ST. PAUL — The River Lakes girls hockey team has waited years to reach this point.
Earning their first state berth in program history, River Lakes plays Gentry Academy at 6 p.m. Friday from the Xcel Energy Center on the opening day of the Class A Tournament.
Playing the role as heavy underdogs out of Section 6A, unseeded River Lakes plans on making more than just a cameo appearance.
“I think our mindset is that we aren’t done yet,” River Lakes co-head coach Alexis Klatt said. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to make it here and we’re not satisfied with just getting here. We had to get here and actually compete.”
Their quarterfinal opponent is also in its state debut. And like the girls in black and white, Stars also is its team name.
From there, that’s where most of the similarities end.
Entering as the top seed in the tournament, Gentry Academy is in its first year of high school varsity competition after previously playing an AAA traveling schedule. The newcomers advanced to state following a 5-4 victory over South St. Paul in the Section 4A championship game.
“The players were very excited with our win over a talented South Saint Paul group, but it did not take long for them to get (their mindset) back,” Gentry Academy head coach Paige Jahnke said. “They are a highly motivated and focused group. So although we're happy to have made the tournament, our work is not done.
“For most of our kids, this is the first time they'll compete in a tournament with this amount of pressure. But we're confident in both their physical ability and mental strength.”
Coming into the tournament on an 11-game winning streak, Gentry Academy has a 17-2 record with 10 victories by four or more goals. The team was second in the final regular-season Let’s Play Hockey rankings.
River Lakes players don’t sound intimidated.
“We know that we’re the underdogs and a lot of people are going to look at us like that; small-town stuff,” senior forward Brooke Lemke said. “We’re really going to use that to our advantage because we know who we are, we just have to play our game. We’re just going to go into it giving it our all and try to make a name for River Lakes.”
A private school in Vadnais Heights, Gentry Academy is particularly dynamic on the offensive end, ranking fourth in Class A with 5.7 goals per game. By comparison, River Lakes is ranked 19th (3.3).
However, after watching film on her opponent this week, Klatt says the gap between the two teams stylistically is even wider.
“They play a completely different style of hockey than we do,” Klatt said. “They play more of what we call ‘city hockey’ versus we play ‘outstate hockey.’ When they’re out there, it’s really pretty and things flow. The type of hockey we’re used to is grinding it out, doing the hard-work things and not making the pretty passes. It’ll be interesting to see how those two styles clash on Friday.”
Gentry Academy has nine players who have recorded 17 or more points according to the Minnesota Girls Hockey Hub. That is compared to two players for River Lakes: junior defenseman Kianna Roeske (13 goals, seven assists) and senior forward Hannah Zimmer (7 G, 10 A).
Leading the higher-seeded Stars is sophomore forward Cara Sajevic. Collecting a third-period game-winner in the section title game, Sajevic has a team-best 37 points (23 G, 14 A). She has scored eight times on the power play.
Sophomore defenders JuliAnna Gazdik and Jennesa Gazdik are tied for the team lead with 19 assists apiece. Both players have produced 27 points.
“Our biggest strength is the depth of our team,” Jahnke said. “That depth comes from having a shared goal and the players buying into their roles in order to achieve that goal. These kids don't just want to win, they want to win together. It's that mindset that has gotten us this far. Because despite being young and talented, they're willing to put the team's success over their own individual.”
Junior goaltender Maggie Vance will likely start for the top seed after being in net for her team’s two postseason victories. Vance is 10-1 with a 2.01 goals against average and an .883 save percentage.
The Section 6A representatives have a tall challenge ahead of them. And they will be facing it on a stage as big as they’ve ever played before. The state scene is something they plan to embrace. But ultimately, their psyche will switch when the puck finally drops.
“We really talked about it in our practice on Wednesday and reiterated it on Thursday that you should absolutely take it in,” Klatt said of the atmosphere. “Enjoy it, but also realize that you are there to do a job. And your job is to play your best hockey.”
River Lakes is a co-op including players from Albany, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, Eden Valley-Watkins, New London-Spicer, Paynesville, Rocori and St. John’s Prep.
Tickets are not available because of state protocols covering the pandemic. Web streaming of the game is available, as is the entire state girls hockey tournament, for a fee from www.prepspotlight.com
Class A quarterfinals
From the Xcel Energy Center
Rochester Lourdes (9-8) vs. No. 2 Warroad (19-1), 11 a.m.
Luverne (16-4), vs. No. 3 Proctor/Hermantown (18-0), 1 p.m.
River Lakes (13-5-2) vs. No. 1 Gentry Academy (17-2), 6 p.m.
No. 5 Mound Westonka (14-2) vs. No. 5 Chisago Lakes (18-2), 8 p.m.