EVELETH – The Eveleth-Gilbert/Mesabi East/Virginia 12U girls’ hockey team have punched their tickets to the state tournament for the second year in a row. This time, however, they hope to finally hit the ice and compete amongst the state’s best.
Qualifying last year as region champions, the Golden Bears saw their season come to an end just hours before puck drop as the COVID-19 pandemic took center stage that week in March, cancelling the entire tournament before it could ever begin.
Feeling the effects of the pandemic in its infancy, Eveleth-Gilbert was heartbroken after a season that saw so much success.
“We were sitting there in the hotel lobby waiting to leave for our first game,” head coach Eli Hejda said. “We were sort of thinking something was going on because the banquet scheduled for the night before was canceled. We were still hopeful they’d let us play but without any spectators. We had to hold on to hope. But then we got the phone call that the whole thing was off. It was brutal. Those girls were heartbroken. They had worked so hard to get there the whole season. It was tough for sure.”
With their season cut short, the Bears vowed to return to the state tournament to prove that it wasn’t a fluke that brought them there in the first place.
“Half of the girls returned and the other half moved on up to JV and varsity hockey. For the girls that missed out last year, the determination and the reason to get back there was there for us. There’s still a fear of it getting canceled again. We’ve been super careful this week. The girls have stayed home from school and the coaches have stayed home from work.
“The fear of it happening again and the pursuit of wanting to get there again and show it wasn’t just luck that brought us there is what we’re riding on right now.”
This year, the Golden Bears had another solid season amidst the pandemic. The team earned the No. 1 seed going into the district tournament. That tournament was ultimately not held out of an abundance of caution surrounding the virus. Due to this, the Bears moved on to the region tournament as the No. 1 seed from their district.
Coming off a three week break due to the cancellation of districts, the Bears were a bit rusty in their regional opener with Fergus Falls, falling 4-3. The loss meant they’d have to win four straight games to punch their tickets to state.
Eveleth-Gilbert did just that, grabbing wins over Hibbing/Chisholm (4-1) and Alexandria (12-5) to set up a rematch with Fergus Falls. The Bears were on top of their game in the rematch, downing their opponents 5-0 to move into the lower bracket final.
The Bears pitched their second shutout in a row, downing Northern Lakes 3-0 to complete their four-game do-or-die stretch, earning a trip back to state and achieving the goal they set after last year’s disappointment.
“It was pretty extraordinary,” Hejda said. “Beating the same team that beat us earlier and then winning that final game. They lost early and they didn’t give up. They just gave an amazing effort in those last four games.”
Eveleth-Gilbert opens state tournament play on Friday with Luverne, the top-seeded team from the south region and the No. 1 ranked team in the state. A daunting task for an opener, Hejda and the Bears are hopeful they can compete right from the beginning.
“We’ve done some research on them, watched them play a bit. I think the girls believe that we have more than a chance of doing well. If we play well enough, we can bring home some hardware as well.”
The Bears are guaranteed at least two games at state, regardless of their result in their opener.
Strong on the ice, Hejda believes the team’s biggest strength is their total package, the way they play as a unit.
“It’s just their sportsmanship and the way they act out on the ice with the other girls. They support each other. This team has never given up. When we first started as a 10U program five years ago, we got beat almost every game every year. Now that we’ve found success, it hasn’t gone to any of these girls’ heads. They’re an amazing group of girls.”
Experiencing continued growth and success as a program, Hejda is proud to see the Bears grow year over year and become a bigger part of the hockey community in the area.
“The girls wanted to prove that this young organization belonged. The heart and desire of these girls is just as big as any boys team. The main thing over the last two years is that the interest from younger girls is going up and parents and other people are recognizing the talent and the skills of the possibilities that can come from these girls playing together.
“We’re building something special as a young team. It inspires the girls on the team too. We have cousins and sisters coming to the games, giving us high fives out of the locker room. It’s very special to see that.”
Hejda hopes the program continues to grow as the Rock Ridge consolidation draws closer. With a 10U and 12U team already playing, the hope is to create 8U and 15U teams to go along with them.
“This team is already a feeder for the JV and varsity girls, and we want that to grow and continue with Rock Ridge. The amount of growth we’ve seen with these girls playing together through those years, from their first year in 10U to their last in 12U has been great.”
Aside from the girls on the team, Hejda wanted to give thanks to assistant coaches Matt Seppi Jr. and Charles Lenich, as well as team managers Nikki Huismann and Shelli Babiracki for all the help this season.
Hejda hopes the continued success of the team can help bridge the gap between those who might not be as accepting of the Rock Ridge consolidation.
“It’s an inspiration to see these girls from all these different towns and families come together and play like they do. You seem some people not able to meld together when it comes to the new school, but if these girls can do it, then why not. It’s a perfect example of how people in the communities could come together to do great things.
The Eveleth-Gilbert 12U team will begin play on Friday at 4 p.m. vs. Luverne in Owatonna.
A send off has been set for Thursday at the Eveleth Hippodrome beginning at 5:15 p.m.