The key to any strong athletic program is a strong youth program, and the Bulldogs 10U and 12U girls youth programs just celebrated its best year to date, with a district championship title and state appearance.
The Bulldogs 12U girls hockey team, coached by Jeff Keeley, made history when they placed second in the regional tournament on Sunday, March 21 to earn one of eight coveted spots at the 12U state tournament, which was held in Owatonna over the weekend.
The Bulldogs pulled out an amazing first state appearance and finished fourth, behind Edina, Minnetonka Blue and Luverne.
The Bulldogs opened state tournament play by beating Moorhead 1-0 on Friday.
From there, they battled hard but fell 5-3 to Minnetonka on Saturday to get sent to the third-place game on Sunday. Luverne came out on top in the match with a 3-1 victory.
“This has been a dream come true, for 20 years I have never been past the regions, with girls or boys,” Keeley said. “For the girls to get there at the youth level is a big thing because you are playing Edina and White Bear Lake and Stillwater, and Luverne who isn’t a big school but a big hockey town, Moorhead, and Minnetonka…we are trying to get more girls to realize that hockey is a good sport here, and we have a lot of fun.”
Heading into the state tournament, the Bulldogs racked up a 19-3 season record, losing only to Minnetonka Black, Northfield and Hastings. The losses to Northfield and Hastings came down to a single goal.
The Bulldogs’ path to state started with a third place finish at the 12UB district tournament, good enough to advance to the regional tournament.
The Bulldogs suffered a first round loss, 3-2 to Hastings in the opening round of the regional tournament on March 19. That loss sent them to the consolation bracket, where they battled back hard and won their next four games. The win streak started with a 4-0 win over Winona, followed by a 2-1 win over Rosemount, a 2-1 rematch win over Hastings and a 4-3 win over Marshall to place second and earn the state berth.
“They play hard every game,” Keeley said. “The consistency is a huge part of them winning the season.”
In celebration, Keeley donned a Snow White dress and a mullet for practice last week, and the Le Sueur Police and Fire departments showed up in the Le Sueur Community Center parking lot last Thursday for a surprise state sendoff after practice.
Keeley has been a part of the girls youth program for the last 21 years. Initially, they only had enough girls for one team, but participation has grown to the point they were able to split into 10U and 12U teams about six years ago. Varsity Bulldogs players Anna Pavlo and Lucy Kleschult were among the first group of girls to be part of the 10U program.
Keeley said the passion, desire to improve and number of high quality players has only continued to grow year after year.
“They all work really hard. The passion for hockey has been growing every year, and that is what builds the program, that is what builds good hockey players,” Keeley said of this team’s success.
10U WINS DISTRICTS
On the same day that the 12U team placed second in the regional tournament to make it to state for the first time, the Bulldogs girls 10U team was making history of its own on the home ice in Le Sueur.
The 10U girls team pulled out a 5-0 win over Dodge County and a 3-0 win over the Mankato Grey team to advance to the District 9 10U Championship match against Austin on March 21 in Le Sueur.
The Bulldogs then delivered a blowout 8-1 victory to win the district championship — another first for the girls youth program.
Dustin Swenson is in his second year as the head coach of the 10U team, having taken it over from Keeley when he stepped up to the 12U team.
“It was a great day for girls hockey,” Swenson said.
It isn’t just because of two big victories, but also because of the teamwork between the two teams. The 10U team is made up of students in third through fifth grade, so the older girls previously played with the 12U girls.
“It is fun to see their hard work pay off and be rewarded, and it is showing them what they can do as they get older. If they continue to put the work in and the time in, things can happen,” Swenson said.
Swenson’s girls racked up an incredible 21-2-1 record this year, including an impressive 17-game win streak that was finally snapped by Marshall, 2-3, on March 7. They also tied Farmington and Austin in two of their final three games.
The district championship was the crown on an impressive season. The only disappointment is there is no state competition for the 10U bracket — the district championship is the highest level of competition.
Swenson said his team played their best three games of hockey in the district tournament.
“We stopped playing selfish hockey and played selfless hockey, which means we were passing the puck. It was more about the name on the front [of the jersey] than the name on the back,” Swenson said.
Swenson said it was the championship match against Austin, however, that was the most impressive. The Bulldogs beat Austin 6-3 earlier in the season, and then tied them 3-3 just seven days before the tournament, so they knew they had their work cut out for them. The girls went out and played team hockey, and it was pure excitement at the end when they received the first place trophy for the first time in team history.
“At every level, all year, I was so proud of these kids,” Swenson said. “It was just pure joy to coach them.”