Overachieving Wildcats take 3rd at state

The Eagan boys hockey team celebrates its victory in the third-place game at the state Class AA boys hockey tournament. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
The Eagan boys hockey team celebrates its victory in the third-place game at the state Class AA boys hockey tournament. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

Hockey team finishes with 20-victory season

To hear coach Mike Taylor and his players tell it, this might not have been the most heralded group of players to come out of Eagan youth hockey.

“We just kind of played the game” as youths, said Nick Wolff, who developed into a workhorse defenseman for a Wildcats team that took third place at the state tournament last week.

“We weren’t very good, but we weren’t poor, either. We just had fun with it. But we started building a team.”

Last off-season, the players started asking Taylor for more demanding workouts. Taylor, who said he thought the conditioning program was pretty grueling as it was, went along.

By the end of a 20-10-1 season, the Wildcats became a team that could do more than just hang out together. They matched the highest finish ever for an Eagan team at state, and their overachieving ways likely had a lot to do with Taylor being named Class AA coach of the year.

Taylor described the players as a group that’s ruthless when needling each other, “but if anyone outside their group says boo, they’re coming after them. They call themselves a family, and I think they are.”

Eagan completed its season with a 6-4 victory over Eden Prairie in the state Class AA third-place game Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. Wolff scored the game-winner with 25 seconds left and the Wildcats skating shorthanded. He added an empty-net goal with six seconds remaining.

Max Elsenheimer and Ian Entzion also scored two goals each for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats faced a quick turnaround as they had to play again less than 17 hours after losing to Edina 3-1 in the semifinal round Friday night.

“It’s tough. If you play 40-45 minutes it takes a toll,” Wolff said. “But you’ve got to rest and hydrate and prepare for the next game.”

The Wildcats were playing catch-up all night against Edina, which took the lead less than two minutes into the semifinal game. The Hornets made it 2-0 late in the second period.

Eagan, which was held to 16 shots, had some hope when it pulled goalie Andrew Lindgren for an extra attacker and Jack Jenson scored with 46 seconds remaining. But the Hornets put it away with an empty-net goal with 16 seconds to play.

Eagan, the tournament’s fifth seed, opened with a 3-0 victory over fourth-seeded Duluth East. Senior forward Max Elsenheimer scored two goals and had one assist. Lindgren made 28 saves to earn the shutout.

Elsenheimer had 10 points (seven goals, three assists) in six postseason games and likely will get a closer look from college and junior programs, Taylor said. Lacrosse also could be an option for Elsenheimer, who will be one of the Eagan boys team’s top returning players this spring.

Wolff is expected to join the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League this week and is keeping his options open about college. His defense partner, senior Tom Muck, “is going to get a plethora of offers from junior teams,” Taylor said.

Jenson and Taylor Karel are expected to be with a junior team in Corpus Christi, Texas, next year.

The Wildcats came on late in the regular season, winning five of their final seven games. The only losses in that stretch were to Lakeville North and Burnsville, the top two teams in the South Suburban Conference.

They finished fifth in the South Suburban and were seeded fourth in the Section 3AA tourney, but the Wildcats did their best work late in the season.

“Kids grow up, change and mature,” Taylor said after Eagan’s state tournament victory over Duluth East. “Yeah, maybe we didn’t think this run would happen when we looked at these guys as Bantams and Peewees. But looking at them now, I’m not surprised.”

In four trips to the state tournament – including three in the last four years – the Wildcats have two third-place trophies.

Wolff said he doesn’t believe it will be long before a future Eagan team tops that.

“Eagan’s going to get first place sometime,” he said. “No doubt about it.”