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Cottage Grove Hockey Association: Wolfpack 'A' PeeWees shock youth hockey world

The Cottage Grove 'A' PeeWee boys hockey team won the District 8 tournament championship and the 'A' PeeWee East Region championship, upsetting No. 1-ranked Edina in the final, to earn a trip to the state tournament. Team members are: From left, front row, Brady Newpower, Ryan Lucas, Nathan Larson, Luke Maul, Sam Gieser, Zach Husaby, Keegan Oberding; and back, head coach Andy Bestler, Mason Porter, Travis Montez, Grant Glazier, Adam Fenenga, Zach Strafelda, Zakk Morse, Andy Hawn and coach Mike Gelao.

It's not the Miracle on Ice, but a group of 14 youth hockey players from Cottage Grove have pulled off quite a shocker.

Heading into the postseason, youth hockey pundits picked the Cottage Grove 'A' PeeWee team to not win a playoff game. But, the Wolfpack showed up to play and won five - all against foes they hadn't beaten during the regular season - to carry the team all the way to the state tournament.

"I think we were probably the last team anyone expected to make it," Cottage Grove 'A' PeeWee head coach Andy Bestler said. "We were definitely the underdogs."

Cottage Grove won the District 8 tournament championship and the 'A' PeeWee East Region championship, upsetting No. 1-ranked Edina in the final, to punch a ticket to state. It's believed the last time a Cottage Grove Pee Wee team made it to the state tournament was 22 years ago.

"Basically the kids came out and played the best they have all year," said Bestler, who played hockey in the CGAA and for Park High School, before graduating in 2002. "It was just really good to see them come together at the right time."

This year, for the first time, Minnesota split PeeWees and Bantams into "A" and "AA," much like high school hockey. For the season, Cottage Grove was 17-20-5 overall and just 2-10-4 in district play at the "A" level.

"We didn't have a lot of success during the year, but the games were always close," Bestler said. "We just started getting some bounces and breaks and some calls started to go our way. For the first time, those little things started to fall our way. Fortunately we were able to take advantage of that."

This is Bestler's third year as a coach in the Cottage Grove Athletic Association, but first year with this group of boys. He began working with the team in October.

"For the first time they started to come together as a team," Bestler said. "They're all friends now on and off the ice. They got each other's back. I'm just glad they could achieve this."

Cottage Grove won each of its five playoff games by one goal.

In the District 8 tournament, held Feb. 17-24 at Wakota Arena in South St. Paul, Cottage Grove beat Apple Valley 3-2 in overtime in the first game and upset No. 1-seed Sibley 4-3 in the championship, qualifying for the East Regionals. In the regional tournament, held March 1-3 back at Wakota, Cottage Grove edged Shakopee 5-4 in the opening round, beat North St. Paul 4-3 in the semifinals and took down Edina White 2-1 in the championship game.

"There were so many community members that came out and supported us," said team manager and parent Brenda Oberding. "That was really neat to see. The boys are really into it."

Bestler said the team's run to state was "crazy."

"Each game was a little different," he said. "It's cool that everyone contributed and got to play a part in this."

In the regional tourney, in the opener against Shakopee, Bestler said Cottage Grove's third line took the game over and won it for them. In the semifinal win over North St. Paul, Bestler said the team's top lines and "big guns" lead the way. In the championship win over Edina, Bestler said the team's goalie Luke Maul played "the game of his life" and "stole the show."

"The boys are just ecstatic," he said. "They can't believe it. It's all they talk about. They're very pumped up about it."

Cottage Grove is one of eight teams in the 'A' PeeWee state tournament and will face off with Luverne on Friday, March 15, in Faribault. In the most current rankings by Let's Play Hockey, from March 6, Cottage Grove jumped to fourth. Luverne is eighth.

"We couldn't ask for a better draw," Bestler said. "But, now we have the target on our back. The secret is out. They'll have to play to that level. I'm sure they will."

Bestler said being on the losing side was hard on everybody during the regular season, but reaching the state tournament is something the Cottage Grove "A" PeeWee team will never forget.

"It's just nice to see them have some confidence and pride," Bestler said. "It was good for everyone to get this experience and gain some confidence. I think they'll play really well at state."