The Grand Forks KnightRiders are hoping to send their senior class off the right way by attempting to hurdle a recent obstacle -- the quarterfinal round of the North Dakota state girls hockey tournament.
The No. 4 seed KnightRiders will get that chance Tuesday night when they host No. 5 Minot at Eagles Arena.
After the heartbreaking four-overtime loss to Devils Lake last year, head coach Alex Hedlund trusts this group to come back stronger.
She looks back to a loss against East Grand Forks this season as an example of where the locker room is at. The team felt it played well and were in a position to win but the bounces didn’t go its way.
Goaltender Kaylee Baker was able to express the feelings around the group.
“She said ‘We’re a real team. We just lost a tough game and nobody’s pointing fingers,’ ” said Hedlund. “We’re complementing each other. They know that we are capable. There are some nerves, but they want it and our senior class wants it. From the top down, we’re driven and the team morale is what has gotten us this far.”
The five seniors -- Hannah Gray, Megan Jacobson, Shaley Richards, Morgan Stenseth and Megan Tellman -- have been a driving force for the KnightRiders. They have been able to contribute in their own way since day one.
Gray and Tellman have headlined as the top defensive pairing this year and in Hedlund’s opinion are two of the better defenders in the state. Jacobson has grown into a large part of their top two lines. Richards and Stenseth, the two leading scorers, are counted on to put the puck in the net in key situations.
“I think their confidence grows every time we have success and every time we can see something we’re working on in practice we can see that happening in a game,” Hedlund said. “The girls know they have this opportunity. All five seniors have a very bitter taste in their mouths and I do, too. We’re going to do everything in our power as a coaching staff and as a team to make sure we’re playing on Friday and Saturday.”
The bitter taste comes from not having won a quarterfinal game yet, but that does not mean the excitement isn’t there. Being the four seed brings on a very close matchup with Minot. The two previously split one-goal games this season. Hedlund likes the matchup but knows it won’t be easy.
“I would say out of all 11 teams in the state Minot is most similar to us, both in talent and the way we play. We’re both gritty, physical teams and we haven’t had very high-scoring games when we’ve played each other,” she said.
The four-five seed matchup does bring back harsh memories for Grand Forks. The aforementioned thriller against Devils Lake last season was also a four-versus-five game. Having gone four overtimes, there was almost debate whether or not to pause the game and resume the next day.
It is easy to see where nerves might come into play when heading back into the same situation. Some encouraging words from a local phenom could calm them and act as an inspiration.
Recently retired Grand Forks native and women’s hockey Olympic Gold Medalist Monique Lamoureux spoke with the team ahead of their quarterfinal game on Tuesday.
“She said to be nervous enough that you’re excited,” said Hedlund. “It’s OK to be a little nervous, that means you care. But make sure that you’re not so nervous that you’re going to hold your stick tight,” Hedlund said.
For the seniors, part of their inspiration comes from continuing their season for an extra day. In a particular year where each game was already an unknown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the team is grateful to be in a position to play in a postseason.
“They are talented hockey players, but they’ve been told since they were little kids that their senior year is their year,” said Hedlund. “They’ve been so close but haven’t been able to grasp it yet. Especially in a year where you’re playing to put the jersey on two more times. Our seniors know that, and I have all the confidence in the world with them and in our group as a whole.”
KnightRiders at a glance
Coach: Alexandra Hedlund
Quarterfinal matchup: The KnightRiders, the state's No. 4 seed, will host Minot, the No. 5 seed. The Majettes are 11-9-0. The game is set for a 5 p.m. start at Eagles Arena.
Top scorers: Shaley Richards 23-12-35; Morgan Stenseth 15-14-29; Emily Becker 14-10-24; Hannah Gray 0-11-11; Maya Tellmann 3-7-10; Averi Greenwood 5-2-7; Annika Presteng 2-4-7
Top goalie: Kaylee Baker (92.1 save percentage, 2.36 goals-against average).
State tournament history: Grand Forks is looking for its first state championship.