Jeff True could see the improvements in the Rochester Lourdes boys hockey team late last season.
And he could see some of what's happened with the Eagles early in the 2021 season coming, too. He maybe didn't see the Eagles' most recent victory coming, but he knew Lourdes wasn't going to go through this season without a victory, as it did a year ago.
"I think some of the boys needed last year to grow and mature as players more than anything else," said True, in his first season as the Eagles' boys hockey head coach after spending the past three seasons as Lourdes' girls hockey head coach. "When you get down to crunch time in a season, nobody wants their season to end, no matter what it's been like.
"They realized if they didn't step up and play more as a team their season was going to end. And though it did end (in a narrow 2-1 first-round playoff loss at Waseca), from what I saw when I watched them at the end of the season, they looked much more competitive and mature from games early in the season."
While that maturation process hasn't yet peaked for the Eagles, their play so far this year has shown that they're a better, more confident and improved group. The best example of that came Saturday, when the Eagles rallied from a 4-2 deficit by scoring four third-period goals to beat perennial state powerhouse St. Cloud Cathedral 6-4 at Graham Arena.
"We're a team that has to score dirty goals, need to get screens and bodies in front of the goalie," True said. "We're not going to out-dangle teams or make a lot of highlight goals. We need to get to the hard areas and outwork the other team."
Perhaps what pleased True most about Saturday's game wasn't the victory as much as it was seeing the Eagles keep their heads up and keep their feet on the gas when they fell behind by two early in the third period. That confidence has grown from summer workouts through the first weeks of practices this winter, and the team's first two games, when they came from behind to beat La Crescent-Hokah and St. Paul Henry Sibley.
"There was a buy-in from the boys early in our summer workouts," True said. "They didn't seem like a team coming off a winless season. They knew they needed to work and improve and they did that. A lot of them hit the gym hard or did training and kept their fitness up around their house.
"There was a mindset among the team that things needed to change. We set that early in the summer: 'We're not going to talk about last year,' but we also let them know they had to raise the bar. We're not expecting greatness, but we're expecting maturity, confidence and playing smart hockey."
In Saturday's win, the coaching staff also received answers to a couple of questions it had prior to the season: Where will we find scoring? and, Is our goalie depth as strong as we think it is? Six players had multi-point games in the victory against Cathedral -- which has been to four of the past five state tournaments and won it in 2019 -- and freshman goalie Xander Carter-Kleven made 31 saves to earn the victory in his first varsity start.
"It's very beneficial to face an opponent like that early," True said prior to Saturday's game. "It's a good bar to see where we're at. Cathedral has been one of the top programs in the state for years now, a staple at the state tournament. It's a big test, but it shows us where we're at as a team."
Just three players on the team recorded double-digit points last season. Through just three games this year, five players are averaging more than a point per game, led by forward Matt Mahoney, who scored the tying and winning goals against Cathedral. He has eight points, as does Jack Kleinschmidt, who was the only Eagle to score double-digit goals last season. Thomas York (six points), Jackson Heim (five) and Dawson McLaughlin (four) round out the team's top five scorers so far.
Senior Griffin Becher backstopped the team's first two wins.
"They've been a very unified group," True said. "A lot of them are close friends who have played a lot of hockey together over the years. No matter anything else, they are a team that is unified and wants to be on the ice together with each other."