In February 1997, a 13-year-old seventh-grader took the state of hockey by storm. She was a quick-handed, fast-skating little bit of a thing from Eagan High School and she finished with nine goals and three assists in three state tournament games.
That state tourney was held at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum. When the 2015 state tournament takes place this week at Xcel Energy Center, that little bit of a thing will be back on the big stage as a head coach.
It’s been 18 years since Natalie Darwitz made her state tournament debut. Now 31 years old, she will be behind the bench when Lakeville South meets Blaine in the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday night. Darwitz played on two NCAA championship teams at the University of Minnesota and is a three-time Olympian, but her high school memories remain fresh.
“I talked to my dad before the first game (at state in 1997),” Darwitz, 31, said Monday. “I was so nervous. He said, ‘Hey kid, it’s just another game. Go and do your thing.’ ”
She did just that, scoring four goals, all unassisted, in a 9-3 win over Hopkins. A throng of reporters waited outside the Eagan locker room, and when the youngster stepped out to be interviewed, she seemed even tinier without her skates. I was there and I will never forget watching her play and watching her interact with the media.
“I remember coming outside to the reporters,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘This is awesome, we won the game, we’re moving to the right (side of the bracket).’ It was quite a first impression for me and my teammates.
“After the game it felt good to get that first one under your belt. It calmed us down. That first game is so huge.”
Facing Mounds View in the 1997 state semifinals, Eagan won 6-1 with Darwitz scoring her first goal 29 seconds into the game, having a hat trick before the second period ended and sitting on the bench for the final five minutes.
After that game, Eagan coach Steve Eggleston told me, “On one of her goals she went through two people, went to the left, went to the right, then hung on and hung on and put it in. I keep saying it: She's so exciting that you never know what she's going to do.”
Darwitz scored two more goals in the championship game, in which Eagan lost to Hibbing 6-3. She played in two more state tournaments as an eighth-grader and a sophomore before skipping her junior and senior years at Eagan while taking classes online and training and playing with national teams.
“I remember growing up always watching the boys play at the Civic Center,” she said. “For me, to go to state as a seventh-grader, I was as nervous as all get out. It’s such a big deal. Especially in my path, growing up, those four days in March you were glued to the TV or you were going down to the hockey expo. It was really a built-in tradition.”
Now there’s a new tradition at Lakeville South. Darwitz is in her fourth year as the Cougars coach. They have a record of 23-4-1 and decades of coaching experience. Darwitz’s staff includes her father Scott Darwitz and Merlin Ravndalen; both are former Eagan head coaches. Ravndalen coached the Wildcats at state in 1998 and 2000, while Scott Darwitz did the same in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
“Those two have tons of state tourney experience,” Natalie said. “Between the three of us, it’s always good to fall back on experience. They can bring their knowledge of when they coached at Eagan.”
There is plenty of excitement at Lakeville South, including among the hockey players. Darwitz is trying to make sure excitement doesn’t get in the way of playing hockey.
“We’re pretty clear as a coaching staff. I’ve been a part of teams in the past that fell victim to saying, ‘OK we got here.’ We tell them we’re going to compete for a state championship. We’re not going just to participate.
“It’s drastically changed over the last 10 years. There’s more hoopla, more distractions, and I can relate to that with the Olympics. There are so many distractions and you’ve got to remember that we’re here to play. Enjoy the moment, take it all in, but we’re here on a mission and we have goals. The girls are on board with that; 8 p.m. Thursday against Blaine is our objective.”
That’s another way of saying, “Go and do your thing.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 340
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 7,505