MANKATO — When Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato's girls hockey season wrapped up last March, Avery Stilwell put her skates away. While a college tennis career loomed, she figured she’d played her last hockey game.

Wrong.

Way wrong.

Three key injuries left the Minnesota State women's hockey team without a goaltender heading into perhaps the Mavericks' toughest WCHA road series of the season, a pair of games with Ohio State. The Buckeyes are ranked second in the nation.

Enter Stilwell.

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A coach from an opposing team in high school gave a recommendation to the frantic Minnesota State coaching staff, which had their last healthy goalie unable to play because of concussion protocols after a weekend series with St. Cloud State. A couple of players on the Mavericks who Stilwell played some youth hockey with in the Twin Cities also gave their approval.

“I’m pretty used to switching sports with not a lot of time in between,” Stilwell said.

Stilwell plays for Minnesota State’s tennis team after a standout career at Litchfield, where she was the West Central Tribune’s Hengstler-Ranweiler winner in 2021, awarded to the area’s outstanding three-sport athlete. Stilwell shined in tennis and softball and regularly got heavy work in goal for the Litchfield/D-C girls hockey team, which was usually outshot on its way to a 3-12-1 record last season.

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With Stilwell suddenly on the Mavericks’ radar, a meeting with the tennis coaches and the hockey coaches ensued. Stilwell took to the ice for the first time since March 16 in the week leading up to the Ohio State games last Friday and Saturday.

Yes, she went nearly eight months without skating, unheard of in college, especially at the Division I level. But, hey, this was an emergency.

“With me not skating since March, I was very nervous,” Stilwell said by phone. “To be at a smaller high school program to the highest level for (women), it was a big jump.”

By all accounts, Stilwell held her own.



Introduction by fire

She made 48 saves the first night, a 6-3 Minnesota State loss. The second game, the Buckeyes beat the Mavericks 9-0. Stilwell had 39 saves.

“There was a lot of catching up to do,” Stilwell said.

The game’s a lot faster, of course. The players are more talented. And Ohio State is really good.

“There was a huge speed change,” Stilwell said. “There were a lot of smarter, quicker players.”

Stilwell said one of the biggest adjustments was getting used to her new goalie pads. They’re a backup set for Dryden McKay a two-time All-American senior goalie for the Minnesota State men's hockey team

“We’re about the same size,” said Stilwell, a 6-footer who played No. 2 singles in the Mavericks’ last match of the fall tennis season, a 7-0 win over Iowa Central.

McKay’s pads, however, felt huge to her. That’s because Stilwell played with goalie pads in high school that were a little too small. She chose not to get new ones for several years — they’re really expensive — knowing that she was not going to play college hockey, or so she thought.

“I didn’t think I was going to play again,” she said.

Ohio State was a fortuitous trip for the walk-on goalie. It’s one of two long trips by air the Mavericks make this season. The weekend Minnesota State played in Columbus, the ESPN GameDay pregame college football show was at the school for Ohio State’s game with Michigan State.

“We got a police escort to the game because there were so many people,” Stilwell said. “It was crazy.”

While she’s definitely with the hockey team for the time being, goalie Calla Frank returns for the Mavericks’ next series Dec. 3-4 against St. Thomas. Minnesota State plays St. Cloud State on Dec. 10-11 in Mankato then plays Dec. 17-18 at Bemidji State.

And then? Stilwell goes back to being a full-time tennis player. She said the Mavericks have a transfer player coming in at the end of the first semester who’ll be the back-up goalie.

“We agreed that December 19th would be my last day,” she said.

Stilwell then will return her full attention to tennis, which is an NCAA Division II program at Mankato. Fall practices wrapped up Tuesday. Minnesota State had a 5-2 record. Stilwell is optimistic about the spring season, which actually starts Jan. 21 at Nebraska-Omaha.

“I think it went really well,” Stilwell said of the fall season. “We really have a lot of hard-workers and a lot of people who really love the sport.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to focus on one sport. We have an extremely young team with 10 freshmen.”

Until then, she wraps up her first semester in college — she’s planning a major in marketing — and being a Division I goaltender for a few more weeks for the 5-9 Mavericks.

“It’s really kind of a culture shock for me, to be honest,” she said of the switch from high school to college. “When I was in high school, hockey was kind of laid-back for me.

“I was really serious about tennis. In the summer, I would play tennis and softball. I really didn’t do a lot of hockey.”

Famous coach

The Mavericks’ women’s hockey team is coached by John Harrington. Sound familiar? He was a player on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that stunned the Russians and won a gold medal.

“My sisters were a little star-struck after the game when they met him,” Stilwell said of twin sisters Anna and Sophie, who were on Litchfield’s state runner-up tennis team this fall.

“He’s a great coach and a great guy, a really cool guy,” Avery said.

Like Avery, her sisters have watched the movie “Miracle” repeatedly.

“I’ve seen that movie a lot,” Avery said. “We would watch it in youth hockey and everywhere all the time.”

When Stilwell had the meeting with the tennis and hockey coaches, overseeing the gathering was Lori Meyer, who is Minnesota State’s Senior Women’s Administrator. She’s also the Mavericks’ legendary softball coach, who in 37 years has 1,287 career wins, including a 2017 national championship on her resume.

“She joked about me playing softball,” said Stilwell, who was a first-team All-Area West Central Tribune softball player last spring.

Yes, it was just a joke.