By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
MANKATO — It may be uncharted territory for the Mankato East/Loyola girls hockey team, but head coach Nate Fuller believes the Cougars are ready.
East/Loyola advanced to tonight’s Section 2A championship game with a dramatic 4-3, double-overtime victory over Willmar in Saturday’s semifinal playoff game at All Seasons Arena. It marks the first time the Cougars have reached the section finals since the combined East-West program in 1999.
“The players are excited but we’ll be prepared,” Fuller said. “We’re focused on what we’re trying to accomplish. We just have to be sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves.”
One of the reasons Fuller expects his team to handle the pressure of tonight’s game well is because of the way the Cougars played on Saturday. That game finally ended when Maddie McCargar popped in the game-winner early in the second overtime.
“I thought we handled ourselves very well in that game,” Fuller said. “We generated a lot of offensive opportunities and they did a nice job staying calm.
“After regulation I just kept stressing that they needed to keep doing the little things — like working hard, winning races to the puck, blocking shots, getting into position, putting pucks on net and getting to rebounds. They remained loose and confident the whole time.”
East/Loyola takes a 20-5 record into tonight’s game while Mound-Westonka comes in at 17-6-2. McCargar has been the Cougars’ top scorer with 22 goals and 28 assists. Rebekah Kolstad is second with 27 goals and 21 assists and Savannah Quandt is third (15 goals, 19 assists).
The Whitehawks are led by Jessica Nkhata who has 20 goals and 20 assists. Liz Schepers is second (19 goals, 9 assists).
Katie Paulson leads East/Loyola in net with a .886 save percentage, a 2.25 goals-against average and three shutouts. Mound-Westonka’s top goalie is Emma Polusny, who has a .924 save percentage, a 2.28 GAA and five shutouts.
Mound-Westonka defeated East/Loyola 4-1 in their only regular-season meeting. Fuller, however, said that game was a lot closer than it appeared.
“We played well; we outshot them 38-28 and one of our better defenders (Kelsey Ekstedt) was out with a shoulder injury but she’s back now.”
Speaking of injuries, East/Loyola’s Savannah Quandt broke her wrist at the end of the regular season but has been able to play in the team’s two postseason games with a fitted cast.
“Savannah has been a little more limited in what she’s able to do,” Fuller said. “She can’t do everything she usually does with the puck but she’s finding new ways to create scoring opportunities.
“The good thing is that other girls have stepped up. Katy Snyder and Tatum Schultz have both improved their games in the playoffs.”
Snyder, in fact, is the team’s leading scorer in the postseason with three goals and four assists. Ali Schreiber has also played well with five assists in two postseason games.
“The key for us is that we’re playing well as a team right now,” Fuller said. “We’re looking forward to showing what we can do (in tonight’s game).”