lindsay (Halverson, A. Lindsay), 16:20.
Second period — 4. B, Lang (S. Lindsay, A. Lindsay), 11:50.
Third period — 5. B, Olivia Mobley (Emily Zumwinkle), 7:09; 6. B, Shae Messner, 8:26.
Saves — Araya Kiminski, CEC, 23; Lauren Maslowski, CEC, 2; Sarah Peterson, B, 25.