The Viking boys’ hockey team has come a long way in just a few short years.
In 2013-2014, head coach Matt Cottingham’s first season, the Vikings won just four games. Cottingham said, “If you would have told me after winning just four games that first year that we would go to the state tournament just five years later, I’m not sure I would have believed you.” In 2014-2015, the Vikings won five games. In a three-game stretch against some tough Mississippi Eight Conference opponents late in the season, they were outscored 50-1. The turnaround started to take hold in 2015-2016 with the arrival of freshmen Brady Meyer and sophomore Cody Moline. The Vikings only won eight games, but they won their first conference game ever and weren’t blown out nearly as often. And they beat Chisago Lakes late in the season for the first time ever, 1-0. That was the true beginning of the rivalry, because it’s not really a rivalry if one team has won every game ever played between the two teams. It made high school hockey a lot more fun for the two schools.
2016-2017 was a watershed year for the Vikings. They won 17 games and finished in seventh place in the conference – the first time they had ever finished above the bottom spot in the conference. They beat teams they had never beaten before and teams could no longer take them lightly. The Vikings were rewarded with the number two seed in the section playoffs. In their first section semifinal game ever, they lost 4-3 to third-seeded Chisago Lakes.
In 2017-2018, the Vikings won 22 games and made it to the section final for the first time. They lost 4-1 to Monticello in a game that was very close until late in the third period. Moline graduated and Meyer went to juniors the next season, meaning the Vikings had lost their two best players going into the 2018-2019 season.
With the loss of their two best players, expectations weren’t high for the Vikings going into the 2018-2019 season. Cottingham said, “We were written off going into the season after losing Meyer and Moline.” But Cottingham and his staff have built a solid program, and that was proved out this season. And two players emerged that had a huge impact on the Vikings’ success this year. Last year, Cottingham told us that backup goalie Jake Turek was as good as senior starter Trevor Mellen. And Mellen had just had an outstanding season. Coaches sometimes make statements like that to pump up the ego of their backup. But Turek’s performance as a junior this season showed that Cottingham wasn’t just blowing smoke. Turek had an outstanding season, with a save percentage of 92.1 percent and a goals against average of 2.26. Having a top-flight goalie gave the Vikings confidence in their own zone and allowed them to take some chances on the offensive end, knowing that Turek had their back. The other player who emerged was sophomore Cody Croal, who led the team in scoring and provided a lot of excitement and electricity when he was on the ice.
2013-2014 Overall Record: 3-21-0 Conference Record: 0-11-0, 9th place Playoffs: Beat Pine City 3-2, lost to Chisago Lakes 13-0
2014-2015 Overall Record: 5-20-0 Conference Record: 0-10-0, 9th place Playoffs: Lost 10-0 to Proctor
2015-2016 Overall Record: 7-18-0 Conference Record: 2-9-0, 9th place Playoffs: (7th seed) Beat Becker-Big Lake 4-2, lost to Chisago Lakes 4-1
2016-2017 Overall Record: 16-8-1 Conference Record: 4-7-0, 7th place Playoffs: (2nd seed) Beat Sauk Rapids-Rice 6-4, lost to Chisago Lakes 4-3 in the semifinals
2017-2018 Overall Record: 20-5-0 Conference Record: 7-4-0, 4th place Playoffs: (2nd seed) Beat Mora/Milaca 11-0, beat Pine City 4-3 in the semifinals, lost 4-1 to Monticello in the section final
2018-2019 Overall Record: 16-7-2 Conference Record: 6-6-0, 4th place Playoffs: (2nd seed) Beat Mora/Milaca 5-1, beat Princeton 3-1 in the section semifinals, beat Chisago Lakes 3-2 in the section final State Tournament: (7th seed) Lost 7-0 to eventual state champion St. Cloud Cathedral, beat Minnesota River 5-2 and lost to Delano 2-1 in the consolation championship
So, how was the whole state tournament experience” Cottingham said “It was something I was glad I got to be a part of. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it more as a coach or as a player.
It was awesome. All the energy, the bright lights, the steak dinner. It went by in the blink of an eye. I think next year, if we go again, you can enjoy it more as a coach.”
The fans have certainly responded well to the Vikings’ success this season, as evidenced by the hundreds who greeted their bus at North Branch High School after they beat Chisago Lakes in the section final at Elk River and from the sea of red at the Xcel Energy Center for the opening game of the state tournament. But this wasn’t just an end-of-season, jump-on-the-bandwagon type of support. Cottingham said “We’ve had good support at all of our home games and even a lot of our road games. Overall, the students and the community have embraced us. They got behind us, like what we’re doing, like where we’re going. Winning helps everything.”
The Vikings will likely be the section favorite going into next season. Cottingham said “If our kids improve, get stronger, faster and everyone comes in with good health, we should be the favorites. But we’ll have a lot of targets on our back.” Turek will return in the net for his senior season. They lose three of their top six scorers from last season – Jake Richards, Matt Courtright and Justin Sachs. But their other three top scorers – Croal, Joey Kerchner and Justin Sachs – were all sophomores, and that’s a good thing, according to Cottingham. He said “The biggest jump is from sophomore to junior year. That’s when you wee kids put on muscle, their game starts maturing, and they start becoming a better hockey player. And they are more confident.”