12U Golden Bears take on state tourney

The Eveleth-Gilbert 12U girls hockey team will start their run at a state title Friday evening.

HOYT LAKES — The Eveleth-Gilbert/Virginia/Mesabi East 12U girls’ hockey team was only a thought just over four years ago.

Up until that point, the young girls in the area had to play with the boys’ youth teams or not at all.

That all changed, however, when the team was put together for the girls and as a feeder program for the Eveleth-Gilbert Area high school team.

The move to create the squad has been more than a success as the girls recently won the Region Tournament in Thief River Falls to advance to the state tournament, which begins today in Rochester.

Organizers, including head coach Lyle Johnson and Virginia’s Willie Spelts, had modest goals to start.

”We were hoping to get enough kids for one team, and we ended up having enough for a 10U team and a 12U team,’’ Johnson said before practice earlier this week at the Hoyt Lakes Arena. They ended up with 15 on the 10U team and about the same on the 12U squad, he added.

Friends Johnson and Spelts, who were high school rivals, originally hatched the idea while watching their daughters at figure skating practice.

“We were sitting there watching the girls and we were talking that we only need abou 12 kids and we’d have a hockey team,’’ Johnson said. “We kept talking about it and then Virginia has that summer (hockey) camp for three weeks in June, so we tried to gather up as many kids as we could.’’

Johnson helped Spelts out with some initial introductory sessions and seemed to have good interest, so they went forward with the team’s creation.

Girls were immediately attracted to the new team because there were no girls only youth teams at that time.

“They either played with the boys or they didn’t play. That’s how we ended up getting a lot of girls coming out because a lot of them didn’t want to play with the boys,’’ Johnson said.

Four years later, “It’s growing and there are lots of kids in mites and mini mites that will be coming up. Hopefully the numbers keep growing in the program.’’

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The Bears current season has been a good one from the start.

Johnson said they had a good defensive team with good fundamentals before adding a strong goalie and a goal scorer. “That’s been a huge difference for us. That’s made everyone else better alongside of them.’’

The 12U squad went on to win the regular season title, received the No. 1 seed going into the District Tournament, won Districts and went on to win Regions.

The reward was a trip to state in a charter bus, which started with a send off at the Eveleth Hippodrome Thursday morning. Johnson said Eveleth and Mesabi East, with some private sponsors, orchestrated the bus, while Eveleth fed everyone on the way down with Subway platters and more.

“Everything has been just open arms for us. It’s been really great to see.’’

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Just how much this team of 15 skaters and a goalie came together this season showed at Regions, according to Johnson.

The girls opened with a big win over Two Harbors before going up against Hibbing. They had beaten Hibbing three times earlier, but the scores were getting closer each time.

“We beat them all three, but each time was progressively harder,’’ Johnson said.

“In Regionals they really showed up and played a tremendous game. We were actually losing 2-1 in the third period and we got a goal to tie with 8 seconds left. Then we ended up winning in the last minute of the first overtime.’’ The Bears went on to defeat Cloquet 2-1 in the final.

In other tournaments, the team has shown the ability to come from behind. “They’ve got to see all kinds of ranges of emotion. I think it helped them a lot,’’ Johnson said. “They’ve shown a lot of heart and just keep working. That’s all I can ask for.’’

As far as how his team’s chances at state, Johnson said, “I think we have a legitimate chance to do very well. We’re hoping that we can do some damage down there.’’

The girls play their first game at 6 p.m. today against Minnetonka Black. The double elimination tournament continues through Sunday.

The reaction of the team to advancing to state has “been very good,’’ according to Johnson. “The attitudes have been great. They’re pretty excited to get down there now. Practices are tough this week because they’re rammy and ready to go.’’

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The team has made great strides from that first season.

“Year one we had so many first time skaters. We were teaching so many fundamentals and worked on skating probably more than any other team around a month into the season,’’ the head coach said. “If you can’ skate, you’re not going to do much of anything else.’’

The difference now shows with the girls doing more in-depth hockey plays and situations than they could last year, he added.

With the help of many, the team is on its way to being a feeder program for the varsity.

“One of the main goals when we — Willie and I — began this was the high school needs a feeder program. They didn’t have one.’’ Johnson added if kids wanted to play in the past they could just sign up in seventh or eighth grade and be on the varsity. “They needed something behind them.’’

“We’re hoping we’ll start to see the rewards from these years now as they move forward. Hopefully that’s going to help out the varsity team a lot.’’

Johnson said Eveleth Recreation Director Craig Homola was a huge help as he opened up the Hippodrome for the girls to let the team get going. His assistant coaches Eli Hejda and Charles Lenich, the joint powers committee, the three communities, team manager Jen Waldron and Jeremy Waldron also contributed to making all this possible, he added.

“Everything is very much appreciated.’’

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