KASSON – The Dodge County girls hockey team is a southern Minnesota independent squad that isn’t afraid to travel, with regular trips to games in the Twin Cities and forays this season to New Ulm and Warroad.
Spending time on the highway is not an issue for the Wildcats, many of whom are accustomed to lengthy commutes just to get to practice and home games. That’s because Dodge County is a cooperative team with eight different schools involved.
Those schools stretch from Zumbrota-Mazeppa to the north, Dover-Eyota to the east, Dodge Center in Triton to the west and Blooming Prairie to the south. Other members of the coop are Byron, Pine Island, Hayfield and Kasson-Mantorville, which is the host school for the coop.
How far-flung are the Wildcats? Well, consider that Dover-Eyota, Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Pine Island and Byron aren’t even in Dodge County.
Members of the girls hockey team come from seven of those eight schools, and the Wildcats are one of the top teams in the state, holding a 15-3 record and No. 8 ranking in Class 2A by Let’s Play Hockey. They were ranked as high as third earlier in the season.
Eleventh-grader defender Hollywood Hermanson (yes, that’s her real name) is a student at Dover-Eyota who spends 40 to 45 minutes on the road getting to and from Four Seasons Arena in Kasson.
“When you come here, everybody’s always happy,” she said. “And it’s different from school because we’re all from different communities. It’s really cool.” (Pictured are, left to right, Hermanson, Dana Rasmussen, Elly Strunk, Katie Robinson and Maggie Wick.)
Seventeen of the 28 players on the roster attend Kasson-Mantorville, with four from Byron, two each from Dover-Eyota and Hayfield, and one each from Pine Island, Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Blooming Prairie. The players are responsible for their own transportation to the rink.
“We have a really good following,” said coach Jeremy Gunderson, who lives in Mantorville. “Our communities do a good job. Girls basketball here is big, and Kasson-Mantorville athletics is good all around. We’ve got kids who are pretty good athletes. But hockey here is definitely not like at Edina or Warroad. We have a bunch of good athletes playing hockey, but it’s not a hockey hotbed by any means.”
Despite the lack of hotbed status, the Wildcats sport a talented roster. Senior forward Dana Rasmussen, who will play at Ohio State, leads the state with 41 goals. Junior defender Katie Robinson has committed to play at the University of Minnesota, three seniors will play Division III hockey and juniors Bella Wagner and Molly Shelton will decide among several Division I schools. Gunderson’s daughter Emily Gunderson is a freshman playing at Division I Lindenwood University.
The Wildcats have never qualified for the state tournament, but that is one of their goals this season and one of the reasons why the schedule includes opponents like Edina, Hill-Murray, Breck, Warroad and Lakeville North.
Dodge County lost to Lakeville North in the Section 1 title game the last two years, and fell to the Panthers in the section semifinals three years ago.
“It’s mentioned a lot,” Gunderson said of the goal of getting to state. “No more losing section final games. First it was, ‘Hey, let’s make the section final.’ Last year it was, ‘Let’s win this thing.’ They’re actually setting a higher goal this year, they want to win the state championship.”
The Wildcats lost to Lakeville North 1-0 in the Warroad holiday tournament (where Dodge Center beat Warroad and Eastview), but Gunderson said he saw a change in his team after that game.
“We hit five pipes, we outshot them, we outplayed them,” he said. “I got to see their eyes in the locker room afterwards, and it was a different group of kids. That game really got them past that hurdle. Now they’re no longer nervous or afraid, they’re more like hungry or wanting.”
Dodge County’s other losses this season were against Hill-Murray and Edina, both by 4-2 scores. Their final seven games of the regular season include contests with ranked teams Eden Prairie, Centennial, Breck, St. Paul United and Rochester John Marshall.
“We try to play a full metro schedule as much as possible,” Gunderson said. “Play the best to be the best, that’s our philosophy.”
The Wildcats players may be spread far and wide geographically, but they are a very close-knit group. They communicate during non-hockey time via group text messages, with as many as 80 texts flying through the air daily.
“I think it’s just a great team atmosphere,” Robinson said. “And since we’re from different towns we don’t see each other often, so it’s always fun to see each other. We have a fun group of girls.”
Rasmussen said, “It’s different, because we don’t see each other in school every day. I think it’s a great kind of different.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 288
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 6,198