The autumn leaves have fallen from the trees and the first flakes of snow are in the air, which can only mean one thing — winter sports are here.
Specifically, the Hutchinson girls hockey team is the first to get underway of all the winter sports, with its first contest Tuesday at Marshall.
The Tigers enter the season with a lot of returning offensive firepower, as their top five point-scorers return for another season in black and yellow.
“It’s huge,” head coach Hannah Impola said. “Already this year we’re starting where we left off, rather than learning stuff new. So experience will be really helpful.”
One of those returning offensive threats is junior Alex Hantge, who led the team with 21 goals and 22 assists last season.
“I think we’ll have the same momentum as what we ended with last year,” Hantge, one of the team’s captains, said. “And I think that as the practices keep going, it will keep building up our momentum, making it easier for us to play well with each other.”
Following a 3-5 slump in the middle of the 2017-18 season, Hutch closed the regular season winning six of its final eight games.
Sophomores Anna Fabel and Maddy Seifert, junior Sabrina Tracy and senior captain Ainslea Jensen are returning after scoring double-digit points last season. Britta Johnson and Ellie Campbell are also returning front line point-scorers.
The Tigers were not shut out in any contest last season and scored at least two goals in their final 13 regular season games.
The Hutch defense also had a number of strong outings last year, holding opponents to one goal or less 13 times. Laina Berthiaume, Marlee Harlander, Paige Telecky and Jasmine Schultz headline the top returning defenders of the blue line.
There will be a new goalie between the pipes, with sophomore Hannah Ladwig returning as the most experienced netminder. She began as the third-string goalie last year and appeared in five games, notching six saves in 17 minutes.
Ladwig has spent time with goalie coaches training for the jump into full-time duty, which includes communicating with her defenders on the ice.
“We’re practicing working on talking all the time, (with Ladwig) telling us what she wants to do,” Schultz said. “It’ll take time for her to get comfortable talking to us.”
Impola said that she expects Ladwig to get the early nod, while leaving the door open for freshman transfer Alia Rieger to get some ice time.
“Hannah had a great summer,” Impola said. “She worked super hard this summer, she improved a ton. She’ll be starting the first couple games for us. Alia moved to Hutch this year, so she’s a new goalie for us and she did really well in the scrimmages, too. So I think they’ll both see some varsity games, and I think we have some really solid goaltending for the next few years, so that’s exciting.”
New this year to the Wright County Conference is the addition of another team, with the former co-op of Holy Family and Waconia splitting in two. The co-op had won two of the last three WCC titles.
With the conference’s expansion from seven to eight teams, it brings the number of conference games each team plays up from 12 to 14, and puts another opponent in the way of Hutchinson’s first conference championship.
“I think adding another team is definitely going to put a little pressure on us, but I think we can handle it,” Hantge said.
Beyond winning the WCC, the Tigers are also hoping to win their first section game after three straight one-and-done performances. Last year, Hutch was upset 4-1 at home in the Section 2A semifinals by the eventual section champion, New Ulm.
Waconia will also join the Tigers’ section, pushing the tournament to a seven-team field. Other section teams include WCC foes Delano/Rockford, Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato and Mound Westonka, as well as New Ulm and Minnesota River.
As Hutch looks to return to the state tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season, the Tigers are not wavering from their season goals despite the added section opponent and competitive field.
“We have a really tough section,” Impola said. “But we have a solid class of juniors and sophomores, and I know they’re looking at the state tournament as the ultimate goal for the team. Our section will be challenging, but if we make it out of our section we should be a top four seed (at state), I think. So yeah, we’ll have some high goals and we’ll have to work hard to make sure we try to meet them.”