Holy Family Girls’ Hockey Is Fire on Ice!
At a recent Friday morning Convo, a daily event where Holy Family students gather as “family” in the school gym, everything was going as planned. First daily prayers, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. And then, the customary rundown of upcoming weekend sports events.
Boys’ basketball at Breck. Girls’ basketball at Hutchinson. Girls’ hockey—the Fire vs. the Wildcats at the Waconia City Ice Arena. The immediate reaction to the last announcement: applause and a few enthusiastic cheers.
And so a new and very natural rivalry has formed. For 11 years (2007-2018), Waconia and Holy Family girls’ hockey players suited up in the same locker room, sharing jerseys that reflected the 50/50 split of a co-op team called the Wildfire—a combination of Waconia’s “Wildcats” nickname and Holy Family’s “Fire.” Now, each school has returned to its respective team names, shedding the complexities of juggling a program to fit both schools.
Holy Family Activities Director Nick Tibesar says the former co-op team was naturally working against how the two schools were wired as fellow Wright County Conference members. He knew coming to Holy Family in 2016 that it was a matter of “when,” not “if,” the change would come to girls’ hockey.
“There was some natural rivalry already with Holy Family and Waconia, just being neighboring schools in the same conference,” Tibesar says. “We’re rivals all year long in every other sport, but for girls’ hockey, we expected them to share a locker room. ”
So in 2017, Holy Family and Waconia agreed to end their co-op girls’ hockey team, with the 2018-19 season marking the beginning of a new era with two independent teams.
“The reality of it was we knew we were going in that direction,” Tibesar adds. “If you’d asked me when I started three years ago, ‘Are we going to be looking to dissolve this co-op?’ I probably would have said, ‘Yeah, it’d probably be better if we can do it sooner than later.’
“What they want for their program is the same thing we want for ours: They want to be able to do it their way, have it align with their activities office and their school and their culture,” Tibesar says. “We want the same thing.”
Transition to a New Order
With the co-op over, Holy Family has implemented a plan to stand on its own in the competitive world of girls’ high school hockey. Even before the season began, coach Randy Koeppl decided every skater would play at least one period in a junior varsity game. That made it easier to schedule opponents looking to build their own programs through JV competition.
Fifteen games into the Fire’s inaugural season, Koeppl is proud his plan is working, with all 23 skaters (excluding three goalies) having played JV this season.
“In a normal situation, you’d have 28 skaters on a varsity team,” says Koeppl, who hopes to field 30 to 32 players next year. “Maybe two or three would overlap (between varsity and JV). When I talked to the girls and their families before this season, I said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ I said everybody is going to have to chip in and there aren’t going to be any egos.”
The plan worked. Sure, there were some hurdles to overcome. For instance, many Holy Family players live in Waconia, and for them it meant lining up on the opposite side of the ice from teammates they played with for years.
“It was a big surprise to me because I played with those girls my whole life,” says junior captain Lauren Hickey, who transferred from Waconia High School to Holy Family her freshman year.
“It’s hard, but I think it’s better for both of us because it makes us one team from one school,” adds sophomore Sadie Long, who’s also from Waconia.
Junior captain Caitlin Rock heard rumblings that the co-op would end, but that still didn’t make it any easier to handle the news.
“I was kind of shocked,” she admits. “We didn’t know what was going to come out of it. It’s been going on for a while and then it finally happened.”
Eventually, the excitement of representing Holy Family as Fire girls’ hockey began to set in. After all, the Fire boys’ hockey program has become a legitimate force in Minnesota high school hockey. The belief is that Holy Family girls’ hockey could and should do the same.
“As the summer went on,” sophomore goalie Alex Pellicci recalled, “I think everyone got a lot more excited and realized how good this was going to be for our program and how much growth we were going to have.”
Quick Results Built on Youth
The early results reflect players and parents are buying into Koeppl’s vision. He brings 15 years of coaching high school and club hockey to the program. With a roster featuring no seniors and just three juniors, the Fire roster is young but competitive. At 12-3-2, Holy Family finds itself as roughly a top-20 Class AA team, according to Koeppl. (Update: The Fire finished the regular season with a 16-6-3 record and seeded #5 in the very competitive Class 2A, Section 2. They play #4-seed Shakopee Sabers at Shakopee on Friday, February 8, at 7 p.m. at Shakopee Arena.)
“They can see our talent level,” says Koeppl, who played at the University of Minnesota. “It’s always easier when you’re winning. If we’re sitting here 0-12, it’s a different story.”
Plus, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with recording a number of program firsts, he says. It’s something no other Holy Family girls’ hockey team will have a chance to experience.
“It’s not often you get to do something for the first time: the first goal, the first win, the first shutout, the first penalty. This is stuff that people are going to remember,” Koeppl says. “You’re going to look back and say, ‘Jeez, their first year they were that good?’ ”
And then there is the natural chemistry surrounding this team. Success doesn’t hinge solely on wins and losses. It goes deeper.
“When I talk to these kids, I keep it to under 5 minutes because usually they’re just goofing around or they’re laughing at each other, making faces at each other; they’re having fun,” Koeppl says. “But they understand when it’s time to be serious. They have those personalities where they like each other, which is huge.”
Ultimately, that results in more time together beyond scheduled games, practices and in the locker room. It leads to friendships built on:
- Study groups after school
- A Secret Santa gift exchange
- Pond-hockey games
- Volunteering as a team at Feed My Starving Children
- Weekly pasta dinners after Monday practices
“Being at a different schools, you could feel it in the locker room,” says Pellicci, comparing this year’s team to last year’s. “We can walk the hallways as a team. And people tend to come to more games because they know who we are.”
Koeppl notices a difference too. After all, he coached the Wildfire co-op team last year during its final season.
“There’s a certain pride of playing for Holy Family,” he says. “They wear school stuff. They carry their bags around. They’re proud of it and that’s something I am proud of.”
And the Rivalry Begins
December 4 marked history with the drop of the puck at Victoria Ice Arena, the Fire’s home ice. It was the first conference girls’ hockey game between Holy Family and Waconia. Holy Family cruised to a decisive 8-0 victory. Many players on Waconia’s roster were under Koeppl’s guidance just a year ago. That wasn’t lost on the Waconia players.
“Three or four of them came over and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing Coach?’ ” Koeppl says.
For the Holy Family players, it was a game between friends as much as it was a time to be competitive.
“It was a weird thing because we didn’t want to beat them, but we didn’t want to lose to them,” said Pellicci, who has committed to playing in college at Harvard. “But it was a good outcome. I think everybody on both teams had a really good attitude about it.”
The anticipation to play against former teammates amplified the pregame nerves for Rock.
“You didn’t know how they were going to come out and play. You know every single girl on the team,” Rock said. “During the game it was fun, because you make jokes with each other on the ice.”
Holy Family traveled to Waconia City Ice Arena on January 11 for their second meeting. Rock scored her 50th Holy Family goal that night, as the team cruised to an 11-1 victory and a 2-0 game lead against the Wildcats.
Those early games set the tone for what could be a budding rivalry.
“Obviously Waconia is a natural rival,” Koeppl says. “Chaska-Chan I think is going to end up being a big rival. I would like it if Minnetonka and Eden Prairie would be too.”
Koeppl may just get his wish. When the co-op ended, Holy Family had the option to move from Class AA to Class A because without Waconia’s student body, Holy Family’s enrollment dropped below the threshold that once forced it into Class AA. After consulting Tibesar, parents and players, Koeppl said everyone agreed Holy Family girls’ hockey should remain in Class AA.
“The kids wanted to play AA,” Koeppl says. “It’s better hockey. It’s faster. They want to be challenged, and that’s the type of kids they are. They want to play the best.”
It also comes at the cost of short-term success, with Koeppl noting Holy Family would likely be a top-six team in the state in Class A. But Holy Family girls’ hockey is building for the long term.
“We want to be consistent state championship contenders,” he says. “That’s the goal of the program. We want to be able to run with the Minnetonkas, the Edinas, the Blakes and the Brecks. We’re not there yet, but we think we have a good core that in a year or two we’ll get there.”
That optimism doesn’t just reflect Koeppl’s belief. He hears it from others well connected in the Minnesota hockey community.
“What I’ve heard people say is, ‘It’s going to be fun to watch where your program goes in the next three to four years,’ ” he shares. “I think even people outside of our program are excited to see a new team on the rise.”
About the Writer: Mike Nelson graduated from Holy Family in 2008. He is an editor and writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Since graduating from Marquette University with a degree in journalism, he has also had work appear in Bleacher Report, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MLB.com. Nelson lives in Burnsville with his wife, Kim.