Grand Forks Central defenseman Dillon Kuntz's sophomore season didn't go as planned.
On the first shift of a preseason jamboree in East Grand Forks, Kuntz was tripped into the boards and broke his ankle.
He returned after Christmas, but it still took time to feel comfortable again.
"It was a tough bounce, but I bounced back," Kuntz said.
Has he ever. With two goals and 19 assists on the season, Kuntz is the East Region's leading defensemen scorer and runs the power play for the most potent offense in the state.
Central boasts the state's top three leading scorers in first-line forwards Braden Panzer, Chase Spicer and Joey Kennelly.
Central's fourth-leading scorer? Kuntz.
"He can shoot the puck and sees the ice really well," Central coach Grant Paranica said. "He's able to find guys. He's a pretty smart and heady player. He didn't get on the board a lot early in the year, but now he's a two-point per game guy. It took a while to get started scoring, but once he got there, he's been there consistently."
The Knights open the North Dakota state tournament Tuesday at approximately 6:30 p.m. against West Region No. 4 seed Bottineau-Rugby at Purpur Arena. Because of the pandemic, the quarterfinals of the state tournament are being played at high seeds before playing out the winners' bracket at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Friday and Saturday.
Central enters state with momentum, outscoring three East Region tournament opponents 22-3 including a 6-1 win over rival Grand Forks Red River in the region championship.
"It feels like we're all clicking together and playing as a team," Kuntz said. "It's all four lines, all six (defensemen) and both goalies really playing well."
Part of that success is a dangerous power play, which features Kuntz at the point of the attack.
"I'm just trying to make plays and be the quarterback on the power play," said Kuntz, who was actually the football team's quarterback earlier in his high school career. "I see guys and make plays, shoot the puck and look for tips."
Kuntz said it's great to play on the power play with Panzer, Spicer and Kennelly.
"Very top-end players," he said.
Kuntz said he's now totally confident playing on his injured ankle.
"It was difficult at first because you're scared it can happen again but then you realize it's normal and you've been playing this your whole life," Kuntz said. "I knew I would have a big role on the team this year, so I'm trying to fill those shoes."
The Knights, 19-2-1, are hoping to get back to the state championship game. After winning three-straight state titles, Central lost 4-3 to Red River in the state semifinals last year, as the Roughriders went on to win the championship.
Kuntz said the key at state will be depth.
"Our top line will be our top line and everyone knows they'll be good," Kuntz said. "It has to be our second, third and fourth lines. We all have to be playing our best hockey of the year. We don't want to come short like last year. Hopefully, we make it to Saturday and maybe win it."
GF Central at a glance
Coach: Grant Paranica (eighth season).
Quarterfinal opponent: West Region No. 4 Bottineau/Rugby (9-9-0).
Top scorers: Sr. F Braden Panzer (27 goals-32 assists -- 59 points); sr. F Chase Spicer (17-37 -- 54); sr. F Joey Kennelly (26-28 -- 54); jr. D Dillon Kuntz (2-19 -- 21); sr. D Carson Seng (3-14 -- 17); jr. F Dom Gerszewski (12-5 -- 17); sr. F Brendan White (8-8 -- 16); jr. F Connor Litzinger (4-9 -- 13); jr. F Hunter Anderson (2-8 -- 10); sr. D/F Adam Arnold (2-6 -- 8); sr. D Joseph Riskey (3-4 -- 7); sr. D Carson Caulfield (0-6 -- 6); soph. F Colton Bjorge (4-2 -- 6); soph. F Cole Barta (1-3 -- 4); soph. D Wyatt Wockenfuss (1-2 -- 3); soph. F Bryce Philpot (2-0 -- 0).
Top goalie: Sr. Kolby Elseth (1.29 goals-against average, 92.2 save percentage).
State tournament history: Central has won 28 state titles. The Knights last won a championship in 2019, the last in a three-peat.