With 2 upset wins, West Fargo United embracing underdog role as state tournament nears
West Fargo United may have a roster dominated by underclassmen but, with grit and hard work, have pulled off wins over the top two teams in the state.
WEST FARGO — West Fargo United knows it's a team that can be overlooked. The team isn't laden with goal-scoring phenoms.
The United have just five upperclassmen — three juniors and two seniors — on their 19-player roster. They sit in the middle of the standings, but have proved they can get the toughest of jobs done.
West Fargo (8-10) has toppled the top two teams in the state this season, with wins over No. 1 Fargo North-South (17-1) and No. 2 Fargo Davies (17-3-1).
“We definitely come in as the underdogs, but I think once we get set and get comfortable with each other, we gel really well,” said senior goalie Madelyn Buchert. “We might not be the most talented team, like Davies and North-South, which have a lot of (individual) talent, but we definitely work hard and work hard together to overcome that.”
United has put the phrase "teamwork makes the dream work" into practice. West Fargo opened the season with a 3-1 win over North-South, the Spruins' only loss this year. The Spruins avenged that loss last month with a 6-1 win over the United, but West Fargo looks different than it did a month ago.
The United edged Davies in a shootout Feb. 2 to grab a 3-2 win over the Eagles, the runners-up at state a year ago. West Fargo ripped off four straight wins after the shootout victory.
“Winning that game, we know we can pull off and play with every team in the state,” said junior left wing Payton Hareland, who leads West Fargo with 17 points.
The United didn’t go into the Feb. 2 game against Davies thinking they’d come away with a win. That changed when the puck dropped and they saw they were able to keep up with the Eagles, who were ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches poll.
It also helps to have Buchert, one of the best goalies in the state, in net for those high-stakes moments. Buchert, who has been on varsity for four years, holds a 1.79 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage through 19 appearances, the best in the state.
“When we get into a shootout, there’s very little doubt in our minds because she keeps us in the game,” said junior center Morgan Bents, who has 10 points this season. “Or even when it comes to teams like Davies that has girls that can shoot, we know our goalie’s got our back.”
Buchert doesn’t sweat under pressure, either. She enjoys shootouts.
“My heart is racing, but I love them,” Buchert said.
West Fargo’s five-game win streak came to an end Saturday in a 1-0 loss to Minot (11-8), but the team’s momentum is still on the upswing.
“We’ve had a lot of young girls step up and work hard,” Buchert said. “They all want to get better and they’re all here for us and they’re all here for the same goal that we are.”
That confidence and camaraderie is coming at the right time. West Fargo has one more regular season game remaining against the Grand Forks KnightRiders at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Grand Forks — exactly one week before the opening round of the state tournament. The quarterfinals are slated for Tuesday, Feb. 23, at the higher seed.
The state tournament semifinals, third place and championship games are set for Feb. 26-27 at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.
West Fargo has slipped into a couple losing skids this season but never let them turn into long slumps.
The season got off to a shakier start, the trio said. They had their first week of practice before winter sports were put on a two-week pause. It took some time to get back into that rhythm, Bents said.
“It was a little tough at the beginning,” Hareland said. “But as the season went on, we got familiar with playing each other and started having more chemistry and working more as a team to get those wins.”
West Fargo is young, but not necessarily inexperienced. Last season, eighth- and ninth-graders outnumbered juniors and seniors. Now, the team has grown out of that first-year adjustment. They’ve gotten to know each other off the ice, which has carried over.
The age gap doesn’t seem so apparent for the United, who embrace their role as an underdog.
“Once we step out onto the ice and other teams realize how we're playing as a team, I feel like they’re kind of like, ‘Oh crap, they're actually working as a team. They may not just have one skilled player, but if they all work together, they can be tough,’” Bents said.