After Tuesday night’s game at Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul, the Dodge County boys hockey team boarded a charter bus for the trip back to their home rink in Kasson to stow their gear. After they arrived there, some of the players still had more driving ahead of them before getting home.
The Dodge County Wildcats are not the typical high school squad. It’s a cooperative team, with a roster that includes players from five schools in southern Minnesota: Kasson-Mantorville, Pine Island, Byron, Triton and Zumbrota-Mazeppa. Two other schools (Hayfield and Blooming Prairie) are part of the coop but have no hockey players on the roster this season.
“Dodge County” is as good a moniker as any, despite the fact that Zumbrota, Pine Island and Byron aren’t in Dodge County; Blooming Prairie has one foot in Dodge County and the other in Steele County.
The only community with indoor ice is Kasson, where the Wildcats boys and girls teams play their home games.
“It makes it a unique challenge, just with logistics and getting to the rink,” said first-year head coach Nick Worden. “Pine Island’s about a half hour away, Zumbrota is probably 40 minutes, so that’s a pretty big commitment to make every day.”
A 2-0 loss to South St. Paul (6-9-1) dropped the Wildcats’ record to 1-14-1, but there is reason for optimism. The numbers of hockey players in the coop is climbing, from 38 this season to possibly the mid-50s next season.
“Numbers are not a problem,” Worden said. “We have a great group of kids coming up that we’re excited about, and we’re not very far away from being a decent hockey team.”
Despite the lack of on-ice success this season, the players are excited about the opportunity.
“I feel like we’ve been getting a lot better these last three, four games,” said Charlie Blaisdell, a sophomore at Kasson-Mantorville who leads the team in scoring with six goals and seven assists.
“We’ve been playing 10 times better than we did in the first couple games this season. I think the turnaround has been pretty good.”
Nick Retzer, a senior from Byron, said, “I definitely agree. The season is fun, it’s a lot of fun, especially playing hockey with these guys. We’re getting better throughout the season.”
Retzer said having players from different schools can be a plus on the ice.
“I honestly think it brings us closer together. There’s more of a team culture, that when we’re there, we’re there for hockey and to play as a team, more than even schools that are all together.”
The Wildcats have been outscored 89-32 in their 16 games, an average of 5.5 goals to 2. In Tuesday’s game at South St. Paul, the Wildcats had 20 shots on goal to 50 for the Packers, but Dodge County had numerous scoring opportunities and enthusiasm never wavered. Senior goaltender Cole Kundert had a .960 save percentage in only his fourth game of the season.
“Getting the kids to jell together and the friendships is one thing we try to focus on a lot,” said Worden, 36, who played hockey at Rochester Century High School as well as junior hockey with the Rochester Ice Hawks.
“They played hockey growing up together but it’s different when you’re not in school together every day. The relationships, that’s a big piece.”
Ten games remain on the regular-season schedule, starting with Friday’s date with Southwest Christian/Richfield at Dodge County Ice Arena in Kasson. The postseason is a real challenge for the Wildcats because while the schools in the coop are relatively small, the total enrollment puts them in Class 2A Section 1 with much larger schools from Lakeville, Rochester, Farmington, Owatonna and Hastings.
“That makes it hard for us to compete,” said Worden (pictured), who was a Wildcats assistant coach a year ago. “There’s an opportunity to appeal, and I think we might pursue that. I think it would give our kids an opportunity to compete more.”
In February the MSHSL will begin the reclassification process, which takes place every two years. During that process, Dodge County could appeal to be placed in Class 1A for the next two years.
In the meantime, the Wildcats will continue to hit the road … just to get to practice.
“Sometimes we practice at 3:30, sometimes at 5 o’clock, sometimes at 6 in the morning,” Worden said. “All the schools are just phenomenal to help out and make it possible. We appreciate that.”--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.