By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — For seven seniors on the Mankato East/Loyola girls hockey team, the climb toward the top of the mountain has been long and difficult but often rewarding.Three of them started as seventh graders; others joined the varsity journey a year later.
They won four games that first year, then three, nine, 16, 18 and, finally, this season, 22, before losing in Thursday night’s Section 2A championship game. Mound Westonka/Watertown-Mayer kept the Cougars off the peak and out of the state tournament with a 3-2 victory at Gustavus Adolphus’ Don Roberts Ice Rink.
“To go through all those years and get better working together, it’s amazing what we’ve done,” forward Maddie McCargar said. “Twenty-two wins is not something to be ashamed of. Twenty-three is what we wanted. We worked our hearts out.”
The senior class included McCargar, Savannah Quandt, Katy Snyder, Erin Murray, Mariah Kragh, Kelsey Ekstedt and Cassidy Ekstedt.
“We couldn’t be prouder,” coach Nate Fuller said. “They battled until the end.”
The Cougars carried the play for most of the first two periods but ended up playing from behind.
Mound-Westonka, the tournament’s top seed thanks to a regular-season win over the second-seeded Cougars, jumped to a 2-0 lead by the midway point of the first period despite being outshot heavily.
Senior Jessica Nkhata scored on the White Hawks’ first shot on goal, as she deflected a shot from the point in behind goalie Katie Paulson at the 3:49 mark. Less than five minutes later, Mackenzie Kratch got loose on a breakaway and scored on her team’s second shot.
Meanwhile, East/Loyola had six shots on goal at that point a few more chances that just missed.
“We were buzzing pretty well,” McCargar said. “We were seeing each other and controlling the puck in the offensive zone.”
The Cougars got on the board with 5:28 remaining in the first period as Kylie Paulson fired a shot from the right circle that hit traffic and trickled in behind goalie Emma Polusny.
That spark carried over to into a dominant second period in which East/Loyola did everything but score. After two periods, the Cougars had a 22-10 shot advantage.
“It was an excellent second period,” Fuller said. “We had a ton of opportunities. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get one past (Polusny). She played a great game.”
Hopes of continuing that effort were squashed just 30 seconds into the third period when Nkhata scored a wrap-around goal to make it 3-1.
“I think what happened after that play was we lost our composure a little,” Fuller said. “We had all the momentum in the second period, and it took a little while to get it going again after that.”
East/Loyola made a final surge when McCargar scored on the rebound of a Rebekah Kolstad shot with just 1:53 remaining.
The Cougars were called for a penalty after that and Polusny had to make a tough glove save on a Kolstad short-handed chance, but that was their last gasp.
“It wasn’t how this was supposed to go,” McCargar said. “But we have a lot of things to be proud of, a lot of things.”