WARROAD, Minn.-Katie Kotlowski didn't grasp the significance when she was part of a Warroad girls hockey team that came up short in its bid for a state tournament berth.
Kotlowski was an eighth-grader and a first-year varsity player when Thief River Falls beat the Warriors 3-1 in the 2015 Minnesota Section 8A girls high school hockey tournament.
Thief River Falls went on to win the Class A state tournament. The Warriors were left with disappointment.
"I'd never experienced playing in a state tournament, so it didn't hit me then,'' said Kotlowski. "But the seniors (on the team) were crying and really upset when we lost. That was their dream, going to state again.
"When we did get there the next year, it was really exciting to play at state.''
The state tournament experience is practically an annual ritual for Warroad girls hockey.
After beating Thief River Falls 4-1 in the 8A final last week, Warroad will be making its fourth straight appearance at state when the top-seeded Warriors play St. Paul United at 6 p.m. today in the state quarterfinals.
It is four straight years to state for Warroad, nine times in the past 11 seasons and 10 times to state in the last 14 seasons.
It is never a trip that is taken for granted.
"You have a new batch of kids every year,'' Warroad coach David Marvin said. "We have kids who were in the stands cheering for us last year. Now it's their turn. They're fired up for this. So are the veteran players.''
There's also incentive after Warroad lost a heartbreaking 3-2 decision in overtime to Breck in last season's title game. Marlie Johnston's goal with 27 seconds remaining in the third period tied the score at 2-2. But Breck scored the game-winner just eight seconds into the extra session.
"It's definitely something that has hung over us all season,'' Kotlowski said. "It's been a motivator, remembering that hard loss. I think it's made us better. I know I look back at that game and it makes me angry. I think all the girls feel that way. It pushes you to work harder.''
Warroad takes a 26-0-1 record to state. It is one of the most balanced teams Marvin has taken to a state tournament.
"Our strength is our depth,'' Marvin said. "I've never had the balance of this team. And it's real quality depth. We play six defensemen and nine forwards regularly. And we probably have better team speed than we've ever had.
"The common denominator with this and other teams is that we have a great goaltender.''
Hannah Corneliusen (46 goals-30 assists), Geno Hendrickson (20-31) and Kenzie Oelkers (14-25) form a high-scoring first line. Corneliusen has scored at least one goal in 24 games and has at least one point in all 27.
The trios of Abbey Hardwick (5-17), Johnston (5-17) and Maddie Levergne (6-10) as well as Sydney Phaneuf (10-21), Julia Teske (9-12) and Tiff Foster (8-10) also have been productive lines.
Kotlowski (13-31) leads a deep defensive corps that includes Karlie Meeker (7-21), Tahra Johnson (2-8), Cahlilah Lindquist (2-6), CJ Lanctot (4-2) and Lila Lanctot (1-11). In goal, Quinn Kuntz has a 0.59 goals-against average and a .065 save percentage.
Kotlowski, Oelkers, Kuntz and Foster are the team's lone seniors. The state tournament comes with mixed feelings.
"It's crazy how time flies,'' Kotlowski said. "This is our last week of high school hockey. We've had a lot of memories. I'll miss these girls.''
Warroad at a glance
Coach: David Marvin.
Record: 26-0-1, Section 8A champion.
Today's Class A tournament opener: The top-seeded Warriors, making their fourth straight state tournament appearance, play St. Paul United in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal game.
Warriors' leading scorers: Jr. Hannah Corneliusen (46 goals-30 assists), soph. Geno Hendrickson (20-31), sr. Katie Kotlowski (13-31), sr. Kenzie Oelkers (14-25), soph. Sydney Phaneuf (10-21), soph. Karlie Meeker (7-21), jr. Marlie Johnston (5-17), jr. Julie Teske (9-12), sr. Tiff Foster (8-10), soph. Abbey Hardwick (5-12), fr. Maddie Levergne (6-10).
In goal: Sr. Quinn Kuntz (0.59 GAA, .965 save%, 15 shutouts).